Practical Application of the Word of God
The night of solemn observance to the Lord occurs only once in scripture and it is here in Exodus 12:42 that we find it.
The word translated as observe in this verse is the word shimmur in Hebrew. The word shimmur means night watch, watching, or vigil.
The root of the English word vigilance (which means to watch intently or intensely) is vigil. I believe this may be important to remember as we think about this night and what it means for us spiritually.
In the past ten years or so, each year before Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, my mind always allocates a certain amount of time to this night and what it actually pictures, how/if we should observe it in a codified way, and how I personally believe its meaning is obscured because we’ve left the most important parts out of the description (I’ve never heard a sermon on this night, so I don’t think, at this point in church history, it’s much more than an excuse to get together and eat and drink – often to excess).
I will say up front that this is something I have wrestled and still wrestle with and I know that I don’t understand the full richness of the meaning here, just as I don’t the Sabbath and the holy days (Leviticus 23) because I’m not spirit.
In my miniscule human and limited form, this is as far as I’ve gotten so far in trying to understand the relationship between this night in the physical exodus of Israel and this night in my spiritual exodus from sin.
I will also say that, in my opinion, the way it is currently observed by the churches of God is not scriptural, but instead an handed-down tradition based on a lack of clarity (title and purpose) that is, in many ways, diametrically opposed to what we should be doing and thinking about on this night.
I will do my best in this post to show, from a scriptural perspective and from a spiritual perspective, why.
I am not saying that it is necessarily wrong for a few family members or very close spiritual family members to have a meal and to focus on commemorating the meaning of this night (even though there is absolutely no scriptural basis for this), but if, as is in most cases within the churches of God, it’s a large group where decorations, food, and drink are the focus, then we are not commemorating this night as it should be commemorated.
How did this tradition of men get started? It’s been around ever since I’ve been alive, although my parents always invited a small group of people to our house each year as we were growing up and the conversation was pointedly scriptural and spiritual in nature.
It’s been in the last 20 years that this “tradition” has moved completely into the realm of the secular and anyone walking in off the street would be hard-pressed to distinguish it, except for the unleavened bread, from any other generic party.
God’s word has a good bit to say about the pitfalls of following the tradition of men and substituting the commandments of men for the word of God. I often think about this when I read what God says about what we do in Isaiah 1:14.
Here’s the thing. We always have to ask ourselves why we do what we do. We have to ask ourselves what God does, what Jesus Christ did, and what the early New Testament church (that, from a physical standpoint, should be a physical model for us) did.
Are we in sync or out of sync? Does it matter? Or can we do whatever we decide to do because “times have changed” and “circumstances are different?” I can’t answer those for you because that’s the work that each of has been called to do for ourselves.
I’ve asked myself and others those questions about why the churches of God commemorate the Night of Vigil (how the word shimmur is translated in many versions of scripture) the way we do. Others tell me it’s a night of celebration (citing Exodus 14:8 – a misinterpretation of the KJV’s “high hand,” which is properly translated as boldness and committed determination, not a whoo! hoo! celebration) and because a human being in the relatively recent past history of the churches of God decided this is how it should be done, so it’s become a tradition.
So let’s look at the bigger picture (context) of Exodus 12 in terms of what actually happened as well as what was about to happen and where Exodus 12:42 fits into that and what it actually says.
The Passover (the 14th of Abib) had occurred the night before, with all the firstborn of Egypt dying as the Angel of Death passed over the land. Pharaoh finally sent word to Moses and Aaron telling them to take the Israelites and leave Egypt immediately.
During the day portion of the 14th of Abib, Israel packed up to leave. One of the things that we’re told is that they left in such a hurry that the bread they baked was unleavened. We’ll talk about the significance of that from an angle we may not have considered before later.
At sunset, Moses, Aaron and Israel followed God out of Egypt a short distance where they camped for the night. This is the Night of Vigil (it is also the night portion of the first day of Unleavened Bread).
Who was keeping vigil? The Israelites, for sure. But, more importantly, so was the Lord. Both the Israelites and the Lord, if you will, were watching each other intently or intensely. This is quite significant, if we think about it from a spiritual aspect, which we’ll discuss.
But before the big-picture discussion, let’s examine what kind of observance this was and who it was directed toward. Exodus 12:42 says it was a solemn observance.
The word solemn means “deeply serious and somber.” If you look throughout scripture for the tenor of this night (even though this is the only scripture that mentions it by name), it is deeply serious and somber.
I’ll give you the most obvious example – and the one that I go back to continually in trying to reconcile the way it is commemorated now – in scripture.
That Night of Vigil is the night that began immediately following Christ’s crucifixion and death during the daytime portion of the 14th of Abib. We see nothing recorded about the disciples with regard to a celebratory dinner together on this night. We see nothing about them at all with regard to this night.
But let’s briefly review their 14th of Abib. Christ kept the Passover with them. When He was arrested, they all ran away.
Peter and John, at some point (my guess is around dawn of the daytime portion of the 14th of Abib), went to where Christ was being tried. Peter denied Christ three times and disappeared.
John and some of the other disciples, including Christ’s mother, Mary, watched Christ as He was crucified and died. Joseph of Arimathea, who was a secret disciple of Christ, took Christ and buried Him as the 14th of Abib was coming to an end (the 15th of Abib – which encompassed both the Night of Vigil and the first day of Unleavened Bread – was about to begin).
