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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Mark 2



Other Authors
Verse 1


(1) And again he entered into Capernaum.—See Notes on Matthew 9:1-8. St. Mark alone names Capernaum, St. Matthew describing it as “His own city.” The house may have been Peter’s, as before in Mark 1:29.

Verse 2

(2) No, not so much as about the door.—Another of St. Mark’s graphic touches of description.

He preached the word.—Literally, He spake the word.

Verse 3

(3) Borne of four.—The number of the bearers is given by St. Mark only.

Verse 4

(4) They uncovered the roof . . . when they had broken it up.—The strong expressions of the injury done to the roof are peculiar to St. Mark. St. Luke gives, “through the tiles.”

They let down the bed.—St. Mark uses a different word from St. Matthew, the Greek form of the Latin word grabatus, the pallet or camp-bed used by the poor. The same word appears in John 5:8-10, and in Acts 5:15; Acts 9:33, but not at all in St. Matthew or St. Luke.

Verse 6

(6) Certain of the scribes.—These are described by St. Luke (Luke 5:17) as “having come from every village of Galilee, and Judæa, and Jerusalem.”

Verse 7

(7) Why doth this man . . .?—The better MSS. give, “Why doth this Man thus speak? He blasphemeth.”

Verse 8

(8) When Jesus perceived in his spirit.—The special mention of the spirit as the region of our Lord’s consciousness is, as part of this narrative, peculiar to St. Mark, and is not without importance in its bearing on the reality and completeness of our Lord’s human nature.

Verse 12

(12) We never saw it on this fashion.—St. Matthew gives the substance but not the words. St. Luke, “We have seen strange things to-day.”

Verses 14-17

(14-17) Levi the son of Alphæus.—See Notes on Matthew 9:9-13. St. Mark and St. Luke agree in giving the name Levi, the former alone describes him as the son of Alphæus.

Verse 17

(17) I came not to call the righteous.—Closely as the three accounts agree, it is noticeable that here also St. Mark and St. Luke, as writing for Gentile readers, omit the reference which we find in Matthew 9:13, to the words cited by our Lord from the Old Testament.

Verses 18-22

(18-22) And the disciples of John. . . . used to fast.—Better, were fasting. See Notes on Matthew 9:14-17. The only difference in detail between the two accounts is that in St. Matthew the disciples of John are more definitely specified as being the questioners.

Verses 23-28

(23-28) And it came to pass.—See Notes on Matthew 12:1-8.

As they went . . .—More literally, they began to make a path (or perhaps, to make their way), plucking the ears of corn.

Verse 26

(26) In the days of Abiathar the high priest.—St. Mark’s is the only record that gives the name of the high priest, and in so doing it creates an historical difficulty. In 1 Samuel 21:1, Ahimelech is named as exercising the high priest’s office in the Tabernacle at Nob. He is slain by Doeg, at the command of Saul, and his son Abiathar joins David at the cave of Adullam (1 Samuel 22:20), and continues to act as high priest till his deposition by Solomon (1 Kings 2:26). Two conjectural explanations suggest themselves as probable: (1) that St. Mark, or that our Lord, may have given the name of the more famous priest of the two, who, though not then high-priest, was at the Tabernacle at the time referred to; (2) that he might have acted then as a coadjutor to his father, as Eli’s sons seem to have done to him (1 Samuel 4:4), and being, as his flight showed, of David’s party, was the chief agent in allowing him to take the shew-bread.

Verse 27

The Gift of the Sabbath

The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.—Mark 2:27.

The innocent act of plucking corn and eating it as one went along, was regarded by the Pharisees as a breach of the commandment which forbade reaping on the Sabbath. This trivial formalism was a reductio ad absurdum of the Pharisaic method of interpreting the law. Our Lord defends the action of His disciples by a three-fold argument. First, He quotes the example of David at Nob, as a scriptural precedent for the breaking of a ceremonial law when necessity demands it (Mark 2:25-26). Then, taking a wider ground, He shows the meaning of the institution of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). It was a provision for man’s benefit, and therefore was of relative, not absolute, obligation. Our Saviour here enunciates a principle with regard to religious observances which is valid for all time. They are means to an end, and are never to be regarded in such a way that the end is sacrificed to the means. Thirdly, He declares that He Himself, as man’s Head and Representative, has the right to control that which was made for the good of man (Mark 2:28). It was a tremendous claim, which, considering the Divine sanction of the ordinance in question, could without blasphemy have been made by no one but the God-Man Himself.1 [Note: J. C. Du Buisson, The Gospel according to St. Mark, 24.]

Our immediate subject is God’s gift to man of the Sabbath. It may be dealt with in two parts—

The History of the Gift

The Use of the Gift


The History of the Gift

i. The Sabbath of Creation

On the sixth day of creation man appears. He is a higher creation. He is to be on earth the representative of God in dominion—one with God; having knowledge, in his measure, like God’s knowledge, life like God’s life, authority like God’s authority, and the possibility of righteousness like God’s righteousness. And how shall man be helped to a true conception of a godlike life—a life, not of indolence, but of strength, repose, and peace? How shall man, with this wealth of material resources, be reminded of his spiritual endowment, mission, and dependence? How shall he be brought into a life of communion with God, his Maker, his Father—a life above the physical life; a life for the development of his spiritual nature, derived from God; a life nobler than a life of physical, commercial, social, political interest and activity; a life of preparation for all other and lower relations and responsibilities? And if man made innocent shall, when tested, fail of virtue and drop to lower levels, how shall he be brought up to righteousness and true holiness? Therefore the inspired poet of the creation added to his time-scale another day—a seventh day, a Lord’s day, a day of Divine rest and of human opportunity. It was not a day of God’s withdrawal from His universe, a day of the suspension of Divine interest and activity. It was an impressive symbol of human need and of the true rest of the soul of man—godlike only when in perfect harmony and communion with Him. Thus the primeval Sabbath was instituted as a reminder of man’s high relationships, and as a help to his highest training for dominion on the earth and for the unutterable glories of his destiny beyond.1 [Note: J. H. Vincent.]

