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 L-RD your G-d. On if you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates, for in six days the L-RD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the L-RD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Exodus 20:8-11
A few years ago a friend telephoned with an urgent request. “I’m calling to ask a favor. I need the most precious thing you have.” Can you guess what he needed? He was asking for my time, of course.
As the Rabbi of a Messianic Community, and the International Ministries Representative for a large mission board I need time. I need time to study, to work, to pray, to think, to worship, time to rest, time to play. I need time to spend with the L-rd. I need time to prepare messages and meet with people. I also need time to love my family. It all takes time, and there never seems to be quite enough.
Many people have the same frustration. We often feel rushed. We never seem to have time for work and leisure, for family and ministry. So we complain, “If only I had one extra day this week; then I could get all my work done.” Or we say, “You know, I could really use some time off.” Or,”If only I had more time to study the, and serve the L-rd.” Yes, we grumble about being overtired and overworked. It’s all part of the frustration of living as finite creatures in a fallen world.
Out of His great mercy, HaShem has provided a remedy: one whole day out of seven to rest in His grace. He has given us a rhythm of work and rest, with six days for labor and one day for leisure. And He grants us our leisure specifically for the purpose of His praise. The Sabbath is a day for worship, a day for mercy, and a day for rest.
Keeping the Sabbath holy may not seem very productive. In fact, sometimes it keeps people away from the Messiah. They would rather do something else – anything else – than go to congregation on Shabbat. When billionaire Bill Gates was asked why he didn’t believe in G-d, he said, “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”
Devoting a whole day (that would be 24 hours) to G-d may not seem very efficient, but it must be important, because G-d has commanded it:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Exodus 20:8
This is the longest commandment, and it comes in three parts. Verse 8 tells us what to do, verses 9 and 10 specify how we are to do it, and verse 11 explains why. What HaShem wants us to do is to “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8).
The word remember has a double meaning. For the Israelites, it was a reminder that they had heard about the Sabbath before. On their journey to Mount Sinai, G-d provided manna six days out of seven. The seventh day was meant to be “a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the L-RD” (Exodus 16:23). So when they reached Mount Sinai, G-d commanded them to “remember” the Sabbath.
This was something they needed to remember not just once, but every week. It is something we need to remember, too, so the fourth commandment calls us to a weekly remembrance of the Sabbath. We are prone to forget. We forget the great work of G-d in creation and redemption. And when we forget, we fail to praise Him for making us and saving us. But the fourth commandment is also a reminder. It is G-d’s memorandum to His people, reminding us to give Him glory for His grace.
Remembering involves more than our memories. It demands the total engagement of our whole person in the service of G-d. Remembering the Sabbath is like remembering your anniversary. It is not enough to say “Oh, yes, I remember: It’s our anniversary.” It takes dinner and flowers – maybe even a gift. In much the same way, remembering the Sabbath means using the day to show our love for G-d in a special way. It means “keeping it holy.” Literally, we are to “sanctify it,” to set it apart for sacred use.
How are we to do this? The fourth commandment gives explicit instructions for keeping the Sabbath holy. G-d begins by telling us what He wants us to do with the rest of our week: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work” (Exodus 20:9). Although this part of the fourth commandment is often overlooked, it is our duty to work. This does not mean that we have to work all day, every day. But it does mean that G-d governs our work as well as our rest. He has given us six whole days to fulfill our earthly calling.
People generally have a negative attitude about work. Work is treated as a necessary evil. In fact, it is sometimes thought that work is the result of sin. In a column for Time magazine, Lance Morrow claimed that “When G-d foreclosed on Eden, he condemned Adam and Eve to go to work. From the beginning, the L-rd’s word said that work was something bad: a punishment, the great stone of mortality and toil laid upon a human spirit that might otherwise soar in the infinite, weightless playfulness of grace.”
This is just not true. Work is a divine gift that goes back before the Fall, when “The L-RD G-d took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). We were made to work. The trouble is that our work has been cursed by our sin. It was only after Adam had sinned that G-d said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17). But it was not that way from the beginning. The fourth commandment reminds us to honor G-d by doing an honest week’s worth of work. We find G-d’s blessing in doing what He has called us to do.
