Nehemiah Reforms the Sabbath

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In the long series of problems that Nehemiah confronted, the next was a violation of the fourth commandment. According to verses 15 and 16, he had witnessed the people of Judah engaging in various forms of labor on the Sabbath, plus there were a few men from Tyre, who apparently resided in Jerusalem and also sold their products on the Sabbath.

This sin was not only widespread; it was also egregious. In verse 18, Nehemiah cited Sabbath violation as a principle reason for the Babylonian captivity and all the problems that the Jews had to deal with in his day. He said, Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the sabbath.

Because of this, Nehemiah took quick action to correct the problem. First, he addressed the matter to the nobles in verse 17. Modern Americans, after nearly two centuries of Hegelian philosophy, like to dialogue. You tell me what you think, I’ll tell you what I think, and maybe we’ll find some common ground in between. But Nehemiah did not dialogue with the nobles. Our text says that he contended with them. The word used here (וָאָרִיבָה) could be translated as “strove” or “chided.” In other situations, it means to prosecute a lawsuit against someone. Next, Nehemiah took steps to put an end to Sabbath-day merchandizing in Jerusalem. He ordered that the gates be shut the entire day, and he even stationed his own servants at the gates to make sure that they remained shut. Third, Nehemiah threatened to arrest the merchants who camped outside the gates hoping to get in. And finally, he instructed the Levites to guard the Sabbath more diligently. They had not done this because they had been working in the fields, and they were working in the fields because the people had stopped supporting them.

Views of the Sabbath

The events recorded in today’s text are straightforward, but the meaning and application of the fourth commandment is not.

Calvin gives us one extreme. His position on the fourth commandment was both complex and inconsistent.[1] Nevertheless, we can say a few things about it. For one thing, he made a distinction between how the commandment applied in two testaments. In the Old Testament, it had both a ceremonial and moral aspect. The ceremonial aspect set aside a particular day of the week for rest from physical labor. The moral aspect added that physical rest was not to be looked upon as an end in itself, but was required to teach the people to find their delight in God in public worship. In the New Testament, however, the ceremonial aspect, which typified the believer’s rest from sin, has been abolished, though the moral aspect is still in force. Thus, only that work is forbidden which interferes with our ability to assemble for worship. Since the keeping of a day was part of the ceremonial law, Calvin argued that any day of the week would be acceptable for worship in the New Testament, though he preferred the first day of the week because it commemorated Christ’s resurrection and had been set aside for worship in the church by common usage.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1648–52) gives us the other extreme.[2] It teaches that the Old Testament seventh-day Sabbath has been changed into the New Testament first-day Sabbath, which we call the Lord’s Day. All the prohibitions and restrictions given in the Old Testament carry over in full force. Thus, the fourth commandment forbids believers to engage in “their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations” and requires them to spend the whole day “in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.”

The position that has prevailed in Reformed churches over the years was enunciated in the post-acta decrees of the Synod of Dort (1618–19). The same synod that settled the Arminian controversy declared six principles regarding the fourth commandment that avoided the extremes mentioned above. For the most part, these principles agree with Calvin; however, they reject the idea that the New Testament church has the liberty to choose which day to worship. Contrary to the Westminster Confession, they did not prohibit all “worldly employments and recreations,” much less “thoughts” of such things, but insisted rather that we seek “as much rest as is necessary for the worship of God and holy meditation of him.”[3]

A Sabbath Theology

You can see from this how difficult our subject is. The only way to unravel all of this is to search the Scriptures. So, let’s review what the Bible says.

The very first information about the Sabbath was given at creation. God, having finished all of his works in the space of six days, rested the seventh day. Therefore, according to Genesis 2:3, God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work. Two ideas stand out here. The first is that God, who needed no rest, rested on the seventh day. Surely, this was for our benefit. And second, God also sanctified the seventh day, i.e., he made it holy or devoted to a different purpose than the other days.

At the time of the flood, the Lord also interacted with Noah on the basis of a seven-day pattern (cf. Gen. 7:4, 10; 8:10, 12). Years later, God gave his people manna six days each week, with a double portion on the sixth day but none at all on the seventh day. A short time after this, Moses received the Ten Commandments, one of which required God’s people to remember the Sabbath day (Exod. 20:8). The reason given was the order of creation. Forty years later when Moses repeated the commandments for the next generation, he based the Sabbath commandment on the Lord’s redemption of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. He woret, And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day (Deut. 5:15). We can rest only because God made us and saved us. Otherwise, we would be like the wicked, whom Isaiah compared to a troubled sea that cannot rest because its waters cast up mire and dirt (Isa. 57:20). Even the sabbatical years and feasts were further amplifications of the Sabbath-day principle.

