Dying for the Sabbath

In our Bible Study, we have been considering creation, and that seventh day upon which God rested. Although I imagine Adam observed the day, it is not explicitly recorded in the text, and working on it was not an offence for which he might die. In Exodus, however, the Sabbath day becomes a legally enforceable requirement, backed up by the death penalty:

Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. (31:15)

To many moderns, this seems excessively harsh. Not only have many of us an aversion to capital punishment of any kind, but we might reckon the sabbath day to be the least important of God’s laws. Executing a murderer, we reason, might be more justified than killing one who gathers sticks or shears sheep on a certain day of the week. Observe:

-God is the perfect Lawgiver of the perfect law. Our approval of a law is irrelevant. If a law exists, and we break it, a penalty will apply. God evidently judged sabbath observance a more serious business than we humans. In the same manner, many of us treat lightly the speed limit, the drink drive limit and the illegal copying of published material. We think little of these, but a court of law might beg to differ.

-Humans are designed to rest, just as our Creator rested. He gave us an example to follow; though He requires no weekly recuperation, our frail minds and bodies do. The ancient sabbath-breaker was ignoring this. Furthermore, we expect of others, especially our dependents, the standards we set for ourselves. A tidy parent is irritated by an disorganised child; a father who worked all his life despairs of a feckless son who loafs in bed all morning. Likewise, any ancient Israelite who regarded the sabbath as just another workday, almost certainly considered it so for his family, his servants and his animals. Such a one had to be restrained for their sakes, if not his own.

-The sabbath-breaker was an unspiritual, unregenerate man. The sabbath was to be a delight, an opportunity to appreciate better things than toil and lucre. Although I do not accept that the day of rest and the day of worship are, or were, one and the same (see here), the man who would sooner spend it growing crops or decorating the spare room is spiritually dead. He idolises wealth and work; he is an idolater.

-Alternatively, the man who breaks the sabbath may, contrary to the point above, be an idler himself. For six day he was to work, and then rest. Has he been enjoying ease on his workdays and not getting done his work? Is he the proverbial sluggard who turns on his bed like a door on the hinge? Such a man is a thief; he robs God on the sabbath to compensate for his laziness on the other days.

-As I pondered the verse, I was mindful of the irony of the felon’s fate. For unwarranted activity on a holy sabbath, he is condemned to an early death, an imposed and lengthy period of premature inactivity. Just as the tongues of those who reject Christ will ultimately be compelled to proclaim Him Lord, and their proud knees will be obliged to bow before Him, so this sabbath breaker is mandated to rest in death. God’s dignity shall be honoured and His will obeyed one way or another.

-We might also espy a gospel theme in this otherwise foreboding verse. The sabbath is a picture of heaven, but it might also be a picture of our gospel age, the theological period in which we live. We Christians are enjoying a sabbath of rest right now. We have given up labouring hard to impress God with our works and rituals. Saved entirely by grace alone, we rest from toil, simply enjoying our Saviour's salvation. Those who would seek eternal life by their own actions will inevitably die in their very actions.  

Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law's demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.


Image by Ri Butov from Pixabay