According to the Puritan historian Thomas Watson, having six days to work is a divine concession, and thus a sign of G-d’s favor. G-d would have been well within His rights to make every day a Sabbath. Instead, He has given us six days to do all our work. Watson thus imagined G-d saying, “I am not a hard master, I do not grudge you time to look after your calling, and to get an estate. I have given you six days, to do all your work in, and have taken only one day for Myself. I might have reserved six days for Myself, and allowed you just one; but I have given you six days for the work of your calling, and have taken only one day for my own service. It is just and rational, because of this; you should set this day apart for my worship.”
Watson was right: six days are for work, but the seventh day is for worship. How do we keep the fourth commandment? By worshiping the L-rd on His day. To “keep something holy” in the Biblical sense is to dedicate it exclusively for worship. Whereas the other six days of the week are for us and our work, the Sabbath is for G-d and His worship. This is the positive aspect of the fourth commandment, as emphasized in verse 10: “the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:10). Elsewhere G-d refers to the seventh day as His Sabbath – the day that belongs to Him: “You must observe my Sabbaths. I am the L-RD your God” (Leviticus 19:3). The commandment was worded this way to remind the Believer that their relationship with G-d was special. No other people could claim that the L-rd was their G-d, so no other people kept the Sabbath. There were some other ancient civilizations that divided their time into periods of seven days. However, they generally associated the seventh day with misfortune.
Only the Believers in the G-d of Abraham, kept the Sabbath as a day for worshiping the one true G-d as their Redeemer and L-rd.
To keep a Sabbath “to the L-rd” is to give the day over to G-d, setting it apart for Him and His glory (which, remember, was the whole point of the exodus). The book of Leviticus calls the Sabbath “a day of sacred assembly” (Leviticus 23:3), meaning corporate worship. Yeshua endorsed this practice by attending weekly services at the synagogue (Luke 4:16). This focus on worship led the Puritans to refer to the Sabbath as “the market-day of the soul.” Whereas the other six days of the week are for ordinary commerce, this is the day we transact our spiritual business, trading in the currency of heaven. “This day a Believer is in the altitudes,” wrote Thomas Watson. “He walks with G-d, and takes as it were a turn with Him in heaven.”
We meet with G-d by prayer and the ministry of the Word. We meet Him by proclaiming His praises and presenting Him our offerings. We meet Him by celebrating his grace and sharing fellowship with other Believers. The result, according to Watson, is that “The heart, which all the week was frozen, on the Sabbath melts with the word.”
The Sabbath is not only a day for worship, but also a day of rest. It is a day for ceasing from work, and especially from common labor. Here we need to notice that the fourth commandment is stated both positively and negatively. It is the only commandment to do this explicitly. The positive requirement comes first: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8). Then there is the absolute prohibition: “On it you shall not do any work” (Exodus 20:10).
The English word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word meaning “to cease or to rest.” It is not a day for “business as usual.” It is a day for relaxation and recuperation. It is a day to step back from life’s ordinary routines in order to rediscover G-d’s goodness and grace. To quote again from Thomas Watson, “To do servile work on the Sabbath shows an irreligious heart, and greatly offends G-d. To do secular work on this day is to follow the devil’s plough; it is to debase the soul. G-d made this day on purpose to raise the heart to heaven, to converse with Him, to do angels’ work; and to be employed in earthly work is to degrade the soul of its honor.”
To see how strict this command was under the Law of Moses, consider the man who gathered wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36). He was stoned. Or to take a positive example, consider the women who wanted to prepare the body of Yeshua for burial. “They went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment” (Luke 23:56). Gathering wood was such a small thing to do. What was the harm in doing it on the Sabbath? Taking spices to the tomb of the Messiah was so noble. Why not go ahead and do it? The answer in both cases was because G-d has commanded a day of rest.
This rest was for everyone to enjoy: “On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates” (Exodus 20:10).
