The Seventh Day—A Sabbath of Rest
To whom was it given? How was it observed? Why was it significant?
FOR the people of Israel the seventh day of the week was no ordinary day. Unlike the other days, its approach was heralded by six loud trumpet blasts, and then as the sun dropped out of sight below the horizon everyone began a period of rest from secular and servile work. From sunset on the sixth day to sunset on the seventh day no work was permitted, not even the gathering of sticks or the lighting of a fire.
It was by divine law that they set aside this day for a period of rest. The law is expressed in the fourth of the famous Ten Commandments, which were given Moses at Mt. Sinai. The people were commanded to remember it throughout their generations. “Remembering the sabbath day to hold it sacred, you are to render service and you must do all your work six days. But the seventh day is a sabbath to Jehovah your God. You must not do any work, you nor your son nor your daughter, your slave man nor your slave girl nor your domestic animal nor your temporary resident who is inside your gates. For in six days Jehovah made the heavens and the earth, the sea and everything that is in them and he proceeded to rest on the seventh day. That is why Jehovah blessed the sabbath day and proceeded to make it sacred.”—Ex. 20:8-11.
Although no work was to be done on the seventh day, that does not mean it was a day of total idleness. Since religious activity was compatible with the day, the priests continued with their sacrificial work as on other days, with the exception that they offered two lambs instead of one. They replaced with fresh bread the twelve loaves of showbread in the Holy of the temple and performed circumcisions on any infants whose eighth day fell on the sabbath. This was also the day when a new division of priests took their places at the temple for a week of service. So while it was a day of rest from work for the people, it was a day of activity for the priests. Their performance of even laborious religious services was harmonious with the sabbath arrangement.
Instead of being totally idle, the people were required to have a holy convention or assembly by coming together for public worship and instruction. In fact, the day was not properly kept unless it was devoted to the duties of private and public worship. When synagogues were established these assemblies were held there. Each sabbath when the people assembled together, they were edified by the public reading of God’s written Word. Referring to this practice, the apostle Paul said: “From ancient times Moses has had in city after city those who preach him, because he is read aloud in the synagogues on every sabbath.” (Acts 15:21) By ceasing from their secular work on the seventh day the people of Israel were free, not only to rest, but to pray, be instructed in the Scriptures and to meditate on the Creator and his magnificent works.
MORE THAN ONE SABBATH
Consideration of the sabbath would be incomplete without mentioning the sabbaths in addition to the seventh-day sabbath that God commanded his chosen people to observe. To keep the weekly sabbath and not keep the others would be a violating or ignoring of God’s law. In addition to the weekly sabbath the Israelites were required to observe the Passover once a year, on Nisan 14. The day after the Passover was a sabbath day that began the week-long festival of unleavened bread. The last day of that festival was also a sabbath. Fifty days from the day of offering the first fruits (Nisan 16) another sabbath rest day was to be observed, the feast of weeks or Pentecost.
The seventh month was an outstanding month in Israel. Its first day was a sabbath, and then on the tenth day, the day of atonement, there was another sabbath. This was followed by still another rest day on the fifteenth day of the month, when the festival of booths began. The day following this week-long festival was another sabbath when no work was done. But that was not all. Every seventh year and every fiftieth year were year-long sabbaths for the land, when it was allowed to rest. These many sabbaths were all part of the sabbath observance that God’s law required of the nation of Israel. “Especially my sabbaths you are to keep.”—Ex. 31:13.
Instructions on sabbath observance were given to the Israelites in Egypt just before they were freed from Egyptian bondage. When God gave them instructions regarding the first Passover he said: “On the first day [fifteenth of Nisan] there is to take place for you a holy convention and on the seventh day [Nisan 21] a holy convention. No work is to be done on them. Only what every soul needs to eat, that alone may be done for you.”—Ex. 12:16.
Not until the Israelites were outside of Egypt and on their way to Mount Sinai did God indicate that they were to observe one day a week as a sabbath rest. This occurred when he began providing daily food for them in the form of miraculous manna. “Jehovah said to Moses: ‘Here I am raining down bread for you from the heavens, and the people must go out and pick up each his amount day for day . . . And it must occur on the sixth day that they must prepare what they will bring in and it must prove double what they keep picking up day by day.’” To the people, Moses said at that time: “Mark the fact that Jehovah has given you the sabbath. That is why he is giving you on the sixth day the bread of two days.”—Ex. 16:4, 5, 29.
God’s instructions here about sabbath observance and what he said in Egypt in connection with the Passover served to introduce sabbathkeeping to the nation of Israel. Later when the sabbath law was given at Mount Sinai, they received more detailed instructions about the observance of these rest days.
GOD’S REST DAY
Because the fourth of the Ten Commandments, which speaks about the seventh-day sabbath, mentions how God rested on the seventh creative day, some persons conclude that weekly sabbath observance existed from the time of the first man. They base their argument on the fact that God rested, blessed and made sacred the seventh creative day, which they believe was a literal twenty-four-hour day. The scripture they lean heavily upon to support their contention is Genesis 2:3, which says: “God proceeded to bless the seventh day and make it sacred, because on it he has been resting from all his work that God has created for the purpose of making.” Regarding this scripture, Robert Jamieson, in his Critical and Experimental Commentary, said: “This passage we regard as the magna charta of the Sabbath and as clearly establishing the fact that its institution was coeval with the creation of man.”
But where in this scripture is there any command to mankind to observe the seventh day of the week as a sabbath? Where is there even a suggestion that man is involved with what is said here? What we find is a statement of what God did when he came to the seventh creative day, not a statement of any law to man. Neither this scripture nor any other Bible text says, or even suggests, that sabbath observance was enjoined upon Adam or that he ever kept the seventh day of the week as a sabbath.
