The title of this post is the beginning of a verse from the Bible. How do you think it continues? What word would you guess comes next? We'll see in a minute if you're right or not!
Do you find yourself constantly surprised by the things that God says are important as you read through Scripture? I found this, yet again, just a couple of weeks ago when I came to preach on Exodus 16 and was confronted by a whole chapter about manna. More space is given to it in Exodus than the Passover or the crossing of the Red Sea! Its importance is highlighted in Exodus 16.32 where God commands that a portion of it is to be kept in a jar as a memorial for future generations. Once the ark of the covenant is built, the jar of manna was one of only three things to be placed there, along with the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments and Aaron’s rod that budded (Heb 9.4).
Why was the manna so special? It was such a powerful demonstration of the Lord’s gracious provision for his people’s needs. Psalm 78.19 records the mocking question of sceptical Israelites, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?’ ‘What – is God going to turn the desert into a picnic site for some two million people?’ And that is exactly what he did—not just once or twice, but every day for forty years until he brought the people into the Promised Land.
The Lord’s provision of the manna is a wonderful record of how he caters for the daily needs of his people, but I was particularly struck by how it also speaks of his provision of a weekly Sabbath, for in Exodus 16.29 we have the first reference to the ‘Sabbath’ in the Bible (before the Law is given at Sinai). Just listen to how Moses introduces it—he doesn’t say, ‘Bad news everyone—God has told us we have to keep the seventh day holy.’ No—his words are full of joy: ‘See! The Lord has given you the Sabbath!’ It’s a wonderful gift and blessing! It’s something to delight in and treasure! Moses speaks the way you might if you were giving a really amazing present to a loved one, scarcely able to contain your excitement: ‘Just wait till you see what I’ve got for you…!’
This is why the Lord tells Moses there will be a double provision of manna on the sixth day. There is some debate about exactly how the manna doubled on the sixth day: did the people collect twice as much, or did they gather the same amount and when they brought it home it miraculously doubled in quantity? The people certainly seem to be mystified by the extra amount, so that the leaders report the matter to Moses (v22).
But what is clear is why the manna doubled on the sixth day—Moses explains in v23 that the seventh day is to be ‘a day of solemn rest’ when no work is to be done. There is to be no manna gathering on the Sabbath. Just think what a blessing that would have been!
Gathering manna must have been hard work. It’s described in v14 as a ‘fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground.’ Verse 31 tells us it was ‘like coriander seed’—in other words very small. Try to imagine the back-breaking effort involved in bending over or going round on your hands and knees collecting just under half a gallon (2.2 litres) of the stuff for each person in your tent! It must have taken quite a while to gather it up. Verse 21 says that when the sun grew hot it melted, so gathering it was a time-sensitive job. You couldn’t take your time over it—you had to get up early and work hard and fast to collect it before the sun got too high in the sky!
Some children’s picture Bibles give us a very misleading idea of what gathering the manna was like (as they do of so many stories in Scripture!). Some of them seem inspired by the children’s song ‘If all the raindrops were lemon drops and gum drops, O what a rain that would be! Standing outside with my mouth open wide…’! There is a picture in my mother’s Bible that I remembered vividly as a young child which certainly influenced my understanding of the manna—a young girl standing with her arms up to catch this miraculous bread as it rained down from heaven!
The Lord could easily have caused the manna to come down like that. For that matter, he could have caused baked loaves to appear in the Israelites’ tents every morning, so that they awoke to the smell of fresh manna wafting into their nostrils! But he chose, for all kinds of good reasons, to make manna collection hard work, for six days every week.
But the Sabbath was to be different. The Sabbath was to be a day of rest! Here was one day every week when they didn’t have to get up at dawn and crawl around gathering their day’s food. It was all gathered, baked or boiled and ready to eat. How much time and effort it must have freed up! How different serving the Lord was from serving Pharaoh in Egypt, where there was no day of rest, where every day was the same—endless, tedious, exhausting labour. Now they have a gracious Lord who remembers they are dust and commands them to rest every seventh day—who works yet another miracle to ensure they rest!
Moses says the seventh day is ‘a holy Sabbath to the Lord’. ‘Holy’ means ‘set apart’: it is set apart from the other six days, but it is set apart to the Lord. It is a day of rest, but rest is not its ultimate purpose. The purpose of the resting is to give their bodies a break from work, but it is mainly to give time and energy for remembering and worshipping the Lord. There is so much about the Lord Israel doesn’t know and understand. Israel is God’s son (Ex 4.22), called out of Egypt to serve the Lord. But he is still just in his infancy and has much to learn. How vital the weekly Sabbath will be to get instruction about the Lord and meditate on what they have learnt.
‘See! The Lord has given you the Sabbath’. When did the Lord give the Sabbath? He built it into the fabric of creation in Genesis 2.1-3. This gracious provision is not just for Israelites in the wilderness or Jews in Jerusalem—it’s for human beings. The Sabbath seems to have been lost in the Hebrews’ four hundred year sojourn in Egypt—perhaps it had already been lost long before that. But here in the wilderness the Lord is bringing it out, blowing the dust off it (so to speak!) and re-presenting it to his people like something they’ve never seen before. Jesus said the Sabbath was made for man—for human beings (Mk 2.27): for our good, to enrich our lives, to make them better, for our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual welfare! Our Creator and our Father knows what we need, for he remembers that we are dust.
The need for the Sabbath is only greater today than ever before. We are not machines, we are not created to work continuously and it is arrogant disobedience to try.
‘See! The Lord has given you the Sabbath!’ The great tragedy is that so many Christians and churches today reply, ‘Well we don’t want it!’ Surely we should respond as we should to any valuable gift—treasuring it and using it with gratitude and appreciation for the one who has given it. In Isaiah 58.13 the Lord tells Israel, ‘Call the Sabbath a delight’—squeeze every last drop of goodness from it and maximise the joy and pleasure the Lord has for you in this holy day!