The Sabbath – For Whom?

By Donald P. Ames

It has long been the contention of those seeking to bind the Sabbath on people today that it was a “moral” law, one that was binding from the creation upon all people, and since it was a “moral” law, should still be binding upon us today. It is argued that it was sanctified in Genesis 2:3, and such being the case, God “set it apart” at that point in time as an eternal law. We would like to note some objections to such a position in order to help others facing such teaching.

First of all, it is pointed out in the word of God that the Sabbath was part of the law that God gave to the Jews. In Exodus 20:2 God said, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” He then gave to the Jews the Ten Commandments. But this law was given only to those who had been in Egyptian bondage! In Deuteronomy 5:3, Moses said, “The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, those who are here today, all of us who are alive.” If the Sabbath was part of an “eternal” law, then why was it part of a covenant that was given only to those who had been brought forth from captivity? In fact, other than Exodus 16:26, there is no mention of any of the Jewish ancestors even observing the Sabbath. This silence of any observance of it is not by accident. In Nehemiah 9:13-14, the prophet points out that at Mount Sinai God “made known to them your holy Sabbath.”

Secondly, it might be pointed out that the Sabbath was a memorial between those whom God delivered from Egyptian bondage and God. In Deuteronomy 5:15, Moses pointed out that God brought them up out of the land of Egypt, “therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” Ezekiel refers to the same point in Ezekiel 20:10-12, when he adds that the Sabbath was “a sign between them and me” that they might understand that God was the one who “sanctifies them” (or set them apart). This being the case, unless our ancestors were part of the Egyptian bondage (Exod. 20:2), that law is not a sign for us, nor the Sabbath a reminder!

Furthermore, it is interesting to note that there is no record anywhere of the Gentiles being Sabbath keepers. All through the pages of the Old Testament God describes the good and bad points of the Gentile world. Yet, not one prophet of the Old Testament refers to any nation of the Gentile world as being Sabbath keepers. Why is there such a vast silence, assuming the whole world was keeping it? Not only is the Bible silent, but even in secular history there is no record of the Gentile world being Sabbath keepers. Again, the total silence is strange, assuming the Gentile world was keeping it.

But, some may counter that the Gentile world had drifted away from God and was not interested in doing what God commanded (Eph. 2). That certainly is true by the time of the New Testament. Yet it is interesting to note even righteous Noah is not commended for reestablishing the Sabbath. Nor Abraham. Nor those of the city of Nineveh who repented at the preaching of Jonah. In fact, there is no condemnation of anyone other than the Jewish nation for not keeping the Sabbath! God itemized the sins and condemned the Gentile world for violating many of his laws. His prophets mentioned many violations. Nations were punished for many violations. But never was the profaning of his Sabbath one of the sins charged to the Gentile world – or even to those before the establishment of the Jewish nation. Why such strange silence? If this Sabbath was an eternal, moral law binding upon the whole world, why is there no condemnation for its being violated?

Some seek to get around that by claiming “Remember the Sabbath” (Exod. 20:8) means that they were to go back to a practice that had been forgotten. However “remember” can be used two ways: (1) pointing backwards to a forgotten practice, and (2) pointing ahead to setting up a future practice. Since the Sabbath was a sign of the Egyptian deliverance, and was given to those brought out of Egypt, and was not given to their forefathers, but was made known at Mount Sinai, it is pretty obvious which direction the word “remember” is pointing to in Exodus 20:8. Which direction did it point in Ecclesiastes 12:1, Hebrews 13:7 or Colossians 4:18?

Others would point to Exodus 31:15-17 where the Sabbath is held up as a memorial of the creation as further proof it was eternal. They would argue it is “perpetual” and “forever,” while rejecting the same application to the same words in Exodus 30:8 concerning the burning of incense. However, when tied in to Genesis 2:3, this has caused some to hestitate and conclude maybe it was eternal. But, (1) the primary objective of the Sabbath was a memorial of the fact God had given them rest from the Egyptian captivity. (2) Secondly, it was to be a day of rest, in the same sense that God had ceased his activities of creation on the seventh day. The emphasis in Exodus 31 is on the rest, and not as a memorial of the creation, and of God as the supreme Creator of the universe who gave the law and thus their subjection to it.

But what about Genesis 2:3? One must keep in mind that Moses is the author of the first five books of the Old Testament. The events recorded therein were frequently written after thefact, and not at the actual time they occurred (i.e., Moses was not present at the creation, but wrote about it much later). Now, let us note a parallel found in the New Testament. Matthew wrote his gospel later in life, and not as a daily diary of everyday happenings. In Matthew 10:24 he lists the apostles (who at this time were still disciples), and concludes the list with “Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him.” Had Judas already betrayed Christ in this point of chronology? No, we all recognize this was not done until he betrayed him and he was delivered up to be crucified in Matthew 26. However, at the time Matthew wrote, the betrayal of Judas had become a fact of history! We simply must turn to other passages to establish the when of the fact. Likewise, by the time Moses wrote Genesis, the fact of the sanctifying of the Sabbath was history, but the other passages have to establish the when. If we can understand Matthew 10:4, we have no problem understanding Genesis 2:3. This is useless to Sabbath keepers as an argument for an “eternal nature” of the Sabbath.

But there is another interesting quote I’d like to use to close out this study. I have in my library a Hebrew commentary on the first five books of the Old Testament. It is edited by “the late chief Rabbi (Dr. J.H. Hertz, C.H.)” and printed by the Soncino, Press in London (5713-1952). It is entitled Pentateuch and Haftorahs. Commenting on Exodus 31:13 (p. 356), he says, “The Sabbath was recognized throughout the ancient world as the peculiar and distinctive festival of the Jewish people.” Amazing! That is exactly what we have already determined from the word of God! And since we have the word of God, history, and even the statement of a Hebrew Rabbi, where does that leave those who would argue it was binding and practiced by the entire world from the time of creation on? Some doctrines are believed in spite of the facts, and not because of them!

Guardian of Truth XXXII: 10, pp. 291-292
May 19, 1988