O what their joy and their glory must be, Those endless Sabbaths the blessed ones see; Crown for the valiant, to weary ones, rest; God shall be all, and in all ever blessed.
—Peter Abelard (12th Century)
Scripture quotations used here include those from the King James Version and the Jerusalem Bible to provide both literary quality and clarity. Also, a note on capitalization: Sabbath appears uncapitalized in the King James Version and the Jerusalem Bible (though not in some others), but many writers choose to capitalize it. For consistency, it appears here in its capitalized form.
THE SABBATH BEGINS WITH GOD’S WORK AND GOD’S REST
The Sabbath rest begins with God. This is not only significant in the creation narrative, but is characteristic of the structure of life. Rest, as we know from biology, is essential in the organism. It is a part of the metabolic cycle of growth and rest. From God’s rest the theme continues as the early Hebrews incorporated it into their spiritual and societal practices.
Those of you who have read my previous posts may have encountered my “argument for universality”, that is, if something is true, it must be universally true. This applies to the practice of the Sabbath, for many traditions emphasize the importance of rest days. This includes the Islamic, Babylonian, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Cherokee, Wiccan, Unity, and Bahá’í traditions. There are even secular applications: a state-mandated rest in China during the Han dynasty, and, more recently, in the Soviet republics, a weekly rest known as Subbotnik.
This consideration is amplified by numerous scriptural references on the Sabbath rest, the instructions for Sabbath-keeping, the resting place (or dwelling place) of God, the rest of the individual, and the resting of Israel in the temporal sense. The frequency of references and applications indicates its importance. As we move to the main consideration of reaching God’s land of rest, I have included these so that we may gain an appreciation of its whole context.
In the Genesis account, God completed his work of creation and rested from his work, blessing the seventh day and making it holy (Genesis 2:2-3), was the first Sabbath. The word comes from the Hebrew shabath, rested. Exodus 16:22-30 contains the account of the people gathering manna, God’s gift of food, during their journey. They are told by Moses to gather twice the amount of manna on the sixth day so that there would be no work on the seventh; in fact, if they were to look, they would find none in the fields then. Everyone was to stay at home. The importance of the Sabbath rest is of such importance that it is incorporated into the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11): no family members, servants, “the stranger that is in thy gates”, not even cattle, are to work.
THE EXPANDING APPLICATION OF THE SABBATH
From this point the Sabbath is extended in ever-widening circles. It becomes a social institution. There is the sabbatical year, where fields, vineyards, and groves are allowed to go fallow (Exodus 23:10-12). This is a precursor of modern organic practice which treats the land as a living entity, needing, like humans, time to replenish itself. This has an ethical component: during the seventh year the poor (as well as animals) are allowed to enter and take what they need to eat. At the end of this passage, the seventh-day instruction is repeated, again adding an instruction of social importance, that “your donkey may rest and the son of your slave girl have a breathing space, and the stranger too.” In what is probably a later insertion, Exodus 31:12-17 reiterates the importance of the Sabbath as a sign between God and man which is to be held sacred as God in turn has sanctified. Later, as the Israelites depart from Egypt, God promises, “I myself will go with you, and I will give you rest”, here meaning the undisturbed occupation of Canaan. The seriousness of the Sabbath rest is of such importance that anyone who works then will be put to death, even for lighting a fire in their home (Exodus 35:1-3). Now it is probably safe to say that even the most literal fundamentalist would not propose putting someone to death for violating the Sabbath, but there it is in holy scripture. What are we to do with it? It serves to illustrate that not all scripture is of equal weight; there is a process of development here, from the more primitive and tribal conceptions to the more spiritual, this stands as an illustration of the former. (For a more complete discussion of this topic see my post The Indwelling of Compassion.)
