Isaiah Study: Joy in the Sabbath Covenant With God

We’re now in week three of an ongoing study of Isaiah 40-66. In these final 27 chapters of the book, Isaiah records God’s words about His feelings and plans. God shares His perspective on His relationship with His people and reveals His plans for the future. Part of those plans have already been fulfilled with Jesus’s first coming as Messiah, but others are still in the future for us as we read Isaiah today. In addition to studying those prophecies, God’s perspective on His relationship with His people is also relevant today.

Throughout the Old Testament, God worked with a specific family of called-out people. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel) were the only chosen people of God. Though others could join the covenant God made with Israel, it didn’t happen all that often. By the time Jesus came to this earth, many Jews of the day thought you couldn’t really have a relationship with God without being a physical descendant of Abraham. Jesus proved that assumption wrong, but it wasn’t by saying your family identity doesn’t matter anymore. Rather, He and His followers made it clear we’re being adopted into God’s covenant. God didn’t get rid of “Israel”–He elevated that covenant people to a spiritual level and made everyone whom He calls into relationship with Him part of the family. This is what Paul’s talking about in passages like Romans 11 and Galatians 4.

Sabbath-keeping is one sign of God’s original covenant with ancient Israel. Jesus and His followers also kept the Sabbath, and scripture reinforces that the Sabbath rest is still important for believers who followed their examples. The importance of the Sabbath in the New Testament is also deeply rooted in earlier scripture writings, which still help us understand the importance of the Sabbath today. If you go back and read my first Isaiah Study post, you’ll see I made a list of key themes that I want to study more extensively in this section of scripture. Among other things, that list included the role of covenant faithfulness and the importance of Sabbath keeping. God spends quite a bit of time in this section of scripture talking about the Sabbath, and that’s what we’re going to look at more closely today.

Image shows a Bible lying open. It is overlaid with a quote from Mark 2:27-28, WEB version: He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
Image by Anggie from Lightstock

Sabbath-Covenant Connection

For many Christian today, the Sabbath seems like a distant concept. We might just think of it as the name Jewish people give Saturday or an old name used way back when people in Western nations closed their businesses on Sundays. We might even think of it as a verb describing something we can do whenever we need a “sabbathing” break. None of those really reflect how the Bible talks about the Sabbath. God calls it a holy day of rest. It’s a day that belongs to Him and which He shares with His people. It’s really, really important to Him.

“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to Yahweh. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall surely be put to death. Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.”

Exodus 31:15-17, WEB

This command is found in Exodus, but the Sabbath dates all the way back to the first pages of Genesis. God made the Sabbath holy time from the very foundation of the world. Jesus upheld the Sabbath’s importance, teaching on the Sabbath day and describing it as something “made for man” which He is Lord of. The times when you see people like the Pharisees complaining about Jesus breaking the Sabbath, what He’s actually doing is getting rid of the additional restrictions Jewish leaders had piled up on top of God’s original intent (Mark 2:23-28; John 5:14-18). In John 5:18, for example, the Greek word for “broke” is lou (G3089), which means to set loose something that has been bound or tied up.

This is a long digression from Isaiah, but it’s necessary background before we look at the three passages in Isaiah 40-66 where God talks about Sabbath keeping. The Sabbath is a sign of God’s covenant with His people. It didn’t go away after He established a new and better covenant. It became even more special because the closer our relationships with God grows and the more like Him we become, the more we should value the things that He values. That’s why I (and an ever-growing number of other Christians and Messianic Jews) still keep the Sabbath from Friday night at sunset to Saturday night at sunset, just like Jesus and His followers did.

Image shows a Bible lying open. It is overlaid with a quote from Isaiah 56:1-2, NET version: He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
Image by Lamppost Collective from Lightstock

All People Welcomed

One of the reasons that we know God has always been interested in expanding His family beyond one physical nation is because of what He says in Isiah 56. In this passage, God promises that His house will be a place for all people and nations. Those without families of their own and who’ve come in from nations outside Israel are just as important to Him as anyone who grew up in the faith. It’s a longer section than I usually block quote, but I encourage you to read the whole thing slowly (if you’re like me, you’re always tempted to skimp when you see large quotes).

Yahweh says,

“Maintain justice
    and do what is right,
for my salvation is near
    and my righteousness will soon be revealed.
Blessed is the man who does this,
    and the son of man who holds it fast;
who keeps the Sabbath without profaning it
    and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”

Let no foreigner who has joined himself to Yahweh speak, saying,
    “Yahweh will surely separate me from his people.”
    Do not let the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”

For Yahweh says, “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
    choose the things that please me,
    and hold fast to my covenant,
I will give them in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name better than of sons and of daughters.
    I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.

Also the foreigners who join themselves to Yahweh
    to serve him,
and to love Yahweh’s name,
    to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath from profaning it,
    and holds fast my covenant,
I will bring these to my holy mountain,
    and make them joyful in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;
    for my house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The Lord Yahweh, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says,
    “I will yet gather others to him,
    in addition to his own who are gathered.”