How do you think those 120 people spent that Night of Vigil? I always think about Peter and the indescribable emotions that were anything but happy and “let’s go party!” as he thought about his own actions toward his Savior and somebody he loved dearly, as well as what Christ had to suffer that day.
My guess is that there were a lot of tears, a lot of uncertainty (much like the Israelites, they were in between the past and the future and didn’t know how it was going to unfold), a lot of reflection, and a lot of prayer for 120 people in Jerusalem that night in 31 A.D.
And they never forgot what happened that they were a part of and they witnessed, so I have no reason to doubt that the Night of Vigil continued, at least until John’s death, to be deeply serious and somber.
The other parts of Exodus 12:42 that are significant are who the vigil is toward – “to the Lord” – and whose night it is – “that night of the Lord.”
For Israel, they were between a past in Egypt and a future in a promised land, but they had to make a committed choice to turn back or follow God forward where and how He led them.
Although Israel went forward, they never committed to that choice, grumbling and complaining about all they’d left behind in Egypt (as time passed, the bitterness of their time in Egypt was replaced with false memories of how good things were back there) every step of the way.
Before we look at the spiritual aspect of this Night of Vigil for us, we need to talk about bread.
Unlike most modern breadmaking that involves mixing cultured yeast with lukewarm water (I’ll leave it to you to contemplate that correlation with the attitude of Laodicea that we all have to be vigilant about in our own lives), which is then mixed with flour and left to sit for a couple of hours to rise, in Israel’s time, the leavening of bread happened naturally.
Yeast spores are everywhere in the air. If you mix water and flour and just let it sit undisturbed long enough, enough yeast spores will accumulate in the dough to make the bread rise. Most of the modern sourdough bread starter recipes use this method to create the starter.
But the Israelites didn’t have this kind of time (and God had already told them they would be eating unleavened bread for the next seven days), so they mixed the flour and water together and baked it to take with them.
As a side observation, which I alluded to earlier, there’s an aspect of this that’s significant that we may not have thought of before. How did the Israelites ensure that the bread would not become leavened? They applied heat – probably an open fire – to bake it to ensure an unleavened state.
It seems to me to be pretty good analogy of the spiritual heat that we undergo during trials to ensure that we become unleavened from the inside out. In essence, our state of becoming unleavened becomes more set as more heat is applied.
So what else does everything we’ve discussed so far have to do with us from a spiritual standpoint with regard to the Passover, the Night of Vigil, and the Days of Unleavened Bread?
It’s my opinion that this – which is the most important aspect of observing this time as we begin our annual walk through the plan of salvation for all humanity – is what we lose by the tradition we now have of observing the Night of Vigil.
Spiritually, being leavened represents sin and being unleavened represents righteousness. In the weeks before we partake of the Passover, we physically deleaven our homes and offices (our dwelling places).
But who deleavens us spiritually over our lifetimes? God and Jesus Christ. Each Passover, we renew our commitment to cooperate with, participate in, and allow God and Jesus Christ to continue our spiritual deleavening process. We renew our acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice to atone for our sins and to redeem our lives from the penalty those sins carry with them. Spiritually, we walk out of the Passover deleavened.
That is how our spiritual journey mirrors Israel’s journey out of Egypt.
But, like the in-between state of Israel and the disciples in 31 A.D on the Night of Vigil, where we are watching God and He is watching us, we have a lifetime of committed choosing to go back to the past (sin) or to go forward (righteousness).
The Night of Vigil brings this continual choice in our lives into focus like nothing else. It should be somber and serious time of reflection, of contemplation, of commitment, and prayer for each us individually because this affects everything we are, we think, we say, and we do going forward.
If we don’t stop here and do this, I think we miss a lot. And I think we miss an important opportunity to go into the Days of Unleavened Bread more soberly and with more vigilance about overcoming sin, with God’s help, in our lives for the rest of our lives (eating generously of the Bread of Life every day as long as we breathe and using its nourishment to grow into the measure of the stature of fullness of Christ).
The Night of Vigil, like the Passover, seems to be a very individual and deeply personal intersection in our relationship with God the Father and Jesus Christ (unlike the Day of Atonement, which represents the collective atonement by Jesus Christ for all of humanity).
No one else can make the commitment for me. No one else can make the commitment for you. It’s a choice that each of makes alone as we stand before God and Jesus Christ. Even more, Passover, the Night of Vigil, and the Days of Unleavened Bread underscore the intimacy that each of us has in our relationship with our Father and our Older Brother.
I hope we think about that more this year regardless of what our plans for the Night of Vigil entail.
Think about it from the aspect of a physical child. Except for only children, most kids crave one-on-one time with their parents, where it’s just them and Dad or Mom or both, and those times are rare, but precious, in families where there are multiple children.
The same is true for younger siblings and older siblings. Younger siblings usually drive their older siblings crazy because they want to follow them everywhere and do everything with them.
As much as we crave one-on-one time with our physical parents and we want to constantly be with and do everything with our older physical siblings, how much more should we crave one-on-one time with our spiritual Father and want to constantly be with and do everything our Older Brother is doing?
And here’s the thing. Unlike our physical parents (inability) and older siblings (mostly refusal), our Dad and our Older Brother want that kind of intimate relationship with each of us all the time too.
It’s amazing and somewhat out of the limits of our physical comprehension, I think, to understand the (especially if we compare them to their physical counterparts in our lives) full reality of this.
But let’s begin, this year, to take the time to focus on that, to think about that, and to deepen our lifelong commitment to that as we observe the Passover, the Night of Vigil, and the Days of Unleavened Bread.