Previous Next

Table of Contents


Sabbath (shabbà‚th, “a day of rest,” from shà‚bath, “to cease to do,” “to rest”). The name is applied to diverse great festivals, but principally and usually to the seventh day of the week, the strict observance of which is enforced not merely in the general Mosaic code, but in the Decalogue itself. The consecration of the Sabbath was coeval with the creation. The first scriptural notice of it, though it is not mentioned by name, is to be found in Gen. 2:3, at the close of the record of the six-days creation. There are not wanting indirect evidences of its observance, as the intervals between Noah’s sending forth the birds out of the ark, an act naturally associated with the weekly service, Gen. 8:7-12, and in the week of a wedding celebration, Gen. 29:27, 28; but when a special occasion arises, in connection with the prohibition against gathering manna on the Sabbath, the institution is mentioned as one already known. Ex. 16:22-30. (All this is confirmed by the great antiquity of the division of time into weeks, and the naming the days after the sun, moon, and planets.) And that this was especially one of the institutions adopted by Moses from the ancient patriarchal usage is implied in the very words of the law, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” But even if such evidence were wanting, the reason of the institution would be a sufficient proof. It was to be a joyful celebration of God’s completion of his creation. It has indeed been said that Moses gives quite a different reason for the institution of the Sabbath, as a memorial of the deliverance from Egyptian bondage. Deut. 5:15. The words added in Deuteronomy are a special motive for the joy with which the Sabbath should be celebrated, and for the kindness which extended its blessings to the slave and the beast of burden as well as to the master: “that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou.Deut. 5:14. These attempts to limit the ordinance proceed from an entire misconception of its spirit, as if it were a season of stern privation rather than of special privilege. But, in truth, the prohibition of work is only subsidiary to the positive idea of joyful rest and recreation, in communion with Jehovah, who himself “rests and was refreshed.Ex. 31:17; comp. 23:12. It is in Ex. 16:23-29 that we find the first incontrovertible institution of the day, as one given to and to be kept by the children of Israel. Shortly afterward it was re-enacted in the Fourth Commandment. This beneficent character of the Fourth Commandment is very apparent in the version of it which we find in Deuteronomy. Deut. 5:12-15. The law and the Sabbath are placed upon the same ground, and to give rights to classes that would otherwise have been without such—to the bondman and bondmaid, nay, to the beast of the field—is viewed here as their main end. “The stranger,” too, is comprehended in the benefit. But the original proclamation of it in Exodus places it on a ground which, closely connected no doubt with these others, is yet higher and more comprehensive. The divine method of working and rest is there proposed to man as the model after which he is to work and to rest. Time then presents a perfect whole. It is most important to remember that the Fourth Commandment is not limited to a mere enactment respecting one day, but prescribes the due distribution of a week, and enforces the six days’ work as much as the seventh day’s rest. This higher ground of observance was felt to invest the Sabbath with a theological character, and rendered it the great witness for faith in a personal and creating God. It was to be a sacred pause in the ordinary labor by which man earns his bread; the curse of the fall was to be suspended for one day; and, having spent that day in joyful remembrance of God’s mercies, man had a fresh start in his course of labor. A great snare, too, has always been hidden in the word work, as if the commandment forbade occupation and imposed idleness. The terms in the commandment show plainly enough the sort of work which is contemplated—servile work and business. The Pentateuch presents us with but three applications of the general principle—Ex. 16:29; 35:3; Num. 15:32-36. The reference of Isaiah to the Sabbath gives us no details. The references in Jeremiah and Nehemiah show that carrying goods for sale, and buying such, were equally profanations of the day. A consideration of the spirit of the law and of Christ’s comments on it will show that it is work for worldly gain that was to be suspended; and hence the restrictive clause is prefaced with the positive command, “Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work”; for so only could the sabbatic rest be fairly earned. Hence, too, the stress constantly laid on permitting the servant and beast of burden to share the rest which selfishness would grudge to them. Thus the spirit of the Sabbath was joy, refreshment, and mercy, arising from remembrance of God’s goodness as the Creator and as the Deliverer from bondage. The Sabbath was a perpetual sign and covenant, and the holiness of the day is connected with the holiness of the people; “that ye may know that I am Jehovah that doth sanctify you.” Ex. 31:12-17; Ezek. 20:12. Joy was the key-note of their service. Nehemiah commanded the people, on a day holy to Jehovah, “Mourn not, nor weep: eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions t them for whom nothing is prepared.” Neh. 8:9-13. The Sabbath is named as a day of special worship in the sanctuary. Lev. 19:30; 26:2. It was proclaimed as a holy convocation. Lev. 23:3. In later times the worship of the sanctuary was enlivened by sacred music. Ps. 68:25-27; 150, etc. On this day the people were accustomed to consult their prophets, 2 Kings 4:23, and to give to their children that instruction in the truths recalled to memory by the day which is so repeatedly enjoined as the duty of parents; it was “the Sabbath of Jehovah” not only in the sanctuary, but “in all their dwellings.” Lev. 23:3.

