Little attention is paid to the persistent activity of the enemies of God’s holy day. Yet we ought to realise how complete the victory has been in the battle against the Sabbath – in the areas of shopping, gambling, entertainment and sport, for instance – so that the law scarcely recognises the Sabbath as God’s day any more. In those areas where the Sabbath is still observed, there is great agitation to have the remaining restrictions removed. Militant Sabbath-breakers in the Western Isles are putting forward the plea that a majority want the restrictions on Sabbath travel to be lifted. The false assumption behind their argument is that democratic principles carry greater authority than God, who requires us to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Ex 20:8-11). Democratic procedures must always be subject to the law of God.
Little do men consider that Sabbath-keeping is the keystone of society, because it is the keystone of the moral law and the Ten Commandments. If this is removed, the whole moral character of an individual or a community is in peril of collapse. Does the present state of society not afford a clear commentary on this?
What should the day be called which God claims as His own above all others? It is called the Sabbath Day because the Fourth Commandment regulates it. It is called the Lord’s Day to indicate the joyous historical event it now commemorates: the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Sunday, which Rev John Kennedy of Dingwall called the heathen name for the Sabbath, leaves out the moral obligations implicit in the name Sabbath, and the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ implicit in the name the Lord’s day.
Who must keep the Sabbath? Some say that the Fourth Commandment was merely a Jewish institution which does not concern us in the new testament Church. Kennedy pointed out that “the tribute which [the Fourth Commandment] demands for God must surely always be due to Him”. It could be argued, he says, that some commandments, such as the Fifth, have “a Jewish cast” for it includes this motive for obedience: “that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee”. But there is no such “Jewish cast” to the Fourth Commandment. Besides, the perpetual obligation of the Fifth Commandment is affirmed by the Apostle Paul, who says that it “is (not was) the first commandment with promise”. He argues further that if the Sabbath was given as a boon to man by God in His goodness, then to say that God has now withdrawn the benefit of the Sabbath rest suggests a change in the goodness of God. He says, “Christ distinctly tells us that ‘the Sabbath was made for man‘, not for the Jew only. There was a Sabbath long before there was a Jew. Man, everywhere, and at all times needs it; men of all nations are enjoined to observe it; and all who despise it act, not only unwisely, but wickedly.”
Heads of families and of nations, civil authorities and employers, have a particular obligation to remember the Sabbath day. They are not only to keep the Sabbath themselves, but also, as far as possible, to see that it is kept by those they are responsible for. The householder has a responsibility for children, servants and strangers within their gates. The demands of Sabbath-breakers within our homes should be firmly resisted. There is no reason to be ashamed of the law of the King of kings. Our ground is sure ground, the Sabbath breaker’s ground is most insecure – morally, spiritually and intellectually. The imperious demands of the tourist trade must be resisted, but especially within our own gates. The tourist in our homes is a stranger within our gates. Paying and non-paying visitors to our homes should be courteously informed how the Sabbath is to be kept there.
What does the Fourth Commandment require? “The Fourth Commandment requireth the keeping holy to God such set times as he hath appointed in His Word; expressly one whole day in seven, to be a holy Sabbath to Himself” (Shorter Catechism, 58). “The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy” (Shorter Catechism, 58).
The Puritan divine, Thomas Vincent, wrote an explanation of the Shorter Catechism which met with much approval from godly ministers in his own time. One of his questions is, “May not such works be done in our particular callings on the Sabbath Day as cannot so seasonably and advantageously be done on the other days of the week?” He answers, “There are some works in our particular callings which may seem to be most seasonable and advantageous on the Sabbath day, and yet it is our duty to rest from them, and wholly to forbear them, such as: killing of beasts to prepare them for the Monday market; ploughing, sowing, gathering in of corn, making hay while the sun shines and the weather best serveth; selling of fruit, or any other wares, on the Sabbath day, when there may be most custom for them; selling or buying of fish on this day, which in hot weather might stink if kept until the Monday.
