Articles, Tracts and Letters

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The Decalogue and the Sabbath

by Rev. Thomas Hamilton

God is the only source of absolute moral standards. And in his own summary of his moral law, the Ten Commandments (also known as the Decalogue), God institutes the "sabbath", the Day of Rest. For the Christian, this is to be the first day of the week (cf. Mark 16:1-6; John 20:19; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2).

Can the Day of Rest be dispensed with and the remainder of the moral law be kept intact?

In 1883 the Sabbath Alliance of Scotland offered a number of prizes for the best essays on the Sabbath. Over 200 were submitted, and that of Rev. Thomas Hamilton of Belfast was unanimously selected as the best. The full title of the essay was: "Our Rest-day: its origin, history, and claims, with special reference to present-day needs." The following is a slightly abridged version of chapter six of the essay.

This article was published in the Presbyterian Standard, Issue No. 6, April-June 1997.

I N the decalogue, we have a series of laws for the regulation of man's life. Let us inquire in this chapter how the law of the Sabbath stands among them and in what manner it is related to them. Notice:–

First, it is in the Decalogue

It is unquestionably one of the Ten Laws, that the Sabbath day is to be remembered and kept holy. I submit that, being there, it must stand or fall with the others, and they with it. You cannot begin to pick and choose among these Ten Laws, taking which of them you like, and consigning to oblivion any which do not precisely harmonise with your ideas, and do not seem to you important or obligatory. You cannot retain the first three, saying, "These commend themselves to me and I will have them and obey them;" and then, when you come to the fourth, say, "Here is one which stands on a different basis – I cannot see that it is binding on me – I will have none of it." The Decalogue is a unity. To eliminate one law from it is to lose all. To admit one is to admit all. Change the case. Let it be a question not of divine, but of human, legislation. What then? Are you at liberty to say, "I will submit to some of the laws of this empire, but others I will have nothing to do with?" You know you cannot. Being a subject of the Queen, you are bound by all the laws which, in conjunction with the other estates of the realm, she imposes. Can we treat the Supreme Government of all otherwise? The Sabbath law is one of a string of ten precious pearls, threaded together by a Divine hand – "orient pearls," but not "at random strung." Before you detach one of them from the rest you must cut the string and endanger all. God has joined these ten together. What man shall dare to put them asunder?

The position of the Fourth Commandment in the Decalogue is worthy of notice.

This position is not a matter of chance. There can be no chance about any arrangement which God makes. He does nothing at random, we may be sure. He is the Author of the order in which He places events, or prophecies, or commands, just as much as He is the author of the events, prophecies, or commands themselves. That order, we may be certain, is an intended order, and must be a significant order and the best order that is possible. Now, the order in which the law of the Sabbath comes in among the rest is remarkable. It does not stand at the end of the Decalogue, else the suggestion might possibly occur to a suspicious mind, that did not desire to be under its yoke, that it had got added on by mistake, that it was a mere Jewish law, which, somehow or other, in the lapse of time, had crept into the position of a universal statute. It does not stand at the beginning of the Decalogue. If it did, the same suspicion might have arisen regarding its origin. Nor do we find it precisely occupying the central position in the code, else restless minds, once they had begun to doubt its validity and to desire to get rid of its authority, might have suggested the theory that a Jewish legislator had, with most exact calculation, estimated what was the safest place in which to deposit it, and put it there. It stands in none of all these positions, but in one really stronger than any of them. You must pass over and get rid of three most solemn and holy laws before you can reach it from the beginning of the Decalogue. You must get rid of six most salutary and necessary laws before you can reach it from the end. In front of it, like three strong and stalwart sentries, stand the First, and the Second, and the Third Commandments. You must deal with them before you can touch it. At its back stands a rearguard of six other laws. If you wish to attack it from behind you must first deal with them. There it lies entrenched in the heart of those ten laws, as in a camp, with nine stout and watchful sentinels keeping every point of attack. Like the donjon-keep (a massive central tower) in the Norman fortress, it holds the key of the position. Like the keystone of an arch, it is buttressed up on either side by well-chosen and well-fitted stones, and itself, while supported by them, gives them in return their strength. Is there no teaching in all this? Was it all undesigned? Has it all come by chance? If we were dealing with a work of man we might say so. But this is a work of God, who knows the end from the beginning, and disposes,with the utmost exactness, of the lot which men cast at random into their lap. Who shall say either that He did this by chance or that it has no meaning and no purpose?

