When should it begin and end?
During the first 10 years of their history, the Seventh Day Adventist Church (SDA) generally observed the Sabbath from 6 p.m. Friday to 6 p.m. Saturday, although some kept it from sunrise to sunrise. The main promoter of the 6 p.m. to 6 p.m. reckoning was Joseph Bates, an ex-sea captain and a self-sacrificing crusader for truth. The reasoning Bates gives in his 1846 pamphlet for beginning and ending the Sabbath at 6 p.m. is that one:
"cannot regulate the day and night to have what the Savior calls twelve hours in the day [John 11:9] without establishing the time from the center of the earth, the equator, where at the beginning of the sacred year, the sun rises and sets at 6 o'clock."
Bates continues reasoning that since in the Arctic and Antarctic areas there are times when the sun never sets or never rises, then:
"The inhabitants of the earth have no other right time to commence their twenty-four hour day, than beginning at 6 o'clock in the evening."
There is no evidence that German Seventh Day Baptists influenced Bates in forming his position on the six o'clock beginning time for the Sabbath. "Rather, he came to these conclusions," Carl Coffman rightly notes, "as a result of his knowledge of a seaman's computation of equatorial time."
In the spring of 1851 Bates defended his 6 p.m. to 6 p.m. position in an article entitled "Time to Begin the Sabbath," where he appeals to two main Bible texts, namely, Leviticus 23:32 and Matthew 20:1-16. From the first text, he derived the principle of keeping God's day of rest "from even unto even," and from the second he established the time of "even," namely, 6 p.m.
The fact that in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) the master paid his laborers at "even" (verse 8), which was the 12th hour of the day, led Bates to the conclusion that the 12 hours of the day were reckoned from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Therefore, 6 p.m. is the "even" which marks the beginning and end of the Sabbath.
To defend this view, Bates argued that reckoning the Sabbath be based on equatorial time, that is, according to the length of the day and night at the equator. At the equator, sunrise and sunset occur consistently throughout the year plus or minus 10 minutes at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. respectively.
Bates maintained that Sabbath observance be according to the "equatorial day" in all parts of the world. What he meant is that it is to be observed longitudinally from 6 p.m. to 6 p.m. as it comes to each part of the earth in due time as the earth revolves on its axis.
When does evening occur?
In a paper by J. N. Andrews, he argues convincingly that the New Testament defines "evening" not necessarily as 6 p.m. but rather as sunset. He appeals especially to texts such as those found in Mark 1 and others where it explicitly says:
"At evening, when the sun had set, they brought to Him all who were sick and those who were demon-possessed." (Mark 1:32, NKJV throughout unless noted).
"When the sun was setting, all those who had any that were sick with various diseases brought them to Him; and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them." (Luke 4:40)
Here the evening, which marks the end of the Sabbath, is sunset. Andrews gave additional references from the Old Testament where "even" is equated with the setting of the sun. Regarding the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Andrews argues that it does not necessarily prove that the 12th hour of the day coincided exactly with 6 p.m. He establishes this point by showing that the 12 hours of the day were not 12 sixty-minute periods like ours, but rather 12 equal parts of the daylight time, which would vary somewhat according to season. This conclusion is explicitly supported by John 11 where Jesus says:
"Jesus answered, 'Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world.'" (John 11:9)
Support for Andrews' reasoning is also in the Talmud, where it discusses the extent of reasonable error in the estimate of the hour of the day "in the sixth hour the sun stands in the meridian." Thus, Andrews rightly concluded that the Jewish hour was not a fixed unit of time but the 12th part of the time between sunrise and sunset at any time of the year. Consequently, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard offers no valid justification for a 6 p.m. to a 6 p.m. method of Sabbathkeeping.
Andrews presented two major reasons for ruling out the 6 p.m. to 6 p.m. method of keeping the Sabbath. First, such a method is dependent upon clocks or watches, which did not exist in Bible times. This would mean that in those days God's people would have been at a loss to know when to begin and end the day of rest. Second, "the Bible, by several plain statements, establishes the fact that evening is at sunset." The conclusions reached by Andrews are on a sound analysis of the Biblical data.
Keeping God's day of rest in the Arctic
The observance of the Sabbath according to the sunset reckoning in the Arctic regions becomes practically impossible during part of the summer, when the sun never sets below the horizon, and during part of the winter, when the sun never rises above the horizon. In these areas, the difficulties increase in observing it due to not knowing when to begin and end it during weeks when the sun does not rise or set.
The problem of observing the Sabbath in the Arctic region exists not only during the time when the sun does not set or rise above the horizon, but also during the time just before the sun's disappearance for a certain period in winter and immediately following its reappearance. At this time of the year, the sunset occurs by noon, thus half of the Sabbath falls within the civil time of Friday. This means that according to the sunset reckoning, for several weeks every year, half of the Sabbaths falls during the civil time of Friday and half during that of Saturday.
