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. For 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. Exodus 20:8-11

[The Babylonians] set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there. [Nebuchadnezzar] carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power. The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah. II Chronicles 36:19-21

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.” Jeremiah 29:10-12

Point by Point

  1. To sabbath is to cease; it is to be caused to take a deep breath
  2. Sabbath is about life balance as well as about trust
  3. Since one “loses” productive time by keeping Sabbath, trust is required
  4. God started Israel’s sabbath/trust lessons in the desert with the gathering of food
  5. On the balance side, rest actually leads to greater efficiency and more effective work
  6. Although we think of Sabbath as doing God a favor, it is really God saying, “Do not kill yourselves.”
  7. Sabbath is much more than a one-day-a-week thing; God is always our provider
  8. There are many laws in Torah which are Sabbath laws: Jubilee, Fallow Year, Second Harvest…
  9. True Sabbath-keeping restores our trust in God’s provision
  10. True Sabbath-keeping fills us up; we breathe in God’s loving-kindness
  11. When we spread that love around the virtuous cycle grows exponentially

Details, Details

So what is the point of a law that makes people rest? What is this all about anyway? Does God really care if people take breaks? What good is Sabbath?

The root of the Hebrew word we translate as Sabbath is shavath and it means “to cease.” To cease labor, to cease trying, to cease worry, to cease complaining… …and so on. Another variation on this family of words is “nuakh,” which appears in verse 11, means to be made to be quiet or to be caused to “take a deep breath.” Sabbath is about balance and about trust.

Balance and trust: to understand the purpose of Sabbath, let’s look at it both ways. First, let’s look at trust: The concept of Sabbath is, and was from the beginning, a method employed by God to teach the people to rely on him and not on their own efforts. God had, at the time of the receiving of the ten law-words, already begun this instruction. In the Wilderness of Sin, the people had been taught to rely on God for their food, their “manna.” Save too much manna during the first five days and it spoiled overnight. Save double on the sixth day and there was just enough for the next day with no spoilage. But cease gathering, i.e., trust God for that final day of the week. With this practical living lesson, God was teaching immature Israel to rely on God to provide for their needs.

As with many of the laws we have discussed in recent posts, this was a truly radical idea which flew in the face of everything Israel had learned from its experience while an oppressed minority in Egypt. In imperial bondage, and in fact throughout all antiquity, the rule of life had been, work a day, eat the next; don’t work today, go hungry tomorrow. God, in giving the Sabbath rule was seeking to lift the people’s burden, to teach them a new/old idea, an idea lost in the curse at the fall: rest mixed with work gets one ahead, in health and wealth.

This leads us to the issue of balance. In teaching Israel a new way of life, radically opposed to their dreary existence in Egypt, God was instituting a basic breathe in/breathe out principle, based on the use of the number seven and using a six/one cadence. Work six days: breathe out; rest one day: breathe in. Instead of wearing yourself out in endless, unmitigated toil, season work with restorative rest. The idea was counter-intuitive: work fewer hours but end up with more.

“How can that be!” someone might say. “How can anyone expect to win a race in which they stop to rest every sixth furlong! You can’t win life’s race that way!”

Of course, living every day is nothing like a race. One prepares before a race and recovers afterwards. Living every day with no period of preparation and no time to recover is exactly what is wrong with working without ceasing. The whole sabbath view is like much of Torah, deep, wise knowledge from beyond the dawn of time, instructions from the designer who knows exactly how human creatures were designed to function. This was a wise old/new principle, not based on self-determination and self-reliance, but on reliance and dependence on God as the true provider of all fruitful blessing, including the blessings of leisure and rest. Which, of course, brings us back to where we started, to trust.

So, like with the last law concerning honor or taking care, this law is already turned right-side around. It is not negatively stated, however negatively we might view it. Still, how does setting up a regular cadence of work and rest fit with loving God with everything we’ve got and our neighbors as much as ourselves? How does love God/love neighbor get worked out in this business of rest, ceasing, breathing, balance and trust?

As Jim says so succinctly in his comment, this law means, “Do not kill yourself.” Do not work yourself to death, which frankly, is a part of Jesus’ second law which we sometimes neglect, namely, loving ourselves. As the old family therapy phrase goes, ‘you cannot give what you have never gotten’ and if you do not love yourself and treat your own self with dignity and respect, how can you hope to love your children, a spouse, a friend or the world around you? There is a virtuous cycle which gets going when God breaks through to us with love. We begin to let a sliver of that love into our lives. Then we warm and grow a bit until we are able to love others some. As this happens, the crack in our broken old selves grows wider and more of God’s love breaks through, so that the whole good cycle is repeated, again and again. I suppose when we come into God’s full glory our old, cracked lives will just fall away and we will be fully loved and we will fully love; we will know even as we are known.

