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A Delightful Restriction

Early in our marriage, with a growing family of infants, toddlers, and young children from whom we rarely took a break, Debby and I established something of a tradition. Our anniversary was the day to shop for turtlenecks to get the kids ready for winter. Sometimes we also had dinner alone together, but that wasn’t very common.

But through all these thirty years, what we’ve wanted most to do on our anniversaries was just to spend time enjoying each other—in the early years, getting to know each other better, and as time went on, remembering together the blessings of our past.

Our anniversaries could have been more delightful had we been able, every year, to clear everything else off our schedules and devote the time entirely to each other. Some years we achieved that pretty well, but not many. Most of the time other obligations crowded in on us, and some anniversaries were tarnished with unwanted intrusions.

The fault has been mine. I should have carefully marked off each day and kept business and other concerns from encroaching on it. I should have dedicated myself to making the day thoroughly enjoyable for my beloved bride.

Did you know that Old Testament law actually provided for something much like that? Not just for one day in a year, but for every day through an entire year? Listen to Deuteronomy 24:5:

When a man has taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war or be charged with any business; he shall be free at home one year, and bring happiness to his wife whom he has taken.

Think about that for a minute. The newlywed man is forbidden to go out to war, and indeed no business obligations are to be laid upon him. He is to be at home with his bride for the sole purpose of bringing happiness to her. That is to be his focus for an entire year: to make his bride happy.

Wives, think back on your first year of marriage. Would you have appreciated it if your husband had set aside all business and spent every day focused on making you happy—whatever that meant? Suppose he had done all the dishes? Or all the vacuuming, or mopping, or laundry? Suppose he had made sure to spend time in prayer and reading the Scriptures with you every morning and evening, and maybe even at noon? Or had simply sat down to listen to you for as long as you wanted to talk—and listened carefully enough that when he said something in response, it was always pertinent and helpful, arising from genuine understanding, and never from self-defense?

Suppose he had realized that, in order to bring you true happiness, he needed to work on his own relationship with Christ, since without maturity he wouldn’t be able to minister well to you, and so he had devoted significant time every day to prayer and the Scriptures and good Christian books on doctrine, holy living, marriage, and other important matters, and had frequently sought counsel from older, more mature Christians, including about how to please you?

Suppose he had paid careful attention to your wardrobe and jewelry collection and taken you out from time to time just to get you beautiful things? Or had encouraged you to go and see friends or family, with or without him, from time to time?

Okay, maybe by now you women are thinking, “Good grief, he’d drive me crazy!”

But think again. Remember what the verse says: He’s to focus on one thing, and one thing only: bringing happiness to you. That means he’s going to learn what drives you crazy—and steer clear of it! He’s going to give you the time alone and the time with others, with or without him, that you need.

He’s not going to drive you crazy. He’s going to drive you happy!

Would you have welcomed such a first year in marriage?

And now, you husbands, think about it. Just suppose for a moment that you’d had the financial freedom to spend the whole first year of your marriage focused on just one thing: making your bride happy. And suppose for a moment that you’d been spiritually mature enough really to lose yourself in doing that—to find nothing in life more delightful than making your wife happy.

Do you think it might have made a difference for the rest of your marriage? Do you think making her happy every day might have made you more happy? Do you think it might have helped the two of you be better lovers? Better parents? Better friends, not just to each other but also to others at church, in your neighborhood, or at work?

I think we all know the answer. Such a first year of marriage could have made all the difference in the world.

Now I want you to think about an imaginary couple, Juan and Christina.

A month or two before their wedding, Juan’s super-rich uncle comes to them and says, “Juan, Christina, I really want to see your marriage get off to a good start, so here’s my signed and sworn promise—notarized right here—to pay all your expenses, not just for necessities but for whatever you two want to do that’s godly and enjoyable, for the first year, including traveling wherever you wish around the world. I also promise to ensure that Juan has a good job starting the day after your first anniversary. The only condition I require is that you spend that whole year making Christina happy.”

I understand, it’s pretty far fetched, but use your imagination.

Now, wouldn’t you think it pretty strange if Juan responded, “You know, Uncle Mario, I don’t like that restriction. I want to do my own thing, serve myself, make myself happy. Sure, I’ll take the money if you want to give it to me, but it’s oppressive and legalistic for you to insist that I spend the year making Christina happy”?

Now think back to the bridegroom in ancient Israel. He’s about to marry the girl of his dreams, and then somebody reminds him, “Hey, Shmuel, remember Deuteronomy 24:5! You can’t go out to battle, and you can’t work, for a whole year. You have to spend the whole year just making Hannah happy!”

