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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 12–18
Verses 12–18

Here is, I. A strict command for the sanctification of the sabbath day, Exod. 31:13-17. The law of the sabbath had been given them before any other law, by was of preparation (Exod. 16:23); it had been inserted in the body of the moral law, in the fourth commandment; it had been annexed to the judicial law (Exod. 23:12); and here it is added to the first part of the ceremonial law, because the observance of the sabbath is indeed the hem and hedge of the whole law; where no conscience is made of that, farewell both godliness and honesty; for, in the moral law, it stands in the midst between the two tables. Some suggest that it comes in here upon another account. Orders were now given that a tabernacle should be set up and furnished for the service of God with all possible expedition; but lest they should think that the nature of the work, and the haste that was required, would justify them in working at it on sabbath days, that they might get it done the sooner, this caution is seasonably inserted, Verily, or nevertheless, my sabbaths you shall keep. Though they must hasten the work, yet they must not make more haste than good speed; they must not break the law of the sabbath in their haste: even tabernacle-work must give way to the sabbath-rest; so jealous is God for the honour of his sabbaths. Observe what is here said concerning the sabbath day.

1. The nature, meaning, and intention, of the sabbath, by the declaration of which God puts an honour upon it, and teaches us to value it. Divers things are here said of the sabbath. (1.) It is a sign between me and you (Exod. 31:13), and again, Exod. 31:17. The institution of the sabbath was a great instance of God’s favour to them, and a sign that he had distinguished them from all other people; and their religious observance of the sabbath was a great instance of their duty and obedience to him. God, by sanctifying this day among them, let them know that he sanctified them, and set them apart for himself and his service; otherwise he would not have revealed to them his holy sabbaths, to be the support of religion among them. Or it may refer to the law concerning the sabbath, Keep my sabbaths, that you may know that I the Lord do sanctify you. Note, If God by his grace incline our hearts to keep the law of the fourth commandment, it will be an evidence of a good work wrought in us by his Spirit. If we sanctify God’s day, it is a sign between him and us that he has sanctified our hearts: hence it is the character of the blessed man that he keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, Isa. 56:2. The Jews, by observing one day in seven, after six days’ labour, testified and declared that they worshipped the God who made the world in six days, and rested the seventh; and so distinguished themselves from other nations, who, having first lost the sabbath, which was instituted to be a memorial of the creation, by degrees lost the knowledge of the Creator, and gave that honour to the creature which was due to him alone. (2.) It is holy unto you (Exod. 31:14), that is, “It is designed for your benefit as well as for God’s honour;” the sabbath was made for man. Or, “It shall be accounted holy by you, and shall so be observed, and you shall look upon it a sacrilege to profane it.” (3.) It is the sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord, Exod. 31:15. It is separated from common use, and designed for the honour and service of God, and by the observance of it we are taught to rest from worldly pursuits and the service of the flesh, and to devote ourselves, and all we are, have, and can do, to God’s glory. (4.) It was to be observed throughout their generations, in every age, for a perpetual covenant. Exod. 31:16. This was to be one of the most lasting tokens of that covenant which was between God and Israel.

2. The law of the sabbath. They must keep it (Exod. 31:13, 14, 16), keep it as a treasure, as a trust, observe it and preserve it, keep it from polluting it, keep it up as a sign between God and them, keep it and never part with it. The Gentiles had anniversary-feasts, to the honour of their gods; but it was peculiar to the Jews to have a weekly festival; this therefore they must carefully observe.

3. The reason of the sabbath; for God’s laws are not only backed with the highest authority, but supported with the best reason. God’s own example is the great reason, Exod. 31:17. As the work of creation is worthy to be thus commemorated, so the great Creator is worthy to be thus imitated, by a holy rest, the seventh day, after six days’ labour, especially since we hope, in further conformity to the same example, shortly to rest with him from all our labours.

4. The penalty to be inflicted for the breach of this law: “Every one that defileth the sabbath, by doing any work therein but works of piety and mercy, shall be cut off from among his people (Exod. 31:14); he shall surely be put to death. Exod. 31:15. The magistrate must cut him off the sword of justice if the crime can be proved; if it cannot, or if the magistrate be remiss, and do not do his duty, God will take the work into his own hands, and cut him off by a stroke from heaven, and his family shall be rooted out of Israel.” Note, The contempt and profanation of the sabbath day is an iniquity to be punished by the judges; and, if men do not punish it, God will, here or hereafter, unless it be repented of.

II. The delivering of the two tables of testimony to Moses. God had promised him these tables when he called him up into the mount (Exod. 24:12), and now, when he was sending him down, he delivered them to him, to be carefully and honourably deposited in the ark, Exod. 31:18. 1. The ten commandments which God had spoken upon mount Sinai in the hearing of all the people were now written, in perpetuam rei memoriam—for a perpetual memorial, because that which is written remains. 2. They were written in tables of stone, prepared, not by Moses, as it should seem (for it is intimated, Exod. 24:12; that he found them ready written when he went up to the mount), but, as some think, by the ministry of angels. The law was written in tables of stone, to denote the perpetual duration of it (what can be supposed to last longer than that which is written in stone, and laid up?), to denote likewise the hardness of our hearts; one might more easily write in stone than write any thing that is good in our corrupt and sinful hearts. 3. They were written with the finger of God, that is, by his will and power immediately, without the use of any instrument. It is God only that can write his law in the heart; he gives a heart of flesh, and then, by his Spirit, which is the finger of God, he writes his will in the fleshly tables of the heart, 2 Cor. 3:3. 4. They were written in two tables, being designed to direct us in our duty both towards God and towards man. 5. They are called tables of testimony, because this written law testified both the will of God concerning them and his good-will towards them, and would be a testimony against them if they were disobedient. 6. They were delivered to Moses, probably with a charge, before he laid them up in the ark, to show them publicly, that they might be seen and read of all men, and so what they had heard with the hearing of the ear might now be brought to their remembrance. Thus the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.