When we come to the New Testament we find the most marked stress laid on the Sabbath. In whatever ways the Jew might err respecting it, he had altogether ceased to neglect it. On the contrary, wherever he went its observance became the most visible badge of his nationality. Our Lord’s mode of observing the Sabbath was one of the main features of his life, which his Pharisaic adversaries most eagerly watched and criticized. They had invented many prohibitions respecting the Sabbath of which we find nothing in the original institution. Some of these prohibitions were fantastic and arbitrary, in the number of those “heavy burdens and grievous to be borne” which the latter expounders of the law “laid on men’s shoulders.” Comp. Matt. 12:1-13; John 5:10. That this perversion of the Sabbath had become very general in our Saviour’s time is apparent both from the recorded objections to acts of his on that day and from his marked conduct on occasions to which those objections were sure to be urged. Matt. 12:1-15; Mark 3:2; Luke 6:1-5; 13:10-17; John 5:2-18; 7:23; 9:1-34. Christ’s words do not remit the duty of keeping the Sabbath, but only deliver it from the false methods of keeping which prevented it from bestowing upon men the spiritual blessings it was ordained to confer. The almost total silence of the epistles in relation to keeping the Sabbath doubtless grew out of the fact that the early Christians kept the Sabbath, and that this period was one of change from the seventh to the first day of the week, and any definite rules would have been sure to be misunderstood. For many years both the first and the seventh days of the week were kept as Sabbaths; and gradually the first day of the week, the Lord’s day, took the place among Christians of the seventh day, and they had the fullest warrant for the change. [Lord’s day.]

(The Fourth Commandment of the Decalogue is just as binding now as it ever was, or as any other of the Ten Commandments. Those who argue that God has abolished this Sabbath, but has written the Sabbath law in our very natures, must have strange ideas of the wisdom of a God who abolishes a command he has made it necessary to keep. Christians in keeping the Lord’s day keep the Fourth Commandment, as really as do those who keep what is called the seventh day. They keep every seventh day, only the counting starts from a different point. As to the method of keeping the Sabbath no rules are laid down; but no one can go far astray who holds to the principles laid down:—(1) Rest. Nothing is to be done in daily business, and no recreation taken which destroys the rest of others or takes from any the privileges of the Sabbath. (2) Spiritual nurture. One day in seven is to be set apart for the culture of the spiritual nature. These two principles of Sabbath-keeping will always go together. Only a religious Sabbath, which belongs to God, can be retained among men as a day of rest. If men can sport on the Sabbath, they will soon be made to work. The only barrier that can keep the world out of the Sabbath, that can preserve it to the working people as a day of rest, is God’s command to keep it sacred to him. When Sunday becomes a day of pleasure, it ceases to be a day of rest. So important is the Sabbath to man that no people can have the highest religious life, the truest freedom, the greatest prosperity, unless they be a Sabbath-keeping people, whose Sabbath is one of rest and of religion—(a) Because man needs the rest for his whole system. More is accomplished in six days than can be in seven days of work. (b) Because man needs it to care for his spiritual nature, for religion, and preparing for immortal life. (c) Because man needs it as a day for moral training and instruction; a day for teaching men about their duties, for looking at life from a moral standpoint. (d) It is of great value as a means of improving the mind. The study of the highest themes, the social discussion of them in the Sabbath-school, the instruction from the pulpit, the expression of religious truth in the prayer-meeting, give an ordinary person more mental training in the course of his life than all his school-days give. (e) So long as the best welfare of the individual and of the nation depends chiefly on their mental and moral state, so long will the Sabbath be one of God’s choicest blessings to man, and the command contained within it a heavenly privilege and blessing.—Ed.)