Keeping the Sabbath intensely holy

Though we may try to come up with our rules for appropriate Sabbath observance, the Bible itself doesn't give us many.

Shawn Brace, MDiv, pastors four Seventh-day Adventist churches in Claremont, New Hampshire, South Newbury, Vermont, Springfield, Vermont, and West Lebanon, New Hampshire, United States.

I have been conducting Bible studies with a handful of children at my church’s elementary school. They are preparing for baptism and, despite the fact that the group ranges from third-graders to seventh-graders (which presents a number of challenges), the lessons have gone fairly well.

However, when we came to the introductory lesson on the Sabbath, some of them were perplexed. After we saw that God declared the seventh day as the Sabbath; therefore we would want to refrain from work on God’s holy day, we also talked about how spending time with God would naturally lead us away from wanting to do our “own pleasure” (Isaiah 58:13).1 As we pondered this idea, I mentioned that we probably wouldn’t want to go the mall, watch TV, eat at restaurants, or play sports.

That last idea—about not playing sports—bothered a few kids. With a puzzled look, one boy responded, “You mean we can’t play soccer in our backyards on Sabbath afternoon? What’s wrong with that?”

Of course, not wanting to make a list of “dos” and “don’ts,” I replied that it’s not that we can’t, but that we should not want to spend time on what wouldn’t turn our minds toward God. “The Sabbath was designed so that we could worship God and help others,” referring to Matthew 12:12. I continued, “I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time doing either of those things when I am playing basketball or spending the day at the beach.”2

I don’t think he comprehended the concept, because I later overheard him saying to a classmate, “Pastor Brace said that we can’t play sports on the Sabbath.” Yet I believe that his bewilderment reflects the overall present attitude, both of the young and old, towards the meaning of keeping the Sabbath holy.

Secularizing the Sabbath

Of course, the issue isn’t necessarily about playing soccer, going to the beach, or eating at a restaurant. We’re concerned about the principle because, in the end, that’s all we really have. Though we may try to come up with our rules for appropriate Sabbath observance, the Bible itself doesn’t give us many. Besides the fact that we’re not supposed to work, buy, or sell, the Bible allows each individual to decide how to keep the Sabbath holy.

Yet in this freedom—and in our ever increasing desire to rightfully steer away from a legalistic form of Sabbath observance—many Adventists seem to subtly and slowly secularize the Sabbath. In the past, the day was once considered holy, totally devoted to God; now it’s almost as if the Sabbath has become a time to relax, have fun, and pursue personal hobbies and self-improvement projects. We can worship God in nontraditional activities, but we’ve often grown lax about jealously guarding the Sabbath from things that turn our minds away from God.

Thus the crucial question is, Are we, who since the 1800s have heralded the apocalyptic importance of the seventh-day Sabbath, in danger of forgetting the day ourselves? (Wouldn’t that be ironic?) For an answer, we turn to the Bible for a precedent that speaks to our situation today in the book of Ezekiel.

Ezekiel and the Sabbath

Though Ezekiel is a somewhat controversial figure himself, and his writings are not always easy to understand, many turn to him when emphasizing the importance of keeping the Sabbath holy: “ ‘Moreover I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them. . . . “Hallow My Sabbaths, and they will be a sign between Me and you, that you may know that I am the LORD your God” ’ ” (Ezek. 20:12, 20).

God’s reminder of the importance of the Sabbath reveals that Israel did not always hallow the Sabbath. Three times in this chapter alone God reminds His people that they “profaned” His Sabbaths (Ezek. 20:16, 21, 24.). At the center of Israel’s apostasy was, apparently, their disregard for the seventh day.

Yet we are confronted with a challenge if we try to make a case that profaning the seventh-day Sabbath laid at the heart of Israel’s apostasy during Ezekiel’s time. Many commentators maintain that God does not here refer to the seventhday weekly Sabbath; rather, to the annual Sabbaths. Ezekiel “has more than the weekly Sabbath in view,” writes Daniel I. Block. “Included would also be the special holy days on which all work ceased, as well as the sabbatical years and the year of Jubilee.”3 Have we, then, been misguided in our evangelism when we insist that this text is biblical proof for emphasizing the importance of the seventh-day Sabbath?

Absolutely not! Saying that this refers to ceremonial Sabbaths seems to be the result of a superficial reading of the passage, focusing mostly on the fact that the Hebrew word Sabbath is plural. A more in-depth analysis of the passage solidifies our stance that here God speaks of the seventh-day Sabbath.

First, Ezekiel 20:12 is almost a word-for-word quote of Exodus 31:13, which clearly links Ezekiel 20 to the weekly seventh-day Sabbath. With unmistakable clarity, the Lord speaks to Moses saying, “ ‘ “Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you” ’ ” (Exod. 31:13). And, lest anyone mistakes which “Sabbaths” God refers to when He says they are a “sign,” He explains a few verses later. “ ‘ “It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed” ’ ” (v. 17).

