Rest is something the world seems to be in desperate need of, yet many would say it is illusive. It is for good reason that the theme of rest is a consistent thread throughout the biblical scriptures – and we find the idea is indeed introduced in Genesis ‘in the beginning’, and continues until the last book, Revelation.
The Sabbath signifies entering God’s rest, yet ironically and sadly, many contentions and arguments have surrounded the symbol of rest, ultimately causing much strife and unrest among believers. My intention here is to review the scriptural references to the Sabbath, with the hope that the journey will illuminate the role and purpose of the Sabbath as reflected in the biblical witness.
The first mention of instructions concerning the Sabbath command was in the text of Exodus 16: ‘He (Moses) said to them, “This is what the Lord commanded: ‘Tomorrow is to be a day of Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.’” (Exod 16:23). The instructions were given to the Israelites shortly after their deliverance out of the land of their captivity. They were to learn to cease from their labour on the seventh day, and to dedicate this day to worship. There are two defining aspects of the Sabbath, first there is a ‘ceasing’ from usual labour, and a dedicating the day holy to the Lord. We get a glimpse in Exodus that the Sabbath is ushering the people’s release from captivity and their freedom to worship God as he intended. (cf. Leviticus 25 on the Sabbath year of jubilee when all debts are cancelled and slaves set free.)
The Sabbath is undoubtedly central to the law given through Moses and thus central to worship. The instructions regarding this day become one of the ‘ten commandments’ (or ‘words’ in the Hebrew). The Sabbath, the day of ‘sacred assembly’ is the first of the appointed observances outlined in Leviticus 23. It is It is envisaged as a day of joy (Isa 58:13) (also signified by the prohibition of fasting or outward expressions of mourning). Moreover, every festival seems to culminate or revolve around a day of ‘Sabbath rest’. For instance, the Day of Atonement, the day signifying cleansing from sin was to be a Sabbath rest (Lev 16:29-33). Leviticus 19 is another reiteration of the words given to the community of God. “…and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the Lord your God. (v3) “‘Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary I am the Lord”. (v30) And finally, the year of Jubilee comes after seven Sabbath years – this is the wonderful time where all the debts are cancelled, the slaves are set free and the people would return to their land (Lev 25).
Although the concept of the Sabbath is introduced in Exodus, it is firmly grounded in the opening passages of scripture, in Genesis, ‘in the beginning’. Observing the Sabbath is fashioned after the example set by God resting on the seventh day after the creation days. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exod 20:8-11- see also Exod 31:17)
Seventh day observance is essentially an identification with God as lord and creator – as mankind are made in his image, they follow his example, not only in creative activities by ruling over creation, but also in resting. Thus the Sabbath was to be an acknowledgement of God as creator and sustainer of his world.
The Sabbath was to be a sign of the covenant between the Lord and his people…. "a sign between me and you for generations to come" (Exod 31: 12-17), a reminder of their identity as God’s liberated people; thus a continual testimony of keeping the covenant.
“The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” (Exod 31:16, 17a). Many have argued based on this that the Sabbath is for the Israelites alone, serving as a sign of their covenant with the Lord. Whilst the significance of the Sabbath as a sign of the Mosaic covenant is undisputed, there seems to be a deeper underlying spiritual principle in effect. The Sabbath extends to bless and protect (and form a sanctuary) for the foreigner, the slave, the animal and even the land.
“Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed.” (Exod 23:12 12; see also Exod 35:1-3, Deut 5:12-15).
Not only are the people to observe a Sabbath rest, but also the land. ‘The Lord said to Moses at
Mount Sinai, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them:
‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a
Sabbath to the Lord.’ (Lev 25:1-2). ‘The land is to have a year of rest.’ (v5). The land
was to enjoy its Sabbath rest as decreed by the Lord; and if the people neglected
this command, the Lord would secure it; in 2 Chronicles the people are taken
captive for disobedience and the land rests.
There are a number of references of the Sabbath and the Sanctuary as two provisions and side by side patterns for worship (Lev 19:30). “Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the Lord.” (Lev 26:2). Ezekiel later links the defilement of the sanctuary and the desecration of the Sabbath (Eze 23:38). Just as the sanctuary ‘miqdas’ was a holy place/space for worship, the Sabbath was a holy time for worship.
Keeping and breaking the Sabbath:
During pre-Exilic periods, the kingdom enjoyed blessings ushered and associated with Sabbath observance. This was signified by the involvement of the Levites in Sabbath duties such as the burnt offerings. Both David and Solomon firmly established their reign upon honouring the Sabbath (1 Chron 23, 2 Chron 8:12-13).
Later neglect of the Sabbath brought judgement (Neh 13:18) and conversely, at times of restoration, the Sabbath observance becomes the bedrock of renewed relationship with God. Nehemiah acknowledges before the Lord that the Sabbaths would be again observed and he acts to protect its sanctity.
The same message is echoed by the prophet Isaiah. Whichever historical context you place the last chapters of Isaiah in, true Sabbath keeping becomes the image of restoration for God’s people. “Blessed is the one who does this— the person who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps their hands from doing any evil.” (Isa 56:2) “And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant” (Isa 56:6)
“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honourable, and if you honour it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words.” (Isa 58:13) The book ends with a vision of the new heavens and the new earth when true worship will be restored “From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord.’ (Isa 66:23).
The message on the Sabbath is the same in Jeremiah’s time. God’s people will prosper and enjoy the blessings of their God if they keep the Sabbath holy as he instructed, but like the preceding generations, they will forsake their security if they neglect the Sabbath. (Jer 17:19-27).
Ezekiel reiterates this picture that a desecrated Sabbath and the rejection of God’s decrees and laws, ultimately leads to estrangement and suffering (Ezek 20:11-26, 22:26, 23:38). “Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them.” (Ezek 22:26) Later, the prophet provides once again a picture of renewed relationship with the honouring of the Sabbath “On the Sabbaths and New Moons the people of the land are to worship in the presence of the Lord at the entrance of that gateway.” (Ezek 46:3)
The prophet Amos points to
unwillingness to enter the true rest of the Sabbath, instead personal gain was
had become a focus for the people (Amos 8:5). Israel
Thus a clear relationship is established between Sabbath keeping and blessings, and conversely between desecrating the Sabbath and judgement. If one was neglecting the Sabbath and not ceasing from striving and work it meant that their eyes were fixed on themselves rather that on their creator and sustainer. At the heart of the Sabbath is a complete reliance on God, the one who always provides; and forsaking all self reliance. It confesses trust in the Lord of the Sabbath; resting in his sanctuary. The Sabbath is entry into relationship and surrendering time and attention to the one who is worthy of it. Loss of Sabbath is essentially a loss of relationship. Loss of Sabbath is a sign of a broken relationship, a broken covenant.
The following article will consider the Sabbath in the messianic age.