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The Holy Sabbath: 2. Its Institution

By A.W. Pink


      From Studies in the Scriptures Publication: February, 1939

      "And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from His work which He had made. And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it: because that in it He had rested from all His work which God created and made" (Gen. 2:2, 3). Before commenting upon these verses perhaps it is well to make a few preliminary remarks thereon. First, let us point out how emphatically they repudiate the error of those who declare that the Sabbath was an institution peculiar to the Jews. More than two thousand years before the Lord entered into covenant with them at Sinai, the weekly day of sacred rest was appointed and consecrated by the Creator. Instead of its origin dating only from the time when the Ten Commandments were written on the tables of stone, its inception carries us right back to the very beginning of history. As we shall see (D.V.) when we come to examine Exodus 20, the Lord Himself there declared the Sabbath was as old as the world itself.

      Not only is it a glaring mistake to suppose the Sabbath was first instituted at Sinai, but it is equally wrong to insist that it is binding on Jews only. The reasons which Jehovah gave in Exodus 20:8-11 why the Sacred Day must be observed are just as pertinent to and incontestable for the Gentiles as they are for the Jews: the original occasion of its appointment and the design thereof hold good with equal respect for the entire human race. Nor is this any arbitrary assertion of ours. Nothing could be plainer than the words of our Redeemer: "the Sabbath was made for man" (Mark 2:27) and not merely for one small fraction of mankind. "The weekly day of rest is one of two things that were ordained in and have come from a sinless Eden. The Sabbath was before Moses, before Abraham--the only other relic of the primitive Paradise is marriage--ideal marriage. As well make marriage a matter of Mosaic legislation as the Sabbath law, since both of them were instituted and ordained for man in Eden" (A. T. Pierson).

      But plain though the above considerations be to any unprejudiced and simple reader of the Scriptures, there are those who raise cavils against them. Unwilling, at any price, to admit the Sabbath is binding on us today, various subterfuges have been resorted to in an endeavour to set aside the obvious meaning of Genesis 2:2, 3. Some have argued, "it only seems to import that the Sabbath was then instituted," making out that this passage is to be understood only as giving "the reason of that particular day being chosen, not that it was then actually appointed and set apart." To say that these verses contain merely an anticipation of the Fourth Commandment is handling the Word of God deceitfully. Those verses are the continuation of a plain historical narrative. Having finished the account of the creation of the world in the first chapter of Genesis, and given a recapitulation of it in 2:1, Moses declared what immediately followed thereon, namely, the rest of God on the seventh day and His blessing and sanctifying of that day.

      For the special benefit of those who have sadly misrepresented the teaching of Calvin on this subject, we give a brief quotation from the remarks of that renowned Reformer and expositor on this passage: "That blessing of the seventh day is nothing else than the solemn consecration of it; by virtue of which, God claims for Himself on that day the labours and occupations of men. It is, indeed, the proper study of their whole life to be exercised in considering the infinite goodness, justice, power, and wisdom of God, as displayed on the vast theater of Heaven and earth; but, lest men should apply less diligently to this than they ought, every seventh day was peculiarly set apart. God, therefore, first rested; then He blessed that rest, that it might be sacred among men through all coming ages; He consecrated each seventh day to rest, that His own example might furnish the perpetual rule. Not that God simply enjoined men to take their leisure every seventh day, as if He delighted in idleness; but that, being released from all business, they might with more freedom employ their minds on the Creator of the world--His own example stimulating them to the duty, and engaging them to its performance."

      Others have sought to base an argument on the fact that the actual word "Sabbath" is not found in Genesis 2, 3, but how futile is such a cavil may at once be seen by a reference to Exodus 20. When it pleased the Lord God to assume the immediate government over the people of Israel at Sinai, He not only restored the Sabbath to its original place of honour, but did so by recognizing it as an existing ordinance, re-enforcing a creation-institution. In referring back to Genesis 2, Jehovah expressly termed that first seventh day the Sabbath: "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." We will not waste any further time and space by considering other objections which the perversity and unbelief of man have brought against this simple passage.

