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The Fourth Commandment[1]

Category Articles
Date November 17, 2006

Exodus 20:8-11. 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.

This is one of the commandments God gave to Israel just after they came out of Egypt. They were given in the light of the words: “I am the Lord thy God which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” God made a covenant with Israel on Mount Sinai, and the Ten Commandments were central to that covenant. They were to be received by the Israelites as what God expected of them. But these commandments, and this Fourth Commandment in particular, were not then given for the first time; a commandment could not be introduced with the word remember unless people were already familiar with it. And this Fourth Commandment still applies today; God has never taken back any of His commands. It would be strange indeed if it was discovered well over a thousand years later that one of the Ten Commandments should be dropped, that only the other nine were now to be kept. Of course people today want to drop various other commandments too. They do not want to be prevented from taking the name of the Lord in vain; they do not want to feel that the commandment against adultery has any authority over them – though it may be another matter if their own wife or husband has committed adultery.

Keeping to this Commandment, there are two matters I would like, with the Lord’s help, to speak about particularly. The first is what it says about human duty, and the second is God’s authority behind it.

1. What the Fourth Commandment says about human duty.

It begins: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” But when the Ten Commandments are repeated in the book of Deuteronomy, the first word is different: “Keep” – yet pointing in much the same direction. It is: “Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it.” In fact, though the first words are different in Hebrew, it is only in the translation that there is a difference between keeping holy and sanctifying. But by thinking of the word sanctified, we get the idea of setting this day apart for holy things. The tabernacle was sanctified and, later on, the temple was sanctified – the idea being that they were set apart for holy purposes, set apart for the worship of God. Now what we have here is one day in seven set apart for holy activities.

There is a contrast. “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” – any unnecessary work. There is no encouragement to idleness; to work for six days is part of the Fourth Commandment. If we are in employment, or even if our activities are now confined to our own home, six days are given us for our work, which is 86% of the week. That large proportion has been given us for ourselves – not that we are to forget God on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or any other day, but that is not the point here. We have these days for whatever we need to do in the world; but every seventh day, one day in seven, is to be reserved for spiritual activities.

You might wonder why I chose Psalm 92 to sing from this evening. The answer is simple. If you look at the heading, you will see it described as “a Psalm or Song for the Sabbath day”. This Psalm is particularly appropriate for the Sabbath. Now without going through the Psalm – you can follow it through yourselves – notice how it begins: “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord.” That is a good and profitable activity for a Sabbath. “To sing praises unto Thy name, O Most High; to show forth Thy loving kindness in the morning, and Thy faithfulness every night.” And so it goes on, but you can see that these are spiritual activities, suitable for the morning and the night of a Sabbath. This is no prescription for considering the loving kindness of God in the morning and His faithfulness at night; it just shows how we can divide up what is revealed about God – to give God thanks particularly for some things in the morning, and give thanks for other things in the evening.

I am beginning with spiritual activities rather than the negative side of things because we should view the Sabbath as something positive. I am quite sure that most people who come to this island, and others who live here and are uncomfortable with Sabbath keeping, think of it as a very negative thing. They think of the Sabbath as full of restrictions and assume that the whole purpose of Sabbath observance is to stop them from doing things. That is not so. It is the positive duties of a Sabbath that are particularly important. Of course, those who do not like the Sabbath will not be at home with positive duties. They do not want to worship God. They do not like the Sabbath because they do not like God. And whatever may be the extent to which people wriggle out of the restrictions the Bible imposes on their Sabbath activities, what they are fundamentally uncomfortable with is God Himself.

The Sabbath then is a time for spiritual activities. We might go through quite a list of them but we will restrain ourselves to just a few broad areas. We have already noticed giving thanks in the light of Psalm 92. But take something else: “Search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life, and these are they that testify of Me”. Now we may search the Scriptures every day, and no day should pass when we do not read more or less of the Bible. But on these six days which are to be devoted to our ordinary work, that work normally gets in the way of spiritual activity. People have their responsibilities, and these responsibilities will keep them from spending as much time in spiritual things on weekdays as they may want. But the Sabbath is different for most people. Leaving aside the subject of works of necessity and mercy for the moment, the Sabbath is an opportunity – that is how we should look at it – to spend time on our souls. It is an opportunity to spend time on spiritual things – in particular, to spend time searching the Scriptures, and to find Christ in the Scriptures.