ii. The Sabbath of the Decalogue

The account of the observance of the Sabbath in the sixteenth chapter of Exodus precedes the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. When the manna fell, it marked the Sabbath day. None fell on that day. Twice as much fell on Friday as on any other day. For forty years that standing miracle marked the division of time into weeks, and made one day sacred as a day of rest and of worship. Then when the moral law was given, as you find it in the twentieth chapter of Exodus, observance of the Sabbath was incorporated in it by the finger of God. What else did God ever write with His finger? God’s finger wrote upon the tables of stone, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” He wrote it in what company? “Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” In what other company? “Honour thy father and thy mother.” Do you want to vacate that commandment? And what other? “Thou shalt not kill.” You want to abrogate that? And what other? “Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

Take a single example of the way in which modern states have dealt with the day of rest along the lines of the Decalogue: The law of the State of Indiana and its penalty are found among the General Laws, chap. xxxv., sec. 1: “If any person, of the age of fourteen years and upward, shall be found on the first day of the week, commonly called Sunday, at common labour, or engaged in his usual vocation, works of charity and necessity only excepted, such person shall be fined in any sum not less than one nor more than ten dollars; but nothing herein contained shall be construed to affect such as conscientiously observe the seventh day of the week as the Sabbath.”

iii. The Sabbath of Subsequent Times

Come at once to the fifty-eighth and sixty-sixth chapters of Isaiah, the Messianic part of that book, the very last part of it, that glorious prophetic consummation which commences with the fifty-second chapter and extends to the end, presenting a Saviour who is Christ the Lord, unfolding the glorious hope of eternal life, and describing the crowning glories of Messianic days. Now in the very end of that book, where the prophet stands on tiptoe to see the remotest events, to see the last forecast of man in Messianic days, there he says, “And from one Sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord.”

Not all Jews, but all flesh. And so the Old Testament leaves it. Now how does the New find it? First, in this second chapter of Mark, our Saviour affirms in the broad language of the text that the Sabbath was made for man. What a catholic utterance! How universal in its application! Then, in the twenty-second chapter of Matthew, and from the thirty-fifth to the fortieth verse, we have an instructive lesson. A lawyer came to Him for light on the Ten Commandments: “Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” And He said, “This is the first and great commandment: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, strength, soul, and mind.’” That covers four of the ten, the four that relate to God. “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” That covers the other table of the law.1 [Note: B. H. Carroll.]

1. The Pharisaic Misunderstanding.—I suppose that the Christian conception of religion may be briefly defined as communion with a God who has revealed Himself as a loving Father by the manifestation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To the Jew, on the other hand, religion appeared to be rather communion with a God who had revealed Himself by the law of Moses. What the Lord Jesus Christ is to the Christian, that the law of Moses was to the orthodox Jew of the time of Christ. As it is our aspiration to grow up into the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ, so it was the aspiration of the pious Jew to conform in all respects to the law, or, as St. Luke puts it, “to walk in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” It was, perhaps, almost inevitable under such circumstances that men should study the law with a minute attention to detail which was fatal to the apprehension of the great principles of right which it embodied. It was not that the Scribes and Pharisees (I refer, not to the hypocrites among them, who are always to be found in every religion, but to the sincerely religious men, who were numerous)—it was not that they were wilfully disloyal to the great principles of the law, but that their method of looking to its details rendered them incapable of seeing its general effect. Since they regarded the law as all given by God, they did not, for the most part, perceive the relative importance of the various commandments, nor did they endeavour to trace out the principles underlying them. Their great object was to ensure that no commandment should be passed over. They carefully counted the exact number to be kept, and arrived at the conclusion that there were 365 negative commandments, “Thou shalt not,” or one for every day of the year; 248 positive commandments, “Thou shalt,” or one for every bone of the body.1 [Note: Canon R. H. Kennett.] [Josh Bond's Module Maker Note: The original text above said, " negative commandments". Hastings is trying to say that there are a total of 615 commandments, with 365 being negative and 248 being positive].

Thus it may be said of the majority of religious Jews of the time of Christ that their object was not to mould their lives according to some few great principles, but to keep 613 distinct commandments. Some great men, it is true, were exceptions to this general rule. Thus, a generation or so before the time of Christ, Rabbi Hillel had summed up the whole law to an impatient proselyte in the memorable words quoted in a slightly different form by our blessed Lord Himself: “What thou wouldest not have thy neighbour do unto thee that do not thou to thy neighbour: this is the whole law; all the rest is commentary; go, study.” But among men of less spirituality and genius than Hillel the idea of religion was not to work out a great principle, but to avoid transgression of a number of more or less distinct commandments.2 [Note: Ibid.]

The Rabbis themselves occasionally admitted the principle; see Mechilta, in Exodus 31:13 : “The Sabbath is delivered unto you, and ye are not delivered to the Sabbath.” Our Lord’s words rise higher, and reach further: at the root of the Sabbath law was the love of God for mankind, and not for Israel only.3 [Note: H. B. Swete, The Gospel according to St. Mark, 49.]

