Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy (Exodus 20:8).
Rest: the concept seems as controversial now as it did 3500 years ago.
One of the hallmarks of the Mosaic legislation involved the establishment of the Sabbath– a day of rest, not just for people, but also servants and animals (Exodus 20:8, 10). As far as we can tell, at this time, few if any other cultures legislated such an event. The idea that one would dedicate an entire day to rest– especially no matter the weather or any other circumstance– was foreign to most at the time. Far later, when the Greek Seleucids were fighting the Jews, they would often lead an attack on the Sabbath since the Jews were supposed to be at rest!
There were always temptations to not rest: money could be made, fields could be sown or reaped, other activities could be accomplished. There are examples of Sabbath violations from the beginning (Numbers 15:32-36) to near the end of the Old Testament period (Nehemiah 13:15-21). It seems that the people perpetually violated the Sabbath for the field– they did not let the land lay fallow every seven years (Leviticus 25:4, 2 Chronicles 36:21). There were too many economic interests at stake, and not enough confidence that God would provide even if the land lay fallow.
We understand that human beings, even though they are to work, must have periods of rest (Genesis 2:15). Try to work constantly without sleep– your body will refuse to let you continue after awhile. If you somehow found a way to persist in working, you would soon die of exhaustion!
Sleep, on its own, is insufficient. We often find that there are times we must rest– if our stress levels stay too elevated for too long, our bodies will give out. We are not to “burn the midnight oil” all the time. God intends for us to rest at times.
Notice how absolute the rest is that God enjoins upon Israel– they are to do no work (Exodus 20:10). No fire was to be kindled (Exodus 35:3); the work of food preparation was to be done the day before (cf. Exodus 16:29). There were some necessities that needed to be addressed, like watering animals (Luke 13:15), and handling emergencies (Matthew 12:11), but on the whole, the Israelite was to do no work at all. Why would God command such a thing?
God made us, and therefore He understands our weaknesses. One significant weakness we all share is that we easily become functionally fixated on various projects or overall mundane things. It is easy for one day to flow into the next without any real thought being put into life. If people are not working on work projects, they easily find other projects to complete. Consider, if you will, modern man. He may work all day at an office, come home, entertain himself with various forms of entertainment, and find other distractions to occupy him. Perhaps he gets a day off from work. He does not really rest; he is either sleeping, and therefore is unconscious, or he is working on his own projects– home improvement, cleaning, hobbies, and the like. While it may be true that there is less stress in some of those “non-work” projects, it is hardly “rest.” Plenty of activity is still going on!
Instead, the Sabbath was designed to be a complete rest so that each Israelite could again re-center his or her life around God. It was the habit of Jews in the days of Jesus to assemble at the synagogue on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16, Acts 13:14). While it might be easy for an Israelite to focus entirely on the mundane tasks of living for six days, by having that seventh day of rest from all work, he has the opportunity to reflect upon his life, his God, and what is really important in life.
Even though the weekly Sabbath observance is not enjoined upon Christians (Colossians 2:14-17), we can learn the lesson God intended Israel to learn. Rarely do we truly rest– even if we are not working, there is always some person with which we want to connect on Facebook, some book or article to read, some show or movie to watch, some project or another to accomplish. One could easily go years without thinking much about who they are, why they are here, who God is, and what is really important in life. Sadly, many probably do go years without thinking of such things, and life rarely forces people to stop to think about them. Why, then, should we be surprised when we constantly feel stressed, overworked, and unable to relax? We rarely give ourselves the time to truly relax, even though it would be better for us.
We would all do well to take periods of rest. Rarely will there be a crisis if the Internet messages are forced to wait a bit. Life will go on even if that show does not get watched. Instead, find some natural setting, walk around, and ponder life and God’s wonderful creation. Find a quiet place and give thought to God, His greatness, and His plan for you. Take that time to remove all distractions and re-center your life around God. Let us not allow all the mundane activities of this world distract us from remembering who we are, who God is, and what is really important in life– let us take out time in our lives to truly rest and re-center our lives around God!
Ethan R. Longhenry