Again the Sabbath is an opportunity for prayer. Of course, there will be prayer on other days, but many people may not have so much time to spend in prayer on weekdays – although, generally speaking, people do have much more leisure than they once did. But most people will have significantly more time to spend in prayer on a Sabbath; they are free from the labour of the six days. This is a day for God and for their souls. It is a day for communion with God. It is a day to bring the needs of their souls before God. They have an opportunity to spend more time in prayer on a Sabbath and, in particular, to pray for the Church. See how strongly this is expressed in the prophecy of Isaiah: “Give [God] no rest, until He establish, until He make Jerusalem a praise in the earth.” And, of course, the New Testament application of the idea of Jerusalem is the Church of God; for Jerusalem was where the temple was, where the worship of God was centred.

We are to give God no rest until He richly blesses His Church. Do we know anything of that? One of the sad things even about the Lord’s people today is that they give the Lord a great deal of rest. Of course, this is to speak in human terms, but they are directed to give the Lord no rest until He establish His Cause, until He fix it firmly in the earth against all opposition. Time is to be given to that. And today has been set aside by this part of the Church to pray for the future of the Sabbath in these islands, to plead with God to restrain those who would weaken that degree of Sabbath-keeping which still exists here.1

We should realise that lying behind these efforts is a weakening in religion generally. If spiritual religion was stronger, as it once was here, nobody would think of making such attempts. But times have changed. The Lord has been grieved away; the Lord’s hand, to use the Psalmist’s expression, is in His bosom. “Pluck [Thy hand] out of Thy bosom”, was his petition – in other words, Begin to work, as in the days of old. And that is a suitable petition for us to use, to plead with the Lord that He would work: by convincing sinners of sin, bringing them to Christ, causing them to follow Him sincerely. And Sabbath-keeping is a particular aspect of following Christ. Well, a Sabbath is a special opportunity to pray.

One further example: when people are working, as more or less they are on the six days of the week, it is not normally possible to gather on weekdays for public worship. And as this country becomes more secular, people are losing the opportunity to attend public worship at all. Yet, whatever may be the quality of public worship in many churches in this country, at least those who attend them come into contact with the Bible. Now, if people were thinking properly, they would refuse to take part in unnecessary work on Sabbaths. But increasing secularisation is leading to the breakdown of Sabbath observance, and it has rippling effects all along the line.

We have the example of Paul in Troas; he preached on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread. It is significant that you do not hear of Paul preaching on any other day of the week – except that he went on the Jewish Sabbath to the synagogue, when the Jews would gather there to worship. But these two ordinances – the Lord’s Supper and preaching – were observed on the Christian Sabbath, on the first day of the week. Towns like Troas did not have the privilege of the Lord’s Day being set apart by common consent for spiritual activity. That is the privilege we have on these islands, or at least we had – had is certainly the appropriate word to use for the nation as a whole. It is through God’s kindness that we have, in any degree the Sabbath and its blessings – public worship in particular.

We should be concerned when things start to disintegrate. The danger is that they will disintegrate more and more. Is God going to take all these blessings from us before long? That is a valid concern. I am no prophet and I am not trying to prophesy, but these things are within the bounds of possibility. If we do not value our Sabbaths, will we continue to have public worship? Will we continue to have the gospel? I leave them with you as questions, but if we take these things to heart, we will surely be more earnest in prayer. And may the Lord give us grace to pray!

That is the positive side; there are these benefits. And to these duties suited to a Sabbath we might add two things: one, profitable spiritual conversation; and the other, reading good scriptural books. On the negative side, if we are to have these benefits, there are things we must refuse to do. If we are to remember the Sabbath Day and set it apart to holy duties, the labour of the six days should as far as possible be confined to them.

The Sabbath institution did not begin with the Ten Commandments. Of course, none of these commandments were new; they were just a particular formulation of God’s law – for the Israelites in the first place. It was not new that they were to have only one God, that they were not to kill, that they were not to bear false witness. These things were as old as creation; so is the Sabbath. But God’s provision of the manna was a reminder to the Israelites about the Sabbath. They had just come out of Egypt; they needed food; and, in the way God made provision for them, He reminded them that the Sabbath was a distinctive day. That was before they reached Mount Sinai, before they got the Ten Commandments.

