The Ten Commandments: The Fourth


When I see the Ten Commandments summarized artistically and framed for purchase to hang on the walls of a Christian home, I often wonder if the Fourth Commandment, Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy (Exodus 20:8), ought not to be chiseled out.

Christians will for the most part acknowledge the binding nature of all other nine commandments.  But the fourth is so often discarded, severing God’s Law right through the middle and cutting out its heart.

Not only is the Fourth Commandment by far the longest of the ten in number of verses and words, it is placed right in the center.  Reflecting ancient eastern peace treaties, two copies of the Ten Commandments were made—one for the people and one for their King.  In such peace treaties, the king would stamp his sovereign signature in the middle of the documents as an official sign of rule and relationship with his people.  In this case, the Fourth Commandment as central bears Christ’s covenant signature over His Church.  What’s more, Exodus 31:13, 16-17 teaches us that keeping the Fourth Commandment is the very sign of being God’s covenant people:

Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you ... Wherefore 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 for ever: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.

Notice also that the same reason to keep the Sabbath given here is that of Exodus 20:11: God’s own creation ordinance and example in Genesis 2 for us to obey and follow.  The word “Sabbath” means rest (where we get the word, “sabbatical”).  When we rest from our work to make time to worship on the Christian Sabbath we reflect Christ and show we are His, resting in Him.  Conversely, in Deuteronomy 5:15 God gives a different reason to keep the Sabbath—it is a sign that we are not unholy children of this world nor still slaves to it.

Exodus 20:11 also reflects Genesis 2:3 for further sanction to obey—God blessed and sanctified the Sabbath.  He spoke well of it, praised it, bestowed it with favor and power, and cherished it as holy.  So should we.  Once during a Presbytery exam, a retired pastor asked a ministerial candidate if he had come to see the Sabbath as a gift.  So Isaiah unwraps before us the true blessing of keeping the Fourth Commandment in actions, words, and heart:

If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words:  Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. (Isaiah 58:13-14)

Keeping the Sabbath holy by resting from our works that are lawful on other days[1] for devoted public and private worship is hardly a family tradition in most Christian homes today.  But it should be.  Just as we set apart other days differently for anniversaries and birthdays to honor the persons they represent so we should be happy to set apart the Sabbath as the Lord’s Day to honor and enjoy Him in it.

Too often the excuse given not to keep the Sabbath and skip worship is so that one can work and provide for the family.  We should consider God’s test in Exodus 16: those who went out to gather manna on the Sabbath found themselves coming back with empty hands.

Rest on the Lord’s Day.  Delight in Him all the day so that your family’s life is not found empty especially of the Bread of Life while reflecting a big whole in the middle of the Ten Commandments and your relationship with God.[2]

Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Evangelical Church of America in San Diego, CA, since 2010.  He and his wife, Fernanda, have five covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, Isaac, and Gabriel.  He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

[1] See Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 60 and Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 17 and 121.

[2] For a thorough study and application of the Fourth Commandment, see Westminster Larger Catechism questions and answers 115-121.


Grant Van Leuven