12 And the Lord said to Moses, 13 “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. 16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’”
18 And he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God. – Exodus 31:12-18 ESV
It should be clear by now that God places a high priority on the observance of the Sabbath. He first introduced this holy day of rest when He gave the people manna in the wilderness. In response to their grumbling about the lack of food, God provided them with manna from heaven.
“This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning.’” – Exodus 16:23 ESV
Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.” – Exodus 16-24-25 ESV
The priority of the Sabbath had been established long before Israel arrived at Sinai and Moses had received the Ten Commandments. But God restated this holy observance when He gave the Decalogue to Moses.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” – Exodus 20:8-11 ESV
Now, after a lengthy conversation with Moses on top of Mount Sinai, God gave His servant two tablets of stone on which He had inscribed the Ten Commandments with His own finger (Exodus 31:18). And then, in an obvious attempt to emphasize the importance of the Sabbath observance, God verbally restated its requirements to Moses.
“Tell the people of Israel: ‘Be careful to keep my Sabbath day, for the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant between me and you from generation to generation. It is given so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy. You must keep the Sabbath day, for it is a holy day for you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; anyone who works on that day will be cut off from the community.’” – Exodus 31:13-14 NLT
Moses was about to descend back down to the valley with the tablets written by the hand of God and his own handwritten copy of the Book of the Covenant. He was to share all of this with the people of Israel but the one command that God highlighted was that concerning the Sabbath.
The Sabbath was more than just a command; it was to be a permanent sign of the covenant between God and His people.
“It is a permanent sign of my covenant with the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day he stopped working and was refreshed.” – Exodus 31:17 NLT
This weekly observance was designed to be a reminder of their unique relationship with their Creator-God. The purpose of the Tabernacle was to house the presence of God. That meant that the One who created the heavens and earth was going to dwell in their midst. When God had completed His creation of the universe and all it contains, He rested. He ceased from His labors because he had finished what He had set out to do. And by observing the Sabbath each week, the Israelites would be commemorating and sanctifying that one-of-a-kind day in history. Their great God had made all that their eyes could see and yet, He had chosen to dwell among them. Not only that, He had made a covenant with them – to be their God and to give them the privilege of being His chosen people. This covenant between God and the people of Israel was revealed to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai when he received his divine commission.
“Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians…’” – Exodus 6:6-7 ESV
But that was not the first time God had spoken of the covenant. When Abraham, the patriarch of the people of Israel, had been chosen by God, he had received a similar promise concerning his future descendants.
“And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” – Genesis 17:7 ESV
Now, centuries later, that promise had been fulfilled. The people of Israel were the offspring of Abraham and God was making His covenant a permanent reality. The Tabernacle was designed to be the house of God so that the people might enjoy the blessing of His presence among them. But God did not need a place to stay; He wanted a people who desired a relationship with Him. The Sabbath was designed to be a day when the people made God their highest priority. Rather than working, they were to put all their energy toward knowing and serving God. He was to be their highest priority and greatest good.
The emphasis on rest has less to do with physical cessation from work than it does with the idea of reliance upon and trust in God for all their needs. With the Tabernacle, they would have a place to seek and find God. Located in the middle of their camp, this special structure would house God’s divine presence and assure His people that they were never alone. They had nothing to fear, except the holiness of their God, which is why God reiterates their need to observe the Sabbath or suffer the consequences.
“Anyone who works on the Sabbath must be put to death.” – Exodus 31:16 NLT
“This penalty seems harsh, but not when we realize what the Sabbath was intended to do. By not keeping the Sabbath, the Israelite was showing that he or she was not interested in knowing God.” – Peter Enns, Exodus
To work on the Sabbath was to exhibit a distrust in God’s presence and provision. It would be taken as a visual statement of self-sufficiency and a lack of reliance upon God’s word. That one day had been set aside by God and was intended to be a time when the people of Israel sought Him above all else. If you were working, you weren’t relying. If you were busy doing other things, you would have no time to set your mind on knowing the very One who created the heavens and the earth.
God knew His people well. When they heard Moses articulate the design of the Tabernacle, they would immediately want to begin the process of its construction. But God knew that, in their enthusiasm to build His house, they would run the risk of violating the Sabbath. Under the direction of Bezalel and Oholiab, and in the hopes of completing the Tabernacle in record time, they would attempt to work a seven-day week and violate God’s command. In their effort to build a house for God, they would neglect to take time to know God.
It is so important to remember that everything about the Tabernacle was intended to point back to the glory, greatness, holiness, majesty, and power of God. That structure in the wilderness was meant to be a constant reminder to the people of Israel about the wonder and awesomeness of the God who had chosen to have a relationship with Him. It sat in the middle of their camp for a reason. Among a sea of drab-looking tents, the Tabernacle would stand out and make a powerful statement about the transcendence of God. He was like no other. He was both attractive and awe-inspiring. He was accessible but also off-limits. He was approachable but so holy that entrance into His presence required purification and atonement.
The Tabernacle was meant to declare the glory of God. The Sabbath was intended to as a day to focus one’s attention on that reality. Rather than working, the people of Israel were to spend their time worshiping the One who had made them His chosen possession. Instead of meeting their own needs, they were to meet with the One who had rescued and redeemed them from their captivity in Egypt. He had chosen them and had promised to live among them, but now He expected them to seek to know and worship Him – “throughout their generations, as a covenant forever” (Exodus 31:16 ESV).
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.