2. Christ’s Interpretation.—The Sabbath in Christ’s time was a veil upon the eyes of the people. It blinded the Jews so that they could not see further than the narrow walls of the synagogue, or the exclusive walls of the Temple court. It prevented them beholding any duty on that day further than the hearing of the law, or the offering of the set form of sacrifice. But Jesus Christ came to show them of the Father. A man who, believing that the Sabbath was specially God’s day, and that because it was His day he was on no account to cure a sick man and tell him to realise he was cured by taking up his bed and walking,—on no account to lift an ox or an ass out of a pit, if either of them was the ox or ass of a foreigner,—what could such a man know of the duties of man to man, or of man to lower animals, as children of one Father who is in Heaven? No, the Sabbath, if men were to see in its ordaining the work of a Father of love and pity, mercy and gladness, must be spiritualised. They must make the Sabbath a real Sabbath if they would see that the Maker of it is a real Father.

If this was part of the mind of Jesus Christ, if He came to get men to sit loose to the world, or as St. Paul put it, “to crucify the world unto themselves, and themselves unto the world,” to care little about the kingdom of earth and the glory of it as compared with the Kingdom of Heaven—if Jesus came to show men of the Father of their spirits, and that all religious ordinances, all Sabbath observances, were but to lead men to behold God and live—then surely our Lord, speaking in metaphor as was His wont, might well have said, as one of the Oxyrhynchus Logia has it, “Except ye fast to the world, ye shall in no wise find the kingdom of God,” and, “Except ye keep the Sabbath in the spirit—a real Sabbath—sabbatise the Sabbath—ye shall not see the Father.” This is what the reputed saying seems to assert.1 [Note: H. D. Rawnsley, Sayings of Jesus, 23.]

iv. The Lord’s Day

1. Its Origin.—We have at the close of the Gospels the earliest record of the first day of the week as the time of our Lord’s resurrection; and in memory of that event it became, during the Apostolic age, the recognised festival of the infant Christian community. We know not the exact date when it began to be set apart, but the notices of it are quite enough to show its character. It is mentioned in the Acts as the time when “the disciples came together to break bread,” i.e. for the Lord’s Supper. It is urged by the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 16:2) that believers should “lay by in store” on the first day, for the offering on behalf of the poor; and the passing allusion makes it probable that it had become already a fixed time of worship. It is named again in the book of Revelation (Mark 1:10); and from the phrase, “the Lord’s Day,” we may fairly infer that it had gained that place in Christian worship which must have preceded the specific name. Henceforth it grew more and more into the reverent affection of the Church, until it became the great season of religious gathering; and at last, under Constantine, the laws of the empire forbade the opening of the courts and other secular business. Such was its origin and growth. It was the weekly Easter. It spoke to the early believer, as to us, of the risen Lord, and of that risen life in which was the bond of all holy fellowship.

2. Its Relation to the Sabbath.—What was the relation of the Lord’s Day to the Sabbath? We turn for an answer to the New Testament. There can be no doubt whatever that the ancient law was kept among all Jewish Christians, for we read constantly of the Apostles as teaching and joining in the synagogue service of the seventh day. But it is as plain that the Gentile was in no sense bound to observe it. No one can read the striking passages from the Epistles of Paul (Colossians 2:16-17; Romans 14:5-6) without perceiving that it is classed with all those Jewish usages, new moons, unclean meats, in regard to which no obligation was laid on the believer. Nor can any one fairly accept the express decision of the first Council at Jerusalem, without allowing that it is not included in the “necessary things” for Gentile duty. It must be noted, further, that the Lord’s Day was never substituted for the seventh. Each rested on its own ground. The Gentile kept the feast of the Resurrection. The Jewish Christian kept both days, just as he circumcised his children and baptized them likewise. It remained for many years, and by slow degrees faded away; it was long retained in some churches of the West as a fast, in memory of our Lord’s burial before the day of His rising; yet at length it dropped from use, and by the natural law of life the first day remained alone, the one weekly season of worship. This is the sum of the evidence. It leaves it exactly as in the case of baptism, where the Christian rite took the place of circumcision by historic change, yet rests on the commandment of Christ and the spirit of a larger Gospel.1 [Note: E. A. Washburn.]

In the “Apology for Christians,” which Justin Martyr wrote to Antoninus Pius, between the years 138 and 150, he says: “We all of us assemble together on Sunday, because it is the first day in which God changed darkness and matter, and made the world. On the same day also Jesus Christ, our Saviour, rose from the dead, for He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn; and on the day after that of Saturn, which is that of the Sun, He appeared to His apostles and disciples, and taught them what we now submit to your consideration.” It is evident from this, and from other historic documents, that Christ’s resurrection made the first day far more illustrious to Christians than the seventh; and when the Temple was destroyed, and Judaism, like a shadow, vanished, the Jewish Sabbath vanished with it. In this change, which was, we believe, wrought by the Spirit of Him who was with His people always, we have a proof of this startling declaration: “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath day”; and the justification for the change lies there. The shell was broken, but the kernel remained; the transient and typical passed away, but only in order that the permanent and true might remain for ever. And it was because St. Paul saw and understood this, that, in his Epistle to the Colossians (Mark 2:16-17), he wrote about the Sabbath words so bold that many are still afraid to take them in their legitimate and obvious signification: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days, which are a shadow of things to come; but the body [or substance] is of Christ.”1 [Note: A. Rowland.]