Do you think Shmuel would have responded, “You can’t be serious! Forget it! God wouldn’t burden me with spending a whole year relaxing with my wife and making her happy! I want to go out to war! I want to march for hours every day in heat and dust and be around other hot, sweaty, smelly, tired, grumbling men. I want to get into fights and get splattered with other men’s blood and guts and itch and stink for days before I get a chance to bathe. I want to get knocked out by clubs, have my arm broken, maybe get an arrow through my thigh! I want to pine away for home and long for Hannah but not be able to have her. And when I do come home, I want to wear myself out working twelve-hour days digging, planting, cultivating, harvesting, building fences and barns, carrying bundles of sheaves to market, fighting off wolves and lions from my sheep! And wouldn’t it be cool if I could get killed in battle before I ever have a chance to come back and raise a family with her?!”

Is that how you think Shmuel would have responded?

Of course not. That law in Deuteronomy 24:5 offered newlyweds the chance of a lifetime to start their marriages off with consummate joy and happiness, and no bride and groom in their right minds would have balked at it.

Some might have had a hard time making it work out financially (although I bet the common practice of a bride’s parents giving the couple a large gift at the start of the marriage helped). But however difficult it might have been for them to make it happen, I can’t imagine a couple’s having turned down the opportunity and protested that the law was oppressive.

But, my brothers and sisters, many Christians today do essentially that all our lives. We look at one of God’s laws, given us for our great blessing and happiness, and say, AI don’t like it. It’s oppressive. It’s legalistic. I don’t want to live that way. In fact, I’m going to do everything I can to figure out some way to show that the law doesn’t apply to me. After all, it was given to the people of Israel, and Israel’s not around anymore. I just can’t handle the notion of having to take a bunch of time off from work to have fun with my wife and children and our best friends.”

I’m not talking anymore about Deuteronomy 24:5 and the law requiring a man to stay home with his wife and make her happy for a year. I’m talking about the Fourth Commandment and what God says about it in Isaiah 58.

Here it is:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holySix 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 the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. [Exodus 20:8–11]

And here’s what God says about it in Isaiah 58:13–14:

If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath,

from doing your pleasure on My holy day,

and call the Sabbath a delight,

the holy day of the Lord honorable,

and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways,

nor finding your own pleasure,

nor speaking your own words,

then you shall delight yourself in the Lord;

and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth,

and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father.

The mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Both laws make restrictions, and both contain—the wedding-year law implicitly and the Sabbath law explicitly—promises of great blessing on those who obey them.

Let’s look at Isaiah 58:13–14 backward, starting at its end. It ends with, “The mouth of Jahweh has spoken.” That’s a guarantee.

Remember the promissory note Uncle Mario gave Juan, signed and sworn? That’s what this closing statement is. It’s God’s signature at the end of this marvelous promise—signed, sworn, and sealed. And God keeps all His promises.

What does God promise to those to whom He gives this promissory note? That they will delight in Him, and He will cause them to ride on the high hills of the earth and feed on the heritage of Jacob.

What is it to delight in Jahweh? The Hebrew verb means to be soft, delicate, or dainty. In the form used here, it means to “take exquisite delight” in something or someone. The word is associated with intense pleasure.

For instance, in Isaiah 13:22, palaces—always opulent, magnificent places—are called delightful, and in the passage we’re looking at, in verse 13b, Jahweh tells His people to “call the Sabbath a delight,” using the same adjective. In Isaiah 66:11 it denotes the delight a baby finds in the satisfaction and consolation of nursing at its mother’s breast.

So when you think of what it means for God to tell you that if you will turn from your own pleasure on the Sabbath and call the Sabbath a delight, think of the times when you’ve seen a baby nurse contentedly at its mother’s breast, feeling completely safe and cared for. That’s the idea here.

The exact form of the verb found in verse 14, “then you shall delight yourself in Jahweh,” indicates intense action upon oneself. We might translate it, “take to yourself intense delight” in Jahweh. It’s the same verb we find in Psalm 37:4, that familiar verse that says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

To delight in the Lord, then, is to experience intense, exquisite pleasure, happiness, and joy in communion with Him. As Joey Pipa puts it his book, The Lord’s Day:

To take exquisite pleasure in the Lord is to be overwhelmed by His beauty and glory that are revealed in His attributes and work. To delight in God is to enjoy special communion and fellowship with Him, responding with gratitude and delight as He manifests His love to you. This communion is captured [in the Song of Solomon] by the emblem of a luxuriant garden adorned with beautiful foliage where God meets with you . . . .

