The Fourth Command

What is the fourth command?

The fourth command is found in Exodus 20:8-11

Remember the day of Sabbath to sanctify it. Six days you will labor and do all your work but the seventh day is is a Sabbath to YHWH your God. You will not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male slave or your female slave or your cattle or the sojourner who is in your gates. For in six days, YHWH made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything which is in them, and He rested on the seventh day wherefore YHWH blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.

This command is repeated in Deut 5:12f.


Why does this command begin with “remember?”

This implies that the Israelites were already acquainted with this command. The word itself can be taken two ways.

  • It can mean to remember as in to recollect something that you were taught previously.
  • Or it can mean “remember to do” as when we say “remember to turn out the lights when you leave the house.”

If it means the first of these, then this is a command to Israel to recall what God had taught them previously about the Sabbath and to continue to do it. If the latter, then it is simply a command to sanctify the sabbath. The word “remember” is then similar to what we find in Eccl. 12:1 “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth…”  Edersheim writes: “The fourth word, which implies a previous knowledge of the Sabbath on the part of Israel…” source   The truth is that both of these ideas are really inseparable.  Even telling someone to remember to turn out the lights implies a recall of some former instruction on the importance of turning out lights.  Both ideas are present here.


Why does this command begin with an infinitive?

The word זָכֹור is an infinitive absolute which is sometimes used to give an “emphatic imperative.” See Gesenius §113bb.


Is there any reference to this command prior to God giving it to Israel on Mount Sinai?

Yes, knowledge of this obligation is assumed in Exodus 16:22f.


What is meant by “sanctifying” the sabbath?

This means that the day was set apart for a special use and purpose. The following verses spell this out in the prohibition of work on this day.


What sort of work was forbidden?

Some examples are given in the OT as:

  1. the kindling of a fire in one’s house (Ex. 35:3),
  2. cooking (Ex. 16:23; Num. 15:32),
  3. marketing and public trade (Neh. 10:31; 13:15, 16), and
  4. traveling on the Sabbath (Ex. 16:29).


What is a “sojourner” here?

This refers to a person who was not an ethnic Jew and yet lived among the Israelites for a period of time.


What is meant by the sojourner who is “in your gates”?

This means the sojourner who is inside of your city gates or in your city; cf Driver.


What is the meaning of the word “Sabbath”?

This word comes from a like sounding Hebrew word meaning “to cease,” or “to rest.” See here.


What reason does God give for setting aside one day for this purpose?

Two reasons are given.

  • In Ex. 20, God exhorts His people to follow His own example when He created the world in six days and rested the seventh.
  • In Deut. 5, God gives, as a reason for observing the Sabbath, that man and beast may have a time of rest from their physical labors.


What does the text mean by saying that God “blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it”?

This is a reference to Genesis 2:3 where God singled out the Sabbath day as a special day and set it apart for a special purpose; see here.


What additions does the version in Deuteronomy 5 provide?

This passage gives a further hint as to how the Israelites should observe the Sabbath; i.e. by remembering and celebrating God’s mighty deliverance of Israel from Egypt.

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. (Deut 5:15)


Did anything like a Sabbath exist in any of the other cultures of the ANE?

This commandment has no parallels in ancient Near Eastern religions. Ewald writes:

What Moses created out of the last day of the week, was something quite new, which had never before existed among any nation, or in any religion.  source


Was this command not taken away at the coming of Jesus just as all the other Mosaic laws?

It was not.  First, there is no such teaching in the New Testament.  Second, this assumes the idea that all the Old Testament, Mosiac laws were removed at the coming of Christ except those which are repeated in the New Testament.


What is wrong with the idea that all Old Testament laws are removed excepted those repeated in the New?

First, this principle is nowhere taught in the New Testament.  Second, the New Testament authors themselves do not practice it.


What do the New Testament authors have to say about the ten commands?

They quote from the ten commands under the assumption that simply being in the decalog means that such a law is binding.  They make no effort to show or prove that these laws must still be obeyed after the coming of Jesus.


Give an example of this.