“These and the like worldly employments we are to forbear by virtue of this commandment, they being our own works; and whatever loss we may seem to sustain by such forbearance, be sure it is not comparable to the loss of God’s favour and the wounding of our conscience and the loss of our souls for ever, which will be the fruit of living in the breach of God’s law. . . . If such works as these must be forborne on the Sabbath, much more such works of our calling as may be done on the weekday as well as on the Sabbath. ‘In those days saw I in Judah some treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath Day: and I testified against them in the day wherein they sold victuals. There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold on the Sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem. Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the Sabbath day? 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’ (Neh 13:15-18).”
What place is there then for works of necessity and mercy? Vincent expresses the Biblical teaching thus: “The works which God doth allow us to do on the Sabbath Day, besides what He doth principally command us, are works of necessity and mercy, such as eating, drinking, defending ourselves from enemies, quenching the fire of houses, visiting the sick, relieving the poor, feeding cattle, and the like; in all which employments we ought not to have a reference chiefly to ourselves or any temporal advantage, but to be as spiritual as may be in them. ‘At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath Day through the corn, and His disciples were an hungered, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto Him, Behold, Thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the Sabbath Day. But He said unto them, Have ye not read what David did?’ (Matt 12:1-3). ‘If you had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless’ (verse 8). ‘They said unto Him, Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath Day? And He said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the Sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the Sabbath Days’ (verses 10-12). ‘And the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath Day. The Lord then answered him, and said, Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath Day?’ (Luke 13:14-16).”
May we not engage in recreation on the Sabbath Day? Vincent answers: “We may and ought to recreate our minds on the Sabbath Day in the worship of God, we being bound to call and make in this respect the Sabbath our delight. But we ought to forbear recreating our minds with carnal delight, either by words or deeds, which we may do on other days; and much more we ought to forbear recreating our bodies by sports and pastimes, even after the public exercise of God’s worship be over. ‘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’ (Is 58:13,14).”
What is the duty of those who are under employers or their parents? Vincent gives the following answer: “Though it be the sin of the parents or masters to command their children or servants to work, or in any other way to break the Sabbath, yet it is the duty of children and servants to disobey them, whatever temporal loss they sustain by it, they being bound to obey the God of heaven rather than any man upon earth”. These principles may also be applied to those whose circumstances are such that they cannot avoid living with people who break the Sabbath.
There are two simple rules for Sabbath observance. (1) Ask, Is it necessary? If not, then do not offend God by doing it. If it is necessary and cannot be done before the Sabbath comes or after it is over – feeding animals, for instance – then it ought of course to be done. (2) Ask, Is it an act of mercy? If it does relieve the miserable, then could it be done as effectively on some other day? We are to apply these questions to every thought, word and deed. Cleaning one’s shoes, shaving, washing clothes, writing letters and secular study can all be done on other days and ought not, therefore, to be done on the Lord’s Day.
The Sabbath is a day of spiritual rest. God as our moral Governor has a right to demand obedience to this command. But He has made the keeping of the Sabbath a delight. Thomas Watson, another faithful expositor of the Word of God, has said, “That I may press you to Sabbath-sanctification, consider what great blessings God has promised to the strict observers of this day in Isaiah 58:14. (1) A promise of joy: ‘Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord’. Delighting in God is both a duty and a reward. In this text it is a reward: ‘Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord’; as if God had said, If thou keep the Sabbath conscientiously, I will give thee that which will fill thee with delight; if thou keep the Sabbath willingly, I will make thee keep it joyfully. I will give thee those enlargements in duty, and that inward comfort which shall abundantly satisfy thee; thy soul shall overflow with such a stream of joy that thou shalt say, ‘Lord, in keeping Thy Sabbath there is great reward’. (2) Of honour: ‘And I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth’; that is, I will advance thee to honour. (3) Of earth and heaven. ‘And I will feed thee with the heritage of Jacob’; that is, I will feed thee with all the delicious things of Canaan, and afterwards I will translate thee to heaven, whereof Canaan was but a type.