The pattern has been set. The Sabbath is now codified in Leviticus with the command to refrain from work on the tenth day of the seventh month, including “the native and the stranger who lives among you” (16:29). Here the rite of atonement (a burnt offering, with, interestingly enough “a cloud of incense” with which the priest “is to cover the throne of mercy”) as a purification before God, with the result that “you shall be clean of all your sins” (16:30). More of the significance of the cloud will follow. In verse 31 this is to be “a perpetual law”. Such is the importance of Sabbath teaching in the Old Testament. The people are not only to keep God’s Sabbath, but to “reverence my sanctuary” (19:30), a foretelling of the spiritual sanctuary of rest.
Further instructions follow. In Leviticus 23:3 the Sabbath is “a day of complete rest” (King James Version “an holy convocation”); Leviticus 26:2 commands, “Ye shall keep my Sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary: I am the LORD.”; In Numbers 15:32-36 a man breaking the Sabbath is put to death; In Deuteronomy 5:12-15 keeping the Sabbath is part of the Ten Commandments; In Nehemiah 10:31 no goods or foodstuffs are to be purchased from the natives of the land on the Sabbath day and, in addition, the command to “forego the fruits of the soil in the seventh year, and all debts”. Nehemiah observed people (13:15-22) “treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and others taking sheaves of corn and loading them on donkeys with wine, grapes, figs and every kind of load which they meant to bring into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day” and warns them of their transgression; Esther 9:16-22 recounts the tradition of the country people in the undefended villages to keep the fourteenth or fifteenth day, depending on their location, as “a day of rest and gladness”.
Other days of rest are added. Leviticus 23:15-32 describes the feast of Weeks, with a social component (and its modern counterpart) not to harvest to the end of the field, so that gleanings are available for the poor and stranger; the first day of the seventh month; the Day of Atonement, the feast of Tabernacles, all “solemn festivals of Yahweh”; (25:1-7) the seventh year as a day of rest for the land, with its assurance that the Sabbath of the land will feed all people (including hired laborers and guests) and animals.
This brings us in Leviticus 25:8-19 to Year of Jubilee. The calculation is “seven times seven years”, with the Day of Atonement on the fiftieth year. Here all the inhabitants of the land are to return to their ancestral homes. No sowing or harvesting will take place: what has been gathered will be the food supply. Possessions which have been taken as pledges will be returned to their owners. Verse 17 the command, “Ye shall not therefore oppress one another; but thou shalt fear thy God: for I am the LORD your God.” Verse 19 ends with the promise of this practice: “And the land will yield her fruit, and ye shall eat your fill, and dwell therein in safety.”; Further consequences of the Year of Jubilee are explained in Leviticus 26:33-35,43. Here the land enjoyed a Sabbath rest when the Israelites were in the hands of their enemies; In Deuteronomy 15:1-11 the sabbatical year was to be a year of remission: “let there be no poor among you”; here too are references to the land promised by Yahweh to his people as a rest and references to the land enjoying rest after victory of Israel over enemies. And so, the Sabbath as a principle grew to encompass far more than the day of rest at its origin.
OTHER SABBATH REFERENCES
Indirect references appear as well. These include, in 1 Kings 8:12-13, the thick cloud as the dwelling of Yahweh and an earthly house for his people as “a place to live for ever”: “Thus spake Solomon, The LORD said that he would dwell in the thick darkness….a settled place for thee to abide in for ever”) This recalls the presence of Yahweh in the cloud on the mountain where Moses spoke with him, and on the Exodus journey. For Ben Sira (author of the book of Sirach) Wisdom abides with God in the pillar of cloud (14:6) and “In the beloved city he has given me rest” (14:15). The Ark of the Covenant, and later the Temple, was considered by the Hebrews to be the earthly resting place of God. In his dedication of the Temple, Solomon invokes God to “come (King James Version “arise”) to your resting place” (2 Chronicles 6:41). In this house were offered the daily holocausts and those for the Sabbath and all the other feasts.
Yahweh’s help is invoked in 2 Chronicles 14:11 “because we rest on thee”, with the result (15:15; 20:30) that “he gave them rest round about” in the kingdom. Yet this earthly temple was destroyed and the kingdom came to an end due to the unfaithfulness of the people (2 Chronicles 36:14-21).