Like the pleasure young lovers feel when they get together for the first time after a long separation, such is the pleasure we’re told God will give to those who use His Sabbath as He directs.

God then likens delighting in Him to our “rid[ing] on the high hills of the earth” and being fed “with the heritage of Jacob.”

It can be a little difficult for us, so far removed in time and culture from ancient Israel, to grasp the significance of “riding on the high hills of the earth.” But it harkens back to how God, in Deuteronomy 32:13–14, described what He did when He delivered Israel from Egypt:

He made him [that is, Israel—the whole nation] ride in the heights of the earth,

that he might eat the produce of the fields;

He made him to draw honey from the rock,

and oil from the flinty rock;

curds from the cattle, and milk of the flock, with fat of lambs;

and rams of the breed of Bashan, and goats, with the choicest wheat;

and you drank wine, the blood of the grapes.

In Deuteronomy 33:29, we learn a little more of what was entailed in Israel=s riding in the heights of the earth:

Happy are you, O Israel!

Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord,

the shield of your help and the sword of your majesty!

Your enemies shall submit to you,

and you shall tread down their high places.

This was the language of victory—victory over the enemies of God, the destruction of their pagan worship, with all its abominations, resulting in their submission to the rule of God!

By borrowing that language in His promise to those who honored His Sabbath, made it their delight, and delighted in Him, God implied that observing the Sabbath is part of how we contribute to the expansion and intensification of His Kingdom.

That is, Sabbath observance can be, and should be, linked to evangelism. When unbelieving neighbors, friends, and co-workers see Christians joyfully delighting in the Sabbath, they may in curiosity, even in jealousy, begin asking questions that open the door for gospel witness.

My daughter Susan experienced that. When she went away to college, she made a commitment to herself and to the Lord. She wasn’t going to work at a job, and she wasn’t even going to do homework, on the Lord’s Day. Instead, she was going to spend the day delighting in the Lord by attending worship morning and evening and enjoying good fellowship with friends in the afternoon and evening, or praying, or just relaxing and reading good books unrelated to her studies.

Her college friends thought she was a little weird. But over the months, they saw that Susan—who is very high strung and doesn’t generally handle stress all that well—mellowed every Sunday. They saw how her practice brought a joyful rhythm to her life. Some were Christians who eventually began to embrace the same practice. Others were non-Christians for whom this opened the door to conversation about the love of God shown first in the gift of a day of rest and then in the gospel of Christ—a God who promises to make sure we have everything we need even though one day in seven we’re not working.

If you observe the Lord’s Day in similar fashion, you can find the same benefits in it—and God can use it to open the door to your sharing the gospel with your friends and neighbors, too.

Now back to the text.

I suppose it can also be a little strange for us to think of “feeding” on “the heritage of Jacob.”

“‘The heritage of Jacob?’ You mean the Promised Land? I don’t have a plot in the land of Israel, and I don’t know many Christians who do!”

But that’s not the point at all.

Hebrews 11 explains that the real hope of all the Old Testament saints—the real believers who were children of Abraham not just in the flesh but in the Spirit by faith—wasn’t for a strip of arid land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. No, they desired “a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:16).

What those Old Testament saints really had their hearts set on was “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Hebrews 12:22), “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband,” where “the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God” (Revelation 21:2–3).

The heritage of Jacob is God Himself and the body of believers. What does God promise to those who make the Sabbath their delight? Himself—and a worldwide family of brothers and sisters!

How can we be assured that we’ll experience the delight God promises here? Verse 13 sets forth the conditions, and it sets them forth in paired requirements and prohibitions.

Now, the moment we hear of prohibitions, the temptation is to be resentful. We don’t like prohibitions. We want to be unrestricted.

But think back to Deuteronomy 25:4, which prohibited a new husband from going to war or even doing business for a year so that he could put all his effort into making his wife happy. Who wouldn’t welcome such a prohibition?! It was really like an invulnerable fortress keeping distractions from interfering with the start of his marriage. It didn’t deprive him of anything. It protected him, and his wife!

That’s how we should see the prohibitions God imposes on our use of the Sabbath:

If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath,

from doing your pleasure on My holy day,

and call the Sabbath a delight,

the holy day of the Lord honorable,

and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways,

nor finding your own pleasure,

nor speaking your own words,

then you shall take to yourself exquisite delight in the Lord . . . .