The Christian motive for observing the Lord’s Day is the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. That truth is to the Christian Creed what the creation of the world out of nothing is to the Jewish. The Lord’s Day marks the completed Redemption, as the Sabbath had marked the completed Creation. The Resurrection is also the fundamental truth on which Christianity rests; and thus it is as much insisted on by the Christian Apostles as is God’s creation of all things by the Jewish prophets. Not that the creation of all things by God is less precious to the Christian than to the Jew: but it is more taken for granted. In Christian eyes, the creation of the world of nature is eclipsed by the creation of the world of grace; and of this last creation, the Resurrection is the warrant. The Resurrection is commemorated, as St. Irenæus points out, on the first day of the week, when God brought light out of darkness and chaos. It is the risen and enthroned Lamb who says, “Behold, I make all things new”: and therefore if “any man be in Christ, he is the new creation.”2 [Note: H. P. Liddon, Easter in St. Paul’s, 282.]


The Use of the Gift

The importance of Christ’s statement, “The Sabbath was made for man,” is permanent and universal; it establishes not the exception, but the rule; it deals not with temporary and fluctuating prejudices, but with fixed, eternal principles. It puts us in a new position with reference to the question, Why do I observe the Lord’s Day? The old questions, What has a Christian to do with Jewish enactments? What to him is the ceremonial law? Why is our liberty to be narrowed by the opinions of bigots incapable of distinguishing between the spirit and the letter? All these had their use, as they certainly have had their misuse, in the past. But put the question in this form. The Sabbath was made for man; why then should man be deprived of it? If to the Jewish Church in its best ages, to its most enlightened seers, the Sabbath was a delight, holy and honourable, full of happy thoughts and feelings, a season of refreshment, of bodily repose and spiritual rejoicing, why should the Christian Church forfeit the privilege?1 [Note: Canon F. C. Cook.]

i. It is a Gift for every Man

1. If the Sabbath was made for man, it must have been because man needed it; not, certainly, as a mere temporary provision for special purposes, but as a permanent blessing. Who shall take from us one of God’s first gifts to His creatures—a gift bestowed with a special regard to their physical and spiritual wants, and consecrated by His own example? Look at the question in this light, test the principle by its application to the facts of daily experience, to the wants of your inner and outer life, and you will dismiss, as matters of exceedingly little importance to the man of common sense, the greater part of the discussions which have filled large volumes of wearisome controversy, and which will remain unsettled so long as men differ in feelings and habits. and in the power of dealing with the accumulated masses of conflicting theories and ill-digested facts. If we know that now in the Lord’s Day, its new and most significant designation, we have all that made the Sabbath a boon to man, a season in which the soul, free from earthly trammels, may realise its nearness and affinity to God—what to us can it matter that at a period of struggle and of reaction, good and conscientious, though narrow-minded, men sought to counteract licentious tendencies by recurrence to enactments which appertained altogether to a dispensation long since passed away? We are surely in a position to maintain the truth, to hold fast the good for which such men contended, without reference to their prejudices, without involving ourselves in their mistakes. Why, in short, should we trouble ourselves with any question but this? Do I use for my own real benefit, for the benefit of all over whom I have any control, the Sabbath which was made for me, which my Saviour has claimed as His own; of which He is now, as ever, the Lord; which His Spirit, working in and through His Church, has associated for ever with the crowning fact of His religion, His resurrection from the dead? These are to my mind the questions which we are bound to consider as Christians, as men who have to work out our own salvation, whose duty it is, so far as may be possible, to communicate our blessings and convictions to our fellow-men.1 [Note: Canon F. C. Cook.]

Robertson of Brighton, whose insight into spiritual philosophy was as direct and penetrating as his practical surrender to its teaching was complete, says of Sabbath observance: “I am more and more sure by practical experience that the reason for the observance of the Sabbath lies deep in the everlasting necessities of human nature, and that as long as man is man the blessedness of keeping it, not as a day of rest only, but as a day of spiritual rest, will never be annulled.”

This is the day of light: let there be light to-day;

O Dayspring, rise upon our night, and chase its gloom away!

This is the day of rest: our failing strength renew,

On weary brain and troubled breast shed Thou Thy freshening dew.

This is the day of peace: Thy peace our spirits fill,

Bid Thou the blasts of discord cease, the waves of strife be still.

This is the first of days: send forth Thy quickening breath,

And wake dead souls to love and praise, O Vanquisher of death!1 [Note: John Ellerton.]

2. All God’s children have a right to share in its blessings, poor as well as rich, servants equally with masters and mistresses, employed and employers alike; for station in life and outward circumstances cannot alter man’s needs. Instincts are universal; they are our common inheritance as human beings.

The first day of the week is, to many Christians, not only the one day of rest but the one day of worship. The majority of men and women in our land, owing to the exacting claims of everyday life on their time and thought in these times of high pressure, have little or no opportunity of meeting together in united worship on any other day. More than that, the question of Sunday observance is fitly linked with that of worship, because the social aspect of Christianity is forcibly emphasised by both. No Christian who attempts to grasp all that is involved in a right use of Sunday can persuade himself that his individual observance or non-observance of the day is a matter to be decided solely on personal and selfish grounds, but must acknowledge that his decision as to whether or how he will keep the day affects not only himself and his own conscience, but also the well-being of others.

