As I pen this post I am about to preach the closing case-law-commandment section from Exodus 23:10-19.
I'll be re-stressing to the church how we should properly view these texts: they are part of a wider section that scholars (and maybe Moses, 23:7) denote 'The Book of the Covenant': they are elaborations, expansions, expositions and applications of the abiding, eternal, principles of the foundational bedrock of the Decalogue.
Israel, redeemed from Egypt, stands on the brink of nationalization of the Covenant of Grace: Exodus 24 is nothing less than an historical fulfillment and outworking of precious, prior, Patriarchal, Gospel promises - Moses made this crystal clear from the start of the book, in Exodus 2:23-25. She is ready for marriage to Yahweh. In the near-volcanic vision, assembled at Horeb, they hear and tremble at their loving Husband's thundering voice.
On Mount Sinai the LORD had declared His moral character in the mirror-like Ten Commandments: He had selected, summoned and saved His saints to bear His preceptive image. Now they must be holy as Yahweh is Holy. In order to do this, on-the-move, for-the-wilderness, non-exhaustive, model applications are given to Israel. These have a very definite thrust. In guarding these judgments, in obeying these statutes, God's Angel will go before them to possess their inheritance. Exodus 23:20-33 drives this truth home to God's Church:
"But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries ...when my Angel goes before you ...and I blot them out, you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them ...You shall serve the LORD your God, and He will bless ...I will send my terror before you and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you ...Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land ...You shall make no covenant with them and their gods ...for if you serve their gods it will surely be a snare to you."
Now, there are many things, both general and specific, that we could comment on in the 'Book of the Covenant': the section runs from 20:22-23:33. However, my aim in this piece is much more limited. I simply want to provide one clear reason, given by Moses, for the fundamental importance of 4th commandment observance. On this matter Gospel life, healthy churches, and Christian holiness depend. That being the case, let me draw your attention to the structure of this section. I have inserted a picture to help you visualize this:
Text - Section - Further Comment
19:1-25 Covenant Preparation - Consecration Preparation for Lawgiving
20:1-21 Commands 1-10 - Decalogue Given
20:22-26 Command 2 - Idolatry Ban
21:1-11 Command 1 - Redemptive Image Encouraged
21:12-22:15 Command 5, 6, 8-10 - Murder, Theft, Perjury, Coveting Ban
22:16-19 Command 7 - Immorality Ban
22:20-23:9 Command 1 - Redemptive Image Encouraged
23:10-19 Command 4 - Sabbath Applications Essential
23:20-33 Conquest Promised - Inheritance Conditioned
24:1-18 Covenant Confirmation - Ratification by Blood & Fellowship of Elders
Structures have Significance
You may not be familiar with the structure of Hebrew literature. Please don't dismiss stylistic features as irrelevant to truth. Structural devices are part and parcel of communication of truth throughout Scripture. Of course we need to be cautious - an apparent structure that goes against the grain of context or content is weightless. If, however, passage context and content (or later biblical history or teaching), bear the structural observation out, then, under the guidance of the Spirit, we are warranted in believing that the writer used this device to impress his point upon us.
What observations then can we note from the neatly-symmetrical arrangement of the text above - is there any significance in how the Spirit has laid out the whole of the Sinaitic Covenant-Making section? The 'Book of Covenant' material is bookended by our duty to God - the ban of idolatry (20:22-26) and importance of Israel's liturgy (23:10-19) - I highlight this in bold. The 'Book of the Covenant' starts with a prohibition of false worship. The 'Book of the Covenant' ends with Mosaic instructions concerning true worship. Commandments 1-4 bracket the contents of the bookshelf of Israelite duties to each other (21:12-22:19) - I highlight this in italics. Essentially, commands 1-4 (in bold) top and tail the middle-section which details applications of commands 5-10 (in italics).
Of course there is overlap - it is not as tightly structured as a scientist might like - nevertheless, the point seems fairly transparent: Israel can only function as a peaceful, moral, grace-inspired, covenant community, as false worship is expunged and true worship is maintained. The linchpin of their life, as a nation, is the Sabbath (perhaps this is why another warning against idolatry appears in the liturgy section).
Message of Moses
Let me reiterate that. Fundamental to this sanctified national life of divine, corporate, image-bearers is devoted Sabbath Day observance. What this means for Israel, in its particular historical, pre-Christ, context, is fleshed out in 4th commandment ceremonial, time-limited, applications. She must observe Sabbatical days, feasts and years.
