The Worship Priority
The Fourth Commandment
Chapter 19 – Guarding the Sabbath
In the last chapter we began to consider how God has regulated the time of worship – commanding us to set aside a Sabbath day as “holy to the Lord.” As I said in that post, much of the debate over the Fourth Commandment tends to focus on the phrase, “you shall not do any work.” I attempted to pay some attention instead to the idea of a day that the Sabbath reserved for God. Now we must look at another neglected phrase in the commandment.
An essential part of the Sabbath command (Exodus 20:8-11) is the sentence, “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work.” This sentence forms the basis of all the Scripture’s teaching on industry and responsibility. We are not permitted to turn away from our earthly responsibilities, claiming a hyper-spiritual focus on the things of God. Rather, God insists upon our diligence in meeting all our responsibilities.
These words are important for another reason as well. “All our work” is to be completed during the six days, so that the seventh might be “holy.” In other words, by doing our work ahead of time we clear the Sabbath day of worldly concerns. This allows our worship to be holy and distinct from the world. We are to work diligently during the week, because the Sabbath must be kept free for worship.
Everyone knows that there is too much to do. As I write, my son is in the other room crying and giving his mother a terrible time. I am receiving emails asking me to lend clarity to some online debates and other emails asking me to explain (briefly!) the nature of prophecy, its relationship to eschatology. Three days from now I must preach three times.
It is not my intent to complain. I know well that everyone is faced with similar challenges, and it happens that I enjoy mine. My family, theological debate, and gospel preaching are passions of mine, but there is little time to get everything done. So I do what all of you do – I try to do three things at once. I fire off an email here, look up a text there, and watch the boy for half an hour so my wife can get ready for her day. Most of life is this way; our minds are divided between a variety of tasks. Occasionally we must be focused on a priority, so we find a time and place to be alone and (hopefully) uninterrupted long enough to get the important things done.
The essence of the Fourth Commandment is this: the worship of God must be such a priority. It cannot be fitted in to a normal to-do list. We must never say, “This morning I have to finish that project for work, run by the drug store, worship the Almighty Sovereign of the Universe, rake the leaves, and get the nacho dip going for the game this afternoon.” Put in these terms, it seems obvious, but this is often the way in which we worship God! How can we avoid such an attitude?
This is where the six days become so important. God give us six days to clear the decks for action. We have six days to accomplish all the tasks God has given us in the world, so that on the Sabbath day we can be properly focused on the priority of worship.
The Christian ought to approach his week, and particularly his weekend, with this thought: How can I best prepare myself to worship God on Sunday? Most things which preoccupy our minds on the Sabbath fall into two categories – that which isn’t really important and that which could have been dispatched earlier.
In the first category fall all the entertainments of modern society. Americans have transformed the tradition of a one-day Sabbath into a two-day “weekend” of self-indulgence. If we cannot worship because we are too busy camping, or sailing, or biking, or whatever, we have failed to keep the day “holy to the Lord.” If we have no patience with a church because its scheduled worship interferes with football, we have similarly profaned the day. The other year evangelicals actually cancelled services because Christmas fell on a Sunday! None of these entertainments is necessarily sinful in itself, but none should have any claim on the day which God has made holy.
The second category of distractions is made up of those necessities of life which we might have dealt with during the six days, but which instead eat away at our Sabbath. Christians sometimes refer to Christ’s words about pulling an ox out of a ditch on the Sabbath, arguing that the work they are doing is necessary. It is true that sometimes circumstances conspire against our Sabbath, requiring emergency measures. How often, though, have we placed ourselves in such a circumstance by failing to do “all our work” in the six days God gave us? A pastor friend of mine once said that it was fine to pull your ox out of a ditch on Sunday, provided you had not pushed him in on Saturday. When the week is spent in procrastination, we are without excuse for failing to honor the Lord’s Day.
Diligence during the week is the prerequisite to whole-hearted worship on the Sabbath. It is wise to ask oneself a series of questions before the Sabbath arrives. Is my work done, at least as far as it needs to be done before Monday? Is there food in the house? Is there gas in the car? Am I ready to do nothing tomorrow but focus on the God of Glory? If so, I have used my six days wisely, and my Sabbath should be a blessing.
Excluding the World
In Nehemiah 13 we find one of the most interesting Sabbath passages in Scripture. Nehemiah observed that the people of Israel were working on the Sabbath, and they were using the day as a market day. They bought and sold produce, including fish that had been brought from the Sea by Gentile neighbors. There was nothing wrong with carrying burdens or treading winepresses, nor with buying and selling, nor even with buying food from the Gentiles, but these activities were pressing in on the holy day of God and driving out worship.
Nehemiah’s took decisive action. He closed the marketplace and refused to allow those bringing produce to enter the city. When they tried to set up an alternate marketplace outside the wall, he threatened them with arrest. The world had to be excluded from Jerusalem so that the people of God could keep the Sabbath as “holy to the Lord.”
We have not the political authority to take such action, and it is debatable whether we ought to use such authority if we ever have it. However, the people of God face the same challenge. The world is ever pressing in on God’s day, and our duty is to guard the day. If we would worship God according to His commands, we must keep the world at bay. The concerns of this life are not to intrude unnecessarily on our Sabbath day. Rather, it is always to be “holy to the Lord.”