Also Tom remembers rightly that when teaching on this sabbath subject I have spoken of how Israel was supposed to let the land rest every seventh year but after Israel had failed to do so for nearly five hundred years, God took Israel out of the land for seventy years so the land could enjoy all its missed Sabbaths at once (70 years x 7 years = 490 years!). Tom remembers that using this as an analogy, I said, perhaps if we fail to take our rest in its proper time, God gives us all our days of rest at once, when we die early. This obviously hit home for Tom as he relates in the stories of a driven dad who died at age 51. Lisa extends the problem out to the issue of the lack of margin we all experience in our schedule-driven family’s lives. Her comments caused me to ask myself, “What would it be like to have one day when we all slow down and enjoy each other?”

Cheryl admits she has been working along the edge of the thing, and essentially asking herself, what counts as Sabbath and what does not. But she really sees that the point must be beginning each new week, “feeling on top of things and ready to go” and not as an old song had it, “fakin’ it” and “just barely makin’ it.” David calls sabbath-keeping “God-sanctioned stress management.” Which leads us back to Jim’s “Do not kill yourself.” Clearly, this law is not just about making God happy by “giving God the nod by going to church,” Cheryl’s wonderful phrase. A part of the point of keeping Sabbath is our own well-being on many levels.

Tom takes us deeper into the point of the law when he talks about the enforced “Sabbath” which he and at least 15 million Americans have been taking during this, “The Great Recession” and jobless recovery. He has been thrown back as I have been in recent years, on the reality that the true giver is God and God alone. Sabbath is more than being good to ourselves, as important as that is: Sabbath has many other facets.

One good thing to realize when we look at these 10 law-words from God is that these central laws all bear a relation to some of the rest of the stipulations of Torah. So, there are many laws concerned with adultery and aspects of it; there are many laws which surround and amplify “You shall not kill.” There are also many Sabbath laws as Doug Johnson reminded me in a separate email. The Fallow Year and the Jubilee (Leviticus 25) are Sabbath laws. They require every faithful person to give up things for which he or she worked hard and to rest in the Lord while waiting for God’s blessing on their involuntary largess. The Second Harvest law is a similar Sabbath law. I know a dentist who is the only one in his county who will take Medicaid patients and the only one who will do dentistry for the persons who need dental work when they find themselves in the county lock-up. He has told me that he is paid about 7 cents on a dollar of his costs for that sort of work, but he looks to Jesus to make up the difference. In this work he is also “keeping Sabbath.”

How and where do we find Sabbath in this hectic world? It would be a complete cop-out for me to say that Sabbath is an attitude more than it is a day. I will not let myself or you off the hook; most of us need to rebuild some real, regular, time-out Sabbath into our lives. However, just going through some motions, just not doing something and thinking we are pleasing God thereby is not the point. Sabbath is also an attitude, an attitude of trust. And if you are like me, trust is something which does not come easily and which is quickly and easily shattered. I need to constantly rebuild my trust in the Lord and in his people. Tom has some final words on this, I think. Let me quote him at length.

No, as much as we need to work, we also, as you have already put it, need to rest. But I think that rest has to be focused on soaking in the liberating reality of God as the giver of all good things—as the breather of life into these dry bones and the dunamis (power) that we lack to live free and unafraid. It is a day to look back on how we’ve lived, and, look forward to how we intend to live and for whom we intend to live. It is a day to check and make sure that, as the song “Sixteen Tons” proclaims, you do not owe your soul to the company store, or anything else for that matter.

To engage in Sabbath is generous, first to ourselves, then to each other, and always to God because rest is a gift to us which we return to God in praise and thanksgiving which he then gives back to us in power. This is a virtuous cycle which grows, as St. Paul prayed, beyond all we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). Now, that must be a big, good cycle, because I can imagine quite a lot.


Yahweh-Jirah, The Lord God Who Gives, when we fail to keep Sabbath we implicitly inform you, ourselves and others that you are not really the one who has given us enough time to get everything done. Forgive us, Lord. Please, we pray, empower us as a people to make witness to our worried, hurried, harried culture that life and time are great gifts which have been given that they may be wisely and generously used up each good day. Teach us, Father, the ebb and flow of the life we live. Teach us together as a visible community how to master the time we have that it might be well-spent, for our blessing, for the world’s transformation and for your great glory. Amen.

Trace James