In this fourth post, we continue our look at what the Old Testament says about “the Sabbath”. We saw it’s origin in the “rest” that God took when He was finished with creation. This rest, as we noted, wasn’t because He was tired or at an impasse, but because He was finished; there was nothing more to be done or that needed to be done. Creation was complete and successful.
Then we saw that the Sabbath was incorporated into the Mosaic Covenant, the covenant which God made with Israel at Mount Sinai by which they became a nation. Emphasis was placed on the Sabbath as being a sign to Israel of their redemption from Egyptian slavery and of their unique relationship with God.
In our last post, we looked at how well Israel obeyed God in the keeping of the Law, especially their observance of the Sabbath. We found that even after the 70-year Captivity and their return to the land under Nehemiah and Ezra, Israel didn’t do a very good job of it.
In this post, we want to look at what God had to say about all this. He spoke mainly through Isaiah, before the Captivity, and Ezekiel, during the Captivity, though there are some other references as well.
- Isaiah 1:13, “Bring no more futile sacrifices; incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies – I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting.”
Not only were men like Nehemiah and Ezra angered by the people’s unfaithfulness, God was angered as well. Isaiah began his prophecy with a long list of Israel’s sins and what would happen to her as a result. True, there are wonderful prophecies of renewal and restoration, but Israel will still suffer because of what she has done. Even those things which they did in supposed obedience to God were rejected by Him. Quoting from a different portion of Isaiah, the Lord Jesus put it like this, “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men,” Matthew 15:8, 9.
This is a solemn warning to us, as well. In our service, in our worship, do we do it “from the heart,” or is it just “routine”? Do we come into the presence of God forgiven and cleansed because of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus, or do we come with our hands, as it were, dripping with the blood of our own “futile sacrifices”?
- Isaiah 56:2, 4, 6, “…who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, and keeps his hand from doing any evil. … to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me… … “Everyone who keeps from defiling My Sabbaths, and holds fast My covenant…”
Even “eunuchs,” who for whatever reason were unable to father children, and so would seem to be kept from blessing, and the “son of the foreigner,” who had no inherent right to blessing, even these men, if they held fast to “the covenant,” as exemplified by the Sabbath, would be blessed. As we mentioned above, though, the NT has further teaching on “keeping the Sabbath.”
Notice here, too, that it wasn’t to be just a matter of “keeping the Sabbath”. One was to “keep his hand from doing any evil,” to “choose what pleases Me,” to “hold fast My covenant.” One day of the week, whether it’s Saturday or Sunday, doesn’t mean anything if the other six days of the week don’t mean anything. Serving and worshiping God is a seven-days-of-the-week thing, not just one day of the week. And “worship” isn’t about having the right kind of music during one part of a “service,” it’s about having the right kind of heart.
- Isaiah 58:13, “If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on My holy day….”
Isaiah 58 is a chapter which, like others, lists God’s complaints against Israel. You really ought to read the whole chapter. Apparently, Israel couldn’t understand why God wasn’t blessing them as they thought He should, vs. 1-3. After all, they were doing a good job – in their own minds – of serving Him. They fasted. They wanted to know “the ordinances of justice.” They sought Him every day, and “delighted” to know His ways. They “afflicted their souls.” And they asked God why He “took no notice.”
However, God pointed out to them that even in their fasting, they “found pleasure” and “exploited those who worked for them”. V. 13 is just one of several in which God gave them the remedy for their problems. Keeping the Sabbath as more than just another day of the week was only part of it.
- Isaiah 66:22, 23, “For as the new heavens and the new earth which I make shall remain before Me,” says the LORD, “so shall your descendants and your name remain. And it shall come to pass that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me,” says the LORD.
We included v. 22 to give a little context to v. 23. Actually, you should read the whole chapter. In the first part, God again lists the sins of Israel and the judgments on those sins. From v. 7-10, God indicates a sudden and unexpected change in the nation, which He describes more fully in vs. 11-21. V. 15 may be further described by Zechariah 14:3, 4 and the rest of Zechariah 14 ties in with Isaiah 66:23.
There is so much more here that we don’t really have space to develop beyond a couple of comments. “The new heavens and the new earth” may lead some to conclude that this is talking about eternity. The phrase also occurs in Revelation 21:1. However, Isaiah 65:17 mentions the phrase first, and the rest of Isaiah 65 describes it. For now, we focus on v. 20, No more shall an infant from there live but a few days, nor an old man who has not fulfilled his days. In his book, “What Is The Gospel,” Greg Gilbert comments on this, “Never again will any of God’s people suffer death, and never again will tears burn our eyes at a graveside. Never again will an infant live but a few days and then die. Never again will we mourn, or hurt, or weep.” (Greg Gilbert, “What Is The Gospel?” Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2010. 121 pp.)
