(Note: A version of this article first appeared in the summer 2014 newsletter for my church.)
“Be still and know that I am God.” -Psalm 46:10
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work.” -Exodus 20:8-10a
OK, quick. What is the meaning of the 4th Commandment listed above?
If you said, “We should go to church,” then you answered the same way as almost every confirmation student I’ve ever asked that question. You would also only be partly correct.
Most people (including Martin Luther in the Small Catechism) latch on to the phrase “keep it holy” and immediately think about religious services on Sunday. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s not a complete understanding of the commandment for a couple reasons.
First of all, the Sabbath day is technically Saturday, not Sunday. The Jewish holy day begins at sundown on Friday and goes to sundown Saturday. Christians moved their holy day to Sunday because it was the day of resurrection. Therefore, some may quibble that keeping Sabbath and attending Sunday worship are not the same thing.
But the bigger issue is that focusing solely on attending worship misses the rest of the commandment: you shall do no work. The word sabbath (or “shabbat”) in Hebrew literally means “to rest.” Two reasons are given to rest. In Exodus 20, the author references the story of creation and says we should rest because God rested on the seventh day of creation. In Deuteronomy 5, the author points to the Hebrews recent slavery in Egypt and basically argues, “You know what it’s like to be overworked, so take time to rest and don’t overwork yourselves, your servants, or your animals.”
I think this command to rest (in addition to spending time with God) is an important one for us today. Much of our identity as residents of the Western World and as Americans is tied up in working hard and being productive. And on it’s own that’s good, but taken to the extreme, we can start to think we need to work hard all the time or always be doing something. (I have a friend that likes to quip, “We’re not human beings in America; we’re human do-ings.”) It seems that sometimes even our “recreation” activities can be exhausting.
Remembering this side to the 4th Commandment can be important for us, because just like the other commandments, this commandment is meant by God for good. Just as we have better lives when we don’t lie, steal, or kill each other, we have better lives when we take time to rest. Taking time to rest increases our creativity, makes us more present to our loved ones, helps to improve humor, patience, and gratitude, and can even make us more productive when we return to our work.
(It should probably be noted that rest doesn’t have to mean doing nothing at all, but taking a break from our normal labors for something that lets us recharge and refocus. I’m reminded of the stories of 19th century Americans who would spend all Sunday sitting still in high back chairs, which doesn’t strike me as either holy or restful.)
As we begin the summer season, I pray that we will all take Sabbath time in these coming months (in whatever form that looks like for you). May we remember God’s command for us to rest and God’s concern for our health and well-being. And may we continue to learn that sometimes doing God’s will may mean doing less.
"I am heading for a time of quiet, when my restlessness has past and I can lie down on my blanket and release my fists at last." -Paul Simon, "Quiet"