Moses told them to gather manna on the six weekdays, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there was none. And when some of the people ignored what he had said at God’s command, treating the Sabbath as if it was just like any other day, the Lord asked Moses, “How long refuse ye to keep My commandments and My laws?” The people were to learn that the work of the six days is not, if at all possible, to intrude on the Sabbath. God was showing them that there were better things to do on a Sabbath than to gather manna, although it was suitable work for the other six days. On the day before the Sabbath they were to gather two lots of manna – what would do them for two days. Here was God teaching them – and us – the difference between the day appointed especially for God’s worship and the other six days.

Later on in Israel’s history, after the Jews had returned from the captivity, Nehemiah was governor in Jerusalem. He became disturbed about Sabbath-breaking when he saw some people treading winepresses on that day, others bringing in sheaves, and buying and selling. What was Nehemiah’s response to them? It was: “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.” Their profaning of the Sabbath, after all, was one of the great sins which had led to the captivity, that great punishment from God. So Nehemiah closed the gates on the Sabbath to prevent any further trading. This reminds us of the God-appointed distinction between the Sabbath and other days, so that we should keep the Sabbath for spiritual things. And if we love God, we will consider this a privilege.

Let us now notice the further requirements in the Commandment: “Thou shalt not do any work” on the Sabbath, “thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter,” (the family), nor “thy manservant nor thy maidservant,” (the people one employs), “nor thy cattle,” (they are not to be involved in work on that day, whether it be oxen ploughing fields, or whatever), “nor the stranger that is within thy gates,” (for we have a responsibility for the Sabbath-keeping of all who are in our homes).

The instruction, “Thou shalt do no work in it” is not intended to be absolute. It is assumed that people will use their common sense to understand such expressions, and we are to apply to them the light of other parts of Scripture. The Saviour rebuked one of the Jews who objected when He healed somebody on a Sabbath: “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?” Without going into details, the matter can be summed up thus: No work except on the grounds of necessity and mercy. We are to ask two simple questions before we agree that something, apart from spiritual duties, is legitimate on a Sabbath. First, Is it necessary to do it, truly necessary? And second, Is it a work of mercy? To take an obvious example, it is necessary to eat. And if someone falls ill on a Sabbath, we should get them to hospital as quickly as possible; it is a work of mercy. Also many people in the caring professions will have to work on Sabbaths, but such work is the exception.

We will consider one further point under this heading, and that is: What is the Sabbath leading up to? As a day for spiritual duties, it is a day of preparation for heaven; it teaches us something about how people will live in heaven. We are told in Hebrews: “There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God”. The point is that the Greek word used there is sabbatismos – what we could call a Sabbatism, a Sabbath-keeping. So there remains a Sabbath-keeping for the people of God in heaven at last; they will feel at home there. But they begin preparing for it in this world; they feel at home on a well-kept Sabbath, filled with spiritual duties. They do not say: When will the Sabbath be gone, so that we can get on with real work, with what we really want to do? No, they say, a Sabbath filled with spiritual duties is the way we want it; this is what we are at home with; these are the activities we want to engage in. And that indicates a preparation for heaven.

2. God’s authority for the Commandment.

The authority is shown here: “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”. God rested. In other words, He ceased from His creation activity. He ceased from the six days of that particular labour. The Sabbath is not a day for doing nothing; as is indicated by the phrase in the Shorter Catechism: “profaning the day by idleness”. It is a day for spiritual activities, although the body is very likely to get a rest. This change of activity is illustrated by God’s rest. God blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it – He sanctified it; He set it apart to holy things. We have God’s example, which is a picture for us. God spent six days creating the earth and everything else listed here, and on the seventh day He rested. We are to follow that pattern too, a pattern God has given us for our good, particularly for our spiritual good.

