A couple of weeks ago I was working with people from three different language groups south of here. They were all trying to translate the 10 commandments into their languages. Although all three language groups have many Christians, they are from an animistic background and many of their neighbors are still animists. They found that nobody really knew what the “sabbath” meant, not even church people. So we discussed ways of translating it that would be meaningful, like “Resting Day” or “Stopping Day”. That was okay. But what do you do with “Remember the sabbath and keep it holy”? What exactly is a “holy” day? They do not have words for “holy”. In some contexts one could use “clean” if the meaning was understood to be “free from sin”. And earlier we had talked about a “holy mountain” and a holy place” in Exodus chapter 3. Mt Horeb is referred to as the “holy mountain” or “the mountain of God”. That gives the idea of the place being “holy” because God appears there. So when Moses was commanded to take off his shoes because the ground was “holy”, it was because he was in the presence of God.
But what does it mean to keep a day “holy”? Certainly “clean” or “free from sin” doesn’t fit here – that would imply you were free to sin on the other 6 days! A day when God appears? Not exactly. They were suggesting things like “go to church” or “a day to meet with God”. “a day to worship God”, “a day to pray and praise God”. But when you think about it, none of those things were specifically commanded. All are certainly good things to do, but none is really complete. I suppose if God had given a list of specifics undoubtedly the corrupt heart of man would have reasoned that do those things and tick them off and you’re done! No, it’s not that easy. The essence of keeping the sabbath holy is an attitude of mind. If you set the day apart as holy you may do many or all of those things. But neither are those things limited to the sabbath. You should pray and praise God EVERY day. You should meet with God EVERY day. EVERY day should be a sin-free day! Here the meaning is to make the day special in order to honor God. To stop working because you honor God. He commanded it, and He rested Himself giving us an example to follow. A “holy” day here means a special day, a day set aside, dedicated to God. All He actually commanded was to rest. To cease from daily labor. Why? As a reminder of the covenant between God and the Israelites. As a reminder that He had created the world in 6 days and then rested. To honor Him as their God, they observed the sabbath.