Here we see that the fourth commandment has profound implications for the whole community. When it comes to work and leisure, parents are to set the agenda by teaching their children how to worship and rest. The Sabbath really is a day to spend with the family. By including servants, the commandment also teaches that employers have a responsibility to care for their workers. Some commentators have thus described the fourth commandment as the first worker’s bill of rights. In the ancient world there was a sharp division between masters and slaves. But here is a new social order, in which work and leisure are not divided along class lines. Everyone should work, and everyone should rest, because everyone should be free to worship G-d. This teaching extended right to the gates of the city, including everyone in the whole community. It even applied to beasts of burden. G-d wanted all His creatures to get some relief from their labor. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone kept this commandment in the biblical way. Imagine the whole creation at rest. Once a week people all over the world would stop striving and turn back to G-d.
What are we commanded to do? Keep the Sabbath holy. How do we do this? By working six days and then by dedicating a day to the L-rd for worship and rest. This is summarized in Leviticus:
“There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD” (Leviticus 23:3).
The reason for this commandment is very simple. We are called to work and rest because we serve a working, resting G-d. Why should we remember the Sabbath? Because “in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the L-RD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:11)
In a way, keeping the Sabbath is the oldest of the ten sayings, because it goes all the way back to the creation of the world. There are many additional reasons for keeping the Sabbath holy. It promotes the worship of G-d. It restores us, both spiritually and physically, so it is for our benefit. As Yeshua said, “The Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27). It is good for children and workers; it can even be good for animals. But our fundamental reason for obeying the fourth commandment is not practical, but theological: G-d made the world in six days, and then He rested. His activity in creation thus sets the pattern for our own work and leisure.
We serve a working G-d, who has been at work from the beginning. The Scripture says that “By the seventh day G-d had finished the work He had been doing” (Genesis 2:2). Part of the dignity of our work comes from the fact that G-d is a worker. We work because we are made in the image of a working G-d.
We also serve a resting G-d. Once His creative work was done, G-d took His divine leisure. The Scripture says that “on the seventh day He rested from all His work” (Genesis 2:2). To mark the occasion, “G-d blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work of creating that He had done” (Genesis 2:3). The first time that G-d blessed anything, He blessed a day for us to share in His rest. We keep the Sabbath because G-d made it holy. Like work, leisure is “something that G-d put into the very fabric of human well being in this world.”
There is one further reason for keeping the Sabbath. Although it is not mentioned here in Exodus, it is mentioned in Deuteronomy, where the ten sayings are repeated. There the first part of the commandment is virtually identical (Deuteronomy 5:12-14), but the reason is different: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the L-RD your G-d brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the L-RD your G-d has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).
There is no contradiction here. The Sabbath looked back not only to creation, but also to the new creation. It reminded G-d’s people that they had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. One of the benefits of their rescue was that now they didn’t have to work all the time. Back in Egypt they had to work seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, without ever getting a break. But now they were set free.
The Sabbath was not a form of bondage to them, but a day of freedom. It was a day to celebrate their liberation by giving glory to G-d. Sadly, the L-rd’s often forgot to remember the Sabbath. And when they did, they inevitably fell back into spiritual bondage. There is a story about this in the book of Nehemiah – the story of the governor and the salesmen.
G-d’s people had returned from their captivity in Babylon to rebuild the city of Jerusalem. Under Nehemiah’s leadership, the whole community was restored. They rebuilt the city walls. They reestablished their homes. They started gathering again for public worship, to read the Torah and keep the feasts. They repented of their sins and promised to keep covenant with G-d. They reestablished the priesthood. The Levites were serving, the choirs were singing, and G-d was blessing the city in every way. Then the governor went back to Babylon. When Nehemiah returned, he found that the people were failing to keep G-d’s covenant. In particular, they were breaking the Sabbath by using it as a day to conduct commerce. They had promised, “When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day” (Nehemiah 10:31).
Yet here is what was happening:
“In those days I saw men in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day. Men from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah”. Nehemiah 13:15-16
These businessmen were not residents of Jerusalem. They were traveling salesmen. To them, one day was no different from the next, so they assumed that the Sabbath was a day for business as usual. This proved to be a source of temptation for the people of G-d. Many of the people in Jerusalem were genuine believers. They attended public worship. They supported G-d’s work with their tithes and offerings. They knew G-d’s Torah, including all ten of the sayings (see Nehemiah 9:14-15). Yet they were breaking the Sabbath. Frankly, they were like many Believers today. They were basically committed to following G-d, but under pressure from the surrounding culture, they treated the Sabbath pretty much like the rest of the week.