Second, the only “Sabbath” that God ever instructs Israel to “keep holy” is the seventh-day Sabbath.4 There are only five places outside of Ezekiel where Israel was specifically instructed to keep the Sabbath “holy,” and each time the reference undeniably refers to the seventhday Sabbath. The most obvious, of course, is in the Decalogue, where the children of Israel are instructed, “ ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy’ ” (Exod. 20:8).5

Third, the term “My Sabbaths” always refers to the seventh-day Sabbath in the Old Testament. Each time God speaks of “My Sabbaths” there, He addresses the seventh-day Sabbath. This can be seen in Leviticus 19:3, for example, where He pairs the fourth commandment with the fifth commandment, reminding everyone in Israel to “ ‘ “revere his mother and his father, and keep My Sabbaths.” ’ ”6

In contrast, when God refers to the annual Sabbaths, He refers to them as “your Sabbaths.” Thus, when talking about Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, God instructs the children of Israel to “ ‘celebrate your Sabbath’ ” (cf. Lev. 23:32).7

Finally, Ezekiel 44:24 speaks of “My Sabbaths.” He also mentions the “appointed meetings” as something separate. Later in the same book, the Lord draws a distinction between the annual “Sabbaths,” and the weekly “Sabbaths.” We conclude, therefore, that the “My Sabbaths” in the rest of Ezekiel refer to the seventh-day Sabbath or else God would be redundant in Ezekiel 44:24 when speaking also of the “appointed meetings” and “My Sabbaths.”8 Why separate them if they were the same thing?

The parallel

Ezekiel 20 begins when a vision came to Ezekiel “in the seventh year, in the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month” (Ezek. 20:1). Interestingly enough, five years later to the day, Jeremiah records that Jerusalem was leveled.9 Thus, you could argue that one of God’s last-day warnings to Israel revolved largely around their treatment of the seventh-day Sabbath. The fact that they profaned it, instead of keeping it holy, had eschatological and apocalyptic significance. Their disregard for the Sabbath was directly related to their disregard for the Lord of the Sabbath. Rejection of God’s holy day meant a rejection of God.

Thus, we as Seventh-day Adventists should take heed. When we secularize the day—engaging in activities that turn our minds away from God—and neglect to keep the Sabbath with zealous fervor (the Hebrew of the word “hallow” in Ezekiel 20:20 means “intensely holy”), we risk forgetting the day altogether and, more significantly, forgetting the Lord of the Sabbath as well. This does not mean we must create a list of “dos” and “don’ts” as the well-intentioned rabbis did in hopes of making sure Israel never met destruction again. However, this does mean that when we respond to God’s love wholeheartedly by faith, we will want to do only what facilitates a deeper and more intimate walk with God on His holy day.

Abraham Heschel writes, “In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where many may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity. The island is the seventh day, the Sabbath, a day of detachment from things, instruments and practical affairs as well as of attachment to the spirit.”10 Within the Sabbath God invites us to detach from things—to detach from those secular affairs that crowd our thoughts during the rest of the week, thus shutting God out. And, somehow, the idea of playing sports, eating at restaurants, or wasting the afternoon away while napping doesn’t seem to be an activity that would draw us closer to the Lord in a special way.

On the other hand, we can respond to God’s invitation—and promise—of rest. How we spend the Sabbath reflects our priorities and where God ranks in our hearts. May we, as leaders in God’s church, direct our people—even our children— to a true experience of the Sabbath rest.

1 All Scriptures, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from
the New King James Version.

2 For a recent discussion on these issues, see May-Ellen
Colón, From Sundown to Sundown (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press
Pub. Assn., 2008). It is not the purpose of this article to
address specific Sabbath practices per se, but to encourage
a sincere re-examination of how we are keeping the
Sabbath today. Although there are general principles in
Scripture about Sabbath keeping, the particulars are left
to the individual. This specific example of playing sports
on the Sabbath was given as to how, a few decades ago,
few Adventists would even think about playing sports on
Sabbath, and now many view it as a non issue. And this
particular writer is personally challenged by reconciling the
idea of keeping the Sabbath holy and playing sports. Others
may disagree, which is fine, so long as they can, in clear
conscience, reconcile the two ideas.


3 Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 1–24 (Grand
Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 632. Cf. also Brandon L.
Fredenburg, The College Press NIV Commentary: Ezekiel
(Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing, 2002), 184.


4 Translated differently in various versions, the Hebrew
word qadosh, as found in 20:20, means to “set apart,” “to
sanctify,” “to hallow,” or “to keep holy.” It is the same word
used in Genesis 2:3 where we are told that God “blessed
the seventh day and sanctifi ed [qadosh] it.”

5 See also Deut. 5:12; Neh. 13:22; Jer. 17:24, 27. Although
Ezekiel 20:20 is the only place where the word qadosh is in
the imperative form as it relates to the Sabbath, the other
five are infinitive constructs, thus making them essentially
commands.


6 See also Exod. 31:13; Lev. 19:30; 26:2; Isa. 56:4. For a very
good discussion of this issue, see also Ron du Preez, Putting
the “Sabbath” To Rest: A Scriptural Study of Colossians 2:16
,
2d ed. (Berrien Springs, MI: Omega Media, 2006).


7 See also Leviticus 26:35, which is a little more ambiguous,
but likely also refers to the annual Sabbaths.


8 To compare this passage to the only other places in the Old
Testament where “appointed feasts” and “Sabbaths” are
mentioned together, see 1 Chron. 23:31; 2 Chron. 2:3; 8:13;
31:3; Neh. 10:34; Lam. 2:6; Ezek. 45:17; Hos. 2:13. Each
passage seems to draw a distinction between the yearly
and weekly Sabbaths.


9 See Jer. 52:12–34. Cf. also Block, The Book of Ezekiel, 618.

10 Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus
and Giroux, 2005), 29.

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Shawn Brace, MDiv, pastors four Seventh-day Adventist churches in Claremont, New Hampshire, South Newbury, Vermont, Springfield, Vermont, and West Lebanon, New Hampshire, United States.

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