My devotional time has me in Jeremiah 17:19-27. In these verses God is making a big deal out of their observance of the Sabbath. The LORD says, “Take care for the sake of your lives, and do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day…”
In the context this part about the Sabbath seems out of place. The chief problem with Israel and Judah is idolatry. It is so bad that even “their children remember their altars and their Asherim”. They were supposed to be tying the Shema to their door posts instead the kids were learning how to use an Asherah pole.
So why talk about the Sabbath? Is that really the issue?
Is God like the bratty kid that refuses to be your friend because you couldn’t make his birthday party? Are they going into exile because they decided to get a little work done during God’s special day? That seems a bit misplaced.
What idolatry and Sabbath communicate
Let’s pause for a moment and consider the nature of idolatry. Idolatry is the hearts natural response to rejecting God. When we don’t honor God or give him thanks we turn to creation—the stuff we can make, the stuff we can control, the stuff we can wrap our minds around.
Idolatry is the reflection of a heart that would rather worship a lie than bow a knee to the revealed God. It is a heart that needs something in its hands. And so it rejects the uncontrollable God for that which can be manipulated.
Now consider the nature of the Sabbath. The Sabbath would ask a profound question of the Israelites. It would be the barometer by which they could measure their devotion to Yahweh. Essentially Sabbath asks this question: Do I trust the provision of an unseen God or do I trust the work of my own hands?
Now the relationship between Sabbath and idolatry is more clearly seen. When the Israelites get serious about the Sabbath they’ll be serious about rooting idolatry out of the land.
Or so one would think…
The Pharisees and the Sabbath
If you fast forward about 500 years you’ve got a group of passionate Israelites that are rigid in their devotions to the Sabbath. They rightly understood that it was for idolatry and a lack of observing the Sabbath that got them booted out of the land. So, they devoted themselves to observing the Law.
The problem, though, is that while they got the message of Jeremiah 17 they missed the message of Jeremiah 31. Without a change of heart you’ll trade an Asherah pole for a Sabbath and think you’ve done God a favor. And that is exactly what the Pharisees had done.
They lost the spirit of the Sabbath while retaining the letter. They forgot that the Sabbath was made for man and that it was a barometer of the heart. Rather than seeing the Sabbath as a means of trusting the provision of an unseen God they turned the Sabbath into a work of their own hands.
Even today the question of the Sabbath is vitally important. Will we rest from our works and trust in the provision of Christ? Or will we trust in the work of our own hands? You can’t do both.