The great Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney has been mentioned a number of times on this site. It is a very telling indication of our times that such a visionary man is so little known, and usually slandered when mentioned at all. You can find the entire collection of his written works at the Dabney Archive, all of which are well worth reading. However, such a massive undertaking can be a bit overwhelming, and so on Sundays I will post bite-sized excerpts from Dabney’s works, with perhaps a little bit of my own commentary. This will be done in hopes of promoting wider readership for this great man. You can find links to all the previous “Dabney on Sunday” posts at the bottom of this post.
The following excerpt is taken from Dabney’s Systematic Theology, Lecture XXXII, on the fourth commandment.
We argue further, that the enactment of the Sabbath-law does not date from Moses, but was coeval with the human race. It is one of the two first institutions of paradise. The sanctification of the seventh day took place from the very end of the week of creation. (Gen. ii: 3.) For whose observance was the day, then, consecrated or set apart, if not for man’s? Not for God’s; because the glorious paradox is forever true of Him, that His ineffable quiet is as perpetual as His ever-active providence. Not surely for the angels’, but for Adam’s. Doubtless, Eden witnessed the sacred rest of him and his consort from
Of their sweet gardening labor, which sufficed
To recommend cool zephyr, and made ease
More easy, wholesome thirst and appetite
And from that time downward, we have indications, brief indeed, but as numerous as we should expect in the brief record of Genesis and Exodus, and sufficient to show that the Sabbath continued to be an institution of the patriarchal religion. A slight probable evidence of this may even be found in the fact, that seven has ever been a sacred and symbolical number, among Patriarchs, Israelites, and Pagans. In Genesis we read of the “seven clean beasts,” the “seven well-favoured,” and “seven lean kine,” the “seven ears of corn, rank and good.” Now there is no natural phenomenon to suggest the number: for no noted heavenly body, or natural element, revolves precisely in seven hours, days, weeks, or months. Whence the peculiar idea everywhere attached to the number, if not from the institution of a week for our first parents? But to proceed to more solid facts: It is at least probable that the “end of days,” (Gen. iv: 3), rendered in our version, “process of time,” at which Cain and Abel offered their sacrifices, was the end of the week, the seventh, or Sabbath-day. In Gen. vii: 10, we find God Himself observing the weekly interval in the preparations for the flood. We find another clear hint of the observance of the weekly division of time by Noah and his family in their floating prison. (Gen. viii: 10-12.) The patriarch twice waited a period of seven days to send out his dove. From Gen. xxix: 27, we learn that it was customary among the patriarchs of Mesopotamia, in the days of Laban, to continue a wedding festival a week; and the very term of service rendered by Jacob for his two wives, shows the use made of the number seven as the customary duration of a contract for domestic servitude. Gen. l: 10, shows us that at the time of Jacob’s death, a week was also the length of the most honourable funeral exercises. In Exod. xii: 3-20, we find the first institution of the passover, when as yet there were no Mosaic institutions. This feast was also appointed to last a week. In Exodus xvi: 22-30, where we read the first account of the manna, we find the Sabbath institution already in force; and no candid mind will say that this is the history of its first enactment. It is spoken of as a rest with which the people ought to have been familiar. But the people had not yet come to Sinai, and none of its institutions had been given. Here, then, we have the Sabbath’s rest enforced on Israel, before the ceremonial law was set up, and two weekly variations wrought in the standing miracle of the manna, in order to facilitate it. And when at length we come to the formal command of the decalogue, it is expressed in terms which clearly indicate that the Sabbath was an institution already known, of which the obligation was now only re-affirmed.
The very fact that this precept found a place in the awful “ten words,” is of itself strong evidence that it is not a positive and ceremonial, but a moral and perpetual statute. Confessedly, there is nothing else ceremonial here. An eminent distinction was given as we saw, Lect. 30th, to the subjects of these ten commands, by the mode in which God delivered them. How can it be believed that this one ceremonial precept has been thrust in here, where all else is of obligation as old, and as universal as the race? This is strengthened also by the reflection that the ground first assigned in Genesis, and here repeated for its enactment, is in no sense Jewish or national. God’s work of creation in six days, and His rest on the seventh, have just as much relation to one tribe of Adam’s descendants as to another. Note the contrast: that, in many cases, when ceremonial and Jewish commands are given, like the passover, a national or Jewish event is assigned as its ground, like the exodus from Egypt.
The assertion that the Sabbath was coeval with the human race, and was intended for the observation of all, receives collateral confirmation also from the early traditions concerning it, which pervade the first Pagan literature. It can hardly be supposed that Homer and Hesiod borrowed from the books of Moses, sabbatical allusions which would have been to their hearers unintelligible. They must be the remnants of those primeval traditions of patriarchal religion, which had been transferred by the descendants of Japheth, to the isles of Chittim. . . .
We argue once more, that the Sabbath never was a Levitical institution, because God commanded its observance both by Jews and Gentiles, in the very laws of Moses. “In it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.” To see the force of the argument from this fact, the reader must contrast the jealous care with which “the stranger,” the pagan foreigner residing in an Israelitish community, was prohibited from all share in their ritual services. No foreigner could partake of the passover—it was sacrilege. He was even forbidden to enter the court of the temple where the sacrifices were offered, at the peril of his life. Now, when the foreigner is commanded to share the Sabbath-rest, along with the Israelite, does not this prove that rest to be no ceremonial, no type, like the passover and the altar, but a universal moral institution, designed for Jew and Gentile alike?
We have thus established this assertion on an impregnable basis, because the argument from it is direct and conclusive. If the Sabbath command was in full force before Moses, the passing away of Moses’ law does not remove it. If it always was binding, on grounds as general as the human race, on all tribes of mankind, the dissolution of God’s special covenant with the family of Jacob did not repeal it. If its nature is moral and practical, the substitution of the substance for the types does not supplant it. The reason that the ceremonial laws were temporary was that the necessity for them was temporary. They were abrogated because they were no longer needed. But the practical need for a Sabbath is the same in all ages. When it is made to appear that this day is the bulwark of practical religion in the world, that its proper observance everywhere goes hand in hand with piety and the true worship of God; that where there is no Sabbath there is no Christianity, it becomes an impossible supposition that God would make the institution temporary. The necessity for the Sabbath has not ceased, therefore it is not abrogated. In its nature, as well as its necessity, it is a permanent, moral command. All such laws are as incapable of change as the God in whose character they are founded. Unlike mere positive or ceremonial ordinances, the authority of which ceases as soon as God sees fit to repeal the command for them, moral precepts can never be repealed; because the purpose to repeal them would imply a change in the unchangeable, and a depravation in the perfect character of God.
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