Isaiah 56:1-8, WEB

Isn’t this a beautiful passage? Think of what it meant to be a eunuch, unable to have children, in a society where family and community was so vitally important. Think of how alone you might feel as a foreigner who likely had to cut ties with your own people to join one that followed a different God. Then, into all those feelings of isolation and worry, here comes the almighty, powerful God saying that if you keep His Sabbath and respect His covenant He’ll make you fully part of the best family ever.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that God speaks of the people who are keeping the Sabbath and holding onto His covenant as “joyful in my house of prayer.” How could you feel anything other than joy hearing this?

Also notice that this passage speaks of our present and future; it’s not just for people of the distant past. There are a lot of future-tense words in there, and it wasn’t until Jesus’ first coming that we started to see God’s temple–which is currently made up of all believers–become “a house of prayer for all people” (Mark 11:15-17; Eph. 2:11-13). These promises to those who join God’s covenant are still for us today.

Image shows a Bible lying open. It is overlaid with a quote from Isaiah 58:13-14, NET version: "“You must observe the Sabbath
rather than doing anything you please on my holy day.
You must look forward to the Sabbath
and treat the Lord’s holy day with respect. ...
Then you will find joy in your relationship to the Lord,
and I will give you great prosperity.”
Image by Lamppost Collective from Lightstock

Finding Joy in Your Relationship With God

I’m always surprised by people who think that Sabbath keeping is some kind of burden when I tell them why I don’t work on Saturdays. Even just from a human perspective, who wouldn’t want a whole day of rest each week? From a spiritual perspective, spending holy time with God for a day ought to sound like one of the best ideas ever, and God thinks so too. In fact, He says Sabbath keeping directly leads to a joyful relationship with Him.

“You must observe the Sabbath
rather than doing anything you please on my holy day.
You must look forward to the Sabbath
and treat the Lord’s holy day with respect.
You must treat it with respect by refraining from your normal activities,
and by refraining from your selfish pursuits and from making business deals.
Then you will find joy in your relationship to the Lord,
and I will give you great prosperity,
and cause crops to grow on the land I gave to your ancestor Jacob.”
Know for certain that the Lord has spoken.

Isaiah 58:13-14, NET

I like the way the NET Bible translates these verses. There are Hebrew idioms in this passage that can seem a bit confusing if you try to read them too literally, but this translation leaves no doubt about the intended meaning. “You must observe the Sabbath … You must look forward to the Sabbath and treat the Lord’s holy day with respect.” No ifs, ands, or buts.

God’s character and priorities don’t change (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8). Jesus didn’t come to destroy the law (including the Sabbath command), but to fill it to the fullest spiritual extent and reveal that God always wanted obedience from the heart rather than just going through the motions (Ex. 20:8-11; Matt. 5:17-20). When we read God’s word here in Isaiah, we can know He means them for us today as well as for the original audience. The commands here are for us, and so is the promise: “Then you will find joy in your relationship to the Lord, and I will give you great prosperity.”

A Future of Sabbaths With God

Image with the blog post's title and a picture of people sitting in church services. It is overlaid with the words, "In Isaiah, God promises blessings of joy and belonging to those who faithfully keep His covenant and His Sabbath. Those promises are still available for us today."
Image by Brown Bag Photography from Lightstock

Many parts of the last 27 chapters of Isaiah refer to things which are still in our futures. One of those prophetic passages reveals that people will still be keeping God’s holy Sabbath day in the future after Jesus’s second coming when God makes a new heaven and a new earth (Is. 65:17; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1).

“For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me,” says Yahweh, “so your offspring and your name shall remain. It shall happen that from one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh will come to worship before me,” says Yahweh.

Isaiah 66:22-23, WEB

This passage at the end of Isaiah begins with God saying He wants a relationship with a person “who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at my word” (Is. 66:2, WEB). When we’re humble in our spirits and honor God’s word, one of the ways we can show our respect is by following His commandments. It’s not that hard; Jesus’s “yoke is easy to bear” “and his commandments do not weigh us down” (Matt. 11:29-30; 1 John 5:2-4). Keeping God’s commandments–including the ones about the Sabbath–is a privilege and a joy. And if we’re going to spend eternity with God, it’s something we’ll be doing forever.

If you’ve been keeping God’s Sabbath for years, I invite you to let this study of Isaiah reinvigorate your Sabbath-keeping and remind you of the joy this day brings. If Sabbath-keeping is a new concept to you or it’s something you haven’t thought is important for New Testament Christians, I hope this study gives you something to think about. The world can make it challenging to take one day off each week and spend it with God, but the rewards are well worth any inconvenience. As God promises in Isaiah, “You must observe the Sabbath … then you will find joy in your relationship to the Lord” (Is. 58:13-14, NET).

Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock

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