      The 2nd chapter of Genesis opens with the words, "Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them." And then the very next thing we read of is the institution of the Sabbath rest. Thus, to appoint and sanctify the Sabbath was God's first act after the earth had been made fit for human habitation. Nothing could more emphatically press upon us the fundamental importance of this Divine ordinance, and the priority of its claims upon us--claims to which every consideration of selfish interests must be strictly subordinated. "The weekly Sabbath, therefore, is the first institution of God, and bears on its very origin the stamp of a universal and perpetual appointment: good for man even when surrounded by the glories of Paradise that is lost--and much more so now, when called to struggle and prepare for the higher glories of the Paradise that is to be won" (P. Fairbairn).

      Four things call for special consideration in the passage now before us. 1. The primal Sabbath was a rest day. Emphasis is laid upon this feature by the repetition in thought which is found in the two parts of Genesis 2:2. First, on the seventh day, "God ended His work which He had made." Second, "and He rested on the seventh day from all His work He had made." Therefore the prime element and basic truth connected with the Sabbath is rest. Before raising the question as to why God "rested," let us offer a few remarks on the nature of His rest.

      It has been said repeatedly by a certain class of expositors that this rest of God consisted of His satisfaction in the work of His hands, that it was God looking out in complacency over His fair creation. But, we are told, that this "rest" of God did not last for long: it was rudely broken by the entrance of sin, and ever since man fell God has been "working"--John 5:17 being appealed to in proof. That such a definition of the "rest" of God in Genesis 2:2 should have been received by a large number of the Lord's people, only goes to show how few of them ever do much thinking or studying for themselves. It also proves how the most puerile interpretations of Scripture are likely to be accepted, if they are made by reputable teachers, who on other matters are worthy of respect. Finally, it demonstrates what a real need there is for everyone of us to humbly, prayerfully, and diligently bring everything we read and hear to a rigid examination in the light of Holy Scripture.

      That God's "rest" in Genesis 2:2 was not the complacence of the Creator prior to the entrance of sin, is unequivocally evidenced by the fact that Satan had fallen before the time contemplated in that verse. How could God look abroad upon creation with Divine contentment when the highest creature of all had become the blackest and basest of sinners? How could God find satisfaction in all the works of His hands when the anointed cherub had apostatised, and in his rebellion had dragged down with him "the third part" of the angels (Rev. 12:4)? No, this is manifestly untenable. Some other definition of God's "rest" must therefore be sought.

      Now we need to pay very close attention to the exact wording here, as everywhere. Genesis 2:2 does not say (nor does Exo. 20:10) that God rested from all work, for that was not true. Genesis 2:2 is careful to say, "on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made," and, "He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made." And this brings out and calls attention to the basic feature and primal element in the Sabbath: it is a resting from the activities commonly pursued during the six working days. But the Sabbath day is not appointed as a day for the cessation of all activities--to remain in bed and sleep through that day would not be spending the Sabbath as God requires it to be spent. What particular works are required and are permissible, we shall (D.V.) show later; but what we would now press upon the reader is the fact that, according to Genesis 2:2 the Sabbath rest consists of ceasing from the labours of the working week.

      Genesis 2:2 does not state that on the seventh day God did no work, for, as we have seen, that would not have been true. God did work on the seventh day, though His activities on that day were of a different nature from the ones in which He had been engaged during the preceding days. And herein we see not only the marvellous accuracy of Scripture, but the perfect example God set before His people, for as we shall yet show, there are works suited to the Sabbath. For God to have ceased from all works on that first seventh day in human history, would have meant the total destruction of all creation. God's providential workings could not cease, or no provision would be made for the supply of His creatures' wants. "All things" needed to be "upheld" or they would have passed into non-entity.

      Let us fix it firmly in our minds that rest is not inertia. The Lord Jesus has entered into "rest" (Heb. 4:10), yet is He not inactive, for He ever lives to make intercession. And when the saints shall enter their eternal rest, they shall not be inactive, for it is written, "And His servants shall serve Him" (Rev. 22:3). So here with God. His rest on that first Sabbath day was not a rest of total inactivity. He rested from the work of creation and restoration, but He then began (and has never ceased) the work of Providence--the providing of supplies for His myriad creatures.