The prohibitions can be summed up as setting aside our own ways and pleasures, and even our own words, on the Sabbath, and the requirements can be summed up as making the Sabbath a holy day, a day set aside from all other days, a day in which, more than any other day, we honor the Lord with all our attention.

In the Old Testament, Joey Pipa points out in his book The Lord’s Day, God “sanctified places, garments, altars and other such things that they might be dedicated to His worship.”

So making the Sabbath a “holy day” means making it a day on which one refrains from activities common to all the other six days of the week and dedicates it to worship and the true fellowship of the saints so as to honor the Lord by our undivided attention.

To do things on the Sabbath that are common to other days, when they aren’t works of either necessity or mercy (as the Westminster Confession and Catechisms tell us, supported by Scripture), is to profane it—to make it unholy, that is, common.

The instruction to turn from doing our pleasure on the Sabbath can be confusing. “How can the Sabbath be such a delight if on it I’m not allowed to do my pleasure?” The confusion is understandable, but it’s also easily solved.

God isn’t against doing things from which we get pleasure, so long as they don’t violate His moral will expressed in the Ten Commandments. Of course, if we get pleasure from lying, stealing, committing adultery, or worshiping false gods, He forbids that—on any day! But if we get pleasure from making beautiful music, or running or swimming, or painting, or managing a business well, or building fine furniture or cabinetry, or cultivating a farm from which we can harvest an abundant crop, those and uncountable other things are all fine. He encourages us to do such things and enjoy them.

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might,” He tells us in Ecclesiastes 9:10. God isn’t opposed to our doing things in which we take pleasure.

But He wants us to set the Sabbath aside for particular pleasures, pleasures we don’t so easily obtain on the other six days of the week, because our daily responsibilities distract us from them.

Think back once more to the husband God restricted in Deuteronomy 25:4. Now, because he’s made in God’s image to be creative and productive as God is, and to fight evil and protect the innocent as God does, that young man should get pleasure from pursuing his vocation and even going to war if necessary to protect God’s people from enemies. But that first year of marriage was to be set aside. In that year he wasn’t to pursue those other pleasures. He was to concentrate on making his wife happy.

And if he spent that year making her happy, he would be happy, too! If, rather than pursuing his own pleasure, he pursued her pleasure, his pleasure would come, too!

It’s the same lesson we learn from Jesus’ saying, “Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).

That’s the way it is here in Isaiah 58. God’s prohibition of pursuing our own pleasure on the Sabbath doesn’t mean the Sabbath becomes a dreary, sad, dark day. It means it becomes the day of our greatest pleasure, because in it we delight in the greatest object of our pleasure, God Himself, and in God’s people.

On the Sabbath, we avoid the activities, even the pleasures, common to the other six days of the week not because they’re bad in themselves, and not because we’re ascetics who think somehow we get closer to God by torturing ourselves, but because we don’t want them, good as they are, interfering with our drawing nearer to God and experiencing that exquisite delight that comes from knowing Him better and better week in and week out for a lifetime.

All this should make it clear why, if we are to abide by the instructions here in Isaiah 58:13–14, we mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s enough just to set aside an hour or two on Sunday mornings for church.

Neither in the Fourth Commandment nor here in Isaiah 58 do we encounter the word morning or hour. What we are told to sanctify, to keep holy, to set apart from all other days, is the Sabbath day. Through the whole day, we set aside our ordinary pleasures, not to deprive ourselves of pleasure but to dive into the deepest, purest, greatest pleasure there is—the pleasure of knowing, loving, enjoying, taking delight in, worshiping, adoring, praising, and communing with our blessed King and Savior, and though much of that comes when we do it together in worship with our brothers and sisters who also love and adore Him, not all of it does!

“Okay,” you say. “I get it. But now I’ve got a problem. The Sabbath was to be the seventh day—Saturday. So why do we worship on the first day—Sunday?

There are some technical things about the Jewish calendar that meant that the Sabbath actually changed from one day of the week to another several times each year, so it wasn’t always Saturday. But set those aside for now.

Noticing the different reasons given in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 for keeping the Sabbath holy can help us with this. In Exodus, the basis for the Sabbath is that God rested when He’d finished creation—not, by the way, because He was tired (He couldn’t be!), but because He wanted just to take time to enjoy the fruit of His labor—which means that rest from physical fatigue isn’t the chief purpose of the Sabbath. In Deuteronomy, the basis for Israel’s keeping the Sabbath is God’s having delivered it from bondage and slavery in Egypt. The Sabbath commandment, in other words, is rooted in both creation and redemption, and it signifies our freedom from bondage and our enjoyment of God’s creation—which, we shall see in a moment, is both the world around us and the body of believers.

