Section 59: Law of the Sabbath
On Sunday August 7, 1831, Joseph attended the funeral of the first church member to die in Zion, sister Polly Knight, the wife of Joseph Knight, Sr. and the mother of Newel Knight. Her health had been failing for some time, and she was very ill during her journey from Thompson, Ohio, to Missouri. “Yet,” said her son Newel, “she would not consent to stop traveling. Her greatest desire was to set her feet upon the land of Zion and to have her body interred in that land.” She was so ill, as the Colesville saints traveled to Missouri, that her son Newel Knight bought lumber, during the journey, to make a coffin in case she would die before they arrived at their destination. The Lord, however, gave her the desire of her heart, and she lived to stand on that land (HC, 1:99, footnote). Sister Knight died on Saturday August 6. The Knights, along with the other Colesville saints had arrived in Jackson County about two weeks earlier on July 25, having been evicted from Leman Copley’s farm in Thompson, Ohio, the preceding month.
After the funeral, Joseph received this revelation. The revelation starts out as a funeral sermon (verses 1-3), but the remainder of the revelation deals with the principles of Sabbath-day keeping. It is the most important scripture we have which deals with the spirit of the Sabbath.
D&C 59 The Law of the Sabbath
D&C 59:8 Thou shalt offer a sacrifice . . . of a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
D&C 59:9-12 On this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High.
D&C 59:21 And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things.
D&C 59:23 But learn that he who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world and eternal life in the world to come.
verses 1-3 These verses likely refer to Polly Knight. She is the first of “those that die” (verse 2), “whose feet stand upon the land of Zion” (verse 3), and who had “obeyed my gospel” (verse 3). These blessings and promises also belong to all faithful saints in Zion.
1 Behold, blessed, saith the Lord, are they who have come up unto this land with an eye single to my glory, according to my commandments.
2 For those that live shall inherit the earth, and those that die shall rest from all their labors, and their works shall follow them; and they shall receive a crown in the mansions of my Father, which I have prepared for them.
3 Yea, blessed are they whose feet stand upon the land of Zion, who have obeyed my gospel; for they shall receive for their reward the good things of the earth, and it shall bring forth in its strength.
verse 3 “they shall receive for their reward the good things of the earth” Both those who live and those who die in righteousness shall inherit the earth, since the earth will become the celestial kingdom and become their eternal abode.
4 And they shall also be crowned with blessings from above, yea, and with commandments not a few, and with revelations in their time—they that are faithful and diligent before me.
verse 4 “they shall also be crowned with blessings from above, yea, and with commandments not a few” Note that the Lord considers his commandments to be blessings from him and not merely limitations or burdens.
verses 5-14 These verses contain commandments that are either New Testament commandments or parts of the Mosaic law now given a new gospel context.
5 Wherefore, I give unto them a commandment, saying thus: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy might, mind, and strength; and in the name of Jesus Christ thou shalt serve him.
verse 5 “in the name of Jesus Christ thou shalt serve him” Deuteronomy 11:1 reads: “Therefore thou shalt love the LORD thy God, and keep his charge, and his statutes, and his judgments, and his commandments, alway.” The phrase “in the name of Jesus Christ thou shalt serve him” adds to this previously known command.
6 Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Thou shalt not steal; neither commit adultery, nor kill, nor do anything like unto it.
verse 6 “nor do anything like unto it” This phrase expands the scope of the Mosaic prohibitions in Exodus and Leviticus to include the spirit of the law.
The following statement by the First Presidency (President Harold B. Lee, N. Eldon Tanner, and Marion G. Romney) on abortion seems appropriate to mention here. The statement teaches us that abortion is a sin “like unto” killing:
In view of a recent decision of the United States Supreme Court, we feel it necessary to restate the position of the Church on abortion in order that there be no misunderstanding of our attitude.
The Church opposes abortion and counsels its members not to submit to or perform an abortion except in the rare case where, in the opinion of competent medical counsel, the life or good health of the mother is seriously endangered or where the pregnancy was caused by rape and produces serious emotional trauma in the mother. Even then it should be done only after counseling with the local presiding priesthood authority and after receiving divine confirmation through prayer.
Abortion must be considered one of the most revolting and sinful practices in this day, when we are witnessing the frightening evidence of permissiveness leading to sexual immortality.
