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 (The Doctrine of Sabbath)
Chapter 6: The Post-Exilic Period
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CHAPTER 6: The Post-Exilic Period

6.1         The return of the Jews to Jerusalem

After the fall of the southern kingdom, the Jews found themselves exiled to foreign lands. Fortunately, the godly among them realized the need to repent and to ask God for a safe return to the holy land (Neh 1:4–11). God heard their prayers and, in 538 BC, moved the King of Persia to allow the first batch of exiles to return home. The Bible records:

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying,

Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the  Lord God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. 

Who is there among you of all His people? May his God be with him! Now let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel (He is God), which is in Jerusalem. 

And whoever remains in any place where he sojourns, let the men of his place help him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, besides the freewill offerings for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.           

            Ezra 1:1–4

On account of the king’s decree, three key figures—Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah—were able to lead the people back in groups to rebuild the temple and the city walls. Moreover, Ezra the priest, made it his priority to re-educate the people in God’s Law:

So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the congregation, of men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.

            Nehemiah 8:2–3 

6.2         Profaning of the Sabbath

Despite hearing the word of God, the people failed to implement it consistently. Around 445 BC, when Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, he found them profaning the Sabbath on account of their business activities:

In those days I saw in Judah some people 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.”

            Nehemiah 13:15–18

Nehemiah rebuked the people and reminded them that God had brought disasters upon their forefathers for the same sin. He then warned them that if they did not mend their ways, God’s wrath would come upon them also.

6.3         Nehemiah reinstates Sabbath observance

Nehemiah’s next step was to initiate a religious reform. Firstly, he led the people to make a solemn oath before God: “If the peoples of the land bring wares or any grain to sell on the Sabbath day, we would not buy it from them on the Sabbath, or on a holy day; and that we would forego the seventh year’s produce and the exaction of every debt” (Neh 10:31).

He then proceeded to implement a number of practical measures:

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. So 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 13:19–22

Nehemiah’s strategy was to physically prevent the people from breaking the Sabbath: he shut the city gates at sunset and arranged for them to be guarded, and warned off traders who attempted to come into the city. In this way, he ensured that the Jews kept the Sabbath rest.

6.4         Stricter observance after Nehemiah

Not long after Nehemiah, the Jewish scribes began developing increasingly legalistic rules for Sabbath-keeping. While they were well-meaning, wanting to prevent the people from transgressing the Fourth Commandment ever again, they ended up creating a complicated and burdensome culture.

Aside from the Jews, there were other groups who kept the Sabbath zealously. They included the Samaritans and the Essene community at Qumran who were both, in many ways, even stricter observers of the Sabbath. The Samaritans, for example, interpreted Exodus 16:29 literally, such that they avoided leaving their homes at all on the seventh day. In addition, both groups refrained from lighting any fires on the Sabbath, and so would pass Friday night in total darkness.[1]

6.5         Conclusion

After the Jews returned to Jerusalem, they had much to learn in terms of keeping God’s laws. Indeed, when Nehemiah returned to the city, he found that the people were breaking the Sabbath commandment. The situation prompted him to take action: he led them to make a solemn oath before God and established stringent measures to promote the Sabbath rest. This period marked a turning point for the nation; thereafter, the religious leaders developed increasingly strict measures to prevent the Jews from transgressing God’s laws.


© January 2012 True Jesus Church.

[1]      Johnston, Robert M., “The Rabbinic Sabbath”, The Sabbath in Scripture and History, ed. Kenneth A. Strand (Washington DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1982).

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