To God, idolatry and Sabbath-breaking go hand in hand. Sabbath-breaking is shown to be idolatry because the Israelites were either using it in idolatrous devotion to a false god or not keeping it at all.
The Sabbath was given so that Israel would know the true God, so that they could fulfill their purpose, which was to witness for God before the world, learn more of His purpose, and work to build character so that they could inherit God's Kingdom. They failed miserably and totally.
God accomplished His goal of bringing them into their own land only to uphold the reputation of His name. But what was the overall result? The Israelites in the wilderness died there (Hebrews 3:16—4:2). Their descendants failed in the same manner, so God cut them off and sent them into captivity and slavery.
Israel's history reveals that the Creator God is the Source of the Sabbath, and God's children have the responsibility to honor Him by keeping it.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fourth Commandment
God is referring to Israel's Sabbath-breaking in their wilderness journey, quite early in their relationship with Him. In addition, if there was any time—in all of the history of Israel's relationship with God—this was a time during which they had no excuse for breaking the Sabbath. He was with them at all times in the cloud and the pillar of fire. They were also a completely closed society. There should have been no other God to worship.
All of the people were gathered in one general location. There was no place to go. Double manna fell each Friday, and no manna fell on the Sabbath. They had no excuse for losing track of what day it was. God, jarringly, had a man executed for Sabbath-breaking to remind them how important the day is and to instill in them respect for it. Yet, God says they still rebelled, suggesting that God was mostly concerned with how they were keeping it.
They undoubtedly gave lip-service to the Sabbath, setting it aside on the calendar. When that day came around, any commercial business in the wilderness probably came to a halt on that day. They did not travel. It was what they were doing or not doing personally and individually on that day that harmed their relationship with God. That was the issue.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Sabbathkeeping (Part 1)
What caused one house (Judah) to retain its identity and the other (Israel) to lose it? God gives the answer—the Sabbath. Whedon's Commentary on the Bible (at verse 12) states, “The Sabbath was the visible sign to the Hebrews and to the world that they were his, and that he was theirs.”
A sign identifies. An example is a burqa, the long, loose garment covering the whole body from head to feet, worn in public by many Muslim women. A woman wearing a burqa is an unmistakable sign that she is Allah's and that he is her god. It is a sign that separates and identifies.
With these verses in chapter 20 of Ezekiel, God guarantees that if His people keep the Sabbath—the sign that signifies who they are and who they worship—that sign would assure their identity. To be separate requires a definable identity. God, by their observance of the Sabbath, guaranteed they would remain separate and set apart, preserved as a select people unmixed with the nations.
Throughout history, the house of Judah has continued to observe the Sabbath. As a result, they have retained their identity. On the other hand, the house of Israel rejected the Sabbath, and true to Ezekiel 20, they have disappeared from view. They have lost their identity. They no longer have the sign that tells them, or the rest of the world, who they are.
The house of Israel chose to rebel against the Sabbath, a proclivity that began as far back as the wilderness journey:
Yet the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness; they did not walk in My statutes; they despised My judgments, 'which, if a man does, he shall live by them'; and they greatly defiled My Sabbaths. Then I said I would pour out My fury on them in the wilderness, to consume them. (Ezekiel 20:13)
So, the Bible clearly and consistently identifies as Israel those nations that have become known as the “Ten Lost Tribes,” rather than the house of Judah.
The Nation of Israel—Biblical Israel? (Part One)
Verse 24 gives a concluding statement as to why Israel was taken into captivity. There are two possibilities regarding Israel's Sabbath breaking. 1) Israel completely rejected God's Sabbath for another day. This possibility exists due to the instances of the "My/their" or "Mine/yours" contrast, that is, My Sabbath as opposed to your Sabbath. 2) They polluted the Sabbath by careless, self-centered observance.
The probability is that they did both—some people completely rejected the Sabbath, while others carelessly observed it. However, it was because of Sabbath-breaking, a type of idolatry, that they went into captivity.
When we look at secular history, even biblical history, and society around us, how to keep this day is a mixed bag. On the surface, what we see in the New Testament is rigorous legalism from the Pharisees or asceticism from the Gentiles. Today, we might call that an extreme "rightism" or perhaps a reactionary conservatism.
In today's world, though, we are confronted with the other side of the coin. We do not even begin to know how to keep the Sabbath because, from our earliest days, our culture's emphasis has been on Sunday, a day that cannot be kept holy because it was never made holy!
The cycle of six workdays and one day of rest and worship is a legacy of the Bible. But in fairly recent history, society has undergone a radical transformation because of scientific, industrial, and technological achievements. A shorter workweek provides us more leisure time. Businesses, however, make every effort to make the best use of time, to maximize production by scheduling work shifts so that the weekly cycle becomes a blur.
We have come to the place where we think that time totally belongs to us, and we can use it as we good and well please. This, in turn, makes a person very conscious of his free time. What does almost every individual do? He does the same thing that a business does. Every bit of time in a person's life is booked up because he wants to get the most out of life.
Even among those who are reasonably religious, the result has been that Sunday has become the hour of worship. The older among us can probably remember that, in the community, Sunday was once set aside very seriously. People did not work. They usually spent the day at home. Maybe the most secular thing they allowed themselves to do was to read the Sunday newspaper. Some, perhaps, did not even listen to the radio on Sunday because, to them, the day was holy.
But over the years, Sunday worship—which used to be kept somewhat as God expects us to keep the Sabbath—has now become, even among religious folks, an hour rather than a day of worship. People go to church for that one hour then perhaps return home. Or, maybe they go to a Sunday brunch at a restaurant. They spend the rest of the time on that day either making money or seeking their own pleasure.
All the while, the real Sabbath is ridiculed or ignored. This is what confronts us when we begin trying to keep it. A similar environment even affects those who continue to keep it. When we look in the Bible, we find that God does not give us many specifics as to how to keep it. God does, however, give us a number of broad principles, and He expects us to extrapolate from those principles in applying them.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fourth Commandment (Part 2)
Verses 23-24 go on to indicate the consequence of Israel's refusal to become sanctified by obeying God's laws: God says He "lifted [His] hand in an oath, . . . that I would scatter them among the Gentiles and disperse them throughout the countries, because they had not executed My judgments, but had despised My statutes, profaned My Sabbaths. . . ." If Israel insisted on acting like the nations of the world, God says He would physically place them among those nations; Israel would become separated from God and the land He promised them. They would become "sifted" (see Amos 9:9) among the Gentile nations.
Leviticus 18:24-30 outlines the inevitable separation that a nation (or an individual) will undergo as a result of commandment-breaking: "The land vomits out its inhabitants" (verse 25). This is the national consequence of breaking the commandments. God states the result to individuals in verse 29: "Whoever commits any of these abominations, the persons who commit them shall be cut off from among their people." Vomiting and cutting-off are both metaphors for separation.
Nationally and individually, commandment-breaking always yields the same ultimate punishment: separation from God. That separation may come slowly, as Ecclesiastes 8:11 points out, but always surely.
The history of the children of Israel proves the point. God wanted Israel to be a special, sanctified nation; a holy one. He promised to bestow incredible blessings on it if it acted to separate itself from the social and religious practices of other nations. Israel failed as a nation because it failed to be holy!
Searching for Israel (Part Twelve): The Sign
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Ezekiel 20:13: