“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
Just as with the previous commandment, this fourth commandment was expanded to give the underlying reason for its inclusion. God established the principle of rest when after six days of creation “He rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made” (Gen 2:2-3). We should not regard God as requiring rest because of tiredness; omnipotence knows no variation or weakness. In establishing the principle, God had in mind His frail creatures and their spiritual and physical needs.
In the restatement of this law in Deuteronomy, an additional clause was added (Deu 5:12-15). The Israelites were to remember that they had been slaves in Egypt, but God had delivered them by His mighty hand and outstretched arm. Clearly, God’s redemption and their freedom from bondage were also to occupy their minds.
In the giving of the law, the sabbath rest was regarded as a “perpetual covenant” (Exo 31:16) between the nation and God. It applied equally to the heads of a household, other family members and employees. It extended to the use of their livestock and the activity of foreigners in the community, “thy stranger that is within thy gates” (Exo 20:10). The sabbath was to be a day of no work, limited travel and no trading (Exo 16:29; Amo 8:5). The priestly service on the sabbath day was augmented. Two lambs were offered for a continual burnt offering in the morning and two again in the evening, instead of the usual one (Num 28:9-10).
Judgement was severe on those who flouted this law. A man who was found gathering sticks on the sabbath to make a fire was stoned to death (Num 15:32-36). When the manna was given, the double portion gathered on the day before the sabbath sustained the people for two days. Those who attempted to gather it on the sabbath day found that there was none to be had (Exo 16:22-30).
The land itself was to enjoy a sabbath rest every seventh year: cultivated land was to be left fallow for that year. God would provide enough in the previous years to cover their physical needs in the seventh year. Their negligence in this respect was one reason given for the 70 years of Babylonian captivity. Over a period of 490 years (70×7), they had been disobedient (2Ch 36:20-21; Jer 25:11; Dan 9:2).
By Jewish reckoning, sabbath, the last day of the week, begins at sunset on Friday and ends at the same time on Saturday. It remains a prominent feature of Jewish life, not only in Israel but also throughout the world, wherever Jews seek to practice and preserve their religious beliefs. There are varying levels of adherence by orthodox, traditional or secular Jews. Controversy is never far away in Israel as the modern nation grapples with issues such as the level of public transport or commerce which should be permitted. An orthodox family will meet for the lighting of candles, the recitation of prayers, reading of the Torah and the sharing of a festive meal.
Orthodox Jews continue to hotly debate such issues as whether or not one is allowed to watch television or listen to a radio on the sabbath. If the television has already been turned on before the sabbath, can it be left on? If the radio was already playing before the sabbath, can the volume be increased? Are such actions regarded as work? Young Jews refer to using a cellphone and sending a text message on that day as a “half-sabbath,” thus admitting to a measure of compromise.
Significantly, the fourth commandment is not reiterated in the New Testament; all of the others are alluded to. And yet, some refer to Sunday, the first day of the week, as the Christian Sabbath. Lord’s Day observance societies advocate the preservation of the day as a special day of quiet religious observance. They are troubled by the increasing secularization of western society in which Sunday has become just another busy shopping day, a leisurely sports day, or even a wash-your-car sort of day.
For somewhat different reasons, Stalinist Russia tried to do away with a six-day working week followed by a seventh day off, arguing that it meant the wheels of production lay idle for one whole day. There was also an underlying hope of weakening the persistent religious sentiments of the people in what they hoped would become a truly atheist state. The 11-year experiment (1929-1940) was a disaster.
Others have espoused the idea that keeping the sabbath is a necessary component of salvation. This must be discounted as being another example of law-keeping that was roundly condemned by the apostle Paul when he showed that salvation comes through faith alone in Christ alone.
Some contend for the principle of setting aside one day a week for God. This implies a separation of a week into the secular and the sacred. This does not flow naturally from what God did after His creation, even though all of us would agree that God’s interests should come first and not be sidelined. Furthermore, the Lord’s Day (Sunday) is more often than not a day packed with activity. Many Christians fall into bed exhausted after a day of coming and going here and there, preaching and teaching. Somewhere along the line, the idea of rest has been lost. God’s sabbath points forward to an eternal rest when His purposes for this earth will have been fulfilled.
As in all things spiritual, matters can be taken to extremes. A “holier-than-thou” attitude asserts there is no need for a holiday. This is foolish. Bodies need rest and sleep to recover from physical exertion. Minds also need to be rested, so that they are refreshed and revived. On medical grounds alone, neglect of these needs can result in a physical or mental breakdown. When the Lord Jesus Christ called His disciples to “come … apart into a desert place, and rest a while” (Mar 6:31), He was demonstrating His love and care for them after a busy and stressful time of service.
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.