Notice again the relations of this Commandment to the others

It might have happened that the Ten Laws should have had no mutual connection or relation that we could see. They might have been ten separate and distinct decrees, with no further affinity to each other than that all were in the one code. Is it so? By no means. When we come to look at them, we find that they grow out of and fit into each other in the most beautiful manner. They are ten fruitful branches, springing from one trunk with one common root. They are ten polished stones, compactly built together, each fitting into and joined on to its neighbours, and the whole forming one strong tower of defence. Or, like the ten fingers of the human hands, they are formed of the same substance, animated by the same vitality, and feel the beatings of the one great Heart.

Let us see how this is. Looking at the Decalogue as a whole, we find that it has two aspects – a Godward and a manward. These two aspects correspond with its two tables. A complete law for man evidently must possess this two-fold character. No man can be right who is not right in both ways, who does not maintain a conscience void of offence both towards God on the one hand, and toward man, on the other. Take the First Table, which teaches our duty to God. It has in it four laws. The first tells us whom we are to worship, the second and third how we are to worship, the fourth when. The first warns us against the sin of polytheism, the second against the sin of idolatry, the third against the sin of profanity, the fourth against the sin of relegating to any time (which might prove to be no time) the duty of adoring the Creator. In the first, God points the worshipper to himself and demands his homage, in opposition to the gods many and lords many of heathenism – in the second He warns him against the sinful practices of those who will only worship when they have a visible representation of their deity – in the third He bids him guard against the corruptions into which all mere human worship has a tendency to degenerate, the corruption of mere vain repetition – in the fourth He bids him, lest all his worship should sink into a mere vapid, and general, and indefinite thing, to set apart for it a time. There is thus a great unity in this table. You cannot displace one of its laws without marring the completeness of the whole table. By so much as you interfere with one of them, you spoil the beauty of a piece of legislation, the equal of which the world has never seen, which left God's hand, like all His works, "perfect and entire, wanting nothing."

Just in the same way, we might show how the six several laws of the Second Table are in like manner mutually related and stand or fall together. It would be equally easy to illustrate how this Second Table is related to the First, duty to God involving and implying the performance of duty to man, and vice versa, so that the two tables revolve round and support each other like binary stars. In addition, it would be specially suitable here to show how the Fourth Commandment, in particular, has a marvellous connection with the requirements of the Second Table, there being hardly a sin prohibited there which has not been proved by actual experience to be associated with Sabbath-breaking.

