Read the 10 Commandments.
Now, which of these commandments do you think would be the easiest to follow? My pick is the 4th one: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Why? Because if you look at all the other commands, you’ll notice that they all require a constance vigilance and consciousness if you want to keep them. It takes hard work and a constant defense to avoid breaking the other 9. But that 4th one is unique in that it gives the command to not work. You literally don’t have to do anything to keep that command. Just don’t work on the Sabbath.
Looking at its context, it seems like an odd command. Nevertheless, it’s there as a command that the Israelites were supposed to follow. Should be an easy one, right?
As you move into the prophets, you begin to see a pattern emerge. In Jeremiah 17:19-27, we find God leveling a stern judgment at the people of Judah because they were not keeping the Sabbath. He makes the ultimatum that if they stop working on the Sabbath, God will bless them and restore their good fortune. But if they don’t keep it, then judgment will come. And all because they don’t take a day off!
Then, in Ezekiel 20, there are repeated references made to the people not honoring the Sabbath. Again, they are given judgment as an answer. A couple chapters later in 22, the profaned Sabbath is mentioned again. Clearly this is a high-level offense!
But the problem seemed to run deeper than not keeping the Sabbath. If we look at Amos, we find not only the Sabbath profaned, but other festivals that the Israelites were to keep. The attitude of the merchants accused there leaps off the page. They couldn’t wait until the holidays and Sabbaths were over so that they could return to the business of money and misery.
At this point, the question is why is the Sabbath so important to warrant such harsh repurcussions? This really boils down to, why did God command the Sabbath in the first place? The breaking of any commandment of God deserves punishment, but what makes the Sabbath a worthwhile command to give?
If we look back to that 10 Commandments passage, the Sabbath is connected to creation: God worked for 6 days, and rested on the 7th. Thus, in creating all things, God set forth the ideal work-week. Six days of labor, one day of rest. Seems simple enough, but clearly it was a hard command to follow for the ancient Israelites.
And I think that’s precisely why God gave it.
He knew that humans would desire to work like perpetual motion machines, always working and never stopping. We might call such a one a “workaholic.” But I believe the tendency is in all of us to keep working until we can go no more. And so God commanded Israel to remember the Sabbath to force them to rest.
Although the Sabbath is never explicitly commanded in the New Testament, you can see how the principle behind it is good and wise to practice. If you look at American culture, you get this increasing sense that no day is sacred enough to close business on. When was the last time you saw the majority of businesses closed on, say, Thanksgiving? I might’ve been in junior high…
So we today suffer the same as those who came long before us. We want to keep working, keep running, until we have no breath left to work with. This Labor Day, consider taking time to rest, maybe even force yourself to do so. I think a day off once a week would help us all out considerably.
[This was a look primarily at what the Old Testament of the Bible says about “Sabbath rest.” Next time, we’ll look more closely at the New Testament and what we can learn from that]