Members of the Church guilty of being parties to the sin of abortion must be subjected to the disciplinary action of the councils of the Church as circumstances warrant. In dealing with this serious matter, it would be well to keep in mind the word of the Lord stated in the 59th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, verse 6, “Thou shalt not steal; neither commit adultery, nor kill, nor do anything like unto it” (Church News, January 27, 1973, 7).
President Spencer W. Kimball also applied this passage to abortion (CR, April, 1975, 8).
As to the amenability of the sin of abortion to the law of repentance and forgiveness, we quote the following statement made by President David O. McKay and his counselors, Stephen L Richards and J. Reuben Clark, Jr., which continues to represent the attitude and position of the Church:
As the matter stands today, no definite statement has been made by the Lord one way or another regarding the crime of abortion. So far is known, he has not listed it alongside the crime of the unpardonable sin and shedding of innocent human blood. That he has not done so would suggest that it is not in that class of crime and therefore that it will be amenable to the laws of repentance and forgiveness (Church News, January 27, 1973, 7).
This quoted statement, however, should not in any sense, be constituted to minimize the seriousness of this revolting sin.
President Ezra Taft Benson also applied this “spirit-of-the-law” principle—“or anything like unto it” to the law of chastity: “This means fornication, homosexual behavior, self-abuse, child molestation, or any other sexual perversion” (Ensign, November 1986, 46).
7 Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things.
verse 7 A specific commandment intended only for Levites in the Old Testament is contained in 1 Chronicles 23:30: “And to stand every morning to thank and praise the LORD, and likewise at even.” This verse applies this commandment to all of the saints in this dispensation.
The absence of gratitude is looked upon by the Lord as an offense unto God. President Joseph F. Smith described the absence of thankfulness as sin: “And I believe that one of the greatest sins of which the inhabitants of the earth are guilty today is the sin of ingratitude. . . .” (Gospel Doctrine, 270-271).
verses 8-23 Section 59 gives principles for keeping the Sabbath rather than a Pharisaical list of specific do’s and don’ts. Note the counsel contained in these verses: Offer a sacrifice unto the Lord—that of a broken heart and contrite spirit. Keep yourself unspotted from the world. Rest. Pay your devotions to the Most High. Don’t worship only on Sunday. Set your interpersonal relationships straight if they have gone awry. Maintain a thankful heart and a cheerful countenance. Is laughter a sin? Certainly not wholesome laughter. We should avoid the scurrilous type of irreverent laughter, however.
8 Thou shalt offer a sacrifice unto the Lord thy God in righteousness, even that of a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
verse 8 “Thou shalt offer a sacrifice unto the Lord thy God” The Lord requires sacrifice of those of us in this final dispensation just as he required it of those in the Mosaic dispensation. But instead of sacrificing sheep and cattle, we must sacrifice our will to his.
“a broken heart and a contrite spirit” To understand this phrase it is necessary to understand the scriptural concept of pride. Please review “Pride” in Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine, volume 1, chapter 5, The “Natural Self” and “Spiritual Self.” Those with a broken heart and a contrite spirit are those who are humble and responsive to the promptings of the Spirit and actively seeking ways in which to repent—to become more like the Savior.
A “broken heart and a contrite spirit” is also a gift of the Spirit that must be earned through our obedience. It is the gift of divine motivation. See “The Solution to Pride—A Broken Heart and Contrite Spirit” in Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine, volume 1, chapter 5, The “Natural Self” and “Spiritual Self.”
9 And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day;
verse 9 “go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day” The Lord specifically commands us, as we strive to keep the Sabbath day holy, that we worship him by praying and by attending our sacrament meeting and partaking of the sacrament. The renewal of our baptismal covenant by partaking of the sacrament is one of the most sacred acts we perform as Latter-day Saints (see also verse 12).
The word sacraments is plural here because it refers not only to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper but to all our sacred Sabbath performances—prayers, blessings, confirmations, testimonies, lessons, or anything else we may do in Jesus’s name. A “sacrament” is anything said or done in the sacred name of Jesus Christ.