What he says is true, and the Christian looks forward with great longing for that time. However, I’ve always wondered why Gilbert didn’t finish v. 20: For the child shall die one hundred years old, but the sinner being one hundred years old shall be accursed.
Either there’s a contradiction in Scripture, which I deny, or there are two different renewals of creation. Isaiah and Zechariah refer to what is known as “The Millennium,” a period of time ending this earth’s history in which the Lord Jesus will rule over this planet from Jerusalem. Reformed scholars throw up their hands in horror or ridicule at this idea, but if words have any meaning at all, more is required of what the Old Testament says about a worldwide time of righteousness, peace and prosperity than some sort of “spiritual kingdom” in the church. While we agree that the Lord Jesus “rules” in the hearts of His people, that idea is found in the OT as well: God ruling in the hearts of His people.
- Jeremiah 17:19-27.
In this portion, God, speaking through Jeremiah, warns the people to observe and honor the Sabbath, promising them great blessing if they do, and great calamity if they don’t.
- Lamentations 2:6, The LORD has caused the appointed feasts and Sabbaths to be forgotten in Zion.
The 5 lamentations in this book all come from Jeremiah’s broken heart at the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of his people. The verse we quoted simply reminded the people that what happened to them wasn’t just some “accident of history;” it was God’s judgment on their sins.
The KJV has another occurrence of “Sabbath” in Lamentations 1:7, but that’s a different word in the Hebrew, and the NKJV translates it as “downfall.”
- Ezekiel 20:12-24.
In this portion, God mentions the Sabbath six times, emphasizing to Israel that even from her very beginning, she had disregarded and profaned the Sabbath, which had been given to her as a special sign of her relationship with God and her redemption from Egyptian slavery.
- Ezekiel 22:8, 26.
These two verses regard the same thing, the profaning of the Sabbath. Verse 8 speaks of the princes of Israel, and v. 26 of the priests. These leaders were responsible to guide Israel in a right way, according to God’s Word, but they were at the forefront of her apostasy.
- Ezekiel 23:38.
Ezekiel 23 is about two harlot sisters, Jerusalem and Samaria, both capitals of their respective kingdoms. After the division of Israel into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom, Samaria, had been led away from the true God by Jeroboam, who is ever afterwards remembered for that act of apostasy. The Lord’s point in Ezekiel is that Judah, the southern kingdom, had become no better than her “sister” to the north, even though she still supposedly held to the true God. They both defiled and profaned the sanctuary and the Sabbath. They both were guilty of terrible idolatry, yet Judah would still come to the Temple and think she was worshiping God. God would have none of it, and in just a few years that Temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar.
- Ezekiel 44:24; 45:17; 46:1-4, 12.
We’ve listed these verses together, which have 6 references to the Sabbath, because they’re all part of a controversial portion of Ezekiel. Ezekiel 40-48 describes in great detail the building of a Temple, the worship there, descriptions of a city and a land with incredible productivity.
What we might call fundamental or evangelical Christians have difficulty with this portion because of its references to animal sacrifice. This seems to them to deny the sacrifice of Christ. Others view these chapters as merely symbolic. Or, as a church bulletin quoted a Reformed scholar as saying, these chapters were “fulfilled in Jesus,” because of the references to “water” and other things. In any event, actual things and events are said not to be expected.
These 9 chapters have 270 verses of minute detail, down to the length of a priest’s hair and whom he could or could not marry. It seems to me that this is a great deal of trouble for a few symbols, or to dismiss it all as “fulfilled in Jesus.”
As far the animal sacrifices, I confess that I don’t fully understand them. At the same time, without meaning to be irreverent or flippant, since God instructed Ezekiel to “look with your eyes and hear with your ears, and fix your mind on everything I show you; for you were brought here so that I might show them to you. Declare to the house of Israel everything you see,” Ezekiel 40:4, I can say that it’s God’s problem. He told Ezekiel to pay attention to it. He will take care of it.
The point is, there is coming a time – not yet – when the Sabbath will be restored to its proper place and it will be observed and celebrated as it was supposed to be. Isaiah 65 and Zechariah 14 refer to this same time.
- Hosea 2:11, God says, “I will cause all her mirth to cease, her feast days, her New Moons, her Sabbaths – all her appointed feasts.”
This in the middle of a lengthy list of consequences for Israel’s sin.
- Amos 8:4, 5, Hear this, you who swallow up the needy, and make the poor of the land fail, saying, “When will the New Moon be past, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may trade wheat?”
This just shows the attitude that was in the land prior to its destruction: impatience for the feast days, including the Sabbath, to be over so that they could get back to the important business of making money.