Bezalel and Oholiab (31:1–11)
The Sabbath (31:12–18)
12–17 God then gave Moses one final instruction: “. . . observe my Sabbaths” (verse 12). Even during the construction of the tabernacle, the Israelites were to observe each Sabbath and do no work on that day. The penalty for working on the Sabbath was severe: it would result in the person being cut off from his people (verse 14). Being “cut off” could mean either death or banishment, but in the case of working on the Sabbath it usually meant death (verse 15).
Why was observing the Sabbath so important to God? Because it was a sign of the covenant between God and Israel (verses 13,17). Just as circumcision was an individual sign that one was a member of God’s covenant community, so was the observance of the Sabbath a national sign that the Israelites as a whole were God’s covenant people. By observing the Sabbath, God’s people would demonstrate their relationship to Him. God had made them holy (verse 13)—that is, He had set them apart from other nations. God expected them to continue being holy, just as He was holy (Leviticus 11:45); and one way they would remain holy was by continuing to observe His Sabbaths.
God gave the Sabbath law to the Israelites as part of a lasting covenant with them (verse 16); it was to be a sign between God and the Israelites forever (verse 17). Christians then ask: Does the Sabbath law apply to us too? The answer is: Yes, but not in the same way it applied to the Israelites. First of all, Christians are under a new covenant; the old covenant is obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). Second, for Christians the Sabbath is not an onerous law but rather a gift of God’s grace—a recurring period of rest and spiritual refreshment. It is good and prudent to observe regular periods of rest. Most Christians do observe the “Sabbath” on Sunday, and in a variety of ways; but they do it out of a grateful heart and a desire to please God, not because it is a strict and binding law (see Exodus 20:8–11; Numbers 15:32–36 and comments).
18 We have now come to the end of Moses’ forty days and nights on Mount Sinai, during which he received all the instructions written in Chapters 25–31. Before Moses left the mountain God gave him the two stone tablets of the Testimony containing the Ten Commandments, which He had earlier promised to do (see Exodus 24:12; 25:10–16 and comments). These tablets had been inscribed by the finger of God. Today God continues to “inscribe” His law by His “finger”—the Holy Spirit; however, He does not inscribe it on tablets of stone but on the tablets of human hearts (2 Corinthians 3:3; Hebrews 8:10).
After receiving the tablets, Moses was ready to start down the mountain. This surely was one of the greatest moments of Moses’ life; he had literally been through a “mountaintop” experience. Now he was about to bring God’s commands to the covenant people and show them how God wanted them to live. And what a shock he was about to receive!