The importance of the Sabbath in Jewish life can be seen in two ways in the Old Testament. Positively, the Lord called the Sabbath a sign of his sanctifying grace. Exodus 31:13 says, Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you (cf. Ezek. 20:12, 20). In other words, we can hide most of our sins from other people, but we can’t hide our Sabbath observance. We’re either present for worship or we’re not . Negatively, when God sent his prophets to chide the Jews for breaking his law, he often complained that the people had polluted his Sabbaths. Ezekiel 22:8 says, Thou hast despised mine holy things, and hast profaned my sabbaths. Their breaking of the Sabbath revealed their rejection of God’s sanctifying grace. But only the Sabbath was mentioned in many cases. It seems to have had a special honor all to itself. In our text, Nehemiah singled out the Sabbath as the reason for the Jews’ seventy-year exile. They had returned to their land, but had they really returned to the Lord?

When we cross over into the New Testament, we see that the Jews, particularly the Pharisees, had become enamored with the Sabbath. They had figured out just how far a person could walk on the Sabbath without breaking the law, but they also used their explanations to get around specific Sabbath commandments. Exodus 35:3, for example, prohibits the kindling of fires on the Sabbath. These fires were probably for cooking (cf. Exod. 16:23), although some commentators think that they might have been fires used in certain crafts like blacksmithing. In any case, the rabbis taught that you could build a fire on the Sabbath if you had placed the pot over where the fire would be before the Sabbath began.

Against such silliness, Jesus set the record straight once again. When the Pharisees complained that he and his disciples picked grain on the Sabbath, he reminded them that the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath (Mark 2:27). Its purpose was not to restrict a man, as much as it was to make him free. By releasing man from the responsibilities of the other six days, the Sabbath allowed him to focus his attention more directly on drawing near to God. This was for man’s own good. The Sabbath was a sign of man’s sanctification. Mark’s comment at the end of this incident affirms, further, that Jesus had the authority to correct the Jews’ misinterpretation of the fourth commandment. The Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath (Mark 2:28). Having given the commandment in the first place, he could certainly assert its true meaning.

On another occasion, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1–6). When the Pharisees challenged him, he asked them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill? Apparently, they had forgotten that the Sabbath was not given to prevent good works, but to encourage them. Old Testament priests offered sacrifices (Matt. 12:25), children were circumcised (John 7:22–23), judges heard emergency cases, and those who owned livestock lead their animals to water on the Sabbath (Luke 13:15). Thus, the fourth commandment was never meant to bind God’s people with impossible burdens. Rather, Jesus’ question forced the Pharisees to consider the Sabbath in relation to God’s covenant. They would have immediately thought of what Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 30:15: See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil (Deut. 30:15). So, which is it? Was the Sabbath given to hurt you or to help you? Was it meant to be a restriction or an aid to your service of God?

If we want to observe a true, Christian Sabbath, we can only do so when we understand the purpose of the fourth commandment in relation to Jesus Christ, the mediator of the covenant.

Keeping the Sabbath

So, what does all of this mean as far as keeping the Sabbath? What did it mean for Nehemiah and the Jews of the Old Testament? What does it mean for us today? I would suggest that we keep four principles in mind.

1. The Sabbath is a day of rest. God rested after six days of creative activity, thereby sanctifying to us a day of rest. Question 103 of the Heidelberg Catechism says that the Lord’s Day is our “day of rest.”

It’s simply a matter of fact that our bodies require a certain amount of rest in order to work effectively. We need daily rest, and Psalm 127:2 promises that God giveth his beloved sleep. We also need a weekly rest to break up the routine of the workweek. The Lord’s Day gives us an opportunity to recharge ourselves for the coming week.

There’s another benefit to having a day of rest. It teaches us to rely upon God’s mercy. We work six days, but we eat seven days. We toil six days, but we heat and air condition our homes seven days. Thus, the blessings of our labors are greater than the labors themselves. This is God’s blessing. But if we worked every day of every week, it would soon be very tempting to think that everything we have comes to us in a 1:1 proportion to our labor. We would get to the place where, frankly, we might think we didn’t need God anymore. A weekly day of rest counter­acts such thinking and reminds us that God, in fact, gives us everything we have.

2. The Sabbath is a holy day. It is a day devoted to the worship and service of God. In particular, it should focus our attention on the redemption that we have in Jesus Christ. Remember that second version of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5 based Sabbath observance on the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt. Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, likewise, invites us to find our rest in him. He said, Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Matt. 11:28).