“Another promise is, ‘Blessed is the man that doeth this, that keepeth the Sabbath from polluting it’ (Is 56:2). Blessed is the man; in the Hebrew it is blessednesses. To him that keeps the Sabbath holy, here is blessedness upon blessedness belonging to him; he shall be blessed with the upper and nether springs; he shall be blessed in his name, estate, soul, progeny. Who would not keep the Sabbath from polluting it that shall have so many blessings entailed upon him and his posterity after him? Again, a conscientious keeping of the Sabbath seasons the heart for God’s service all the week after. Christian, the more holy thou art on a Sabbath, the more holy thou wilt be on the week following.”
How is the Sabbath to be observed? Vincent first discusses keeping the Sabbath holy in “the public exercises of God’s worship, such as hearing the Word, prayer, receiving the sacrament, singing of Psalms, in the public assemblies of God’s people. ‘And it shall come to pass that, from one Sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord’ (Is 66:23). ‘And 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). ‘And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them’ (Acts 20:7). ‘A psalm or song for the Sabbath Day’ (Ps 92, title). . . .
“We are to perform these public exercises of God’s worship on the Sabbath Day: (1) With sincerity, having undivided respect unto the honour and glory of God, whose day the Sabbath is. ‘If thou call the Sabbath the holy of the Lord, honourable, and shalt honour Him’ (Is 58:13). (2) With reverence, both of body and mind. ‘Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God’ (Ecc 5:1). ‘To this man will I look, even to him that is poor, and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at My word’ (Is 66:2). (3) With diligence and attention. ‘And on the Sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made. And Lydia, which worshipped God, heard us, whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul’ (Acts 16:13,14). (4) With love and fervour of spirit. ‘Fervent in spirit, serving the Lord’ (Rom 12:11). (5) With delight and joy. ‘If thou call the Sabbath a delight’ (Is 58:13).”
Vincent also speaks of preparing for Sabbath worship: “(l) We are to remember, before the day come, to keep it holy, so as to finish our worldly business and employments on the weekdays, and timely to break off from them on the Saturday evening, and to take pains to get our hearts in a readiness for the holy duties of the Sabbath. (2) In the morning of the Sabbath, we must begin the day with God, in holy meditation upon the works of God’s creation, and especially upon the works of redemption, which were completed by Christ’s resurrection upon this day. We must read the Scriptures and other good books, as we have time, for the better fitting us for our more public and solemn worship. Especially we must pray in secret, and in our families, for God’s presence in His ordinances, and that God would assist His ministers, who are His mouth to us, and ours to Him; and that He would assist us in a sincere and hearty performance of public duties, that we may attain more knowledge, experience and mortification, further degrees of grace, and more communion with God.”
Then, “after the public exercises of God’s worship are over, the work of the Sabbath is not over; but we must retire to our families (not seek our pleasure in the fields, or in vain company) and there repeat over what we have heard, catechise and instruct children and servants, sing Psalms, pray with our families, and whilst we moderately make use of any creature refreshment, we must discourse of the things of God. We ought also to take time in the evening to retire into secret, and there examine ourselves as to the carriage of our hearts before God in the day; labour in meditation to get the Word wrought more thoroughly upon our hearts; we must also endeavour to pour out our hearts before God in secret prayer, humbly confessing sin, earnestly and believingly requesting pardon and further supplies of grace, and thankfully praising God for all His mercies, especially for His Son Jesus Christ, and the gospel privileges which we have in and by Him. In such variety of holy exercises we may spend the whole Sabbath, which we should make as long as we can. And when the day is at an end, we should long for the Sabbath in heaven, which will never have an end.”
This was the standard of Sabbath-keeping set by the godly of other generations. This is, we believe, the standard of Sabbath-keeping set by God’s Word. It is, therefore, the standard which we today ought to strive to attain.
1. This article has been written by members of the Church’s Sabbath Observance Committee.