Keeping the Sabbath

If you listen to me, declares the LORD, and bring in no burden by the gates of this city on the Sabbath day, but keep the Sabbath day holy and do no work on it, then there shall enter by the gates of this city kings and princes who sit on the throne of David” (vv. 24–25).

- Jeremiah 17:19–27

Readers of Jeremiah sometimes find him perplexing because of the apparent disorganization in his arrangement of his oracles. Some have even said that “Jeremiah needed an editor.” We sympathize with this assessment because Jeremiah does not order his prophecies chronologically. He also intersperses words of judgment with words of blessing in a seemingly abrupt and scattered manner (for example, Jer. 15; 16:14–21).

But could Jeremiah have arranged his material this way to teach a lesson? The prophet has many words of doom for Judah (for example, 13:15–27; 14:1–12; 16:1–13; 34), but humanly speaking, he did not see destruction as inevitable until Babylon was at Jerusalem’s gates. Months ago, we considered Jeremiah’s teaching that not every announced judgment or blessing is absolutely guaranteed because God relents if His people repent and withholds blessing if they reject Him (18:1–10). Of course, the Lord knew how His people would respond before the prophets spoke, but despite having divine insight into what lay ahead, Jeremiah was not omniscient. He knew that while we live, human uncertainty about the future as well as the possibilities of repentance and apostasy are ever present. Perhaps by interspersing oracles of judgment and blessing “haphazardly,” Jeremiah meant to convey that judgment and blessing were both real possibilities and that Judah would “decide” which oracle would be fulfilled (all according to God’s sovereign decree, of course).

Whatever we conclude about the organization of Jeremiah’s prophecies, today’s passage puts the ball in Judah’s court. We do not know when Jeremiah called people back to Sabbath-keeping, but we do know he made his charge to the entire city of Jerusalem, for he stood at the city’s gate to announce it. As we know, the prophetic complaint of the Lord against His people was their failure to obey Him, and in today’s passage we see their failure to keep the Sabbath (17:19–27). As the Sabbath was one of the first commands given by God, dating back to the creation itself (Gen. 2:1–3), breaking this commandment was a sign undeniably clear in pointing to the rupture of the people’s relationship with the Lord. If they could break a creational ordinance given to all people, how much more guilty were they of breaking the special Mosaic law given to the Jewish nation. Keeping the Sabbath, therefore, would clearly signify restoration, while continuing to break it would demonstrate how much the people had earned their judgment.

Coram Deo

There are differing views in the Reformed tradition of what new covenant Sabbath-keeping entails. Yet all agree that honoring the Lord’s Day is not about impersonal ritual but sustaining and strengthening the vital personal relationship we have with our Creator in Christ Jesus. Jeremiah’s focus on the heart (Jer. 4:4; 17:10; 31:33) indicates that when we follow a liturgy and seek to obey the Lord, putting our heart into such things separates God-honoring formality from disobedient formalism.

Passages for Further Study

Nehemiah 13:15–22
Isaiah 58:13–14
Ezekiel 23:38
John 5:1–17

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