Here is one of my favorite Sabbath stories in the Old Testament. It’s an engaging description of Nehemiah’s godly zeal in reinstating some forsaken Sabbath practices in Judah.
In those days I saw people in Judah treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and loading donkeys with wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them about the day on which they were selling provisions. Men of Tyre dwelt there also, who brought in fish and all kinds of goods, and sold them on the Sabbath to the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem.
Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said to them, “What evil thing is this that you do, by which you profane the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers do thus, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring added wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.”
So it was, at the gates of Jerusalem, as it began to be dark before the Sabbath, that I commanded the gates to be shut, and charged that they must not be opened till after the Sabbath. Then I posted some of my servants at the gates, so that no burdens would be brought in on the Sabbath day. Now the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice.
Then I warned them, and said to them, “Why do you spend the night around the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you!” From that time on they came no more on the Sabbath. And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should go and guard the gates, to sanctify the Sabbath day.
Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of Your mercy! (Nehemiah 13:15-22)
Spend the night.
In a somewhat humorous turn of events, the merchants stayed outside the gates all night, so eager were they to sell their goods. Not until Nehemiah threatened them with harm did they disperse.
“So far is he from thinking that what he had done did properly merit a reward in strict justice that he cries earnestly to God to spare him, as Jeremiah (Jer 15:15)…. Note, The best saints, even when they do the best actions, stand in need of sparing mercy; for there is not a just man that doeth good and sinneth not” (Matthew Henry).
In other words, a perfect Sabbath observance is no more meritorious in God’s eyes than the basest sin—that is to say, not at all. Even in the midst of reinstating aspects of God’s law, Nehemiah saw his need for the mercy of God, which comes apart from our adherence to the law of God.
Commentaries Cited from
Hall, Kay. Online Bible. Beersheba Springs: Ken Hamel, 2000. CD-ROM.
An Exposition of the Old and New Testament, by Matthew Henry