Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 6: Harmony of the Law, Part IV, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
32. And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the Sabbath-day.
32. Quum autem essent filii Israel in deserto, invenerunt virum colligentem ligna die Sabbathi:
33. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation.
33. Et adduxerunt illum qui invenerunt colligentem ligna, ad Mosen et Aharon, et universam congregationem.
34. And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him.
34. Qui posuerunt eum in custodiam: quia nondum patefactum erat quid faciendum esset ei.
35. And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp.
35. Et dixit Jehova ad Mosen, Moriendo moriatur vir ille: lapidet eum lapidibus universa congregatio extra castra.
36. And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses.
36. Eduxerunt ergo eum congregatio extra castra, et lapidaverunt eum lapidibus, et mortuus est, quemadmodum praeceperat Jehova Mosi.
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, 84 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. 85
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.
Vol. 2, p 434.
Martial, lib. 4, epigr. 4, speaks of “jejunia Sabbatariorum,” in a connection which makes it highly probable that it was a kind of nickname for the Jews.