      But now the question arises, why did God rest on the seventh day? Why did He so order it that all the works recorded in Genesis 1 were completed in six days, and that then He rested? Certainly it was not because the Creator needed rest, for, "the Creator of the ends of the earth fainteth not, neither is weary" (Isa. 40:28). Why, then, did He "rest," and why is it so recorded on the top of the second page of Holy Writ? Surely there can be only one answer: as an example for man! Nor is this answer merely a logical or plausible inference of ours. It rests on Divine authority. It is based directly upon the words of none other than the Son of God, for He expressly declared, "The Sabbath was made for man" (Mark 2:27): made not for God, but for man. Nothing could be plainer, nothing simpler, nothing more unequivocal.

      2. The next thing that we would carefully note in this initial reference to the Sabbath is that Genesis 2:3 tells us this day was blessed by God: "and God blessed the seventh day." The reason why God blessed the seventh day was not because it was the seventh, but because, "in it He had rested." Hence, when the Sabbath law was written upon the tables of stone, God did not say, "Remember the seventh to keep it holy," but "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." And again, He did not say, "He blessed the seventh day and hallowed it," but, "He blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it."

      But why should He do so? Why single out the seventh day thus? Young's Concordance defines the Hebrew word for "blessed" here as "to declare blessed." But why should God have "declared" the seventh day blessed? for there is no hint that He pronounced any of the other days blessed. Surely it was not for the mere day's sake. Only one other alternative remains: God declared the seventh day blessed because it was the Sabbath day, and because He would have every reader of His Word know, right at the beginning, that special Divine blessing marks its observance. This at once refutes a modern heresy and removes an aspersion which many cast upon God. The Sabbath was not appointed to bring man into bondage. It was not designed to be a burden, but a blessing! And if history demonstrates anything, it demonstrates beyond all room for doubt that the family or nation which has kept the Sabbath day holy, has been markedly blessed of God; and contrariwise, that the family or nation which has desecrated the Sabbath, has been cursed of God. Explain it as we may, the fact remains.

      3. Genesis 2:3 teaches us that the Sabbath was a day set apart for sacred use. This comes out plainly in the words, "And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it," or as the R.V. has it, "God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it." The prime meaning (according to its Scriptural usage) of the Hebrew word rendered "sanctified" or "hallowed" is to set apart for sacred use. This shows plainly that here in Genesis 2:3 we have something more than an historical reference to the rest of God on the seventh day, and even something more than God setting an example before His creatures. The fact that we are told God "sanctified" it, proves conclusively that here we have the original institution of the Sabbath, the Divine appointment of it for man's use and observance. As exemplified by the Creator Himself, the Sabbath day is separated from the six preceding days of manual labour.

      4. Let us call attention to a notable omission in Genesis 2:3. If the reader will turn to Genesis 1 he will find that at the close of each of the six working days the Holy Spirit says, "and the evening and the morning were," etc.: see Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31. But here in Genesis 2:2, 3 we do not read, "and the evening and the morning were the seventh day"; nor are we told what took place on the eighth day. In other words, the Holy Spirit has not mentioned the ending of the "seventh day." Why is this? There is a reason for every omission in Scripture, a Divine reason; and there is a reason why the Holy Spirit omitted the usual formula at the close of the seventh day. We suggest that this omission is a silent but most significant intimation that the observance of the Sabbath never would end--it was to be perpetuated as long as time should last!

      In conclusion it should be pointed out that Genesis 2 contains nothing whatever which enables us to determine which day of our week this primal "seventh day" was. We have absolutely no means of knowing whether that original seventh day fell on a Saturday, a Sunday, or any other day of the week--for the simple reason that we are quite unable to ascertain on which day that first week began. All we do know, and all which it is necessary for us to know is, that the seventh day was the day which followed six days of manual work. As to which day of the week is the Christian Sabbath we shall (D.V.) consider later.--A.W.P.

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