First, consider James’ argument in chapter 2:

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.  But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.  For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.  For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. (James 2:8-11)

It is clear that James understands “the law” to be a unity and that one command is as binding as the other.  The thought would have been abhorrent to James that only certain of these commands were still binding.  The assumption is that any law in the decalog is binding upon new covenant Christians simply by reason of its being in the decalog.  There is no thought here that since James is repeating these laws, they are therefore binding.  Witsius writes:

when Paul (Rom 13:9) and James (James 2:8, 11) inculcate the precepts of the law on Christians, in the same terms in which they were delivered by Moses to Israel, they do not insist upon this consideration, that they were agreeable to the dictates of right reason, or were ratified again by Christ, but that they were thus formerly published and written by God.  See §36 of book 4; chapter 4.

Paul also quotes from the ten commands in Ephesians 6 with no thought that these commands are binding only because they are now repeated by him.  Paul also sees the ten commands as a unit since he mentions the order in which the commands appear as another reason why children should honor their parents.  Can anyone doubt that Paul understands these commands to be authoritative and binding on those to whom he is writing?

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.  Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), so that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth. (Ephesians 6:1-3)

Again Witsius

[In] Eph. 6:2, the apostle not only insists on the promise that was annexed to the fifth commandment, but also on the order of the precepts, recommending honor or regard to parents from this argument, that this is “the first commandment with promise.” But if the decalogue, as it was formerly delivered to the church of Israel, did not concern Christians, that argument of the apostle (which be it far from us to say) would have no force with Christians.    See §36 of book 4; chapter 4.


Genesis 2

What is the earliest mention of the concept of Sabbath in the Scripture?

The idea is first mentioned at the close of the creation week where we read that on the seventh day, God finished the work He had been doing. “On the seventh day He rested from all His work and God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work of creating that He had done.” (Gen. 2:2-3)


What is the significance of this?

God’s action here of setting apart the seventh day as sacred and as a day of rest provides a divinely ordained pattern that all men are to follow.


How do you know that all people are to follow God’s pattern of working and resting when it appears from the above text that only God rested?

Because when God gives the fourth command in Exodus 20, He explicitly says this.  After giving the command in verses 8-10, God gives the basis for the sabbath command:

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 holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)


Would not this command only apply to Israel since it is included in the Mosaic laws?

First, there was no such thing as “Jews” when God gave this command.  Second, this assumes that the entire Mosaic law was removed at the coming of Christ.  This we deny for the reasons we gave above.


Exodus 16

What is the next mention of Sabbath in Scripture?

In Exodus 16, God sends manna and quails to satisfy the Israelite’s hunger. God tells Moses that the Israelites are to gather only enough manna as will last them one day. On the sixth day, however, they are to gather twice as much. Then Moses announces,

He said to them, “This is what the LORD commanded: ‘Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.’ ” So they saved it until morning, as Moses commanded, and it did not stink or get maggots in it. “Eat it today,” Moses said, “because today is a Sabbath to the LORD. You will not find any of it on the ground today. Six days you are to gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will not be any.”  (Exodus 16:23-26)


What is the significance of this text?

It shows that the command to keep sabbath was not first given to Israel on Mount Sinai.  It must have been given to them on a previous occasion.


When did God first give Israel the law to keep sabbath?

No one knows.  Certainly God’s resting in creation laid the basis for this law. Sometime after Israel left Egypt, however, God must have given Israel further instructions on how He wanted them to keep sabbath.


Might not God have given the sabbath law to Israel for the first time here in Exodus 16?

This is possible but the language does not lend itself to this understanding. God tells Moses,

Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in My instruction. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily. (Exodus 16:4-5)

This double provision on the sixth day is just mentioned without any explanation as to why a double portion might be needed on the sixth day. It very much appears that everyone already knew why it was needed.


But later, the rulers do come to Moses and ask him to explain why the people had received twice as much on the sixth day.  Does this not imply that they did not yet know about the law to keep Sabbath?

Possibly, but when all the leaders of the congregation came to ask Moses about it, he tells them “This is what the LORD spoke: Tomorrow is a sabbath observance, a holy sabbath to the LORD.” Note that it says, “This is what the LORD spoke…”.  What speaking is being referred to here?  When did God speak to Israel about the seventh day being a Sabbath?  Initially, we might think of what God said to Moses in Exodus 16:4-5, but God doesn’t mention the Sabbath there.  We’re led to conclude that Israel was already in the habit of sabbatizing and that God had spoken to them about it on some previous occasion.