There are people who would stand aghast at the very idea of violating any other of the Commandments who look very lightly on a breach of the Fourth. Hint to them the possibility of their stealing – or lying – or breaking the Seventh Commandment – and they feel insulted at the bare suspicion of such a possibility. But the Fourth has no such sanctity in their eyes. Why is this? Who made it to differ from God's other laws? By whose authority do we place it in a lower position than the rest? Certainly not by God's. There is no hint, either in itself, or anywhere else, to show that He pays less respect to it than to the other nine, or lays less stress upon it. On the contrary, it might be argued that He has a special and particular regard for it. His dealings with Israel showed that He was very jealous of any breach of it. It is worth remembering that the whole of Palestine today stands out before the world as a monument of the consequences of the breach of the law of the Sabbath. In Leviticus Chapter 26 God says to Israel, "Ye shall keep my Sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord." Promises of blessing, if this commandment is obeyed, are then given. Then the chapter proceeds – "If ye will not for all this hearken unto me, but walk contrary to me, then I will walk contrary to you also in fury, and I, even I, will chastise you seven times for your sins...and I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you, and your land shall be desolate and your cities waste. Then shall the land enjoy her Sabbaths, as long as it lieth desolate and ye be in your enemies land, even then shall the land rest and enjoy her Sabbaths – as long as it lieth desolate it shall rest, because it did not rest in your Sabbaths when ye dwelt upon it." Every traveller, therefore, who visits Palestine and brings back to us the descriptions of its dreary ruins, its broken down terraces on the hill sides, its deserted villages and general desolation, with which we are so familiar, is another witness, consciously or unconsciously, to the love which God has for a faithfully kept Sabbath and to the danger which men and nations incur when they think lightly of Sabbath law and fail to remember the Sabbath rest. The very fact that the Fourth Commandment seems to the instructed mind of less moment than some other precepts of the Decalogue, and the breach of it a less heinous sin than the breach of others, makes it in some sort a superior test of the spirit of obedience. Is not a command, whose supreme importance and necessity we cannot see as plainly as we do those of others, a better test of our leal-hearted allegiance to God than others whose necessity and importance are written on their faces? To our first parents the eating or not eating of the Forbidden Fruit appeared a light matter. The reason of the prohibition was not plain to them. No reason was given by God. They were to obey Him, simply because He bade them. On that very account the command was a better test of their character and obedience than one, the intrinsic goodness and the evil consequences of disobeying which would have been more apparent. So with this Fourth Commandment. It may seem to us a matter of smaller moment whether we keep or break it, than whether we keep or break some of the others – whether we do or do not steal, or lie, or worship idols. But the very fact that its importance and advantages may not be so immediately and conspicuously clear to us, in reality renders it a more solemn and searching test of our loyalty to our great King. There is a special warning in Scripture against him who shall break one of these least commandments and shall teach men so, which ought to be well pondered by all who, weighing the Ten Words in their imperfect balances, come to the conclusion that, if they keep the other nine, they may safely disregard the Fourth.

We are very far from saying, however, that this commandment is of secondary importance. We therefore notice:–

The character of the Fourth Commandment

The Decalogue begins with three precepts, intended to regulate the homage to be paid to the Divine Being. The last six of its statutes, again, are meant to regulate the duties which we owe to our fellow human beings. Between these two classes of commands comes in the one which we are considering, and it will be observed that it partakes of the character of both classes. It is a commandment which prescribes a duty

which we owe to God. But there is a secular element in it as well as a sacred, for it bids us not only to rest on the Sabbath, but to work on the other six days of the week. "Six days shalt thou labour" is a portion of the law as binding as "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." Therefore this commandment occupies the position of a sort of connecting link between the two tables, for it partakes of the nature and character of each. This gives it a peculiar strength. It is not an altogether sacred command, nor yet is it altogether secular. It is both. It is a law for the Day of Rest. But it is also a law for the day of labour. That man violates it who profanes the Sabbath. But he violates it too who fritters away the week day. It is a law for all our time, and he who would get rid of the Sabbath must not only pick this commandment out of its strong position in the heart of the Decalogue, but must pick the commandment itself to pieces, keeping some of it, and some of it throwing away. With such consummate wisdom has the great Legislator guarded this law, against which He foresaw there would arise not only the opposition of selfishness, but that also of a mistaken theology. He has guarded it not only on the right hand, and on the left, before and behind, but guarded it also in its own very structure, so that he who would destroy the law of the Sabbath must perforce destroy far more than it before he has finished his awful task.

There is this connection, again, between the Fourth and the other Commandments – that it provides the opportunity and the time for learning the duties prescribed in the other nine. If the Commandments were recorded for us in no published book, and if there were no formally set apart and generally recognised time for their exposition, it is evident that the likelihood of their general observance would be greatly diminished. But just here comes in one evidence of the perfection of the code, that it provides within itself the means of its own enforcement and perpetuation. One of its ten precepts provides for the setting apart of a weekly day for the exposition of that revealed will of God of which it is so essential a part, for our being reminded of our duty to that God, and for our renewing of the vows of our allegiance to Him. It is not too much to say, therefore, that the observance of the Fourth Commandment is connected in the closest manner with the observance of the other nine, and that every attempt to weaken its force, or undermine its foundations, militates not only against it but against the entire code of which it is an integral part.