32.And while the children of Israel. Since we know not in what year, or in what month this happened, it appeared that nothing would be better than to follow the context of Moses. This history shows that the Israelites were not always affected by the same degree of madness, so as to be rebellious against God; since in this instance their moderation is no less manifested than the fervency of their pious zeal. But as one swallow does not make spring, so we shall form an incorrect judgment of men’s whole lives from one noble action. The transgressor of the law is brought to Moses and Aaron, whose authority retains the whole people in the path of duty. Their humility is also worthy of praise, in that they quietly wait for the decision of God; and finally, must be added, their energy in executing the punishment as soon as God has declared the sentence. You would say that in every point they were rightly conformed to the rules of piety; but, since the most trifling occasion immediately led them astray, their hypocrisy was discovered by this great levity of conduct.
This, however, is the sum of the history, that by the death of one man the obligation of the Sabbath was sanctioned, so that it might henceforth be held in greater reverence. It might indeed be the case that these men, who brought the transgressor of the Sabbath, were careless in other matters, and, as is usual with hypocrites, were excessively rigid in their assertion of the claims of an outward ceremony. From the punishment, however, we may infer that the criminal himself had not erred through inadvertence, but in gross contempt of the Law, so as to think nothing of subverting and corrupting all things sacred. Sometimes, indeed, God has severely avenged inconsideration in the pollution of holy things; but it is probable that He would not have commanded this man to be stoned, unless he had been convicted of willful crime. Moreover, by this severity God testified how much stress He laid upon the observance of the Sabbath. The reason of this has been elsewhere set forth, f84 viz., that by this mark and symbol He had separated His chosen people from heathen nations. Whence also arose the main reproach against the Jews, when they were called Sabbatarians. f85
But it must be borne in mind that the worship of God was not to consist in mere idleness and festivity; and therefore that what God enjoined respecting the seventh day had another object: not only that they should then employ themselves in meditating upon His works, but that, renouncing themselves and their own works, they should live unto God.
Furthermore, this case shows us in general that the magistracy is appointed no less for the maintenance of the First Table, than the Second; so that, if they inflict punishment upon murder, adultery, and theft, they should also vindicate the worship of God: for it is to be observed that the man was not stoned by a mere unreflecting impulse, but by the direct command of God. They knew, indeed, what he had deserved before God’s tribunal; but, since no political law had been given on this head, Moses was unwilling to come to any decision except by the authority of God.