Not all that is lawful to do is right for the Christian to do. Even if right in itself, it becomes wrong if it be done at the unnecessary expense of others’ time and thought, or at the cost of the health of the body or mind or spirit of others. Sunday cannot be a day well and wisely spent by a man if in what he does, or neglects to do, he thinks only of himself, and is indifferent to what extent others are obliged to work in order that he may rest, or is careless whether recreation, in itself lawful and innocent, means toil to those who ought to have rest.2 [Note: C. J. Ridgeway.]

Christianity has given us the Sabbath, the jubilee of the whole world, whose light dawns welcome alike into the closet of the philosopher, into the garret of toil, and into prison-cells, and everywhere suggests even to the vile the dignity of spiritual being.3 [Note: Emerson.]

It is the student’s day, whereon he may turn from the ordinary to the sublimer world of thought and find new inspiration for his daily endeavour. It is the doubter’s day, on which he may investigate the most momentous questions of God and duty and destiny. It is the children’s day, when the home circle may be perfect, and sweet memories be planted which shall fill the later years with their fragrance. The children need the gentle influence of the Sabbath. And if we who are no longer children were to give ourselves up to the consecration and the conservation of the day in the interest of the young life of the land, we should not only ensure a better and a larger life to the next generation, but we should ourselves enter more fully and with greater plenitude of power into that Kingdom of which its Founder said to His disciples, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” The Sabbath is the poor man’s day, when he can have leisure to reward the love of wife and children, go with them to the house of God, and enjoy to the full what Longfellow calls “the dear, delicious, silent Sunday, to the weary workman both of brain and hand the beloved day of rest.” It is the rich man’s day, when, if he will, he may throw off the burdens of anxiety and prove to his family that there are some things he prizes as much as stocks and estates and silver and gold—a day when he may transfer some of his treasures to the heavens and fix his heart on things above, where moth and rust cannot corrupt, nor thieves break through and steal. It is the mourner’s day, on which eyes that weep in sore bereavement may look upward and hear a voice out of the heavens say, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” It is the true all saints’ day, when, rising above the littleness, the rivalries, the limitations of this life, we may look through Sabbath skies to the innumerable company in the city on Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem.1 [Note: J. H. Vincent.]

I have a birthright straight from heaven,

A birthright in which all men share;

By my own Maker’s hand ’twas given,

’Tis sanctified by praise and prayer;

I shall not give that right away;

No man shall have my Sabbath day!

All through the week let anvils ring,

And hammers clang and bellows blow;

Let bright sparks fly and sledges swing,

And bar and furnace gleam and glow:

But speak up, blacksmith; boldly say,

“No man shall have my Sabbath day!”

Bend, weary weaver, o’er your loom

All week from dawning’s glimmering sky,

And till the twilight gathers gloom

Let treddles tramp and shuttles ply:

But speak up, brother; boldly say,

“You shall not have my Sabbath day!”

Let axes flash in forest glades

While oak and ash and elm tree fall;

Let the slow team toil through the shades,

Obedient to their driver’s call:

But speak up, woodman; boldly say,

“You shall not have my Sabbath day!”

From mill and factory and mine

Still let this selfsame cry arise;

Claim one day as a holy shrine

In which to commune with the skies:

Speak up, and loudly, boldly say,

“You shall not have my Sabbath day!”

It is our birthright straight from heaven,

’Tis sanctified by praise and prayer;

By our great Maker’s hand ’twas given,

And trench upon it who shall dare:

We shall not give that right away,

No man shall have our Sabbath day!1 [Note: The British Workman, 1867.]

ii. It is a Gift for the Whole Man

The Sabbath is made for man, that is, for man as God designed and created him. The whole man must have the opportunity of sharing in the benefits of the day, or it fails in its object. The body of man finds in it the rest it needs; not, indeed, by doing nothing, for idleness is never true rest, but in change of occupation. The mind of man rests not by lying fallow and thinking of nothing, but by diverting its energies into new channels. The heart of man renews its strength not by ceasing to love, but in change of surroundings, in the quiet of home life and home affections and interests. The spirit of man puts forth new powers, as raised heavenward it contemplates the unseen, and looks up to God instead of being engrossed in the earthy. “On Sunday,” says Lord Macaulay, “man, the machine of machines, is repairing and winding up, so that he returns to his labours on Monday with clear intellect, with livelier spirits, and with renewed vigour.” The quaint rhymes of Sir Matthew Hale emphasise this in familiar words—

A Sunday well spent

Brings a week of content,

And health for the toils of to-morrow.

But a Sunday profaned,

Whate’er may be gained,

Is a certain precursor of sorrow.1 [Note: C. J. Ridgeway.]

1. It is necessary for our Physical Health. The laws and conditions of man’s bodily life and health are such as to make intervals of repose absolutely essential to the proper and continued performance of the labours that most men have to endure. In asserting this we do but affirm man to be a part of Nature, and human life to be no exception to earthly life in general, for rest is one of Nature’s primal and universal laws. Without repose neither plant-life nor animal-life can reach the best possible forms. The soil must sometimes lie fallow, or its energies and treasures will ultimately become exhausted. No animal can long survive without rest and sleep. Men who systematically set at naught this physiological demand hasten on prematurely the infirmities and decay of old age.

