Keeping the Sabbath
From time to time over many years, the following question has popped to my mind: Did the people of Israel and Judah keep the Sabbath day during the period of the kings? Keeping the Sabbath was one of the Ten Commandments, but did God’s people keep the day holy as God had said?
There are no direct answers given. Sometimes we can feel that a lack of positive comment suggests the opposite, but arguments from silence are no answer at all. For example, why not ask: Did people have elbows in the time of the kings? The Bible never says they did, so maybe they didn’t…? Clearly this is ridiculous.
So let’s see what we can find. There are a few mentions of the Sabbath during the times of the kings and by the prophets who spoke or wrote at that time.
The Sabbath familiar
Some of these references we find in the Bible from the time of the kings give the impression that keeping the Sabbath was common. For example:
- Psalm 92 is a song for the Sabbath.
- At the end of the reign of David, we have a description of the work of the Levites as singers on Sabbaths, new moons, feast days etc. (1 Chronicles 23:31).
- Solomon told Hiram just before he began building the temple, that it would be a place for worship including offerings on Sabbaths, new moons, feast days, etc. (2 Chronicles 2:4).
- Solomon offered sacrifices on the altar in the temple as each day required: for Sabbaths, new moons and the three annual feasts (2 Chronicles 8:13).
- The husband of the Shunammite woman was surprised when she went to see Elisha on a day that was not a Sabbath or a feast day, which implies that he would not have been surprised at those times (2 Kings 4:23).
- God said he was going to put an end to Israel’s new moons, Sabbaths and appointed feasts (Hosea 2:11).
- In the time of the usurper queen Athaliah, Jehoiada the priest gave commands to groups of guards based on who came on duty on the Sabbath and who went off duty at that time (2 Kings 11:5, 7, 9; 2 Chronicles 23:4, 8). Obviously the name “the Sabbath” was still known and used as a reference point for duty cycles.
- People in Amos’ time complained that they had to wait until the Sabbath was over before they could start their dishonest dealing again (Amos 8:5).
- God condemns empty offerings made on new moons and Sabbaths (Isaiah 1:13).
- King Ahaz did something to a covered way used on the Sabbath. The text is obscure but it seems that he made some changes to the worship of God to honour the king of Assyria (2 Kings 16:18).
- King Hezekiah provided offerings for each day, for Sabbaths, new moons and appointed feasts (2 Chronicles 31:3).
- In destroying Jerusalem, God had made his people forget festivals and Sabbaths (Lamentations 2:6).
The Sabbath insincere
This list suggests that, although the Sabbath was still a familiar institution, in many cases it was not being kept in a way that was acceptable to God. Other places suggest this even more strongly, while some give the impression that the Sabbath was not kept at all.
- God promised blessings for people who kept the Sabbath and didn’t profane it (Isaiah 56:2 – probably in the time of King Hezekiah).
- God promised a monument in his house to eunuchs who kept his Sabbath (Isaiah 56:4 – probably in the time of King Hezekiah).
- God promised blessings to foreigners who joined themselves to him and kept his Sabbath and didn’t profane it (Isaiah 56:6 – probably in the time of King Hezekiah).
- God promised blessings to those who didn’t do their pleasure on the Sabbath but called the Sabbath a delight (Isaiah 58:13 – probably in the time of King Hezekiah).
- God said the people should take care to keep the Sabbath and not carry any burden during it for the sake of their lives. Otherwise a fire would burn in Jerusalem that would not be quenched (Jeremiah 17:21, 22, 24, 27 – possibly in the time of Josiah since forgiveness was still offered if repentance occurred).
- In the time of King Zedekiah, God said that the Sabbath had been given as a sign between himself and his people, but that they had profaned his Sabbaths in the wilderness and that he would spread them through the nations because they had continued to do so (Ezekiel 20:12-13, 16, 20, 21, 24).
- God said that the nation had despised his holy things and profaned his Sabbaths (Ezekiel 22:8 – probably in the time of Zedekiah).
- God said that the priests had disregarded his Sabbaths (Ezekiel 22:26 – probably in the time of Zedekiah).
- Both Israel and Judah had profaned God’s Sabbaths by slaughtering their children as offerings to idols and going into the temple on the same day (Ezekiel 23:38).
- After God sent Judah into captivity, the land enjoyed its Sabbaths for 70 years (2 Chronicles 36:21).
Overall, the most reasonable conclusion is that the Sabbath was possibly being kept quite well during the time of some of the kings. This seems to have been particularly true in the days of David, Solomon and Hezekiah. At other times, it may well have been kept in a way that looked genuine, but wasn’t. This is the impression given by the words of Isaiah. It seems likely that the Sabbath was not kept at all in the time of Manasseh. Josiah may or may not have restored it to some extent. Jeremiah gave the simple command (Jeremiah 17) in the way that God seems to use when the practice has been lost completely, rather than having been corrupted. Ezekiel gives the impression that the Sabbath was not kept after the time of King Josiah.
For the purposes of the series of novels “Terror on Every Side!” on the life of Jeremiah, I have concluded that the Sabbath was not widely kept in the time of Josiah or any of the kings after him.
Why would Josiah insist on removing idols, yet not make the people keep the Sabbath? Well, Deuteronomy only mentions the Sabbath when detailing the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5). There is no other reference to the Sabbath in the book, and since I have assumed that Deuteronomy is the Book of the Law that was found by Hilkiah in the temple (see the article in the newsletter on 30 December 2016), I suspect that Josiah concentrated on concepts from Deuteronomy – which hardly mentions the Sabbath.
For other commentary on the Sabbath see the article Biblical Sabbath on Wikipedia.