Isaiah 58

What mention is made of the Sabbath in Isaiah 58?

The last two verses of this chapter read:

If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day and call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable and honor it, desisting from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure and speaking your own word. Then you will take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth, and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 58:13, 14)


Mark 2:27

What does this text teach us about the fourth command?

Here Jesus is explaining to the Pharisees that picking some grain to eat does not constitute a violation of the Sabbath.  Jesus explains to them:

And He said unto them, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: so that the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath. (Mark 2:27-28)


Why did Jesus feel the need to teach the Pharisees the real purpose of the Sabbath?

Because they had so terribly twisted its true meaning.



They did this by multiplying so many rules and regulations for keeping sabbath that it was no longer a joyful time of rest (Isaiah 58:13) but a burdensome slavery as each person tried to avoid any violation of these endless sabbath laws.  Edersheim tells of the school of Shammai who did not even allow any work which would initiate a process that would carry on into the sabbath.  For example, laying out flax to dry or soaking wool in a dye.  Since these processes (the drying and the dyeing) would continue on into the sabbath, they were violations of the fourth command.  source


How does Jesus teaching correct this perversion?

Jesus points out that God had made the sabbath as a gift for man.  It was meant to minister to his needs and to provide relief from daily toil.  God didn’t create people so there would be someone around to keep sabbath.  On the contrary, the sabbath was made for the rest of people.  The NLT brings this out well:

Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.  So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!” (Mark 2:27-28)


Does not the coming of Jesus bring an end to the fourth command?

No, it did not.  This is clear from Jesus’ response to the Pharisees.  When Jesus was accused of violating the sabbath, He does not respond by asserting that the fourth command was abrogated.  On the contrary, He respects the sabbath law and proves from Scripture that His disciples’ behavior was no violation of it.


It seems that many regard the fourth command as in the same class as circumcision.

No, this is not correct.  Paul clearly teaches the end of the circumcision law (Galatians 6:15), but there is no such teaching regarding the fourth command.  Bruce makes a helpful comparison between these two:

And I begin with the observation that it is antecedently unlikely that Jesus would treat circumcision and the Sabbath as in all respects of the same nature. They were certainly not so treated under the law. For though circumcision was of fundamental importance in the covenant between Jehovah and Israel, yet it was not thought necessary to put it among the Ten Words; whereas the law of the Sabbath does find a place there along with precepts generally admitted to be ethical in their nature, and therefore of perpetual obligation in their substance. Why is this? Apparently because circumcision concerned Israel alone, whereas in the Ten Words it was intended that that only should find a place which was believed to concern all mankind.  The Decalogue wears the aspect of an attempt to sum up the heads of moral duty, put in a form, and enforced with reasons, it may be, adapted to the history and circumstances of the chosen race, but in their substance concerning not Jews only, but men in general. Speaking of the Decalogue as the work of Moses, we may say that from it we learn what in his judgment all men ought to do in order to please God, and live wisely and happily. And we can see for ourselves that circumcision and the Sabbath are in important respects entirely different institutions. Circumcision was purely ritual, a mere arbitrary sign or symbol, a mark set on Israel to distinguish and separate her from the heathen peoples around. But the Sabbath was essentially a good thing. Rest from toil is good for the body, and rest in worshipful acknowledgment of God as the Maker and Preserver of all is equally good for the spirit. Rest in both senses is a permanent need of man in this world, and a law prescribing a resting day as a holiday and holy day is a beneficent law, which no one having a regard to human wellbeing can have any wish to abrogate.