Moses stresses the message in case we miss it by this bookending of manward duties with God-orientated bookends. The spiritual well-being of the life of Christ's Old Testament church rests on her wholehearted, devotion, to Lord's Day worship: Will she or won't she honor the Sabbath? That is the question! Everything, her national security, settlement, and sanctity - all hinges on hearty, adherence to Yahweh's own Sabbatical principle. If false gods are eradicated and the sacred day maintained, Israel, by God's power, will conquer and cohere. The alternative, of course, is spiritually unthinkable. If the Sabbath is trashed then the nation will crash. Sabbatical breach, and rank idolatry, tragically, became the testimony of history, as 2 Chronicles 36:17-21 recounts:
Therefore he brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary ...He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.
Comment of Ryle
Many years ago I read a pamphlet on the Sabbath by the puritan J.C. Ryle. Without citing scripture, the Bishop made a rather blunt statement to this effect: when the Sabbath is abandoned the religious life of any church, or nation, will rapidly fall into decay and eventually crumble to dust. No doubt the 'Man of Granite' had good theological reasons for this statement, even if he failed to disclose them to his readers.
I think this Sabbath section, in Exodus 23:10-19, provides biblical warrant for re-asserting the statement made by Ryle: first, to neglect public worship on the Sabbath Day is to despise the means of grace and to shrivel up our souls; second, to allow the 4th commandment to fall into decay is to disobey our God, provoke our Covenant King, and to grieve His Holy Spirit - withdrawal of enjoyment of covenant blessings results; third, and most significantly, this truth was part and parcel of Israel's understanding as she signed up to the Covenant; fourth, in light of these things, there can be no vibrant church, healthy congregation, or holy Christianity if the Holy Day gets sidelined for any length of time.
There are, no doubt, more explicit statements in Scripture. Certainly, there are more weighty reasons for commanded, redeemed, human-creatures to enjoy God's day of rest, and to relieve others of weariness and distress. Note the language used in this section is 'being allowed to breathe' or 'catching your breath'. It seems the Sabbatical principle is enshrined in the Creature's psyche. The soul will ever be restless till it locates rest in the LORD. Yahweh is the only One, in Christ, who gives and structures life in order that His creatures might be blessed. Since the Law is a mirror in which we see the Divine Nature, to sunder the Sabbath from Christianity is to create a false, anti-Sabbatarian, idol in our own image. This would appear to be both bad and blind: it will have catastrophic, long-term, consequences for the health of the Christian and God's Church.
Of course we are not advocating a Pharisaic observance of the sort Christ renounced in the Gospel - we see clearly in these verses, 23:10-12, that consideration for animals, concern for the poor, and creation-sustaining farming on the land, were, all along, elements bound up with God's original Sabbath heart: perhaps it was Christ's grasp on Moses 'Covenant Book' that compelled Him to heal a man's hand and suggest we pull animals from pits on the Sabbath. Christian loving-kindness exudes from Mosaic Sabbath laws - the Redeemer urges rest upon the Church to renew, restore and replenish the hungry poor and ravenous, wild beasts.
For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the poor of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard and with your olive orchard. Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.
What we long and pray for, then, is heart devotion, in public and private, to the hearing, reading, praying, singing and spreading of the Gospel - the message of the free grace of the LORD of Sabbath rest for sinful souls. Let their be hearty rejoicing in the experience of rest in Christ who, in our union with Him, gives us a sweet, spiritual, foretaste of the greater, glorious, final rest that awaits the people of God, as promised in Hebrews 4:9:
So then, there remains, a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.
We are not interested in 601 pernickity, sawdust-spotting, hair-splitting, Scribal tradition additions! Nor are we enamored with a mere cessation of physical activity on the Redeemer's Day of Rest, which Christ's blood sanctifies to us! What we crave, surely, is exquisite, spiritual delight in the marrow and manna of Christ - which Jesus purchased at the Cross! For one whole seventh part of our lives we are engaged in hot-pursuit, by grace, of joyful festivity and divine peace on this market-day of the soul! In public and private, without playing the hypocrite (who concocts legal rules to circumvent God's grace), positively, humbly, may we give our Sabbath's to this, on the first day of the week.
Small wonder the Sabbath-less church is an outrage to the grieved Spirit. Can we really wonder why the Western Church decayed when the 'Ball-Game' became god - whether for theological, personal or recreational reasons, those who advocate Sabbath neglect should be called to reflect and repent. If a tendency has crept in to deny that solid, spiritual, vibrant, Yahwistic faith is foundational to the Church, the loss has been great - preaching, praying, rebuking, teaching, correcting, training - urgently and boldly - brothers, sisters, friends help us claw the Sabbath back for Christ.