Law,  Old Testament

The Purpose of the Sabbath Commandment


The Sabbath commandment is the subject of many controversial debates. Those who hold to the Ten Commandments as the standard of God’s moral law have difficulty explaining how this commandment fits into that system because the command to keep the Sabbath does not have a moral nature intrinsic to it. We need to remember that the Ten Commandments are not a moral standard. Rather, they are specific applications of creation principles that are built into the fabric of creation.

Further evidence that this command is not inherently moral is a comparison of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Note that both texts discuss the Sabbath command differently.

Exodus 20:8-11Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holyObserve the sabbath day to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day

The first difference is in the imperative itself. “Remember” is from the Hebrew זכר, which communicates more than calling to mind. It is the calling to mind which prompts action. On the other hand, in Deuteronomy, “observe” is from שׁמר, which carries the idea of keeping or guarding. Why are they different? One reason is that Exodus 20 is the original giving of the Ten Commandments, written at Mount Sinai consummating the role and purpose of Israel. As such, Exodus emphasizes the underlying theological reality in foundational terms. Deuteronomy 5, on the other hand, is written approximately 40 years afterward, when Israel was on the plains of Moab and ready to enter the Promise Land. Hence, in Deuteronomy 5 the emphasis is on how Israel should act in the Promise Land, focusing on the application to the current situation of inheriting the land and modeling God’s character before the nations.

This is further supported by Deuteronomy 5 mentioning that servants, oxen, donkeys, cattle, and sojourners all keep the commandment as well (this is missing in Exodus 20). In Deuteronomy 5, since Israel was about to be established in the land, they needed to understand the full scope of their Sabbath obedience.

Additionally, the motivation for the Sabbath rest in Exodus compared with Deuteronomy is slightly different. Exodus stresses God’s role in creation as the motivation for keeping the Sabbath and Deuteronomy stresses God’s redemption. These concepts are actually not entirely different. Redemption is a kind of new creation. When Israel was brought out of Egypt they were redeemed from slavery, given a new opportunity for life as a nation.

Therefore, the reason Israel was supposed to keep the Sabbath was to demonstrate that as Creator and Redeemer, God has the right to dictate how one is to function within the created world. By observing one day of Sabbath rest a week, Israel communicated to the nations that they were submitted to God’s control over everything they possessed. By the way, this practice of observing a weekly Sabbath has no parallels in the ancient Near East. This was a unique statement to the other nations.

This has a real application today. For starters, we still acknowledge that as Creator, God has the right to tell us how to function within His creation. This is why the Sabbath command is found between commands 1-3 and 5-10, because it is the bridge for understanding why we are to do obey commands 5-10. Because God is unique and the only God who created the world (1-3), He has the right to tell us how we ought to live (5-10).

Because the Old Testament Law is done away with, we are not obligated to commemorate the fact that God is our sovereign by observing a special Sabbath day (cf. Rom 14:5-6). However, we are obligated to reflect that reality by how we live. If we live under the notion, “I am free in Christ I can do anything I want to,” then we are missing the point. God is still the Creator, and although we are not bound to a specific Sabbath regulation, our obligation is to submit to what pleases Him. Our time, money, and efforts must all be put forward to demonstrate our submission to God before a watching world.

Some have tried to apply a Sunday Sabbath to replace the Old Testament Sabbath. However, this practice is unfounded. The application of this Law was for Israel to demonstrate that God controls their time. Time is the most valuable resource. If God controlled Israel’s time, he also controlled their money and everything else. We do not apply this creation principle in the same way that Israel did. However, God is still our Creator and Redeemer. Therefore, we still submit to all that God commands us to do in His word, and we seek to do what pleases Him in all things (cf. Rom 14:7-8).

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.