Job first complains (3:26) “I was not in safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet”, or in the Jerusalem Bible “my torments banish rest”, but is reminded by Zophar (11:16-18) that he will forget his sufferings, dwelling well and safely guarded (King James Version “take thy rest in safety”). There is a foretelling of the resurrection, in 17:16 where his hope is with those who “rest together in the dust”.
In the Psalms rest is represented: (16:9) “my body, too, will rest securely (King James Version “in hope”); the vision of rest, “green pastures…still water… restoreth my soul” in the 23rd Psalm; 37:7 “rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him”; 51:10-12 “renew a right spirit”; 68:15-18 the hill of Zion, God’s dwelling place on earth; (94:12-13) man whom God instructs given rest from the time of trouble; in 95:10-11 God swearing that the generation that repelled him not reach the place of rest that he had for them (King James Version “not enter into my rest”); (131:2) David humbling himself as a child, keeping his soul tranquil and quiet; (132:8-10, 13-14) God going into his rest in the Ark, choosing Zion for his habitation: “This is my rest for ever; here will I dwell; for I have desired it.”
Isaiah rests in the presence of God who said to him (18:4) “I will take my rest, and I will consider in my dwelling place like a clear heat upon herbs (Jerusalem Bible: “like the clear heat produced by light”), and like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest”. It is God (28:12 who provides “the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing.” (Jerusalem Bible “…here is rest, let the weary rest. Let the weary repose.”); and (30:15) “In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength, but ye would have none of it.”; assures his people they will live (32:18) “in a peaceful habitation, and in sure dwellings, and in quiet resting places”; and (56:2) blesses the man who “clings to it: observing the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeping his hand from every evil deed”. Isaiah promises blessings on those who reverence the Sabbath, who (58:13-14) refrain from travel, doing business, and gossip, and who find their happiness in it (“from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight”; the Spirit of Yahweh (63:14) “led them to rest”; In 66:1-2 Isaiah questions the localization of the deity, asking “what house could you build me, what place could you make for my rest?” for in truth “All of this was made by my hand and all of this is mine”, seeking instead “the man of humbled and contrite spirit, who trembles at my word”.; The call to humanity is universal, for in 66:23 “from New Moon to New Moon, from Sabbath to Sabbath, all mankind will come to bow down in my presence, says Yahweh.”
In Jeremiah rest is found (6:16) in “the ways of long ago…the ancient paths”. In 17:19-27 he provides specific commands for the observance of the Sabbath, though Jerusalem Bible notes question the passage’s authenticity because the importance it attributes to the Sabbath is not mentioned elsewhere in Jeremiah. Nevertheless, carry no burden, keep the Sabbath day holy, do no work.; rest and return from afar is promised (30:10, 31:2, 46:27); in 50:6 the people have “forgotten their restingplace” (Jerusalem Bible “forgetful of their fold”.; yet affirming in 50:34 that “Their Redeemer is strong” and “may give rest to the land” (Jerusalem Bible “peacefulness to the world”).
In the Captivity the Sabbaths of the Jews are mocked (Lamentations 1:7; in 2:6 it is the punishment of the Lord who has “caused the solemn feasts and Sabbaths to be forgotten”. These, in Ezekiel 20:12, were given as a sign between God and his people, that they might know that it is God who sanctifies them. God was later to lift up his hand against them because they had (20:23-24) “despised my statutes, and had polluted my Sabbaths, and their eyes were after their fathers’ idols”. In 22:8 the profaning of the Sabbath is connected to the previous verse with despising fathers and mothers and oppressing widows, orphans, and strangers. In verse 26 they have “put no difference between the holy and profane”. Later in 44:23 priests are charged to teach the people “the difference between the holy and profane, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean”. The Sabbath observation (as well as that for the New Moon) is specified in 46:1-2 where, for six days, the east gate of the inner court is kept shut, and on the seventh day opened where the priests may enter to offer the holocaust and the communion sacrifice. Hosea repeats the punishment of God, where in 2:11 he shall “cause all her mirth to cease, her feast days, her new moons, and her Sabbaths, and all her solemn feasts”.
