The Sabbath is probably the most reiterated command in the Bible. It appears in the Ten Commandments (Exod 20 and Deut 5)—considered the fourth commandment by most Christian traditions—and is highly revered. The Sabbath day invites everyone to rest—slave and master, poor and rich, ox and donkey. In the Old Testament (OT), nowhere does the Sabbath regulation require the general populace of Israel to be involved in corporate worship or assembly. The sole requirement is to refrain from work, and hence, rest. The priests, however, did work on the Sabbath (Num 28:9–10). Sabbath violation was such a grievous matter that a person was given capital punishment—not because of his failure to assemble but because he worked on the Sabbath day (Num 15:32–36). Moreover, Sabbath violation was considered to be a cause of the exile (e.g., Neh 13:17–18).
However, modern Christianity has widely understood Sabbath observance as church attendance. In Nepal, Christians commonly call the weekly public holiday, which is Saturday, bishramko din (“the day of rest”), and rightly so. Nonetheless, rest is hardly ever emphasised. The emphasis is on church attendance. Pastors will tell their parishioners not to get anxious when the church service gets excessively lengthy. Moreover, there are multiple services after the “main” service such as youth fellowship, men’s fellowship, and women’s fellowship.
The biblical writer presents God as the model for human beings to emulate in practising the Sabbath rest. The language of rest on the Sabbath day is taken from the creation account in which God created the heavens and the earth in six days and rested on the seventh (Gen. 1:1–2:3).
The centrality of rest from labour is undeniable in the Sabbath regulations and praxes of the OT. For instance, it is highlighted by the (chiastic) structure of the Sabbath commandment in both versions of the Ten Commandments (see my To What End the Sabbath? 2018, pp. 39–40). Moreover, the command emphasies the purpose of the Sabbath after the injunction to work six days and desist from work on the seventh: “so that your male slave and your female slave may rest just like you.” (Deut 5:14c; my translation throughout the essay). The last phrase “just like you” suggests that both the slave-owners and the slaves need to rest. This is important in today’s workaholic age in which the well-to-do also inflict lack of rest upon themselves. The modern world overvalues productivity and overemphasises work, while devaluing rest, seeing the latter as idleness or laziness. This tendency is also a result of today’s consumerist culture—a worldwide culture in which people are involved in the rat race of achieving and accumulating. The eyes and flesh are never satisfied. In addition, the primacy of rest is highlighted by the fact that not only human beings (slave-owners, slaves, and strangers) but also cattle (ox and donkey) are to be allowed rest (Exod 20:10; Deut 5:14). This fact is clear also from the extensions of the Sabbath day, namely, sabbatical year and the year of Jubilee. One of the primary requirements of these years is rest for the land. Humans were to allow rest for the land by leaving it fallow.
The primary purpose of the Sabbath is rest and refreshment. Exod 23:12b reads: “so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the son of your female slave and the alien may be refreshed.” Even God is said to have rested and refreshed on the seventh day: “and on the seventh day, [God] ceased/rested and was refreshed” (Exod 31:17b). What does this mean? Obviously God was tired after creating such a splendid universe, right? Wrong! Psalm 121:4 says that the Lord neither slumbers nor sleeps. What, then, does it mean that God rested and was refreshed? This is an anthropomorphic language (i.e., presenting God in human terms) that is used to emphasise the human need for rest and refreshment. The biblical writer presents God as the model for human beings to emulate in practising the Sabbath rest. The language of rest on the Sabbath day is taken from the creation account in which God created the heavens and the earth in six days and rested on the seventh (Gen. 1:1–2:3). Again, the anthropomorphic language is used in order to show God modelling to us our need for periodic rest. This act of God resting on the seventh day is taken as the rationale for the fourth commandment in the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:8–11). The Israelites are to refrain from work and rest on the seventh day of the week because God did so after the creation of the universe. Therefore, keeping the Sabbath by resting from our daily work is an act of imitating the Almighty. If followed, this practice will bring physical and mental wellbeing in human beings. Labouring seven days a week and lacking rest can cause problems such as fatigue, stress, depression, and burnout. These conditions have negative impact not only on the person themselves but their marriage, family, work, and every other area of their life.