The fundamental idea of the Sabbath is that of physical rest. “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Then, as the first comment upon this—the only comment, indeed—abstinence from labour is enjoined, and enlarged upon to a degree somewhat unusual in a condensed code like the Ten Commandments. Take care of the body, it seems to say, as the foundation on which the spiritual and the intellectual are to rise. If we are ever tempted to be surprised at the purely physical aspect of this commandment, let us not forget the stress St. Paul lays on bodily culture. “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own; for ye are bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” There the exhortation stops. The words “and in your spirit which are his,” were added by some late hand. And the very fact that we are now and then startled by the emphasis that is laid by the Bible upon bodily culture is in itself a proof that we are on a wrong line of thought—the line of the mediæval theology which viewed the body, not as God’s agent, but as God’s enemy; not as a servant to be trained and developed to do His will, and to be the minister of mind and soul, but as an encumbrance to be ignored in mental and spiritual culture, and as a tempter and seducer, to be kept down by fasting and maceration. Too readily we fall into the habit of thinking that while we are under obligation to glorify God with our spirit, we may do with our body pretty much as we please. And as a correction of that error it will do us good to remember that God has wrought the obligation to our bodies into the very heart of the moral law as well as into the gospel.

Lord Beaconsfield once said, “Of all Divine institutions, the most Divine is that which secures a day of rest for man. It is the corner-stone of civilisation.”

There are about twenty-five millions of persons now in England and Wales. Let us drop the word millions and say, for simplicity’s sake, that there are twenty-five, and that these twenty-five form (as, indeed, they do form in God’s sight) a single family. Well, if so, these are their proportions and occupations: eight of the twenty-five are the young children, six are the women of the household, the rest are grown men; of these men two till the soil, six are in shops or manufactories, one is a tradesman, one is in either the jail or the workhouse, and one belongs to the independent, the wealthy, or the professional classes. Now, even this one million of the ruling and the professional classes need Sunday as a day of holy rest; but how much more do the eight million children, and the six million women, and the nine or ten million labourers, and artisans, and clerks, and shopmen need it!1 [Note: F. W. Farrar, Bells and Pomegranates, 129.]

Dr. Farre, as a physiologist, has demonstrated the fact that the rest of the night without the additional rest of the Sabbath is insufficient for the maintenance of bodily vigour, and for the prolongation of life. History confirms this. The National Convention in Paris abolished public worship in 1793, and appointed the tenth day instead of the seventh for the partial cessation of labour; but every one knows that it was at least for the physical advantage of the nation when Napoleon restored the seventh day, in the year 1806.

Not only animals need regular off-days, when they are to do no work, but all mechanical and scientific instruments need it, in order to reach maximum usefulness. It has been demonstrated that a steam-engine, an axe, a hand-saw, will do more work in the long run with regular days of absolute rest. An instance is given in a late review by an experienced engineer, of two engines of like pattern, capacity, and material. One was run every day so many hours. The other only six days in seven, but yet as many hours in the six days as the first in seven. The one which had its Sabbaths outlasted and outworked the other so far as to excite marked attention.1 [Note: B. H. Carroll.]

2. It is necessary for our Mental Health. Man is not a mere animal. He has a life of the mind which likewise demands occasional relief from the wearing toils and anxieties of secular life. Our nervous force, which lies at the basis of thought and feeling, can bear only a certain amount of strain, and if this be transgressed, an impaired and morbid condition of mind is sure to be the result. Every one knows that incessant and anxious brooding over any one subject or idea will induce melancholy and even insanity.

’Tis painful thinking that corrodes our clay.

Very weighty are the words of John Burns on this question: “Sunday rest is physically good, mentally invigorating, and morally healthful. It has been commercially beneficial to the people of this land. It has done more than anything else to buttress and maintain the excellent institution we call ‘home.’ The day of rest is, from every point of view, a national treasure.” So, too, writes a great French statesman, President Arnot: “The Sunday rest is an essentially democratic institution, more needed now than ever owing to the high pressure at which we live.”2 [Note: C. J. Ridgeway.]

We have a picture given to us of how one who was no grim Puritan or narrow-minded Pharisee spent Sunday in his home, and there is nothing in it which might not be reproduced, so far as the surroundings of our lives allow, in English homes to-day. “The Sundays were bright to the children, who began the day with decking the graves in the churchyard, an example which the poor people learned to follow, so that it looked like a garden. And when his day’s work was done—and Sunday was the busiest day of the week to him—there was always the Sunday walk, a stroll on the moors, some fresh object of beauty pointed out. Or indoors the Sunday picture-books were brought out. Each child had its own book and chose its subject for father to draw—some short story, or bird or beast or flower mentioned in the Bible. Happy Sundays! never associated with gloom or restriction, but with God’s works or God’s Word.” Such was Sunday in the home of Charles Kingsley.

“Do the birds know when it is Sunday?” a little girl asked her mother; “they always seem to be more cheerful, and sing much more, on Sundays.” I remember having heard a child ask on a similar occasion, why the birds did not rest on Sundays. In these two questions there seems to lie the whole difference between the keeping of Sunday and the desecration of it: the former child knew what a true keeping of the Sunday is; the latter did not.1 [Note: James Gordon.]

3. It is necessary for our Moral Health. The quality of our moral character is vitally influenced by the habit of regular cessation from the more sordid cares and efforts of life. Contentment of spirit, cheerfulness of disposition, clearness of judgment, sensitiveness of conscience, strength and directness of will, are all to some extent dependent upon physical conditions, while these human excellences can certainly not be cultivated to their highest pitch without regular opportunities for the contemplation of moral truth and exalted ideals. Nations have become morally debased and have been torn by anarchic convulsions when deprived of opportunities of this sort. At the end of the last century a sad illustration of this was presented to the world. The Sabbath was abolished in France. Every trace of religion was as far as possible wiped out. Reason was worshipped as a goddess. The names of the days were altered, and decades took the place of weeks. The results were most disastrous. It was not long before the whole nation was thrown into disorder. All morality languished. Every heart trembled before the greed and tyranny that were practised by those in power. And at length the people, almost in despair, and clinging to the spars of goodness and virtue that alone remained to them in their wreck, welcomed those against whom they had fought, and by the help of their foes restored the weekly Sabbath. How true are the words of Blackstone, the greatest of our lawyers—“A corruption of morals usually follows a profanation of the Sabbath.”2 [Note: W. Spiers.]

