What is the Sabbath for?

What is the Sabbath for?

“…and God rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done.”

The creation narrative concludes with God resting–or ceasing–from his creative handiwork “on the seventh day.”  What does this mean?

First, this “ceasing of labor” is the final part of the creation story’s central analogy:  the Creator is presented as an artisan who works during the day for six days and then rests on the seventh.  This analogy serves a number of purposes, not least to dignify the work of the artisan–and, by extension, all human work.

But it also dignifies and authorizes human rest; the Creator sets the pattern for those whom He has made in his image:  six days of work and a day of rest.

But beyond this (extremely important) pattern is the idea that God ceases from his work, because quite simply there was no more work to be done.  Like expecting parents who finish their unborn child’s nursery prior to the child’s arrival, the fact that they have stopped working indicates that they have done all that needed for the arrival of their child.

Their child is, therefore, in every way provided for:  she or he lacks nothing.

Completion, then, points to complete provision.  When God finished his work, he rested because all that needed to be done had been done:  he had finished fashioning a fully-stocked, fully safe creation-nursery.  Everything was ready.

In Exodus 20, when the fourth commandment calls for the observance of the Sabbath, the Creator’s resting on the seventh day is given as the reason:  it would be more than a little awkward–downright insulting, in fact–if we kept right on working when God did not.  Why?  Because it would communicate to God:  “You have not fully provided for me.  I must work, because I cannot trust you to provide for me.”

Because of this, Sabbath-keeping (or breaking) is like a barometer of our functional views of both God and self:  (1) of God:  I cannot rest, because God may not provide for me; (2) of self:  I cannot rest, because I am so incredibly important; my actions–not God’s–are decisive for my future, and every last little minute matters.

Of course, regardless of our religion, philosophy, or way of life, in our sane moments we realize that we don’t have that much control; we regularly overestimate our importance:  we do everything we can to get into a particular college or program or to get that job, when it turns out (unbeknownst to us) that factors entirely outside our control played a role in determining the outcome.

But Sabbath-keeping declares that sovereign over all those factors is the Single Factor of God’s loving provision:  He knows what he’s doing, and he loves his people; he will never let them go; he will always be there to provide for them.

For this reason Psalm 92, the superscription of which reads “A Song for the Sabbath,” celebrates God’s steadfast (i.e., committed) love and faithfulness (v. 2) and revels in the decisive, irreversible works of God in history:

“For you make me glad by your deeds, O LORD;
I sing for joy at the works of your hands.
How great are your works, O LORD!”

The wicked will have their way for a while, but their actions are not decisive; their actions will be overshadowed, undone, overcome by the greater, irreversible actions of Israel’s God.  What’s the point, then, of being wicked?  How stupid could one be (vv. 6-7)?

On the contrary, God’s decisive actions make it certain that the righteous will be rewarded.  But even more than that, the righteous need not feel as though the weight of the world is on their shoulders, for it is in fact squarely upon his shoulders.

This leads us to ask:

Do the actions of the righteous make a difference?  Wonderfully, yes (unlike the actions of the wicked, which are undone).

But do the actions of the righteous make the difference?  Wonderfully, no.

The good news of God’s decisive actions in history (climaxing in Jesus) provides both the rationale and the motivation for the divinely appointed rhythm of the week:

Because our actions make a difference, we are motivated to put our resources–our gifts, connections, etc.–to work six days out of the week; we can know the joy and dignity of work; we are contributing–making a difference, precisely as God created us to do:  we are made in his image.  We can do what the author of Ecclesiastes commends:

“a person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their work.  This is from the hand of God, for without him who can eat or find enjoyment?” (2.24-25)

But–and this is a huge–because our actions do not make the difference, we are motivated to throttle back–completely; we are free to rest; we are free to cease our labors and to observe the Sabbath.  If we are not as productive or effective as we had hoped, that is actually ok–our world will not come crashing down.

We can actually walk away from it all.

We have been faithful in our labors, and God is not looking to us to make it happen.  And that’s the gospel.

And it’s worth saying:  it’s a gospel to be both enjoyed and embodied.  That is, the fourth commandment insists that not only are we ourselves to cease from our labors but so is anyone and everyone under our authority or care:  “neither you nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.”

(The astute reader will note that there are seven categories of workers listed here:  seven being the number of completeness / wholeness, the idea is that for one’s entire household there should be rest.  For this reason the fourth commandment has been called the greatest worker-protection law ever created!)

One practical note:  to observe the Sabbath, Scripture calls us to think in advance and to prepare for the day.  In Exodus 16.23 we read:  “This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning.'”  Such preparation is crucial for enjoying a true day of rest.

A final personal note:  personally I have found that by keeping the Sabbath I am actually more productive than I would otherwise be; by resting one day in seven, I find I am more efficient (and intentional) on the six days that I am working.  Having rested, I’m ready to get back to the (very good) work God has called me to do.

The Sabbath, then, is pure oxygen for those who have been inhaling the carbon monoxide of their own self-importance.

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