Life, Hope & Truth

From the May/June 2018 issue of Discern Magazine

The Sabbath Isn’t Optional

A long time ago, God allowed a pagan nation to destroy His temple and His people. By learning why, we can come to a deeper understanding of what He expects from His people today.

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The wind howled through the streets of the ruined city, but no one was there to hear it.

Once, those streets had been filled with life—traveling merchants selling their wares, men and women heading here and there on errands, children laughing and playing games. Now, they were empty. The air was filled with acrid smoke; splintered wood crackled and smoldered. The buildings of the city had been burned to the ground; its outer wall had been smashed to pieces; and its temple had been plundered and burned.

Jerusalem was destroyed.

For centuries, the city had stood as the homeland of God’s people. It housed a magnificent temple built by one of its greatest kings, dedicated to the Eternal God, the Creator and Sustainer of all life. After that temple was built, God promised, “My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to prayer made in this place. For now I have chosen and sanctified this house, that My name may be there forever; and My eyes and My heart will be there perpetually” (2 Chronicles 7:15-16).

But in 586 B.C. Babylon’s military forces broke through Jerusalem’s defenses and swept through the city, slaughtering its inhabitants as they went and making captives of those who remained. They captured the king, burned the palaces, and stripped everything of value from God’s temple.

What happened to “forever”? What happened to “perpetually”? Did God abandon His people to the Babylonians?

Quite the opposite, actually—God’s people abandoned Him.

Terms and conditions

God’s promise to be attentive to the prayers made in His temple came with a caveat:

“If you turn away and forsake My statutes and My commandments which I have set before you, and go and serve other gods, and worship them, then I will uproot them from My land which I have given them; and this house which I have sanctified for My name I will cast out of My sight, and will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples.

“And as for this house, which is exalted, everyone who passes by it will be astonished and say, ‘Why has the LORD done thus to this land and this house?’ Then they will answer, ‘Because they forsook the LORD God of their fathers, who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and embraced other gods, and worshiped them and served them; therefore He has brought all this calamity on them’” (2 Chronicles 7:19-20, 21-22).

God promised to take care of His people as long as they behaved like His people. That meant following His rules. That meant not chasing after the false gods of the nations around them. If they decided to ignore God’s standards and worship statues and carvings of imaginary deities, things wouldn’t go well. His people would lose His protection and blessings. He would personally ensure the destruction of His temple, and He would allow His people to be taken captive by foreign nations.

But His people didn’t listen. Again and again, the nations of Israel and Judah pursued the gods of the nations around them, adding things like ritual prostitution and child sacrifice to their worship of the true God (Jeremiah 32:31-32, 33-34, 35).

God was patient. He sent warning after warning—gave His people opportunity after opportunity—but they refused to change their course. “I have sent to you all My servants the prophets,” He said, “rising early and sending them, saying, ‘Oh, do not do this abominable thing that I hate!’ But they did not listen or incline their ear to turn from their wickedness, to burn no incense to other gods” (Jeremiah 44:4-5).

Eventually, “the LORD could no longer bear it, because of the evil of your doings and because of the abominations which you committed. Therefore your land is a desolation, an astonishment, a curse, and without an inhabitant, as it is this day. Because you have burned incense and because you have sinned against the LORD, and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD or walked in His law, in His statutes or in His testimonies, therefore this calamity has happened to you, as at this day” (verses 22-23).

God’s people were done with Him, so He made it official. Through the prophet Hosea, He told them, “You are not My people, and I will not be your God” (Hosea 1:9).

Ignored, despised, profaned

God had instructed Israel to observe His Sabbath days, telling them to “walk in My statutes, keep My judgments, and do them; hallow My Sabbaths, and they will be a sign between Me and you, that you may know that I am the LORD your God” (Ezekiel 20:19-20).

It was their opportunity to have a close and meaningful relationship with their Creator—and to reap all the blessings of that relationship. The weekly Sabbath day especially would serve as a special reminder that they were the people of God, and that He had given them a valuable set of laws, “which, if a man does, he shall live by them” (Ezekiel 20:21).

Because Israel refused to follow God—“because they had not executed My judgments, but had despised My statutes, profaned My Sabbaths, and their eyes were fixed on their fathers’ idols” (verse 24)—God “gave them up to statutes that were not good, and judgments by which they could not live … that I might make them desolate and that they might know that I am the LORD” (verses 25-26).

God’s people wanted to know what it was like to not be God’s people—they wanted to be like the other nations around them (verse 32; 1 Samuel 8:20)—so He allowed it. He stepped back and let them follow their own rules—rules that eventually led to their total collapse as a society.

The city of Jerusalem would remain ruined for 70 years “to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths. As long as she lay desolate she kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years” (2 Chronicles 36:21).

But the story doesn’t end there.

The restoration

The wind howled through the streets of the ruined city, but all was not lost.

Jerusalem was destroyed, but God had not abandoned it entirely. Even as He gave Jerusalem over to the Babylonians, He had a plan—a plan that’s still in process.

God describes a future time when “I will have mercy on her who had not obtained mercy; then I will say to those who were not My people, ‘You are My people!’ And they shall say, ‘You are my God!’” (Hosea 2:23).

He talks about future priests who “shall keep My laws and My statutes in all My appointed meetings, and they shall hallow My Sabbaths” (Ezekiel 44:24, emphasis added throughout).

God has a plan for restoring Israel—but that plan is bigger than just one nation. “‘And it shall come to pass that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me,’ says the LORD” (Isaiah 66:23).

The Sabbath is important to God. Even now. Even today. It was important to Him long ago, and prophecy tells us it will be important to Him in the future. The New Testament Church continued to observe the seventh-day Sabbath, and the Sabbath remains a sign of God’s people today.The Sabbath is important to God. Even now. Even today. It was important to Him long ago, and prophecy tells us it will be important to Him in the future. The New Testament Church continued to observe the seventh-day Sabbath (Acts 13:14, 42, 44; 17:2; 18:4), and the Sabbath remains a sign of God’s people today.

Israel and Judah were destroyed, in part, because they refused to treat God’s Sabbaths with respect. Following God means walking in His statutes and keeping His judgments, and the Sabbath command is an integral part of that. We cannot be God’s people if we refuse to make those Sabbaths part of our lives. It didn’t work for Israel, and it won’t work for us.

Looking for the church behind Life, Hope & Truth? See our “Who We Are” page.

The streets of tomorrow

In the future, when the whole world is introduced to God’s Sabbath, God promises, “I will return to Zion, and dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth, the Mountain of the LORD of hosts, the Holy Mountain” (Zechariah 8:3).

After Babylon leveled Jerusalem and left its streets empty and desolate, the land enjoyed the Sabbaths its people had refused to acknowledge. But the Jerusalem of the future will be different—its streets won’t be empty at all:

“Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each one with his staff in his hand because of great age. The streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets’” (verses 4-5).

The Bible’s prophecies show us a future filled with peace and security—but more than that, they show us a future filled with joy. Old men and old women sitting, talking, reminiscing. Little children laughing and playing outside, without fear.

That’s not our world today. But it’s a world that’s coming—a world filled with people who will learn to succeed where Israel failed a long time ago. They’ll learn to walk in God’s statutes, to keep His judgments and to hallow His Sabbaths.

But until that day comes, God expects us to live by the truths He’s revealed to us. If we want to be part of a world where the streets are filled with joy, we already know what we need to be doing.

We know we need to walk in God’s statutes.

We know we need to keep His judgments.

And we know the Sabbath isn’t optional.

Our booklet The Sabbath: A Neglected Gift From God explores the blessing God intended the Sabbath to be and why so few remember it today.

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