Although I would not pin my faith to any political party or religious sect; and though I would not advocate or practise all the Puritan restrictions, yet I agree with Fred. W. Robertson, when he says: “If we must choose between Puritan over-precision, on the one hand, and, on the other, the laxity which, in many parts of the Continent, has marked that day from other days only by more riotous worldliness and a more entire abandonment of the whole community to amusement, no Christian would hesitate—no English Christian, at least, to whom that day is hallowed by all that is endearing in early associations, and who feels how much it is the very bulwark of his country’s moral purity.”1 [Note: A. Rowland.]

Although certain superstitious fears that I had detract somewhat from my thought of the Sabbath of my childhood, yet the thought of my father and mother remains; the sanctity of that day remains; its stillness remains. When I waked up in the morning, and found the Sabbath morning’s sun pouring full into my room; it was the carpet on the floor and the paper on the wall; for there was none other but the golden sunlight. When I remember the voice of the cock (and there were no wheels rolling to disturb the clarion tones), when I remember how deep the heaven was all the day, when I remember what a strange and awe-inspiring sadness there was in my little soul, when I remember the going down of the sun and the creeping on of the twilight, there is not in my memory anything that impresses me as so rich in all the tropics as a Christian Sabbath on the old Litchfield hills. My children have not that—woe to me—and their children, I am afraid, will not have it; but you take out of the portfolio of my memory the choicest engravings if you take away from me the old Puritan Sunday of Connecticut. Let the framework stand; but unite with it a better usage. Bring into it less sanctity of the superstitious kind, less rigour, less restriction, but more love, more singing, more exultation, more life. Make the Sabbath honourable and joyful. Then the people will accept it, and it will stand as immovable as the mountains.2 [Note: Henry Ward Beecher.]

4. It is necessary for our Spiritual Health. Above all things it was ordained because it was indispensable to our spiritual growth. Our health, mental and bodily, depends upon the harmonious and complete development of all our faculties The neglect of any power which belongs to the integrity of our nature leaves us stunted, deformed, liable to physical or mental disease, to subtle and overpowering temptations, such as daily consign multitudes to wretchedness; and this must especially be the result if that faculty is suffered to decay for want of its proper nourishment, which, as many writers have had occasion to observe, constitutes the most special characteristic of man as distinguished from the brute. The religious instinct, the capacity and the desire of communion with the Divine, the reception and assimilation of spiritual truth—that, we must never for a moment forget, is the true distinctive mark of man; man with the upward-looking eye, man with his intellect in proportion to its elevation conversant with abstract truth, man with a heart and conscience responding and testifying to the truth of the living God. It is for man specially, as such, man as a spiritual being, that the Sabbath was especially made, and so far as regards his noblest faculty, made not for its repose, for its suspension or temporary cessation from action, but for its active exercise, its perfect development, its continuous growth. The labourer, as such, whatever may be the field of his occupation, whether the toil and drudgery of manual work, or the far more exhausting struggle of intellectual efforts, ceases to be a mere labourer on the Sabbath day. The Lord of that day, who determines its obligations and dispenses its blessings, relieves him of the burden which he bears so long, and which but for Christ he would bear hopelessly until he lays down his worn-out frame in the quiet grave. But the inner man, the spiritual man, as such, far from ceasing to act, acquires the full consciousness of himself, the full use of all his powers, when he consecrates that day to the purposes for which it was bestowed.

Few of us may realise this fact thoroughly from our own experience; all of us must be conscious how far we have been at the best from such a consecration of our Lord’s own day; but just to the extent that we have done it, or seriously attempted to do it, we can satisfy ourselves that it is so. It is simply unreasonable to suppose that any of our faculties will attain to their full and healthy development unless special care and special seasons be appropriated to their culture; nor can one who trusts the Word of God, or tests that Word by the facts of inner experience or the accredited records of the past, doubt that, over and above the daily care which must be bestowed upon the noblest and loftiest principle of our human nature, one-seventh portion of the week is asserted, and is found, to be an indispensable condition of its healthy growth.

George Washington, at the beginning of the War of the Revolution, issued an order from which I quote:—“That the troops may have an opportunity of attending public worship, as well as to take some rest after the great fatigue they have gone through, the general in future excuses them from fatigue duty on Sundays, except at the shipyards or on special occasions, until further orders. We can have but little hope of the blessing of Heaven on our arms if we insult it by our impiety and folly.”1 [Note: J. H. Vincent.]

“I wonder how it is,” said Farmer Denton, “that our Daisy seems so much happier on Sundays than on other days!” Then Daisy spoke up from her seat on her father’s knee. “You see, papa, Sunday is God’s day, and I want to make it as nice a one for Him as I can.” “Bless the child,” said her father, “if it is right for you to do this, it is right for everybody else to do the same.”2 [Note: H. S. Dyer, The Ideal Christian Home, 118.]

Every day a Christian should practise communion with God. He should be like the Yorkshireman who said he enjoyed religion every day. He had a happy Monday, a blessed Tuesday, a joyful Wednesday, a delightful Thursday, a good Friday every week, a glorious Saturday, and a heavenly Sunday.