10 For verily this is a day appointed unto you to rest from your labors, and to pay thy devotions unto the Most High;
11 Nevertheless thy vows shall be offered up in righteousness on all days and at all times;
verse 11 A reminder that no one should get the idea that just because there is a designated Sabbath, all religious exercises, devotions, keeping the commandments, or being concerned with the things of God should be limited to Sunday only. Every member of the Church has covenant obligations to the Lord that are valid and must be observed seven days a week.
12 But remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord.
verse 12 “on this, the Lord’s day” In the world, controversy exists regarding which day of the week should appropriately be set aside as the Sabbath. We care nothing for all these arguments since this section of the Doctrine and Covenants was given on Sunday, and in this verse the Lord identifies Sunday as the appropriate day of worship: “this, the Lord’s day.”
“thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins” An “oblation” is an offering to God. It might be an offering of money, time, talent, or anything else consecrated to God as an act of obedience or worship. Elder Bruce R. McConkie defined an oblation in its highest sense as “giving full devotion to the Lord, of offering him a broken heart and a contrite spirit” (Mormon Doctrine, 541-42).
Does the ordinance of the sacrament involve confession? As we seek to grow spiritually, we must, with the willing cooperation of the Spirit of God, discern and identify those of our characteristics that need to be changed. We must then acknowledge or confess, at least to ourselves, those sins, and then we can set about to change them (see D&C 58:42-43). It may be useful to the reader to review the commentary on the three parts of the ordinance of baptism at this point, particularly the third part of the ordinance, the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost (see the introductory commentary for 2 Nephi 31).
verses 13-14 Note the words “perfect” and “rejoicing” used in referring to the fast. John W. Welch has reported on the doctrine of the fast in the early Christian church. He has examined an early Christian text from one of the so-called “apostolic fathers”—the Shepherd of Hermas. Apostolic fathers are early Christian church leaders and writers whose lives actually interfaced with the apostles. The writings of these apostolic fathers are considered credible and authentic owing to the early date of their writings and because of their association with the apostles. The Shepherd of Hermas was a Bishop of Rome who is believed to be the one referred to by Paul (Romans 16:14). He wrote about AD 150. Brother Welch reports the writings of the Shepherd of Hermas on the law of the fast:
- You are first to “guard against every evil word and every evil desire, and cleanse your heart of all the vanities of this world.”
- Then you must “estimate the cost of the food you would have eaten on that day on which you intend to fast, and give it to a widow or an orphan or someone in need.”
- Moreover, “You must observe these things with your children and your whole household, and in observing them you will be blessed.”
- Furthermore, those who receive fast offerings are to pray “on behalf of” those who have extended their generosity in this way.
“This fast,” the Christian is told, “is very good in keeping the Lord’s commandments,” and if you will do these things, “this fast of yours will be perfect” and “your sacrifice will be acceptable in God’s sight, and this fast will be recorded, and service performed in this way is beautiful and joyous.”
Note the words in verses 13 and 14 of section 59 “perfect” and “rejoicing” which are similar to the “perfect” and “joyous” found in this early Christian text.
If these directives may be described as the true order of fasting, it is evident that few Christian churches today follow this essential instruction. Is it possible that this was one of the “plain and precious things” taken away from the original gospel as it went forth from the mouth of the Son of God as foreseen by Nephi of old (1 Nephi 13:28)? But Nephi also beheld that some of those truths would be restored by “other books” that would come forth “from the Gentiles” (1 Nephi 13:38).
Because little was known about the ancient manuscripts of the Shepherd of Hermas until after the middle of the 19th century, it is interesting that only The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as far as we know, teaches and actually operates a regular program of fasting along these earliest Christian lines.
We may therefore conclude that fasting in the religious sense cannot be equated with just missing a few meals. True fasting is the attitude in which we miss those meals, an attitude of conscious sacrifice for the sake of others and for the sake of drawing away from our carnal natures while drawing closer to God. And as we draw closer to God through proper fasting, should we not rejoice? Even the food we prepare to end our religious fasts can be prepared in the spirit of fasting, the spirit of rejoicing— rejoicing not that our fast is over but that through our fast we have blessed our fellow saints and more effectively communed with God.
In a figurative sense, the Sabbath day itself, when properly observed, may be understood as a fast; not a fast from food and water, but from the worldly concerns of the rest of the week. If we truly fast from our weekday concerns on the Sabbath, we can enter into the full joy of the Lord’s day.