No, we are not obligated to keep the OT Law according to its letter but we will do well if we understand the principle(s) behind the laws and apply them to our own situation. Jesus also opposed a legalistic adherence of the Sabbath and was repeatedly involved in a controversy with the Jewish religious leaders of his time. Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for humans and not vice versa (Mark 2:27). Jesus also said he had come to fulfill the law but not to abolish it (Matt 5:17), which means the law is still useful. What is the principle(s) behind the Sabbath law? There are two principles that are not mutually exclusive: (1) periodic rest for all, and (2) welfare of the poor and vulnerable.
In the light of our study thus far, how then can we keep the Sabbath today? For parishioners, the weekly holiday, which is also the “worship day” (i.e., the day of weekly corporate service/fellowship), is the best day for observing Sabbath rest. This is because most parishioners have only that particular day off from their work. Gathering for corporate worship is important (e.g., Heb 10:25) but that does not entail “keeping the Sabbath.” Keeping the Sabbath has to do with rest from labour. Therefore, what the Sabbath calls for today is a break from daily routine. Being involved in mild recreational activities that one enjoys and that make one refreshed and rejuvenated is advisable—something that is not done under pressure, to meet deadlines, or the like. The church should not pack the day with varied activities for parishioners that leave them fully tired at the end of the day—sometimes even more tired than on the other six days. In addition, they should be encouraged to take the time outside of the weekly assembly for rest, recreation, and refreshing. Many parishioners rush back to their daily activities after the completion of the church service. In fact, many cannot even wait for the service to be over. Such a tendency results in them being more tired at the end of the day because they even try to make up, as it were, for the few hours that they “lost” by coming to church. Maybe leaders are partly to be blamed for this because they often promote church attendance as Sabbath observance while not talking about rest whatsoever.
The modern world overvalues productivity and overemphasises work, while devaluing rest, seeing the latter as idleness or laziness. This tendency is also a result of today’s consumerist culture—a worldwide culture in which people are involved in the rat race of achieving and accumulating.
Clergy, on the other hand, is the busiest on worship day. Therefore, another day in the week is advisable for their rest and recuperation. Ministers are not supermen and superwomen. They also need rest from their busy schedule of ministry. The failure to follow the Sabbath principle of periodic rest can result in ministers being stressed and burnt out, which is not uncommon today, and this will have negative effects on their family and ministry as well.
The primary concern of the Sabbath, then, is rest for all. Related to this, the second concern, as mentioned above, is welfare of the poor and vulnerable. Slaves and household animals (e.g., ox and donkey) could easily be exploited because they are voiceless. The Sabbath command requires the masters to give them rest once a week and not exploit them. Moreover, the sabbatical year included cancellation of debts (Deut 15:1–11) and release of slaves (Exod 21:2–11; Deut 15:12–18), and the year of Jubilee involved returning the land to the original owner who had sold it due to poverty (Lev 25). All these show that God cares for the poor, weak and vulnerable, and hence, the church/Christians also need to be concerned about them and work for their welfare.
Finally, a word on worship! As one observed the Sabbath and asked themselves the reason for doing so, the answer would be twofold: the God, who gave us this command, is the Creator (Exod 20:11) and the Redeemer—the Deuteronomic version looks back at the redemption from Egypt as the rationale for keeping the Sabbath (Deut 5:15). As such, he deserves worship but no such command is given in Sabbath regulations. Worship, then, would happen at a personal or familial level, not corporate with sacred assemblies. The practice of assembling together on the Sabbath probably began in the Second Temple Period (or intertestamental period) with the beginning of the synagogues. The Church most likely learned this practice from the Jewish people, the early Christians being primarily Jews. Nowhere in the OT does the Sabbath command require corporate assembly. Corporate worship is essential—weekly as well as on other occasions—but that is not keeping the Sabbath. The Sabbath day was kept holy (see Exod 20:8; Deut 5:12) by setting it apart as the day of rest as opposed to the other six days that are the work-days. No corporate assembly was necessary to “keep it holy.” In fact, I would argue that refraining from work and resting as an imitation of the Lord is in itself sacred and qualifies as “worship”! The Sabbath rest is a precious gift from the Lord in the midst of our endless toil under the sun and hence should not be seen as laziness. Therefore, I invite you to say yes to the Sabbath!