Bright shadows of true Rest! some shoots of blisse;

Heaven once a week;

The next world’s gladness prepossest in this;

A day to seek

Eternity in time; the steps by which

We climb above all ages; Lamps that light

Man through his heap of dark days; and the rich,

And full redemption of the whole week’s flight!

The Pulleys unto headlong man; time’s bower;

The narrow way;

Transplanted Paradise; God’s walking houre;

The cool o’ th’ day!

The creature’s Jubile; God’s parle with dust;

Heaven here; man on those hills of myrrh and flowres;

Angels descending; the Returns of Trust;

A Gleam of Glory after six-days-showres!

The Churche’s love-feasts; Time’s Prerogative,

And Interest

Deducted from the whole; The combs, and hive,

And home of rest!

The milky way chalkt out with Suns, a clue

That guides through erring hours; and in full story

A taste of Heav’n on earth; the pledge and cue

Of a full feast; and the out-courts of glory!1 [Note: Henry Vaughan.]

iii. It is a Gift that is without Repentance

“There remaineth a sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). The Epistle to the Hebrews was written to prevent Jewish Christians from apostasy to Old Testament Judaism. The un-Christian Jews would entice them thus: “We have Moses; we have Aaron, the high priest; we have Joshua, who led the people into Canaan; we have a Sabbath, pointing to Canaan as the promised land; we have a ministry of angels.” Now, to furnish the Christian with an argument to meet all these weighty claims this letter was written. The Christian can say: Jesus is greater than angels, greater than Moses, a greater priest than Aaron, greater than Joshua, redemption is greater than creation, and as God rested from the works of creation, sanctifying the seventh day for a Sabbath, so as Jesus rested from the works of redemption on the first day of the week, they too have a Sabbath. So it is established that the people of God are to have a Sabbath-keeping. If the reference be exclusively to the heavenly rest, the argument is not weakened, since the type must abide until the antitype fulfils it.2 [Note: B. H. Carroll.]

This blessed day is an earnest, an infallible prophecy of the eternal rest which awaits us in heaven. Here, we have conflicts and trials. This life is full of toil and strife and disappointment and bereavement. There is no absolutely perfect rest in this life. But that rest which remains to God’s people in the immortal life which is to come, will be perfect. The toil is here, but the rest is yonder. The conflict is here, but the victory is yonder. The cross is here, but the crown is yonder. The sorrow is here, but the happiness is yonder. God gives us one day in every week in which to think especially about these things. Every Lord’s Day this perfect rest, this final victory, this complete happiness, this glorious reward should be brought prominently before the Christian’s mind and heart.1 [Note: W. G. Neville.]

Yes, there remaineth yet a rest!

Arise, sad heart, who now dost pine,

By heavy care and pain opprest,

On whom no sun of joy can shine;

Look to the Lamb! in yon bright fields

Thou’lt know the joy His presence yields;

Cast off thy load and thither haste;

Soon shalt thou fight and bleed no more,

Soon, soon thy weary course be o’er,

And deep the rest thou then shalt taste.

The rest appointed thee of God,

The rest that nought shall break or move,

That ere this earth by man was trod

Was set apart for thee by Love.

Our Saviour gave His life to win

This rest for thee; oh, enter in!

Hear how His voice sounds far and wide:

Ye weary souls, no more delay,

Nor loiter faithless by the way,

Here in my peace and rest abide!2 [Note: Lyra Germanica.]

The Gift of the Sabbath


Allen (R.), The Words of Christ, 231.

Ball (T. H.), Persuasions, 133.

Beecher (H. W.), Bible Studies, 229.

Bersier (E.), Sermons, i. 271.

Carroll (B. H.), Sermons, 426.

Colenso (J. W.), Natal Sermons, 1st Ser., 217, 229, 248, 265.

Cook (F. C.), Church Doctrine and Spiritual Life, 76.

Cooper (E.), Fifty-two Family Sermons (Doctrinal), 103.

Farrar (F. W.), Bells and Pomegranates, 117.

Fraser (J.), Scotch Sermons on the Old Lines, 101.

Fuller (M.), The Lord’s Day, 164.

Hodge (C), Princeton Sermons, 303.

Kennett (R. H.), In Our Tongues, 130.

Neville (W. G.), Sermons, 181.

Parker (T.), Some Thoughts on the Most Christian Use of the Sunday.

Rawnsley (H. D.), Sayings of Jesus, 19.

Ridgeway (C. J.), Social Life, 150.

Spence (H. D. M.), Voices and Silences, 259.

Vincent (J. H.), in The Culture of Christian Manhood, 249.

Washburn (E. A.), The Social Law of God, 71.

American Pulpit of the Day, i. 258 (Vincent).

Biblical World, v. 269 (Stevens).

British Weekly Pulpit, ii. 63 (M‘Cheyne).

Christian Age, xlv. 370 (Parkhurst).

Christian World Pulpit, xi. 103 (Taylor); xix. 228 (Beecher); xxi. 92 (Beecher); xxxii. 332 (Rowland); lxxiv. 148 (Pickett); lxxv. 343 (Ross).

Church Times, 1898, p. 273 (Cobb).

Expositor, 4th Ser., vi. 440; x. 24; 5th Ser., iii. 109.

Journal of Biblical Literature, 1904, Pt. ii. 195.

Preacher’s Magazine, 1892, 125 (Spiers).

Treasury (New York), xi. 855 (Williamson); xviii. 607 (Stone).


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Mark 2:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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