13 And on this day thou shalt do none other thing, only let thy food be prepared with singleness of heart that thy fasting may be perfect, or, in other words, that thy joy may be full.
verse 13 “let thy food be prepared with singleness of heart” Food should be prepared in simplicity. A simple meal should suffice rather than an elaborate feast. On one occasion Jesus was a guest in the house of Mary and Martha. Martha was overly busy trying to host the Savior in grand style, while Mary just sat listening to the Savior. To Martha’s rebuke of her younger sister, the Lord replied, “But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). The Lord’s implication was that there are more important things than a fancy and perfect meal.
“that thy fasting may be perfect” Just what constitutes a “perfect fast”? President Joseph F. Smith has counseled us:
Now, while the law requires the saints in all the world to fast from “even to even” and to abstain both from food and drink, it can easily be seen from the scriptures, and especially from the words of Jesus, that it is more important to obtain the true spirit of love for God and man, “purity of heart and simplicity of intention,” than it is to carry out the cold letter of the law. The Lord has instituted the fast on a reasonable and intelligent basis, and none of his works are vain or unwise. His law is perfect in this as in other things. Hence, those who can are required to comply thereto; it is a duty from which they cannot escape; but let it be remembered that the observance of the fast day by abstaining twenty-four hours from food and drink is not an absolute rule, it is no ironclad law to us, but it is left with the people as a matter of conscience, to exercise wisdom and discretion. Many are subject to weakness, others are delicate in health, and others have nursing babies; of such it should not be required to fast. Neither should parents compel their little children to fast. I have known children to cry for something to eat on fast day. In such cases, going without food will do them no good. Instead, they dread the day to come, and in place of hailing it, dislike it; while the compulsion engenders a spirit of rebellion in them, rather than a love for the Lord and their fellows. . .
But those should fast who can, and all classes among us should be taught to save the meals which they would eat, or their equivalent, for the poor. None are exempt from this; it is required of the saints, old and young, in every part of the Church (Gospel Doctrine, 243-44).
14 Verily, this is fasting and prayer, or in other words, rejoicing and prayer.
verse 14 While we generally define “fasting” as going without food, it should be noted that here the Lord defines “fasting and prayer” as “rejoicing and prayer.”
15 And inasmuch as ye do these things with thanksgiving, with cheerful hearts and countenances, not with much laughter, for this is sin, but with a glad heart and a cheerful countenance—
verse 15 The Lord doesn’t have anything against happiness, gladness, or cheerfulness, as demonstrated by the last half of this verse. The prohibition against “much laughter” here should be understood as meaning prohibition against that state of silliness, giddiness, loss of dignity, and loss of control in which people are more prone to cross the line of propriety, to make light of sacred things, to mock that which is good, or to make fun of others. This prohibition should not be understood as a total ban on all humor or on any degree of laughter, since a large number of General Authorities use an appropriate degree of humor—and the saints respond with appropriate laughter—when they address the Church in conference or on other important occasions.
In the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord commands the saints three times concerning laughter. We are commanded to cast away “excess of laughter” (D&C 88:69), avoid “much laughter” (this verse), and cease from “all laughter” (D&C 88:121). The context of each passage is crucial and explains the variation in the three commandments. Doctrine and Covenants 88:69 is apparently describing our everyday activity as we attempt to live lives that are more and more Christlike. Thus, laughter is permitted, but not to excess. In this verse, D&C 59:15, the setting is fasting, prayer, and Sabbath observance, in which there should not be “much” laughter; and in D&C 88:121 the setting is the Lord’s house, the temple (compare D&C 88:117, 119-20), where there should be no laughter at all.
verses 16-20 In these verses the Lord promises that as we are obedient in keeping the Sabbath day holy, our temporal needs will be met. Here is evidence that the immediate blessings for obedience are temporal as well as spiritual.
