receiving the gift of rest: remember the Sabbath day

Each time I read through the Bible, a different theme seems to stand out to me, and I follow a new thread through the tapestry that is God's story.

This time, it has been the concept of rest.

I have long been intrigued by the Fourth Commandment: "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8). One day in seven, God commanded, was to be set apart from the others as a day of rest; later in Levitical law, one year in seven would likewise be dedicated as a fallow year to rest the land from production (Leviticus 25:2-4). And though I see plainly how we try to uphold the principles behind the other nine commandments today - avoiding idolatry and not murdering and so on - it seems like this one falls by the wayside.

I do not see much priority given to rest - by myself or, really, anyone else in the church.

Instead I see many tired and anxious people who can't imagine how their worlds would keep turning if they lost one-seventh of their hours to something as "dispensable" as rest.

Still, there are those who try to obey this commandment literally, taking every Sunday as a day for quiet, reflection, and relative idleness. Others consider their duty done if they spend two hours at church one morning per week. But is it complete idleness for its own sake that God wants from us? Is it just about setting apart some time for Him? What is the point of this command?

This thread of rest that I've been following through the Bible does not begin or end with the Ten Commandments. So to understand it, I think we must begin where it does: in the beginning.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. . . . Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.
- Genesis 1:1, 2:1-3

Each of the seven days of Creation, God looked at His work and called it "good." Then, having created an excellent world, He made the seventh day His holy day of rest.

The first time God introduces this concept to humanity, however, is not until many centuries later, when Israel has been freed from slavery in Egypt and needs sustenance for their journey through the desert. God says to Moses,

"Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in My instruction. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily." . . .
It came about on the seventh day that some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. Then the LORD said to Moses, "How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions? See, the LORD has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day." So the people rested on the seventh day.
Exodus 16:4-5, 27-30

Notice - this is a full four chapters before Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Law. The Ten Commandments have not yet been decreed. But God is still working on a pattern of rest - six days He sends bread and the seventh He does not. This is the first time He "gives the sabbath" to His people - "sabbath" being a noun derived from the verb that means "to cease." He bestows rest on His people. It is a gift.

It is also a responsibility - first to accept the gift, and then to trust that by following God's pattern, we will be blessed by His provision.

What is the purpose of the Sabbath commandment? Is it really just to discipline us to do no work, or to make us work harder toward holiness?

And after the Sabbath is made into Law in Exodus 20, the concept of rest takes on another nuance of significance for those who follow Yahweh:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death. So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.’ It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.”
Exodus 31:12-17

It is a gift.

It is a responsibility.

It is a sign.

By resting their bodies on the seventh day and their fields in the seventh year, the nation of Israel was called to remind themselves on a regular basis where their distinctiveness came from: "I am the Lord who sanctifies you."

We are called to rest because God rested, and chose to gift us with the blessing of rest and refreshment He experienced.

We are called to rest because God provides, and chooses to demonstrate His trustworthiness most clearly when we take a break from providing for ourselves.

We are called to rest because God sanctifies, and chooses to transform us into people more like Himself, operating by a values system much different from the world's.

It is not about the idleness. It's not about legalistically blocking out certain periods of time in order to work harder at holiness. No, God's gift of rest is about being blessed by His refreshment, trusting in His provision, and living a life set apart, patterned after His example.

It's about "ceasing" - desisting from labor, collapsing into rest, and throwing our weight on God's character to see us through.

Rest is God's gift to us of a regular opportunity to watch Him work.

I think the other nine commandments may be easier to obey because they appear to be more about what we can do to be more holy or live more righteous lives. But the holy Sabbath is all about remembering how much we cannot do, how much we don't control, and how much we need Someone else to handle it all for us.

Today as North American Christians, when most of us have more than enough food and resources to get through twenty-four hours without working, a day of idleness may not be the Sabbath we really need. Maybe what we need is the trust to sleep - long and restfully - each night, without tossing and turning in stress and worry. Maybe we need to part ways with our smartphones for 24 hours and trust that even when we're not instantly available to others, God is. Maybe we need a rest from the incessant noise that keeps us from hearing God's voice - the notifications, the TV, the music, the podcasts, the news.

When I'm hungry and don't know where each day's food will will come from, it's easier to go out looking for it myself than to rest in God's ability to provide.

And so it is with all my concerns: when I'm anxious, tossing and turning all night comes more naturally than resting in God's protection. When I'm worrying about someone, it's easier to make myself available 24/7 than to trust that God is already constantly present with them. And sometimes I'd rather avoid my real issues and fill up my head with noise than trust that God is good and gracious toward me.

In Numbers 15, well after the command to keep the Sabbath day holy had been given, an Israelite man broke the Law by going out on the seventh day to collect firewood. The consequence for his tragic defiance was death.

After the man's execution, God said to Moses,

“Speak to the sons of Israel, and tell them that they shall make for themselves tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they shall put on the tassel of each corner a cord of blue. It shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, so as to do them and not follow after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you played the harlot, so that you may remember to do all My commandments and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord your God.”
Numbers 15:38-41

My own heart doesn't want to rest.

I don't want to trust.

I don't want to have to wait on God to provide or to protect or to be present.

But this command was so important to God that it was a capital crime, and in hopes of never having to execute someone for disobeying it again, He told the people to daily wear a reminder to obey - to not follow after their own senses or their own impulses, but to walk by faith.

We, too, face the same choice every day - either to trust in ourselves, or to surrender ourselves to the hands of God.

Some days I choose well. Some days I don't. But I find that when I come to rest in who God is and what I trust He will do, He bestows on me the gift of watching Him work, and I can only stand in awe.