There can be no doubt that God established a pattern for the weekly sabbath law that was given to Moses, but how could anyone be expected to obey such a law before it was given? It is not surprising, therefore, to find no record of anyone’s keeping a sabbath before the days of Moses.
It is a mistake to assume that God blessed and made sacred a literal twenty-four-hour day at the time he rested. By speaking about entering into God’s rest thousands of years after it had begun, the apostle Paul indicated that God’s rest day was still continuing in his day and so is a great period of time. “For in one place he has said of the seventh day as follows: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works,’ and again in this place: ‘They shall not enter into my rest.’ Let us therefore do our utmost to enter into that rest.”—Heb. 4:4, 5, 11.
The number seven is used frequently in the Bible and carries with it the thought of completeness. The Popular and Critical Bible Encyclopedia points out that the root for the Hebrew word for seven suggests “the idea of sufficiency, satisfaction, fullness, completeness, perfection, abundance.” Thus there being seven days of the creative week indicated completeness or perfection. Since the seventh creative day has proved to be thousands of years in length, nearly 6,000 years having elapsed since Adam’s creation, and since Bible prophecy proves that we are living in the time of the end of this wicked system of things immediately preceding the restful 1,000-year Kingdom reign of Christ, it is reasonable to conclude that this great rest day would be complete with 7,000 years. The 1,000-year reign of Christ would logically be included in this 7,000-year rest day of God. This means the seventh creative day is in itself a week of 1,000-year days. Because Jehovah’s name will be vindicated during this time and his purposes for the earth and for man completely fulfilled, the day is sacred. His blessing of it will be manifested in the 1,000-year reign of the Messiah.
That God’s rest day consists of seven 1,000-year days was also observed by some Jewish rabbis several hundred years ago. In 1626 Henry Ainsworth quoted one of them in his Annotations upon the First Booke of Moses Called Genesis as saying: “If we expound the seventh day, of the seventh thousand of years, which is the world to come, the exposition is, and he blessed, because in the seventh thousand, all souls shall be bound in the bundell of life . . . so our Rabbins of blessed memory, have sayd in their commentarie; God blessed the seventh day, the holy God blessed the world to come, which beginneth in the seventh thousand (of years).” The world to come is the 1,000-year reign of the Messiah, a fitting climax to the symbolic week of 7,000 years that make up man’s existence on earth during God’s rest day. It will bring to mankind rest from slaving toil and from the bondage of sin.
Thus we see God’s use of the perfect number seven. The creative week consisted of seven days that were made up, not merely of hours, but of 7,000 years each. This means that each creative day was, within itself, a week of 1,000-year days. Following this master pattern, the nation of Israel was given a symbolic week of one-year days, with every seventh year being a sabbath rest for the land. This brings us down to the literal week of seven days, the seventh day of which was a sabbath in the nation of Israel. It was logical, therefore, that the fourth commandment should make reference to the great creative week of which the literal week is a small replica.
Since God’s rest day was, as it should be, much greater than the twenty-four-hour rest day for which it is the pattern, it is a mistake to conclude that his blessing of his great rest day meant that all mankind was obligated to observe a sabbath rest every seventh day.
There is complete silence in the Scriptures about sabbath observance by any of the patriarchs before the days of Moses. The fact that they used weeks of seven days may be pointed to by some persons as evidence that they kept a sabbath, but how can that be accepted as a sound argument when there is not the slightest indication that the patriarchs considered the seventh day different from the other six? On this point consider what is said in The Popular and Critical Bible Encyclopedia: “On the other side it is again denied that the reckoning of time by weeks implies any reference to a sabbath. The division of time by weeks, as it is one of the most ancient and universal, so is it one of the most obvious inventions.”
When God gave Noah specific commands after the Flood, they involved such details as respect for life, the eating of meat and the abstaining from blood. But no mention was made of sabbath observance. The obvious conclusion that must be drawn from the complete silence on the subject during the two and a half millenniums before Moses is that God did not require sabbath observance during this time. It was not for the patriarchs.
Sabbath observance was given just to the nation of Israel as a sign between them and their heavenly Ruler, with whom they had come into covenant relationship. We have God’s own statement to this effect: “Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day is a sabbath of complete rest. . . . Between me and the sons of Israel it is a sign to time indefinite.” (Ex. 31:15, 17) No other nation of people before the days of Moses was sanctified or set apart for a holy purpose as were the Israelites. God required things of them that he required of no other people. “It was not with our forefathers that Jehovah concluded this covenant, but with us, all those of us alive here today.” (Deut. 5:3) The sabbath was a special sign of their relationship with Jehovah and a reminder of his deliverance of them from Egyptian bondage. “The Lord your God brought you out from there by a strong hand and an outstretched arm; that is why the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day.”—Deut. 5:15, AT.
For the nation of Israel the seventh day of the week was a divinely given sabbath that was to be observed for an indefinite length of time. Each week when the trumpet blasts announced the approach of the seventh day it was a joyous occasion, because the sabbath meant refreshment for their bodies and their spirit. The wholesome instruction and encouragement they received from Scriptural readings, holy conventions and prayer on that day uplifted them spiritually. While being a continual reminder of their miraculous deliverance from Egypt and of their unusual relationship with God as his chosen people, the sabbath also drew attention to God’s great rest day, the end of which will find his original purpose for man fully accomplished. As the apostle Paul pointed out, the sabbath was a shadow of things to come. It pointed to the 1,000-year reign of Christ, which will bring to obedient mankind God’s promised blessing of eternal life and peace in a restful new world.—Col. 2:16, 17.