On the Day of Atonement, God requires that absolutely no work be performed (Leviticus 16:29; 23:28-31; Numbers 29:7), symbolizing that human effort is completely useless in making the proper atonement needed to keep living after sin. The Israelites could do nothing but observe what occurred at the Tabernacle, watching as the young goat was led away with all their sins. Likewise, we can do absolutely nothing to add to Christ's atoning work. Thus, it is a day without work for us as well.
Israel's works nearly condemned the nation to obliteration. In particular, the Golden Calf was a work of Aaron's hands (Exodus 32:4-5). No matter how he tried to pass it off, he deliberately fashioned an idol out of gold, something he had to work at. Similarly, the work of Nadab's and Abihu's hands included offering profane fire (Leviticus 10:1). In Haggai 2:14, God remarks on Israel's spoiling of everything she puts her hands to: “'So is this people, and so is this nation before Me,' says the LORD, 'and so is every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean.'” The works of men always contain defilement, so on the day when God removes the filth, no work can be done, lest more corruption be introduced.
The only work permitted on the Day of Atonement was performed by the high priest and by the man who led the azazel away, and both had to have an atonement made for them. For us, it is a day of solemn remembrance of the perfect work of our High Priest, who gave us precious access to the Father and removed our sins.
Atonement is also a day of afflicting one's soul. This requirement could serve as a reminder of the fasting Moses did during his interactions with God. There is overwhelming gravity in all that was involved when he fasted for forty days on back-to-back-to-back occasions. Two of those times involved meeting directly with God, receiving a pattern for life from His incomparable mind. The middle period of fasting reflects how seriously God regarded the sins and the enormity of what was at stake due to Aaron's and the nation's transgressions.
David C. Grabbe
Who Fulfills the Azazel Goat— Satan or Christ? (Part Four)
The focus in these verses is on the spirit or attitude in which we keep Atonement. Considering verse 29, doing things right on this day is a serious responsibility. For religious Jews, this is the most solemn day of the year.
Three times in this short span of verses God commands us to afflict our souls or be afflicted. Many think that "fast" is derived from the same word as "afflict," but such is not the case. They are not cognate; in the Hebrew they have no etymological connection. They are two different words with distinctly different roots. God probably uses these different words to emphasize the attitude one should have during a fast, rather than the act itself, because it is entirely possible for a person to fast for a day and not be in the right attitude. However, when done properly, fasting can very greatly enhance the lesson of this holy day.
"Fast" is derived from a word meaning "to cover the mouth," implying that no nourishment gets past it into the body.
"Afflict," anah, is an intriguing word, giving us great insight into how God intends us to use this day. According to The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, its primary meaning is "to force or try to force into submission," "to punish or inflict pain upon." When used in contexts involving attitude, it means "to find oneself in a stunted, humble, lowly position; cowed." It is used to describe what one does to an enemy (Numbers 24:24), what Sarah inflicted on Hagar (Genesis 16:6), and what the lawless do to the weak (Exodus 22:22). It is used of the pain inflicted on Joseph's ankles by his chains (Psalm 105:18). Moses describes Egypt's treatment of Israel with this word (Exodus 1:11-12), and in this case, it implies more than the emotional pain of slavery but something that hurt physically. Thus, in Strong's Concordance, the author uses such forceful and painful words as "browbeat," "deal hardly with," "defile," "force," "hurt," and "ravish" to describe it. Anah is a strong, forceful word.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Pride, Humility, and the Day of Atonement
To put it even more succinctly, on the Day of Atonement, we are not to eat, drink, or work at all for the entire twenty-four-hour period. It is a day of worship, instruction, prayer, and humbling ourselves before God in thanks for His marvelous work in atoning for all sin and in bringing mankind into unity with Him (see Leviticus 16:29-34; Isaiah 58:1-12; Revelation 20:1-3).
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
How Do We Keep God's Festivals?
The Day of Atonement is a commanded feast of God. God emphasizes this day's solemnity by threatening death to those who fail to afflict their souls or who do any work on this day. Nothing is more important than being at one with Him!
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Holy Days: Atonement
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Leviticus 23:28: