The Sabbath and the Decalogue in the Old Testament

Today we continue our series on the Sabbath. Previously I have discussed the Sabbath as a Creation Ordinance and the prescriptive nature of God’s rest in Genesis 2. Now I want to discuss if it is proper to dismiss the 4th commandment as ‘ceremonial law.’

1. The Unity of the Decalogue

Some want to claim that the Sabbath command is a ceremonial law that is no longer binding. However, no one would doubt the continuing validity of the other nine commandments. John Murray shows the flawed logic found in arguing that only nine of the Ten Commandments are still binding:

“If we say the fourth commandment is abrogated and the other nine are not, we must understand what we are saying. It would indeed be an amazing phenomenon that in the heart of the decalogue there should be one commandment — and one given such prominence and meticulous elaboration — that is totally different from the others in this regard that they are permanent and it is not. Surely no one will dispute that in the Old Testament the ten commandments constitute a well-rounded and compact unit. And surely no one will dispute that the Old Testament is itself throughout conscious of that fact. If the ten commandments were a loose and disjointed collection of precepts, there would be nothing very extraordinary about the supposition we are now discussing. But that is precisely what the decalogue is not. And so to establish this supposition that the fourth commandment is abrogated, when the other nine are not, would require the most explicit and conclusive evidence.

As we read the Old Testament we do not find any warrant for discrimination between the fourth and the other nine. Nor indeed do we find any intimation in the Old Testament that in the Messianic age the Sabbath law would cease. If any commandment is emphasized it is the fourth.”[1]

The unity of the decalogue makes the abrogation of a single command seem very strange indeed. Some want to mix together the Sabbath command and the ‘judgments,’ commands given by God after the Ten commandments that were based upon the moral commands. This mixing of categories is unjustified because of the uniqueness of the Decalogue.

2. The Uniqueness of the Decalogue

While the Israelites were at Sinai, God gave many laws. However, the moral commands of God had a certain primacy over the other ‘judgments.’ First, the Ten Words were the only laws written by the finger of God himself. Second, unlike the rest of the laws that were spoken, the Ten Commandments were carved into tablets of stone. Third, none of the other laws were placed in the Ark of the Covenant; rather, the Ten Words were placed in the Ark at the metaphorical ‘feet’ of the Almighty himself. Fourth, the “literary shape” of their delivery demonstrates a distinction between the “Ten Commandments” and the “Judgments.”

Peter Gentry explains that the headings of the two distinct passages (Ten Words, Ex. 20; and The Judgments, Ex. 21-23) and the use of specific terms indicates, “the broad outline and shape of the text.”[2]  Furthermore, the difference in sentence construction distinguishes the different sections. He explains, “The Ten Words are presented as absolute commands or prohibitions, usually in the second person singular. They are general injunctions not related to a specific social situation…By contrast, the Judgements are presented as case laws. These are presented as if they were court decisions functioning as precedents.”[3]  Clearly these examples are indications of some internal distinctions within the law of the Lord. The perpetual moral standards behind the Ten Words are given primacy over the other ‘judgments,’ which would eventually prove to be temporary.

3. Old Testament expectation of the Decalogue’s Perpetuity

The Decalogue was never shown to be made up of laws of varying application and duration. The Sabbath command in the Ten Commandments is merely an official codification of the creation ordinance. The moral imperative may have been given ceremonial and civil accouterments, but the moral imperative remained (and remains) unchanged. Murray concludes,

“If there had been in the Old Testament some evidence that would create a presumption in favour of discrimination, if there had been even something that would justify a strong suspicion that in the Messianic age the Sabbath law would no longer bind, then, of course, even slight confirmation from the New Testament might clinch that suspicion and warrant the inference that the fourth commandment had been abrogated. But no such suspicion is created and the evidence is altogether against such a supposition.”[4]

Nothing in the Old Testament gives us an indication that the Sabbath Command was a temporary command peculiar to the Jews.

In coming posts in this series on the Sabbath I will examine, among other things, Jesus’s view on the Sabbath, whether the New Testament abrogates the Sabbath command, plus some implications of the doctrine of the Sabbath on ecclesiology.

[1] John Murray, The Fourth Commandment According to Westminster Standards, http://www.the-highway.com/sabbath1_Murray.html (Accessed 4/30/2013).[2] Peter John Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: a Biblical-theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2012), 305. Although Gentry and Wellum do reject the tri-fold categories of ceremonial, moral, and civil law, it is interesting that they clearly see and teach the textual evidences of the uniqueness of the decalogue from the judgments.[3] Ibid., 306.[4] John Murray, The Fourth Commandment According to Westminster Standards, http://www.the-highway.com/sabbath1_Murray.html (Accessed 4/30/2013).

Jon English serves as a Pastor of Morningview Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He has earned an undergraduate degree in Microbiology from Auburn University Montgomery, a Masters of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a PhD in Systematic and Historical Theology from SBTS. Jon English is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a fellow for the Center for Pastor Theologians.
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