The fourth commandment encourages us to rest physically so that we can rest spiritually in Christ. Consider a situation where a Christian husband loves to entertain on the Lord’s Day. Of course, most of the work defaults to his wife. She spends her entire Saturday preparing for her guests. On Sunday, after worshiping in the morning and entertaining all afternoon, she can barely pay attention to the evening sermon.  Would this be a violation of the Sabbath? The answer really depends on many other considerations, so we don’t want to make any kind of legalistic proclamation, but it certainly could be. And what about staying out late on Saturday night? Or not giving due attention to the reading Scripture and praying throughout the week? This, too, should be part of our preparation for worship.

If one purpose of the Sabbath is to sanctify the Lord God in our hearts, then we need to make sure that we are well refreshed and well prepared when we enter into public worship.

3. The Sabbath is a day for good works. The Lord’s day gives us an opportunity to put the blessings of the covenant into practice. It’s a day to pull an ox out of a ditch or to help a neighbor with a physical infirmity. Thus, the Lord’s day teaches us to rest from our evil works and do those things that are pleasing in the sight of God. It is a sign of our sanctification.

Those who hold to a strict sabbatarian position, such as we find in the Westminster Confession, often accuse those who hold to a looser view of tossing the fourth commandment altogether. We function as if there were only nine commandments instead of ten. But that’s not really the case at all. To the contrary, I would argue that those who hold to a looser position on the Sabbath actually apply it more strictly. While a strict sabbatarian applies the fourth commandment to one day each week, the Heidelberg Catechism extends the principle of resting from our evil works and doing good to every day of the week and, in fact, into eternity. It says, “That all the days of my life I rest from my evil works, allow the Lord to work in me by His Spirit, and thus begin in this life the everlasting Sabbath” (Heid. 103).

4. The Sabbath is a day of blessing. When the Lord rested from his work of creation, he blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it (Gen. 2:3). If the Sabbath was made for man, this means that God meant for it to be a blessing to us as well.

What makes the Sabbath such a blessing? It’s a day of physical rest. It’s a day of resting in Christ, who accomplished our salvation by his death on the cross and rose triumphantly on the third day, never to die again. It’s a day that God gives us to serve him in the context of his church.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of the blessings of the Sabbath in the fifty-eighth chapter of his book. He wrote, If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it (Isa. 58:13–14).

Now, what about Nehemiah? He was disturbed that the people of his day were treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses with wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day. Both they and the men of Tyre were also selling food and other products (Neh. 13:15–16). Weren’t these things wrong?

Yes, what the Jews were doing was wrong, but what they were doing was only symptomatic of a much deeper problem. The problem was that they had lost sight of the real meaning of the Sabbath and its blessings. Just as they had neglected to care for the Levites, so they were treating the Sabbath as if it were just another day. There was no physical rest. The worship of God was non-existent. The people gave no thought to how they might delight in God’s goodness, nor were they seeking to do good works of their own. The fact that they were laboring in their fields and in their stores was a symptom of the fact that they had, practically speaking, excluded God from their lives.

Thus, Nehemiah instructed the Levites to cleanse themselves and sanctify the Sabbath. And if we’re not keeping the Lord’s day as we should, i.e., if we focus too much on the do’s and don’ts instead of resting in our blessed Savior, then we need to sanctify the Sabbath, too.

And finally, Nehemiah prayed his second reformation prayer at the end of our text: Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy (v. 22). His prayer was both an example to the people of the fact that he kept the Sabbath, since he rested in God’s mercy, and a plea for God to give everyone else a real love for the fourth commandment. We should beg the Lord also to make the Sabbath commandment more and more precious to each one of us.

So, as we reflect upon our text, let’s ask ourselves if we are keeping the Lord’s day to the glory of God. Are we using this day to know him better, to increase our love for him and for one another? Does it remind us that God calls us to live every day to his honor and glory?

May every Lord’s day be, as one our hymns says, a “day of rest and gladness, [a] day of joy and light, [a] balm of care and sadness, Most beautiful, most bright.” Amen.


[1] See Calvin’s Institutes 2.8.28–34, his remarks on the fourth commandment in his commentary on the last four books of Moses, and his sermon on Deuteronomy 34.

[2] WCF 21.7–8.

[3] A later principle adds that the consecration of the day for worship implies that in it we should “rest from all servile works (with these excepted, which are works of charity and pressing necessity) and from those recreations which impede the worship of God.” The challenge, of course, is figuring out how much servile work and/or recreation impede our worship.

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