Under these conditions, the observance of the fourth commandment according to the sunset reckoning becomes a real problem, because it requires the interruption of work on Friday by noon and the resumption of work on Saturday after the noon hour. This is not an imaginary problem but a real one that Sabbathkeepers face, for example, in the northern part of Norway and to a lesser degree in all Scandinavian countries and Alaska.
No easy solution exists on how to observe God's rest day according to the sunset reckoning when the above conditions prevail. Some acceptable alternatives if one wishes to use a sunset model in regions such as the Artic are:
During the winter when there are no sunsets, the end of the twilight (beginning of darkness), as indicated by astronomical tables, should be looked upon as the beginning of the Sabbath.
The Sabbath can be kept according to astronomical computations for the moment when the sun is closest to the horizon, or at its zenith on Friday until it returns to this point on Saturday.
Defining the Sabbath as beginning and ending at the same time as indicated on sunset calendars for locations just south of the Arctic Circle.
In the Arctic regions where the sun sets very early, very late, or not at all, it is advisable to observe the Sabbath from 6 p.m. to 6 p.m., according to the equatorial sunset time. This method preserves the integrity of the sixth working day, is compatible with the sunset time of Bible lands, and respects the working schedule of most people living in the Arctic regions.
The arctic circle begins at latitude 66° 33' (66 degrees 33 minutes)
and includes all regions north of this line.
The equivalent polar
circle in the Southern Hemisphere is the Antarctic Circle.
Does the fourth commandment state WHEN the day begins?
Any attempt to ascertain the Biblical teaching on the time for beginning and ending the Sabbath ought to start from a study of the Fourth Commandment itself as found in Exodus 20:8-11. After all, the manner and the time of keeping it ought to be reflective of the principles enunciated in the commandment itself. It may be surprising to some to note that no specific instructions are given in the Fourth Commandment on the manner and time of keeping the Sabbath. The only injunction given is to "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" by doing all one's work in six days and by resting the seventh day "to the Lord your God."
The absence, then, in the Fourth Commandment of specific instructions on the exact manner and time of Sabbath keeping is indicative of divine wisdom in formulating a principle whose application could be adapted to different cultures and geographical locations. It is thus important to note at the outset that the method of observing the Sabbath from sunset to sunset comes not by the Fourth Commandment itself, but by the method of sunset reckoning which became normative in Jewish history.
Do sunsets define a day?
Several reasons have contributed to make the sunset reckoning normative for the observance of the annual feasts in general and of the weekly Sabbath in particular. One reason is suggested by the legislation regarding the Day of Atonement, which states that the beginning of the fast was to occur from the evening of the 9th day to the evening of the 10th day (Leviticus 23:27-32). Another reason is the fact that in Bible times, for all practical purposes, sunset marked the end of the working day. Alluding this fact is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard where the owner in the "evening" calls the laborers to pay them their wages (Matthew 20:8). Being the end of a working day, the "evening" represented in a sense the end of the day itself and thus the beginning of a new day.
An implied third reason, closely related to the second, is in the injunction: "Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is the Sabbath to the Lord your God" (Exodus 20:9-10). The implication here is that the observance of the seventh day begins at the completion of the sixth day of work. Since in Bible times the sixth day of work, as just noted, ended in the "evening" (Matthew 20:8), the same "evening" could naturally function as the beginning of the rest and sanctification of the seventh day. The psychological and social function of sunset is an implied final reason. Psychologically the setting of the sun marks the end of our working day and the beginning of the new cycle of rest and work of another day. Thus, sunset offers an ideal psychological beginning for the celebration of the day of rest, worship, and service unto the Lord.
In the light of the foregoing considerations, we conclude that the sunset reckoning for beginning and ending the Sabbath - though not directly dictated by the Fourth Commandment - became the normative method in Jewish history. The sunset reckoning is still valid and valuable today, wherever the sunset does provide, as in Palestine, a logical termination of the working day and a balanced division between daytime and nighttime.
The absence of any specific instruction in the Fourth Commandment regarding the time for beginning and ending the Sabbath suggests that divine wisdom has chosen to leave the determination of the time factor open to accommodate differing geographical situations. Additionally, the reasons that made the sunset reckoning normative in Bible times for beginning and ending the keeping of the commandment are reasons that are still valid and valuable today. This is true wherever sunset respects to a large degree the integrity of the sixth working day by providing a balanced division between daytime and nighttime as in Bible lands.
In Arctic regions, one may wish to observe the Sabbath from 6 p.m. to 6 p.m., according to the equatorial sunset time. This preserves the integrity of the sixth working day. In most countries today sunset marks the end of the sixth working day and the beginning of the rest and sanctification of the seventh day. Sunset can bring the family together to begin the celebration of God's day.
The sunset reckoning, then, is still a valid and valuable method to begin and end the Sabbath wherever sunset provides a balanced division between daytime and nighttime, as in Bible lands.