Turning now to the Gospel records: do we find Jesus speaking of the Sabbath as, say, of ritual washings—i.e. as a thing morally indifferent, whose abolition would be no real loss to men? We do not. On the contrary, we find Him invariably treating the institution with respect, as intrinsically a good thing; and His quarrel with the Pharisees on this head was not as to observance, but as to the right manner of observing the law. The Pharisees made the day not a boon, but a burden; not a day given by God to man in mercy, but a day taken from man by God in an exacting spirit. Having this idea of the weekly rest in their minds, they naturally made it as burdensome and irksome as possible, not a delight, but a horror, giving ridiculously minute definitions of work, and placing the merit of Sabbath-keeping in mere abstinence from work so defined, apart altogether from the nature of the work. With this Pharisaic idea of the Sabbath, and the manner in which it was worked out in practice, Jesus had no sympathy. He conceived of the institution, not as a burden, but as a boon; not as a day taken from man, but as a day given to him by a beneficent Providence. This idea He expressed in a remarkable saying, found, curiously enough, only in Mark, but doubtless a most authentic apostolic tradition: “The Sabbath was made on account of man, not man on account of the Sabbath.” He meant to say that God appointed the Sabbath for man’s good, and that it must be so observed as to realize the end originally contemplated; men must not be made the slaves of the Sabbath, as they were by the Pharisaic method of interpreting and enforcing the statute. This being His meaning, He consistently said, the Sabbath was made for man, not the Sabbath was made for Jews, so giving the saying a universal character. One who so thought of the institution could have no interest in its abolition. He would rather desire to extend the benefit, and He would favor only such changes as might be needful to make the benefit as great and as wide-reaching as possible. Accordingly, Jesus did not propose to abolish the beneficent institute. He did, indeed, claim lordship over the Sabbath-day. But He claimed it not with a view to abolition, but in order to give full effect to the principle that the Sabbath was made for man, that is, for his good, and to emphasize the true motive of observance, love, the supreme law of His kingdom. In other words, Christ’s claim of lordship was a claim of right to humanize the Sabbath, in opposition to the Pharisees who had Rabbinized it, and made it a snare to the conscience and a burden to the spirit.  source


What does Jesus mean when He says He is Lord of the sabbath?

By this comment, Jesus claims for Himself the right to preserve, modify, or abolish the sabbath if He so chose.  The obvious implication is that, as Lord of the sabbath, Jesus was in the best position for knowing whether His disciples had violated it.



Hebrews 4

How is  Hebrews 4 relevant to our understanding of the Sabbath?

The author writes:

For we who have believed do enter into that rest; even as He hath said, As I sware in my wrath, they shall not enter into My rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He hath said somewhere of the seventh day on this wise, and God rested on the seventh day from all His works. (Heb 4:3-4)


What does this teach us about the fourth command?

The author is teaching that God is offering a certain privilege to all who hear. The privilege here offered is that of entering into the very rest of God.  Now this offer, which God has made, has been a standing offer ever since the creation of the world.  The author of Hebrews quotes Gen 2:2 to establish this point.


How does the above text make this point?

Let me explain the text line by line.

For we who have believed do enter into that rest;

The author is asserting a general truth for all times and places. That truth is this: only believers in Christ actually enter into God’s rest.

even as He hath said, As I sware in my wrath, they shall not enter into My rest:

The author here quotes Ps 95:11 as a prooftext for his previous point that only believers enter into God’s rest.

although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.

The “works” here are God’s works, and these He has completed.  “From the foundation of the world” means from the time of the first creation.  Since that time, says the author, God has entered into His rest.  This means that the rest of God has been available ever since the foundation (or creation) of the world, and all who believe in Jesus have an unfailing promise that one day they too will enter into God’s rest.

For He hath said somewhere of the seventh day on this wise, and God rested on the seventh day from all His works. (Heb 4:3-4)

Here is the prooftext for the previous assertion that God has completed His work and entered into His rest. This text shows that God, after the creation week, has entered into His rest. Now it remains for us to believe in Jesus and thus to have this unfailing promise of also entering into God’s rest (v1) at the end of the age. Clearly, if God has entered into His rest then we are called to also do so.  God has entered His rested in Genesis 2:2, 3 and so should we enter into ours by faith in Jesus.


What is meant here by God’s rest?

This refers to the rest which God will give to all believers in heaven when their work on earth is finished.  This is why it is still future as the author says in Hebrews 4:  There remains therefore a sabbath-rest for the people of God. (Hebrews 4:9)

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