“Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.” These words begin a prayer for the Jewish sabbath. They also would work well as a prayer of confession for all of us, indicting us for our frantic lifestyles and chronic inattentiveness to the presence of God.
It is tempting to think that our challenges of time and busyness are purely modern experiences, but the Bible tells us otherwise.
The stewardship of time and labor has always been difficult. Some people in ancient history were compelled by poverty to work far more hours than were healthy, while others enjoyed a standard of living that depended on the overwork of their neighbors.
Then, as now, some of us have been unable to stop working for reasons having nothing to do with economic necessity.
The Bible speaks plainly to these concerns in the Third Commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). And why are we to keep sabbath?
Because of who God is and what God desires for humankind. Interestingly, the commandment to keep sabbath is expressed positively rather than as a “thou shalt not.”
The Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, are given twice in Scripture, first in Exodus 20:1-17 and then again in Deuteronomy 5:1-22. Both times the Third Commandment is for the whole community:
“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock or the alien resident in your towns” (Exodus 20:8-10).
We are responsible not only for our own keeping of sabbath but also for the ways in which our actions affect the ability of others to keep sabbath. The commandment is ethical then, as well as personal.
It also is worth noticing that the rationale for keeping sabbath differs between the two versions of the Decalogue. In Exodus 20:11, we are instructed to keep sabbath because “in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”
We must keep sabbath because God kept sabbath. As creatures made in God’s image, we are invited to participate in God’s own rhythm of creating and resting, taking time to savor the goodness of what has been made.
Significantly, in the story of the creation the crowning achievement is not the creation of humanity, but of rest — in Hebrew, “menuha,” a word rich in meaning that also connotes peace, tranquility and completion. In six days God creates the entire cosmos, and on the seventh day God creates rest.
This sabbath rest is a far cry from our usual experience of “rest,” which is more accurately described as a state of exhaustion and collapse. For us, the model is to work ourselves to the point of utter exhaustion and then crash.
Biblical sabbath keeping is impossible in such a state, as it requires the capacity to enjoy the gifts of life — good food, beauty, loving relationships, recreation, sacred texts and time spent in meditation on them. None of these are possible for exhausted zombies. Our compulsions thus make sabbath an urgent matter.
The second version of the commandment, Deuteronomy 5:12-15, makes it clear that such drive and compulsive working are contrary to God’s will. The reason given in Deuteronomy for keeping sabbath is based in God’s liberating purposes for us: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).
Sabbath is a living testimony to the God who seeks to free us — from literal enslavements and from all forms of compulsion and driven behavior.
In the New Testament, this theme of sabbath as a source of freedom finds expression in the passages that describe Jesus’ observance of and teachings on the sabbath.
Clearly he is an observant Jew and goes to the synagogue to worship and teach on the sabbath, but he also teaches that rigid legalism is contrary to God’s intention in giving us the gift of sabbath.
He told the religious leaders, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
Sabbath keeping is not something we do in order to please God; it is something we do because God knows it will make us whole, restore our spirits and renew our lives. In Jesus Christ we are continually called to “remember the sabbath” by setting aside our worries and overwhelming concerns and finding our rest in him.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” he invites us, “and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Christians today, and especially church leaders for whom Sunday often entails congregational responsibilities, face a special challenge in recovering the practice of sabbath keeping. It may help to look for guidance to the Bible and to be reminded that even in the Old Testament context, sabbath keeping was not only about a day of the week.
Sabbath was a principle in the ordering of time itself, extending outward to the sabbatical or seventh year when debts were to be forgiven and the land allowed to rest.
The sabbath principle extended even further, to the jubilee year (every fiftieth year) when all people were to be freed and ancestral landholdings were to be restored. Whether these things actually occurred, the intention was clear and demonstrated that sabbath could be applied on a longer time frame than a single week.
Today we might also claim the practice of sabbath in shorter time frames, beginning by observing “sabbath moments” whenever possible. This would be a way of growing into a fuller commitment, not simply a way of avoiding the difficult discipline of sabbath keeping as a full-day practice.
Beginning where we are, and making a serious commitment to a realistically achievable increase in our sabbath practice, will allow God to work in us and deepen our capacity for spiritual discipline.
Perhaps most important, Scripture teaches us that sabbath keeping is a community practice and not simply a matter of personal piety. The cultural forces of our time would have us believe that our happiness lies in a lifestyle of constant work and “productivity,” punctuated by frequent binges of shopping.
The Bible says otherwise: that our true happiness comes only from God and with God. Therefore, let us as faith communities pledge to support each other in our commitment to remember the sabbath and to rest in our Savior, who is himself the Lord of the Sabbath.