The Jews celebrated the Sabbath on the last day of the week, looking back at God’s finished creation and their finished deliverance from Egypt, and forward at the promised Messiah and eternal rest to come. We celebrate it on the first day of the week, looking back on Christ’s finished work of suffering through the Passion Week, culminating in His death on the Cross and His time in the grave, tasting death for us, by which He accomplished His new creation, the church, and from which He rested in His Resurrection on the first day of the week, crowning His labors as sufficient, and we look forward to Christ=s return and our entry into that eternal rest in the New Heavens and New Earth.

Let me address one last matter before I conclude. Isn’t the Sabbath commandment really restricted to the old covenant? Wasn’t it a sign of God’s special covenant with Israel? And doesn’t that mean it doesn’t obligate anyone now?

Joey Pipa answers this objection well in his book The Lord’s Day:

We do not use this line of reasoning with the wonderful things the Old Testament says about marriage or the place of our children in the Covenant. Why use it here? The moral and spiritual commands, as well as many of the Old Testament promises, apply to us, and we may not dismiss a threat or promise simply because it is found in the Old Testament.

Among other things, we consider the context of the promise when seeking to determine how it applies. This entire section of Isaiah refers ultimately to Jesus Christ and the New Covenant people. The section begins with the famous promise of the suffering servant in chapter 53. In chapter 54:1–3 the prophet assures the church of its world-wide outreach . . . . In chapter 55:1 he calls sinners to repentance . . . . All of this material refers to the New Testament era.

In chapter 56 God begins to relate the Sabbath to the New Testament people. He says in 56:2–5: “How blessed is the man who … keeps from profaning the Sabbath, and keeps his hand from doing any evil. Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from His people.’ Neither let the eunuch say, ‘Behold I am a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord, ‘To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant, to them I will give in My house and within My walls‘ [emphasis added] a memorial.

How do we know that this applies to the New Testament era? Because only in the gospel era may a eunuch enjoy the privileges promised here. In Deuteronomy 23:1, God declares that a eunuch may not enter the house of the Lord. Here, anticipating the reign of Christ, God promises the eunuch that he shall receive a great memorial name in the house of the Lord. The prophet is relating Sabbath keeping to the days of the New Covenant and the glories of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Yes, there were aspects of the weekly Sabbath that were specially restricted to Israel’s covenantal relationship with God as a church under age and a body politic, such as a priest’s not using the day to pick up sticks and build a fire lest it distract him from his service in the Tabernacle or the Temple. Those aspects no longer apply.

But the Sabbath commandment itself, because it is rooted in both creation and the redeeming work of Christ, both of which reach far beyond Israel, applies to all people, everywhere, at all times. While it had ceremonial and civil elements that have passed away, its moral element abides forever. That non-Christians ignore it, as they do many others of God’s commands, doesn’t excuse us from observing it.

To everyone who sincerely honors the Sabbath day—who turns from his own pleasures and makes the Sabbath his delight—the Lord promises that he will take to himself exquisite delight in the Lord Himself and even experience victory over spiritual enemies, whether those enemies are sin within or opponents without. “Sabbath-keeping,” Pipa points out, is thus “a means of grace that will help you die to sin and grow in holiness.”

Let me set before you, in closing, a challenge from Dr. Pipa. “Is it not possible,” he asks, “that one reason for the spiritual weakness of the church is her failure to honor God on the Lord’s day? Is it not possible that one reason our churches are not more effective in reaching the lost is because we are not practicing the Sabbath keeping that brings us victory? Could this be true of us as individuals as well? Is it not possible that you continue to fall under the dominion of some particular sin because you have refused to sanctify God’s day in your heart? We lack victory because we have failed to recognize and utilize one of the God-given means of victory, while those who keep the Sabbath have victory.”

Hear afresh this wonderful promise from the Lord:

If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath,

from doing your pleasure on My holy day,

and call the Sabbath a delight,

the holy day of the Lord honorable,

and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways,

nor finding your own pleasure,

nor speaking your own words,

then you shall delight yourself in the Lord;

and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth,

and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father.

The mouth of the Lord has spoken.

 

 

Featured image “Switzerland mountains” courtesy of sbmeaper1, Flickr creative commons.

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