If rest is a source of refreshment and a means to better relationship with God and with other people, why don’t people do it? The answer begins with the Fall of humanity.
To Adam God said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:17-19).
Adam and Eve’s disobedience breaks the intimate fellowship that they were intended to have with God, and they become estranged from their Creator. The impact of humanity’s rebellion is devastating to all aspects of creation including both work and rest. Work was originally intended to be an ennobling partnership with God, but because of man’s sin God curses the ground, and work becomes difficult and painful. Rest was intended to be a similarly ennobling affirmation of humanity’s intimate fellowship with God, but due to the chasm sin creates between God and people, rest becomes deeply distorted. After the fall rest becomes a necessary antidote to the harshness of work, yet rest is elusive because humanity’s perfect relationship with God is broken.
It is important to clarify here that work itself is not a curse; rather, the ground is cursed, giving rise to greater pain, frustration, and hardship associated with work. Work is still noble and it still brings joy, but because of sin it is also beset with challenges and difficulties. The Fall makes work exhausting, and, the deeper significance of rest established in creation is overshadowed by people’s physical need for rest. In a world that is broken, people rest merely to survive, to refuel for more backbreaking work.
Despite the brokenness that enters the world due to human sin, God’s goal is to restore for his people a holy rhythm of work and rest. He does this first by giving the Israelites specific commandments regarding work and rest. Later God expands the scope and possibility of both rest and work through the life and sacrifice of Jesus.
God sets out restoring guidelines in the law of the Old Testament. The most well-known of these commandments are the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai after Israel is delivered from slavery in Egypt. Amongst the Ten, God includes the commandment to rest:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work, - you, your son, or your daughter, your male or female slave your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it (Exodus 20:8-11).
God commands Israel to honor the sabbath and to keep it holy, resting from the work that defines the other six days. This rest includes the entire household, servants and animals, so that all can “be refreshed” (Exo 23:12). God ends this commandment with a reminder that he too rested on the seventh day following six days of creation. It is as if to say that following a commanded rhythm of work and rest might restore some of the utopic harmony that is lost to human beings after the Fall.
Because life out of Eden is extra hard for humans in their work, God also institutes other cycles of rest into Israel’s calendar year. There are seasonal festivals and feasts given by God in Leviticus 23, including the feast of the Passover, a harvest festival, a day for atonement, and a rest day preceding it by a week (known today as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah respectively), as well as the festival of booths (known today as Sukkot). For each of these festivals God commands the Israelites to stop their regular work and observe a rest. God also commands the Israelites to do specific actions on each festival day, which may serve to help the people connect better with God. Here is one such example of a command to rest and to perform a connecting ritual (in this case on Rosh Hashanah):
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall present the Lord’s offerings by fire. (Lev. 23:23-25)
On this festival God commands the people to rest from their normal occupations, and instead to take action that reminds them that God is the ultimate provider of both their work and their rest. In the case of this particular festival, the Israelites are commanded to blow the trumpets and to give some their earnings back to God in the form of a sacrifice.
A yearly pattern of rest is relevant even from a modern business perspective. Justice Louis Brandeis, who sat on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939, once took a short vacation right before the start of an important trial. He received criticism for this decision, but Brandeis delivered a convincing defense: “I need rest. I find that I can do a year’s work in eleven months, but I can’t do it in twelve.” Many people think their jobs are too all-encompassing to allow them to take a break during the year, but if a top US justice can do it then others probably can too.
God also commands the Israelites to observe patterns of extended rest every seven (Exodus 23, Leviticus 25:1-7) and forty-nine years (Lev 25:8-55). Because the land is cursed due to effects of The Fall, these extended periods of rest provide time for the land to recover.
In the Old Testament these weekly, yearly, seven-yearly and forty-nine-yearly cycles of rest serve two functions. The first is to give both people and land a physical rest from the hardship and frustration of work. The second reason for these rhythmic rests is to invite people to commune with God in worship, satisfying a greater need than just that of their physical bodies. God’s people need physical rest, yes, but also deep spiritual rest—rest from the instability, anxiety, and insecurity created by the threat of enemy invasion. God institutes these cycles of rest so that his people can set aside time to worship him and rediscover his covenantal love and faithfulness towards them. During these times of worship, Israel is reminded that God himself is their rest: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest" (Exodus 33:14). When Israel turns to God in trust and obedience, this promise of rest is realized through Divine protection and blessing. Israel later achieves victory from her enemies in battle and gains possession of the Promised Land:
And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their ancestors; not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass. (Joshua 21:44-45).
Throughout the Bible there are numerous examples of the rest that God provides for his people, a rest which goes beyond simple physical rest. God provides rest from war (Joshua 11:23, Joshua 14:15; 1 Kings 5:4; 1 Chronicles 22:9; Psalm 46:9-10; Proverbs 1:33; Isaiah 14:3), from social strife (2 Corinthians 13:11, Ecclesiastes 10:4; 1 Corinthians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:11; Hebrews 12:14; James 3:17-18; 1 Peter 3:8), from fear (Mark 4:37-38; Matthew 8:24-25; Luke 8:23-24; Genesis 32:11; Psalm 127:2; Micah 4:4; Matthew 6:31; Luke 12:29), and from anxiety (1 Peter 5:7; Matthew 6:25; Philippians 4:6). His presence provides security (Deuteronomy 33:12; Proverbs 19:23) and peace in the midst of death (Deuteronomy 31:16; Job 3:13-17; Revelation 14:13).
This deeper rest can be described as a spiritual rest—a rest that comes from being in covenantal communion with God. The Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel describes this deep rest as menuha. According to Heschel, “menuha came into existence on the sabbath and can be described as tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose. Menuha is the state in which there is no strife and no fighting, no fear and no distrust.”
Heschel beautifully communicates what humanity loses in the Fall. In addition to the physical aspects of rest, there is a deeper spiritual need that all humans have—this yearning for menuha or the assurance that all is well. The problem is that many people look to all the wrong things to provide this deeper spiritual rest, resulting in increased restless.
This is the situation that plagues many people today. People may not be aware of the need for both physical and spiritual rest. Physical rest without spiritual rest is not satisfying; nor is spiritual rest without physical rest restoring. Honoring the sabbath does not mean engaging in soul-numbing frivolity nor is it austerely communing with God. Keeping the sabbath holy means recognizing the brokenness of the world after the Fall and looking to God to mend both broken bodies and misguided hopes.
The High Calling audio address by Howard E. Butt, Jr. January 1, 2008.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005), 23.