Rev. Slopsema is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine presses 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.
In Nehemiah’s day the Sabbath Day was being profaned.
Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king of Persia, who appointed him governor of Judea. God used Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, to secure Jerusalem against her enemies.
In this last chapter of the book of Nehemiah, we read of several reforms that Nehemiah made in Judea. The one that concerns us is the restoration of the Sabbath Day. In Judea and Jerusalem the Sabbath Day was being profaned. It was business as usual on the Sabbath Day. In response, Nehemiah reminded the elders of how Jerusalem had earlier been destroyed by Babylon exactly because Judah had profaned the Sabbath Day. And then Nehemiah put an end to the business conducted on the Sabbath.
The profaning of the Sabbath Day was not unique to Judah. It prevails also today in the church world. The church needs to hear the warnings that Nehemiah gave to the elders of Jerusalem.
God requires in the fourth commandment that we keep the Sabbath Day holy.
To understand what that means we must go back to the creation week. In six days God made the heavens and the earth and all that they contain. On the seventh day God rested. This means that God ceased from His work of creation and enjoyed the works of His hands. This was the Lord’s Sabbath or Rest.
At that time God also hallowed the Sabbath Day for us. To hallow something is to make it holy, that is, to set it apart as something special and unique. God hallowed the Sabbath Day in that He set it apart as a day of rest for us. Six days of the week we are to do our work. But the seventh day is a holy day. On this day we are to rest. This rest includes physical rest. We are to set aside as much as possible our daily work and activities so that the body may rest up. But this rest is primarily a spiritual rest. God has provided for us a great salvation in Jesus Christ. We are to put aside our daily work in order that we may enjoy our salvation in rich measure.
How busy we often are during the week with our daily work and responsibilities. This often takes our focus away from Jesus Christ and our salvation in Him. How little time there is to meditate on God’s Word and to pray. How little time there is for the fellowship of the saints. But on the Sabbath Day we are able to focus on spiritual things. We have time to go to the house of God to worship Him and hear His Word. There is time for song and prayer. There is time for the fellowship of the saints. How enriching this is for our faith and the enjoyment of our salvation.
This is what God requires in the fourth commandment.
In the Old Testament this Sabbath Day was the seventh day of the week. In the New Testament it has been changed to the first day of the week.
Judah was profaning the Sabbath Day.
On his tour of Judah as its governor, Nehemiah discovered that the Jews did not observe the Sabbath Day as a holy day. It was business as usual. Some were treading the winepresses. Others were bringing grain, wine, grapes, and other produce loaded on donkeys to sell in Jerusalem. Men of Tyre also brought fish and other merchandise to Jerusalem to sell.
There were things that contributed to Judah’s forgetting the Sabbath. It was likely that the Jews had not been allowed to keep the Sabbath during their exile, and afterwards they simply continued that to which they had become accustomed. Perhaps the cessation of the temple service for fifty years contributed to the practice as well. Besides, these were not the most prosperous times. Many perhaps felt compelled to work on the Sabbath to provide for their daily bread. And then there was the fact that the men of Tyre had established themselves in Judah and had brought with them an evil influence, also of profaning the Sabbath. But the bottom line was that Judah forgot the Sabbath Day and profaned it, treating it as any other day of the week.
And the same is happening today in the church.
Church attendance is on the decline among many confessing Christians. Many attend church only once a Sunday and fill the rest of the day with recreation and/or work. Many Christians work on the Sabbath, and do so with the approval of their church. Many churchgoers completely forget the Sabbath Day on their vacations. They often give little prior thought to what they will be doing on the Sabbath Day during vacation. They often travel on Sunday to get an extra day of vacation time.
There are things that contribute to this. We live in a society that no longer observes the Sabbath. Consequently, many of the sports and recreation events that we enjoy are on the Sabbath. In addition, the world is pressuring the Christian to work on Sunday. The sad fact is that the Sabbath Day is being greatly profaned today by many in the church.
When the church forgets the Sabbath Day, she brings the wrath of God upon herself.
Nehemiah reminded the elders of Judah of this fact.
The neglect of the Sabbath Day had brought the wrath of God upon Judah earlier. God had sent the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and the temple. The people had been uprooted and transported to other lands, far from the land of promise and blessing. In their long years of captivity Judah was left to remember Zion and weep (Ps. 137).
Judah’s profaning of the Sabbath Day brought this wrath of God upon the church for two reasons.
First, by profaning of the Sabbath Day Judah had turned her back on God’s salvation. The Sabbath Day was God’s gift to Judah to bring to her the riches of God’s salvation. But Judah had little desire for that salvation. This brought upon Judah the anger of God.
Secondly, Judah’s profaning of the Sabbath Day led to other evils. Judah needed the Sabbath Day to maintain her spiritual strength and health. By neglecting the Sabbath Day Judah became spiritually weak, so that she strayed into idolatry and all the sins that came with it.
And so God’s wrath came upon Judah.
God’s purpose was to chastise and correct Judah.
After seventy years of refining and correction God led Judah back to the land of promise to enjoy the blessings of His covenant and salvation.
But Judah had not learned. She was about to bring more wrath upon herself by again profaning the Sabbath Day.
Let us heed the warning of Nehemiah to Judah.
Also today the wrath of God is on those who profane the Sabbath Day. They are turning their back on the great salvation that He has purchased with the precious blood of His Son. And they are neglecting their spiritual health, so that they stray into the sins of the world. The wrath of God is seen in the judgments that He sends on the sins that arise from neglecting the Sabbath Day. God’s design is to chasten and correct. And those who will not be corrected will eventually perish under God’s wrath in their generations.
Let us remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.
The Sabbath is a great gift of God to us to maintain our spiritual health and to enjoy the riches of God’s salvation.
Those who remember it will be blessed indeed.