JESUS AND THE SABBATH
This brings us to the New Testament, in which the Sabbath is still a focus of Jesus’ teaching but receives a completely different emphasis. In Matthew 11:28-29 it is Christ who shall give rest to those who take his yoke upon them. Then, in 12:1-19 Jesus refutes the criticism of the Pharisees for his disciples picking ears of corn and eating them as they walked, countering that David and his followers did as much when they were hungry and ate the loaves of offering; and further that priests break the Sabbath without being blamed for it. Jerusalem Bible notes to this passage state, “Far from stopping, the work of the sacred ministry actually increased on the Sabbath.” In verses 7-8 he admonishes them that if they understood the meaning of the words what I want is mercy not sacrifice they would not have condemned them, and affirms that “The Son of Man is master of the Sabbath”. Further notes state that here Jesus is “claiming authority over Israel’s God-given instructions”. He asks his critics, (verses 11-12) “If any one of you had only one sheep and it fell down a hole on the Sabbath day, would he not get hold of it and lift it out?” and asking if, therefore, man is not better than a sheep and what is it lawful to do on Sabbath days. In verses 13-14 he goes on to heal the man with the withered hand. These events are repeated in Mark 2:23-3:6 and Luke 6:1-11. An interesting, though probably spurious dictum is included in the notes to Luke, quoting Jesus as saying, “Friend, if you know what you are doing, you are blessed; but if you do not know, you are accursed as a breaker of the Law.” Luke also records his healing of a crippled woman on the Sabbath (13:10-11) countering the same criticism, and a man with dropsy in 14:1-6. In John 5:1-18 there is the additional curing of the sick man at the Pool of Bethesda. Verses 16-18 provide an important insight: “It was because of the things he did on the Sabbath that the Jews began to persecute Jesus. His answer to them was, ‘My Father goes on working, and so do I’ (in the King James Version “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work”). But this only made the Jews more intent on killing him, because, not content with breaking the Sabbath, he spoke of God as his own Father, and so made himself God’s equal.” Jerusalem Bible notes comment: “Jewish theologians reconciled the fact that God ‘rested’ after the work of creation (the Sabbath was the human counterpart of this ‘rest’, Genesis 2:27) with his conclusive, active government of the world, by distinguishing between God’s activity as creator, which is now at and end, and his activity as judge (or “governor’), which never ends. Jesus claims that what he does and what the Father does are one and the same. Hence the anger of the Jews and Christ’s vindication of the claim.” In John 7:20-24 Jesus counters that the priests, too, “work”, saying “Now if a man can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the Law of Moses is not broken, why are you angry with me for making a man whole and complete on a Sabbath?” An additional Sabbath healing not reported in the other Gospels occurs in John 9:13-17, where Jesus placed a paste on the blind man’s eyes, after which he washed and could see.
THE SABBATH IN OTHER NEW TESTAMENT WRITINGS
The epistles continue the theme of rest, in Acts 2:26-27 (quoting David) “my body, too, will rest in hope that you will not abandon my soul to Hades”; in 7:49-50 (quoting Is 66:1-2) “With heaven my throne and earth my footstool, what house could you build me, what place could you make for my rest? Was not all this made by my hand?”; and in Colossians 2:16-17, countering the intricacies of Old Testament law regarding Sabbath keeping, among other practices: “From this time on, never let anyone decide what you should eat or drink, or whether you are to observe annual festivals, New Moons or Sabbaths. These were only pale reflections of what was coming: the reality is Christ.”