As we read what is said about the Sabbath in Genesis 2, we may notice a degree of repetition, which should impress us forcefully. The ideas being repeated are those we need to remember: God rested, God blessed the Sabbath day, God hallowed it. That is the authority lying behind the Commandment. One can note how that there is a particular responsibility on everyone to keep the Sabbath. Everyone should acknowledge God and should acknowledge His Sabbath, even if they call themselves atheists or agnostics, or if they say, I follow some other faith. But there is a God who created us and who gave us the Sabbath, for our good.

There was a special obligation on the Israelites to keep Sabbath the because they were, outwardly at least, the people of God. He said, “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”. It is as if there is a therefore before all the commandments: Therefore thou shalt have no other Gods before Me; therefore remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy; and so on. The Israelites were delivered from bondage; they are a type of the people of God in every generation. Believers, delivered from bondage to sin and Satan, are told: Therefore remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Let them make full use of the privilege; let them show the best of examples to their families, their neighbours and all who come in contact with them. Let them show how much they appreciate the Sabbath.

But it is an obligation on everyone. This is expressed in Deuteronomy 5: 2Remember 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”. So those who have been blessed by God are under a particular obligation to value the Sabbath and to make good use of it. And who has not received blessings from God? But how much we all need to commit ourselves to the Lord for grace to keep the Sabbath – so that, for instance, our minds would not wander off to worldly things. To think about the ordinary work of the six days, or whatever else attracts our attention, is to break the Sabbath just as surely as when someone goes out to dig his garden or goes out to his normal work of building houses. There are degrees of sin, of course, but these are all breaches of the same commandment.

How impressively the women kept the Sabbath after Christ was buried! They wanted to preserve His body. Surely a work of necessity (though, in fact, His body could not see corruption)! But after they had returned from the burial and prepared spices, they rested on the Sabbath day, according to the commandment. They recognised God’s authority in the matter. And they were right, for this was not something they needed to do on that day. It was a holy work indeed, but it was a work for the six days. And the example of these godly women is recorded in Scripture for all generations.

Just as the Lord blessed the Sabbath, there is a blessing for those who keep it. “Blessed is the man that … keepeth the Sabbath from polluting it and keepeth his hand from doing any evil”. If, recognising God’s authority, he keeps his hand from the ordinary work of the six days, as far as that is possible, the Lord will not forget him. It is not that we earn blessings from heaven, but when the Lord gives grace to people to do His will, a blessing follows.

We have the Sabbath in its New Testament form, on the first day of the week. And we have God’s authority for that. The change from the seventh day of the week may not be put down in so many words, yet it was very possibly something the Saviour taught His disciples before His ascension. But we are told enough to make it clear that the first day of the week, the Lord’s day, is the day for Christian worship. You will remember the reference already made to Paul preaching in Troas on the first day of the week. There is another highly significant verse in 1 Corinthians where Paul is speaking about making a collection for the poor Christians in Jerusalem: “As I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye upon the first day of the week”. That was the day when they would be gathering for worship.

What were the Old Testament saints looking back to? The creation, God’s great work in creating the world. And what are the New Testament saints to be looking back to? The great work of God in raising Christ from the dead. Every Sabbath we are to remember the resurrection of Christ; that is to be part of our spiritual activity. We are to remember the work of Christ, who described Himself as Lord of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for man, for his good, not man for the Sabbath – as some of the Jews were in effect saying. But the Son of man has authority over the Sabbath and therefore the Sabbath is a day for the New Testament too. The day of the week has changed, for the Son of Man is Lord over such things.

Surely we should not be slack in making use of the Sabbath and, in particular, of the ordinances of God’s house on the Sabbath. There we may hear of Christ and salvation through Him; there we may hear the call of the gospel; there we may be called to believe and repent, to turn from our own ways to serve the living God. And these are matters to be specially studied on the Sabbath, and to be specially prayed over on the Sabbath.

But what is particularly before us just now is the Sabbath as a privilege and the duty laid on us by God – who as Creator, is our God – to observe it. He has given us the Sabbath, He has given it to us as a privilege, He has given it for our good, and we are to remember it to keep it holy.


  1. This sermon from Rev K. D. Macleod was preached in Leverburgh, Isle of Harris, on 28 March 2006, a day set apart for prayer by the Outer Isles Presbytery in view of threats to Sabbath observance in the islands.

Taken from the November 2006 edition of The Free Presbyterian Magazine, with permission.

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