Galatians 4 verses 9-10: Are God's Laws Bondage?

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Galatians 4 verses 9-10

Are God's Laws Bondage?

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Some view Galatians 4:9-10 Galatians 4:9-10 [9] But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage? [10] You observe days, and months, and times, and years.
American King James Version×
as condemning Old Testament laws. In these verses Paul wrote: “But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years.”

Those who argue against God’s laws see Paul’s reference to “days and months and seasons and years” as pointing to the Sabbath, festivals and sabbatical and jubilee years given in the Old Testament (Leviticus 23, 25). They view these God-given observances as the “weak and miserable principles” (NIV) to which the Galatians were “turn[ing] again” and becoming “in bondage” (Galatians 4:9 Galatians 4:9But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage?
American King James Version×
).

Is this Paul’s meaning?

There is an obvious problem with viewing these verses as being critical of the Sabbath, since the Sabbath is not even mentioned here. The term “Sabbath,” “Sabbaths” and any related words do not even appear anywhere in the epistle to the Galatians.

To argue against keeping the Sabbath, some assume that the “years” referred to in Galatians 4:10 Galatians 4:10You observe days, and months, and times, and years.
American King James Version×
are the sabbatical and jubilee years described in Leviticus 25. However, the jubilee year was not being observed anywhere in Paul’s day, and the sabbatical year was not being observed in areas outside Palestine (Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 14, p. 582, and Jewish Encyclopedia, p. 666, “Sabbatical Year and Jubilee”). The fact that Galatia was in pagan Asia Minor, far outside the land of Israel, makes it illogical to imagine Paul could have been referring to the sabbatical and jubilee years.

The Greek words Paul used for “days and months and seasons and years” are used throughout the New Testament in describing normal, civil periods of time. They are totally different from the precise terms Paul used in Colossians 2:16 Colossians 2:16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:
American King James Version×
specifying the Sabbaths and festivals of God. He used exact terminology for biblical observances in Colossians, but used very different Greek words in Galatians—a clear indication that he was discussing altogether different subjects.

To understand what Paul meant, we must examine both the historic and immediate contexts of these verses.

The Galatians couldn’t “turn again” to days they had never observed

The Galatian churches were composed mostly of members from a gentile, rather than Jewish, background. Paul made it clear that they were physically uncircumcised (Galatians 5:2 Galatians 5:2Behold, I Paul say to you, that if you be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.
American King James Version×
; Galatians 6:12-13 Galatians 6:12-13 [12] As many as desire to make a fair show in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. [13] For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh.
American King James Version×
), so they could not have been Jewish.

This background is important in understanding this controversial scripture. In Galatians 4:9-10 Galatians 4:9-10 [9] But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage? [10] You observe days, and months, and times, and years.
American King James Version×
, Paul said that the Galatians were “turn[ing] again to the weak and beggarly elements,” which included “days and months and seasons and years.” Since Paul’s readers were from a gentile background, it is difficult to see how the “days and months and seasons and years” they were turning back to could be the Sabbath and other biblical festivals, since they could not “turn again” to something they had not previously observed.

This is made even clearer by the immediate context. In Galatians 4:8 Galatians 4:8However, then, when you knew not God, you did service to them which by nature are no gods.
American King James Version×
, Paul said, “When you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods.” By this Paul referred “clearly to the idols of paganism, which, in typical Jewish idiom, Paul termed ‘not gods’ ” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 1976, Vol. 10, p. 475).

Not referring to biblical practices

Is it possible that these “weak and beggarly elements” they were returning to (Galatians 4:9 Galatians 4:9But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage?
American King James Version×
) could be God’s laws, Sabbaths and festivals? The word translated “elements” here is the Greek word stoicheia. What does it mean? The Expositor’s Bible Commentary explains:

“It would seem that in Paul’s time . . . stoicheia . . . referred to the sun, moon, stars, and planets—all of them associated with gods or goddesses and, because they regulated the progression of the calendar, also associated with the great pagan festivals honoring the gods. In Paul’s view these gods were demons. Hence, he would be thinking of a demonic bondage in which the Galatians had indeed been held prior to the proclamation of the gospel …

“In the verses that follow, Paul goes on to speak of these three crucial subjects in quick succession: (1) ‘those who by nature are not gods,’ presumably false gods or demons; (2) ‘those weak and miserable principles,’ again stoicheia; and (3) ‘days and months and seasons and years’ (vv. 9, 10). No doubt Paul would think of these demons in ways entirely different from the former thinking of the Galatians … Thus, this whole issue takes on a cosmic and spiritual significance. The ultimate contrast to freedom in Christ is bondage to Satan and the evil spirits” (p. 472).

Superstitious observance of days and times

This is the context in which at least some of the Galatians were observing special “days and months and seasons and years.” The word translated here as “observe” or “observing” is the Greek word paratereo, meaning “to watch closely, [or] observe narrowly” (W.E. Vine, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, “Observation, Observe”).

This word “seems to have the sense of ‘anxious, scrupulous, well-informed observance in one’s interest,’ which … fit[s] regard for points or spans of time which are evaluated positively or negatively from the standpoint of the calendar or astrology” (Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 1995, Vol. 8, p. 148).

Whatever “days and months and seasons and years” the Galatians were observing, they were apparently observing them in a superstitious manner, as they had observed days and times before their conversion.

From the context, we see it is simply not logical to conclude that Paul was criticizing the observance of the biblical Sabbath and festivals, since they were not even mentioned anywhere in this epistle. Instead, he was attacking misguided efforts to attain salvation through unnecessary superstitious observances.

Paul tells them, “I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain” (Galatians 4:11 Galatians 4:11I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed on you labor in vain.
American King James Version×
). He was trying to prevent them from again becoming entangled in their former pagan practices.

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