THE KEY CONSIDERATION: HOW TO REACH GOD’S LAND OF REST
The most eloquent expression, and one which connects most directly with our human destiny, is found in chapters 3 and 4 of the Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews. Here the letter is concerned with “the rest of believers”, or as stated in the heading of the Jerusalem Bible, “How to reach God’s land of rest.” This leads us to a curious anticipation. We are going to be given some specific and useful instruction by one of the principal founders of the church. It is clear and straightforward, not esoteric at all: if we would hear our Master’s voice, we must not harden our hearts (Hebrews 3:8). Who is telling us this? None other than the Holy Spirit. The Jerusalem Bible translation takes on a pleading tone, “if only you would listen to him today”. So the path to the land of rest we seek begins in spiritual awareness, with devotion and attention.
Chapter 4 continues the instruction. We are told that faith is necessary to reach this rest, assuring us in verses 9-10 that there must be “a place of rest reserved for God’s people, the seventh-day rest, since to reach the place of rest is to rest after your work, as God did after his.” In the poetry of the King James Version, “There must still be, therefore, a place of rest reserved for God’s people, the seventh-day rest, since to reach the place of rest is to rest after your work, as God did after his. We must therefore do everything we can to reach this place of rest, or some of you might copy this example of disobedience and be lost.” Verse 11 implores us, in the Jerusalem Bible translation, “We must therefore do everything we can to reach this place of rest, or some of you might copy this example of disobedience and be lost.” Notes state that this promise, which cannot be empty since it was made by God, “is still open to Christians who are invited to reach the peace of the spiritual promised land, of which the earthly promised land was only a type.” This, surely, is akin to the samadhi of the Hindu/Buddhist conception. Samadhi can be defined as the state when the consciousness is absorbed into the Supreme Spirit, or, in the words of Bede Griffiths, author of River of Compassion: A Christian Commentary of the Bhagavad Gita, “By the grace of God finds the joy of God.” Because this Sabbath is not only ours but God’s, we enter into the same state of being that God does. What a spiritual opportunity for us to do so!
Our scriptural references end with Revelation 14:13, which gives us the last word (doesn’t it always?). Here John writes down his vision and affirms the rest we seek in God, where John says “Then I heard a voice from heaven say to me, ‘Write down: Happy are those who die in the Lord! (the King James Version adds “from henceforth”). Happy indeed, the Spirit says; now they can rest for ever after their work, since their good deeds (“their works”) go with them.’ ” Truly, if our life is a work of attention to spiritual things, then in the end, like God, we can rest from our work and say, “It is good.” As above, so below—our practice of Sabbath-keeping and our attitude toward it is but a “foretaste of the feast to come”.
ON SABBATH KEEPING
If this were a sermon, we would come to the question, “Where is the application?”, and here it is: If ever a Sabbath rest was needed it is now. We must wrestle it free from the myriad of competing demands in this rest-less society. Many writers have lent their wisdom to the subject, and I will quote some of them. Kevin Bart writes, “God and our personal relationship with Him is to be the main focus of the Sabbath. So it is much more than just a day of rest….it is a special holy day of rest, set apart from other days, dedicated to the Lord and our relationship with Him…. There are many people who have no problem not observing the Sabbath. In their view or opinion it is not a big deal. They miss the point that God has ordained this as a special holy day, set apart for rest and special attention on God and on our relationship with Him.” This being said, even if it is not possible to set aside a complete day, we will benefit (and honor God) if we can consciously set aside a period of time (or periods of time) where we can focus solely upon living in God’s presence.
In what echoes Jesus’ proactive practice of doing good on the Sabbath, Spencer W. Kimball, late president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, writes “The Sabbath is a holy day in which to do worthy and holy things. Abstinence from work and recreation is important but insufficient. The Sabbath calls for constructive thoughts and acts, and if one merely lounges about doing nothing on the Sabbath, he is breaking it. To observe it, one will be on his knees in prayer, preparing lessons, studying the gospel, meditating, visiting the ill and distressed, sleeping, reading wholesome material, and attending all the meetings of that day to which he is expected. To fail to do these proper things is a transgression” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, 1969, pp. 96-97).
