The Day of Atonement

26 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 27 “Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord. 28 And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. 29 For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people. 30 And whoever does any work on that very day, that person I will destroy from among his people. 31 You shall not do any work. It is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. 32 It shall be to you a Sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict yourselves. On the ninth day of the month beginning at evening, from evening to evening shall you keep your Sabbath.” Leviticus 23:26-32 ESV







On the tenth day of the seventh month of Tishri, the Israelites were to celebrate the Day of Atonement, the most holy day of the year. The full details concerning this annual ritual can be found back in Leviticus 16.

“On the tenth day of the appointed month in early autumn, you must deny yourselves. Neither native-born Israelites nor foreigners living among you may do any kind of work. This is a permanent law for you. 30 On that day offerings of purification will be made for you, and you will be purified in the Lord’s presence from all your sins. It will be a Sabbath day of complete rest for you, and you must deny yourselves. This is a permanent law for you. In future generations, the purification ceremony will be performed by the priest who has been anointed and ordained to serve as high priest in place of his ancestor Aaron. He will put on the holy linen garments and purify the Most Holy Place, the Tabernacle, the altar, the priests, and the entire congregation. This is a permanent law for you, to purify the people of Israel from their sins, making them right with the Lord once each year.” – Leviticus 16:29-34 NLT

This was to be a day marked by affliction. The Hebrew phrase (וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם) found in verse 27 of chapter 23 can be translated as “you shall afflict your souls.” This has traditionally been interpreted as a reference to fasting or self-denial. In preparation for their atonement, the Israelites were expected to go through a period of fasting from the pleasures of this life. But there is probably more to this command than a prohibition against eating food. While fasting was probably part of the ritual, there was also an aspect that included a humbling or affliction of the soul. God expected His people to come before Him with what David described as “a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17 ESV). Fasting was intended to reflect the inner state of the supplicant’s heart. It was to be a sign of contrition and a willful act of self-denial that acknowledged one’s sinful state.

In the book of Isaiah, God levels a powerful indictment against His people for their false displays of humility that included plenty of fasting but lacked true brokenness of heart.

“Cry aloud; do not hold back;
    lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet they seek me daily
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
    and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
    they delight to draw near to God.
‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
    and oppress all your workers. – Isaiah 58:1-3 ESV

This passage, unlike Leviticus 16, spends no time detailing all the various sacrifices and religious protocols that were required as part of the Day of Atonement. The emphasis is not on the rituals but on the state of the peoples’ hearts. Notice how many times God stresses their need to “afflict” themselves.

“…you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord.” – vs 28

“…whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people.” – vs 29

It shall be to you a Sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict yourselves. – vs 32

Long before any animals were sacrificed or any offerings were presented to God, they were expected to cease all work, deny themselves all physical pleasures, and come before the Lord in a penitent and humble state, placing themselves at His mercy. While the people could receive atonement for their sins at any time during the year, the Day of Atonement was intended to be a time of corporate cleansing when the sins of the entire nation were completely purged and their relationship with Yahweh was restored. Any sins that had been overlooked, forgotten, or remained undetected would be taken care of once and for all.

But this gracious day of corporate atonement was not to be entered into lightly. God expected His people to take their sins seriously and to treat His gift of atonement with the proper reverence it deserved. That is why God demanded that they mark this day with a period of personal “affliction.” The Hebrew word means “to afflict, punish, treat harshly.” It is likely that fasting from food was included but, as stated earlier, this self-denial probably included abstinence from all the normal pleasures of daily life that were incompatible with repentance. Many of the very things that God had given them to enjoy in this life had become distractions or had even led them into sin. They were guilty of allowing the blessings of God to become substitutes for Him, placing more hope in the pleasures of this life than in the One who gave them life.

The apostle Paul aptly describes this love affair with the things of this earth.

Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. – Philippians 3:19 NLT

As Paul put it in his letter to his young protege, Timothy, such people can easily become “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:4 ESV). So, God demanded that the people of Israel deny themselves all those things that had contributed to their disobedience and unfaithfulness. It would have been easy for the people to simply show up and expect the priests to do all the work. After all, there was nothing they could do to earn their atonement. As the author of Hebrews makes clear, “under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV).

Yet, God was not willing to let His people simply go through the motions. He despised all pretense and false displays of piety. He longed for His people to come before Him with their hearts broken over their rebellion against Him. That’s why He had His prophet Isaiah declare His dissatisfaction with the peoples’ insincere and meaningless sacrifices.

“What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?”
    says the Lord.
“I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fattened cattle.
I get no pleasure from the blood
    of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to worship me,
    who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony?
Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts;
    the incense of your offerings disgusts me!
As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath
    and your special days for fasting—
they are all sinful and false.
    I want no more of your pious meetings.” – Isaiah 1:11-13 NLT

And God had Isaiah deliver a stern warning to the recalcitrant and unrepentant people of Israel.

“Wash yourselves and be clean!
    Get your sins out of my sight.
    Give up your evil ways.” – Isaiah 1:16 NLT

God was willing to provide atonement for the sins of His people, but He expected them to understand why atonement was necessary. Without an acknowledgment of their sins, the sacrifices would be meaningless. That is why the apostle John stressed the need for confession.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV

An unrepentant people cannot expect to have their sins atoned for. That powerful statement from the pen of John is bookended by two other important points of clarification.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. – 1 John 1:8 ESV

If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. – 1 John 1:10 ESV

To deny the presence of sin in our lives or to stubbornly defend our innocence in the face of His glaring indictments is the epitome of pride and arrogance. God demands that we own up to our guilt and acknowledge His right to mete out justice. It would be ludicrous for His sin-soaked people to enter His presence with any sense of pride or expectation of having deserved His favor. As the prophet Isaiah makes so painfully clear, no one has the right to stand before the Lord with a sense of entitlement.

We are constant sinners;
    how can people like us be saved?
We are all infected and impure with sin.
    When we display our righteous deeds,
    they are nothing but filthy rags.
Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall,
    and our sins sweep us away like the wind. – Isaiah 64:5-6 NLT

So, God called His people to repentance. His atonement was available but only if their hearts were in the right place. In the opening chapter of the book of Isaiah, God declares His willingness to forgive, cleanse, and restore His rebellious people. But it required their repentance, confession, and contrition.

“Come now, let’s settle this,”
    says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
    I will make them as white as snow.
Though they are red like crimson,
    I will make them as white as wool.
If you will only obey me,
    you will have plenty to eat.
But if you turn away and refuse to listen,
    you will be devoured by the sword of your enemies.
    I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Isaiah 1:18-20 NLT

Ultimately, the shedding of blood was necessary for their atonement to be effective. Their repentance had to be followed by the death of an innocent and unblemished animal that served as their substitute, dying in their place and taking on itself the judgment they deserved. Only then could their sins be forgiven and their relationship with God be fully restored. But this one day on the Hebrew calendar was to begin with a display of personal affliction that demonstrated an awareness of their desperate need for God’s mercy, grace, and undeserved atonement.

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.

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