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Memorial Day and biblical memorials

Memorial Day
Memorial Day
Photo by Marcia Hornok

Memorial Day, a national holiday to commemorate loved ones who have died, will be observed on May 26 this year. Originally called “Decoration Day” (for decorating the graves of fallen veterans) it honored the Civil War soldiers of both sides. Congress in 1971 changed the name to Memorial Day and the date from May 30 to the last Monday in May.

In America we decorate graves of loved ones with flowers as seen in the vivid displays at Redwood Memorial Cemetery in Salt Lake City, Utah, pictured here. In the Old Testament, the people of God observed many kinds of memorials.

The Hebrew word for “memorial” occurs 25 times in 22 verses. God wanted His people to observe or remember the following:

  • His Name YHWH (“I AM that I AM”) as a memorial to all generations (Exodus 3:14-15).
  • Holidays: The Passover – to commemorate God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12:14; 13:3-10). And the Feast of Trumpets, Israel’s New Year (Leviticus 23:24).
  • Written records (Exodus 17:14; Psalm 38; Psalm 70; Esther 6:1; Malachi 3:16).
  • Gem stones on the breastplate of the high priest, bearing the engraved names of the tribes of Israel as a memorial before the Lord (Exodus 28:12, 29; Exodus 39:7).
  • Frankincense burned perpetually in the tabernacle (Leviticus 24:7).
  • Donations of money (Exodus 30:16; Numbers 31:54).
  • Trumpet calls—when they went to war, when they offered sacrifices, and on the first day of every month—as a memorial before God (Numbers 10:9-10).
  • A deterrent to disobedience – when the sons of Korah rebelled against God’s requirements and tried to offer incense their own way, God swallowed them up in a sinkhole. Their bronze censors were hammered into a covering for the altar as a constant reminder that people must come before God His way, not their own way (Numbers 16:39-40).
  • Stones – a pillar of 12 stones was set up where God parted the waters of the Jordan River so Israel could cross over into the Promised Land (Joshua 4:1-9)
  • A crown – made from gold and silver donated by the returning exiles. It was kept in the temple as a reminder that Messiah would someday reign as King and Priest (Zechariah 6:9-15).

In the New Testament, Matthew 26:13 and Mark 14:9 record the anointing of Jesus’ feet and head as a lasting memorial. During the last supper, Jesus instituted a sacrament that we call ‘Communion’ or ‘The Lord’s Table’ so His followers will remember His death until He comes again (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-26). And Cornelius’ prayers and alms were a memorial before God (Acts 10:4, 31).

Memorials are important to keep us focused on our roots, on gratitude, and on the things we value. From the Scriptural examples above, we observe God values memorials as well, whether they involve our worship, writings, donations, prayers, or physical reminders to keep us from forgetting.

As we remember the sacrifices made by our veterans, let’s also give thanks for the ultimate sacrifice of God’s Son, given so that whoever believes in Him will never perish but will have the gift of eternal life (John 3:16).