Nehemiah needed to take strong action. First he spoke out against their sin:
“I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, ‘What is this wicked thing you are doing – desecrating the Sabbath day? Didn’t your forefathers do the same things, so that our G-d brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.’” Nehemiah 13:17-18
Nehemiah had a good point. When G-d explained why He sent His people into captivity, He often mentioned their failure to keep the Sabbath holy (see Jeremiah 17:19-27; Ezekiel 20:12-13). As the city’s governor, Nehemiah knew that keeping the fourth commandment was a matter of public safety.
Nehemiah did more than preach, however. The governor also enforced public laws for keeping the Sabbath special:
“When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over. I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day.” Nehemiah 13:19
It didn’t take long for the salesmen to take the hint:
“Once or twice the merchants and sellers of all kinds of goods spent the night outside Jerusalem. But I warned them and said, ‘Why do you spend the night by the wall? If you do this again, I will lay hands on you.’ From that time on they no longer came on the Sabbath. Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy.” Nehemiah 13:20-22
We need to be careful how we follow Nehemiah’s example. G-d is not calling us to establish the Sabbath by force. However, there is a principle here that we can apply. In order to preserve a day of worship and rest, we need to bar the gates against the clamor of our culture. Otherwise, we will end up mixing the business of this world with the pleasure of spending time with G-d. What does the fourth commandment mean for the Believer today? Like the Israelites, we are made in the image of a working, resting G-d. We still need to work, we still need our rest, and we can still receive the creation blessing of G-d’s Holy Day.
What has changed is that we have received a new and greater deliverance. We look to Yeshua the Messiah, who accomplished a greater exodus by dying for our sin and rising again. Yeshua is the reason for the fourth commandment, and the other nine. He is of all the rest. The weekly Sabbath is but a taste the full and final Sabbath that can only be found with Him, both now and in the Kingdom.
Yeshua gives a whole new meaning to work, and a whole new meaning to rest. He came into the world to finish the work of His Father (John 4:34), and on the basis of that work, He is able to give rest to our souls (Matthew 11:29). There is no need to strive for our salvation. All we need to do is repose in the finished work of Yeshua the Messiah. David said, “My soul finds rest in G-d alone; my salvation comes from Him” (Psalms 62:1). The way for us to find that rest is by trusting in Messiah Yeshua alone for our salvation, depending on His work rather than our own. The Scripture assures us that in Messiah,
“There remains a Sabbath-rest for the people of G-d; for anyone who enters G-d’s rest also rests from his own work, just as G-d did from His.” Messianic Jews [Hebrews] 4:9-10
This is the primary purpose of the fourth commandment. Keeping the Sabbath holy preserves the Sabbath principle of resting one whole day out of seven. The commandment is perpetual. Like the rest of the ten sayings, it was written in stone.
The Sabbath was never and is not now a way to salvation but remembering it to keep it Holy is a result of G-d’s salvation. G-d is honored when Believers celebrate the Sabbath. However, we need to be on our guard against legalism in all its forms. We do not base our relationship with G-d on how we keep the Sabbath. However our fellowship with G-d is dependent on the effort we make to honor the Sabbath. We must also be careful about the man made fences (regulations) for guarding the Sabbath. We must be very careful when developing our own Halakah (guidelines) to stay within the teachings of Scriptures. These fences can become so elaborate that the true purpose of the Sabbath may be lost entirely.
The call to freedom, like the one we are given in the fourth commandment, is never an excuse for seeking our own pleasure (see Isaiah 8:13). However, the freedom we have in Messiah does mean that for the Believer, the Sabbath is not a strait jacket.