The website cometochrist.org recommends, “Without some planning, Sundays can easily become just as busy as other days of the week. Plan the rest of the week with the Sabbath day in mind so that you have plenty of time to rest and worship. Run errands, clean your house, and get other tasks taken care of on Saturday when possible. That way, the Sabbath day really will feel separate and holy. And again, following Jesus’ lead, plan uplifting Sabbath day activities. The Sabbath may be a time for us to rest from our labors, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything on Sunday. We can plan activities that are focused on God, family, and providing service. God has promised amazing blessings to those who keep the Sabbath day holy. It will strengthen your family relationships. It will give you greater focus and confidence. As you show the Lord your love for Him by keeping the Sabbath day holy, He will help you feel His love more in your life.”
Some profitable activities might include
- Visiting family and friends. This includes conversation and listening, for in the rush of daily life we do not always take the time to share personal thoughts, listen deeply, and establish true relationship.
- Reading, writing, and reflecting.
- Learning more about your ancestors and family history and sharing that with your immediate family.
- Going for a walk and spending time in nature, even if that is your back yard.
- Taking food to someone who is sick.
- Planning a service project.
- Playing games with family members.
- Planning and eating a family meal together (with the suggestion that most of the preparation work be done prior to the Sabbath; some commentators suggest only eating leftovers on this day to avoid the work of preparing and cooking).
If you are working three jobs in the gig economy or if you are tasked with many family or professional responsibilities you may consider a complete day of rest unreasonable. The absence of work commitments, either for your job or personal tasks, is not always practical or possible. If you were a doctor, would you refuse to treat a patient? If the toilet stops up, would you not attempt to fix it? Practical arrangements to fit your schedule must be considered. Chris Russell has proposed what he titles a “Half Day of Prayer”. It consists of a progression of conscious activities as an extended period of time is spent alone:
1. Speaking to God: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication (“praying for every single person who is close to you in your life”)
2. Listening to God
Our daily meditation periods, too, are “Sabbaths in miniature” and when done without distraction allow us to reach that deeper level of rest and relationship. There is certainly room for creativity to fit each person’s needs to incorporate Sabbath-keeping into his or her life .
This brings us to the most important consideration of the times in which we live, establishing a technology Sabbath. Although we may not realize it, the amount of media consumed daily is fantastic, up to or more than 15 hours if all time were counted. This includes media multitasking, such as listening to music while checking your email. This doesn’t even count any media consumed at work—we are consuming a torrent of media equivalent to the number of our waking hours, which is to say that if we are up, we’re plugged in. While technology can enhance our productivity, it can also distract and induce stress. Taking a technology Sabbath gets us off the wheel of our usual life and, importantly, allows us to pursue different activities and use different parts of our brains. It may take real discipline to turn off our electronic devices, but it is a chance worth taking. Speaking personally, I can eliminate TV and checking email easily enough, but I leave my phone on in case I receive an emergency call.
Alex McFarland writes, “Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is take a nap.” This may seem like a flippant comment, but is not to be taken lightly. Many of us are sleep deprived, insomniac, rest-less. We seem to be unable to turn off the endless stream of thoughts. Having a day which induces rest (ether consciously or in the sleep state) provides the opportunity to reclaim our true being. This would of course include meditation. While this practice is commended on a daily basis, it could certainly be intensified and amplified on the Sabbath. It would fill the gap left by the avoidance of technology.
A LIFE LEADING TO REST IN GOD
And where does this practice lead, this Sabbath-keeping, this devotion of periods of time to living in the fellowship of God? They are but a preparation for that greater life when we are absorbed into the one-ness of the Divine Person, where our lives become joined with that which is greater than our life alone, that from which it has come. Our work in the world will one day come to an end, at which we shall enter into a different, a greater, Sabbath of rest. Nothing seems to epitomize our journey more than the words to the old hymn “Work, for the night is coming, when all work is done.” There is a time to work and a time to rest, and as we pass through this life we look to the ultimate Sabbath when we are promised this joyous rest. This, if we are faithful, is our destiny. Even as we live this day, we look to the radiance of the life divine when we shall live in the glory of that rest in God.