The biblical narrative of work and rest is a rich and somewhat complicated story. Work is intended to be an ennobling partnership with God, and rest is intended to be an invitation to enjoy intimate fellowship with him. The Fall makes work difficult, and creates a desperate need for people to experience both physical and spiritual rest. But people often find it difficult to rest. The next passage of Scripture will illuminate why that is.
On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather [manna], and they found none. The LORD said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? See! The LORD has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day (Exodus 16:27–30).
This passage comes immediately after God’s dramatic rescue of Israel from Egypt. Through awesome displays of power and might, God demonstrates his faithfulness to Israel and delivers them from the bondage of slavery. As they journey towards the Promised Land, God continues to provide for all their needs, including food in the form of this unknown substance, manna. He specifically instructs them to collect enough manna for each day, but not more than a day’s need, with the exception of the sixth day when they are commanded to collect enough for two days, so they can rest from work on the sabbath (Exo 16:4-5).
God’s instructions are clear. Collect enough food for each day—no more, no less—and God will be faithful to provide each day. After experiencing the dramatic and miraculous exodus from Egypt, there should be no conceivable reason for the Israelites to believe that God wouldn’t provide for their needs. However, there are still some in Israel who go out on the seventh day to gather manna. Do they simply forget it is the sabbath? No, the explicit point of God’s instructions is to test whether Israel trusts and obeys: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am about to 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 they will walk in my law or not’” (Exo 16:4). God recognizes the deeper problem within the hearts of his people—they do not rest on the sabbath because their hearts do not trust in God’s provision. Similarly, people today who do not trust God will not be able to allow him to restore the relationship with him and with other people that is broken as a result of the Fall.
If distrust is one reason people overwork, dissatisfaction is another. The author of Ecclesiastes observes that some people work constantly because neither their work nor the fruits of their labor, nor pleasure brings them satisfaction.
I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. “For whom am I toiling,” they ask, “and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business. Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil (Ecclesiastes 4:7–9).
People end up in the “unhappy business” of working to relieve dissatisfaction with their lives, their loss of relationship with God and with people, their fears about not having the things they need, and their inability to find pleasure in anything. But obsessive work only makes people more restless and unhappy.
Because refusing to rest on the sabbath stands in the way of God’s plan to restore the world from the effects of the Fall, it is a very serious offense in the Old Testament.
In those days I saw in Judah people treading winepresses on the sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day. And I warned them on the day when they sold food. Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of goods and sold them on the sabbath to the people of Judah, in Jerusalem itself! Then I confronted the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the sabbath day? Did not your ancestors act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring more wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath.” (Nehemiah 13:18, emphasis added).
When God gives Israel the sabbath, he gives them a bit of the Garden of Eden. So when the people of God reject the sabbath, it “brings more wrath on Israel” by subjecting them to the effects of the Fall a second time.
The commandment to rest and the challenges to fulfilling that commandment are not particular to Israel. The struggle is real in modern times as well. Rest is as necessary as ever. It remains the pattern God lays out for people made in his image. The reasons that people can’t rest today are the same too. Either people are unable to rest because they are still enslaved by external forces, like Israel was in the land of Egypt, or like the Israelites in the desert people choose not to rest because they don’t trust God. Christ makes it possible for believers to rest, but still rest remains far from perfect .
Like the enslaved Israelites, many of God’s people today lack basic necessities, even the food and water to survive. The world is so broken by sin that God’s promise of provision is not always fulfilled in this life. It would be no good news to impose an undue burden on people in dire circumstances by commanding them to take a day off from work when such rest is impossible. The sabbath is intended to be a liberation for people, not an added burden. Jesus performs work to relieve people in need on the sabbath and teaches that “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Christ give people freedom to rest, not an impossible task to fulfill.
God ultimately delivers the Israelites from slavery and into the Promised Land. Jesus, similarly, shows nothing but compassion for those in distress, healing on the sabbath and explaining that, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath” (Matthew 12:11-12). So for those people currently enslaved either literally or by economic necessity, there is no rule that will allow anyone to judge them for their sabbath practices. All Christians would do well, rather, to partner with God in his continuing work of liberating the oppressed.
Others people operate in the rebellions mode that the Israelites adopted in the Sinai desert. Rather than believing that God will provide for their needs each day, these people put it upon themselves to obtain what they think they need. Many people would rather trust their own actions than trust a God who promises to provide for all the needs of his people yet remains unseen. The deeper problem leading to inability to rest is this lack of trust in God despite his demonstrated love and faithfulness. It’s this refusal to trust God that leads people to forfeit the rest they so desperately need.
Why is rest so difficult? Some people respond: “I feel guilty that I’m not working”, “I’m afraid other people will get ahead”, “I’ll lose my job if I don’t keep working”, “My coworkers will judge me”, “I won’t get promoted”, “My company will go under if I don’t work”, “People will think I’m lazy” or “So I won’t feel anxious”. Some would even respond, “I love what I do and enjoy the work.” This list can go on and on, and many of these reasons are not necessarily bad ones. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to work hard to provide for a family or to keep a job, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with working hard to succeed or because it brings satisfaction intrinsically. God intends work for all these purposes. The problem arises when underlying these good desires is the desire to be god rather than to trust the real God.
When people today have time to rest and yet refuse to obey God’s command, they are doing exactly what the Israelites did in the wilderness. They do not believe that God will provide for their needs. Rather they trust in self-sufficiency, inadvertently stealing God’s job away from him. In futile and foolish attempts to be god, people forfeit the grace that God promises. As Augustine noted, people’s hearts will remain restless until they find their rest in God.
Conversely, people might be making a god out of work, seeking to find all of their fulfillment there rather than in God. Underlying what may superficially appear to be a harmless decision to work is actually a rejection of God, his grace, and his revealed character of generosity.
Regardless of an individual’s proclivities or economic circumstances, each person should ask him or herself whether current patterns of work and rest truly reflect God’s generosity and provision. Based on what a person has received by God’s grace so far, it often does not make sense to work so much and to rest so little. Indeed, the self-congratulation many people seek may not be what God wants to provide more of. In the moment when each person must decide whether to work or to rest, it may help to ask, “Is working now instead of resting actually the way to receive the good that God has in store for me and for others? Does my work have the power to gain for me anything that God would not provide if I rest?” Clearly, there will be cases when the answer is “yes,” analogously to when an animal falls into a pit and some immediate work is the only way to bring a good outcome (Matthew 12:11-12). But for many people ,when tempted to imagine there is no choice but to work at the expense of rest, the answer will be “no.”
Saint Augustine, Confessions (Oxford University Press, USA, 2009), 3.