Keeping the Sabbath holy begins with working hard the rest of the week. In America some say that we work at our play and play at our work, but G-d has given us six days for the ordinary business of life, and we are called to use them for His glory. Believers ought to be the most faithful and diligent workers. Our industry is an important part of our piety, while sloth is a very great sin. To waste our time is to squander one of the most precious resources that G-d has given us. The duty to work is for everyone, not just for people who get paid. It is for housewives, for retired people, for the disabled and the unemployed – all of us are called to do something useful with our time. Even if we don’t need to earn an income, we need to glorify G-d in whatever work we do. Today many Americans assume that they will work for the sixty years of their lives, and then take the rest of their lives off. They “retire” move to South Florida and “keep Shabbat” at
Dunkin Donuts. That’s not the biblical view of work and leisure, because the Bible calls all of us to maintain the rhythm of work and rest that is essential to our humanity.
The work week ends and also begins with the Sabbath. This is the day for worship, mercy, and rest to give us strength for the next six days. A major purpose of the Sabbath is to refresh us in the joy of our Creator. It is a day to “catch our breath,” which can include G-d-centered activities.
The Sabbath is for worship. It is a day for attending corporate worship, for enjoying fellowship with the people of G-d, for catching up on our spiritual reading, and for spending the whole day in ways that really make it a day with the L-rd. In order to worship well, we need to be prepared. Therefore keeping the Sabbath holy means that you have a plan that leads up to Erev Shabbat every week. We also need to plan for Shabbat evening to be ready to enjoy Havdalah together. Evening preparation is like the tuning of an instrument, it will prepare your heart for the duties of the coming week.”
The Sabbath is for mercy. Yeshua said it was a day for mercy, which is why He performed so many miracles on the Sabbath. He was not violating the fourth commandment – as the leadership thought – but fulfilling its true purpose. We follow His example whenever we use the Sabbath to welcome the stranger, feed the poor, or visit the sick.
Finally, the Sabbath is for rest, for stopping from our labor. The fourth commandment teaches us to have a leisure ethic as well as a work ethic.” The businessman should rest from his business, the housewife from her housework, the student from his studies. Of course, Believers have always recognized that some work is necessary. Workers that provide medical care or preserve public safety need to do their jobs, as do Rabbi’s, Elders and other servants in the congregation.
There are basic daily responsibilities need to be done but this is a day to close the calendar, go off the clock, and put away the “to do” list. It is a day to step out of the frenzy, stop buying and selling, and quit worrying about the profit margin. Because we live in a culture that treats Sabbath like any other day of the week, thereby turning what is sacred into something secular; we need to resist the tendency to let our work enslave us. Keeping the Sabbath holy is the biblical answer to a workaholic lifestyle.
At this point many Believers still want to know what they can and cannot do on the Sabbath. They need a list of rules, they need to have righteousness legislated to them.
Can I watch TV? Can I play Frisbee? Can I go to a restaurant? Can I catch a flight back home? Can I play Monopoly, or do I have to stick to Bible trivia games? The danger in making universal applications is that we are prone to judgmental attitudes, it so is easy for us to slip back into “I’m doing it better than you” mindset. In keeping the fourth commandment there is room for the wise exercise of godly judgment.
However, when we start asking these kinds of questions, it is usually because we want to know what we can get away with. We want to know how far we can go without actually breaking the Sabbath; it’s a heart attitude. But if we are looking for a loophole in the Sabbath, then we are missing the whole point of the fourth commandment, G-d is calling us away from our own business to transact the most important business of all, which is to glorify Him. And when we try to make as much room as we can for our own pleasures, then we miss the greatest pleasure of all, which is fellowship with the living G-d.
Our problem is that we find it so hard to take genuine delight in the sanctified pleasures of G-d. Sometimes, in our “drive through” world G-d bores us. We are willing to spend some of our time worshiping Him, but then we feel like we need a break, and so we go right back to the world’s lesser pleasures. But the more we learn to delight in G-d, the more willing to keep His Sabbath. And then we discover that we are able to answer the questions that once seemed so vexing: Can I take a job that will require me to work on the Sabbath? Is it okay for me to catch up on my work? Should we let our kids play Little League on the Sabbath? Is it a good day for watching commercials? Most of the practical applications are easy when we want to honor the L-rd. The strain and struggle come when we want to use it to do our own thing. So what? What have I said? I said all this to say, “When you get Shabbat, you’ll get it all.”