16 Verily I say, that inasmuch as ye do this, the fulness of the earth is yours, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which climbeth upon the trees and walketh upon the earth;
verse 16 “the fulness of the earth is yours” The earth and all it produces, both animal life (see verse 16) and plant life (see verse 17), are allowed for the use of the saints. There are no kosher laws for the modern Church as there were for ancient Israel. Modern Israel, the Church of Jesus Christ, may drink milk with their meat or wear linen with wool. We can eat shellfish, escargot, rabbit, or pork. The Mosaic law’s prohibitions against using certain of nature’s resources do no apply to the saints. Even the Word of Wisdom, which was not given to the Church until 1833, a year and a half following this revelation, is not so much a prohibition against use as it is a prohibition against misuse (see D&C 89). The Lord expected the saints to use all the bounty the earth produces intelligently and appropriately (see verse 20).
17 Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth, whether for food or for raiment, or for houses, or for barns, or for orchards, or for gardens, or for vineyards;
18 Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart;
19 Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul.
verse 19 “enliven the soul” The soul is defined in D&C 88:15-16 as the combination of the spirit and the body. The things of this earth are given not just for the nourishment of the body but for the joy of the spirit as well. “To enliven” means to stimulate or to rejuvenate. Thus, the products of nature are meant to rejuvenate or renew our spirits with their aesthetic qualities as well as our bodies with their physical properties.
20 And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.
verse 20 “neither by extortion” There is a difference between use and exploitation. Humans did not “use” the passenger pigeon very wisely. They are now extinct. The resources of nature are given to man to manage, not to pillage. Wholesale destruction of natural resources violates God’s command that they be used “with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.” Perhaps extortion, which literally means to “twist out,” here refers to forcing more from a resource than it can bear.
verses 16-20 President Spencer W. Kimball was once asked whether or not a serious drought that was ravaging the western United States might be due to the disobedience of the people. He said:
Today numerous of the people of this land spend the Sabbath working, devoting the day to the beaches, to entertainment, to shows, to their weekly purchases. The Lord makes definite promises. He says: “Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit” (Leviticus 26:4). God does what he promises, and many of us continue to defile the Sabbath day (CR, April 1977, 4-5).
21 And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.
verse 21 In using the products of nature for our own wants and needs, we need not fear that we might somehow offend God, for they are all given to us. God will, however, be offended by foolish persons who use what he has provided for them but will not acknowledge his hand in providing it—who “remove” God from their conceptual world and will not thank him (see verse 7) or keep his commandments.
22 Behold, this is according to the law and the prophets; wherefore, trouble me no more concerning this matter.
verse 22 “according to the law and the prophets” The Lord points out that his word on these matters is already found in the scriptures. The Lord does not seem to appreciate being petitioned for answers he has already given. Many of the saints would benefit from searching the scriptures and the revelations to modern prophets before asking God to solve their problems through personal revelation or divine intervention. God may already have answered their questions or solved their problems—if only they would consult the scriptures and other resources the Lord has provided.
23 But learn that he who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.
verse 23 Are we self-aggrandizing as we strive to keep the commandments? Do we seek after rewards? This verse reveals the reward for living in accord with the gospel principles. We are not promised riches, freedom from problems, or good health. Rather, the rewards are ones we should strive for: peace of mind in this world and the opportunity for eternal progression in the next world—the celestial heaven.
24 I, the Lord, have spoken it, and the Spirit beareth record. Amen.
Perhaps a fitting summary to section 59 is a statement by the First Presidency (President David O. McKay, J. Reuben Clark, Jr., and Henry D. Moyle) as to what constitutes appropriate observance of the Sabbath day:
The Sabbath day is not just another day on which we merely rest from work, free to spend it as our lightmindedness may suggest. It is a holy day, the Lord’s day, to be spent as a day of worship and reverence. All matters extraneous thereto should be shunned (Deseret News, June 20, 1959).
Joseph Smith had section 59 printed as a handbill and distributed to the saints in Kirtland shortly after his return from Missouri. This fact provides evidence of how important Joseph considered this revelation to be in that day.
Brief Historical Setting
As the time drew near for the missionaries to return to Kirtland, some of them inquired of Joseph, who in turn inquired of the Lord. The Lord gave counsel concerning their journey home [D&C 60 -Journey Back to Kirtland]. The Lord specifically warned them of the dangers of traveling by water [D&C 61 -Danger Upon the Waters]. On the way home they met up with some missionaries who were on their way to Independence. After joyful salutations the Lord gave instructions and encouragement to the missionaries [D&C 62 -Testimony].
- Michael J. Preece