In an article written against the observance of the seventh day the author maintains that the idea that the Sabbath was to be observed as a day of public worship of God was unknown, among the Jews prior to their return to Palestine after the Babylonian captivity. He says that the Hebrews were mostly an agricultural people at first, that they had no synagogues prior to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, and that originally they merely kept the seventh day as a rest from their work. How may one answer this argument that the Sabbath day was not originally a day of public worship?
It is true that the fourth precept of the Decalogue does not expressly command that a public assembly be had for the worship of God on the seventh day. It does explicitly prohibit the pursuit of common labor on the Sabbath. The command, being all-inclusive, is so broad as to be of universal application, so that both public and private worship of the Deity are proper on that day.
The best way to interpret the fourth commandment is to read what the Bible says about how it was used by God's people.
Note, for example, that the seventh day is "the Sabbath of the Lord thy God." It belongs to Him. It is also said to be "the rest of the holy Sabbath unto the Lord." Ex. i6 :23, 25; 35:2. There would be no point in merely commanding abstinence from labor on the seventh day for the sake of idleness. The fact that the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord marks the day as sacred and religious. It is to Him, or for Him, that the rest on that day is made. The thought of the day lifts the mind of man to the One to whom it is sacred. (Isa. 58:13.) Because He is our Creator and our God, the Sabbath day constitutes a call to worship Him.
The Lord, through Moses, gave to His people a list of festal days that were to be proclaimed "holy convocations." Lev. 23 :2. The first in the list is the Sabbath day. "Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day is the Sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; ye shall do no work therein : it is the Sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings." Verse 3.
The word "convocation" denotes a calling, or a summoning, of people to meet together in assembly. The Hebrew term is miqra', a noun derived from the verb qarai, which means "to call." This shows that there was to be a public religious meeting on the Sabbath day.
In Matthew 12:5 Christ stated His approval of the ministry of the priests in the temple on the Sabbath. The services of the temple were of a public nature. The morning and the evening sacrifices to be offered as burnt offerings at the sanctuary on the Sabbath were to be double those presented on the other days of the week. (Num. 28: 9, io.) Hence, the public religious services of the temple on the Sabbath were extraordinary, greater than those of the other days of the week.
After the Hebrew people were established in the land of Canaan most of them lived too far from the place of the sanctuary to go there for the public worship on the Sabbath day. The question as to whether or not there were synagogues or other meeting places in the cities and towns of Israel prior to the Babylonian captivity is not definitely settled yet, because available archaeological and historical data concerning the matter is still meager. James says that "Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach Him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day." Acts 15 :21.
There is the case of the Shunammite woman whose son was restored to life by Elisha. When her husband saw her going away from home he said to her : "Wherefore wilt thou go to him [Elisha] today? it is neither new moon, nor Sabbath." 2 Kings 4:23. This passage implies that it was the custom of the people to go to their religious teachers, particularly to the prophets, on the Sabbath day. It was because the Shunammitess was going to Elisha on another day of the we than the Sabbath that her husband manifested surprise. Thus it seems that it was the custom the faithful among Israel's teachers to gather the people together for religious instruction on the Sabbath.
It is not necessary, however, for us to appeal to the Old Testament to show that public worship is proper on the Sabbath day. Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, is the Lord of the Sabbath. (Matt. 12 :8 ; Luke 6 :5 ; Mark 2:28.) He is our example. And we read of Him: "He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up : and, as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up for to read." Luke 4 :16. It was His custom to participate in public worship on the Sabbath. And when He left Nazareth, He "came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and taught them on the Sabbath days." Verse 31. (See also Mark I :21.)
Following the example of their Master, the apostles also had public worship on the Sabbath day, in which both Jews and Gentiles participated. (Acts 13:42-44; 16:12, 13; 17:1-3; 18:1-4, 1.)