“Observe the Sabbath Day and Keep It Holy” (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

The issue of the Sabbath is complex, not only in the books of Deuteronomy and Exodus and the Old Testament, but also in Christian theology and practice. The precise applicability of the fourth commandment, keeping the Sabbath, to Gentile believers has been a matter of debate since New Testament times (Rom. 14:5-6). Nonetheless, the general principle of the Sabbath applies directly to the matter of work. 

The Sabbath and the Work We Do (Deuteronomy 5:13)

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The first part of the fourth commandment calls for ceasing labor one day in seven. On the one hand, this was an incomparable gift to the people of Israel. No other ancient people had the privilege of resting one day in seven. On the other hand, it required an extraordinary trust in God’s provision. Six days of work had to be enough to plant crops, gather the harvest, carry water, spin cloth, and draw sustenance from creation. While Israel rested one day every week, the encircling nations continued to forge swords, feather arrows, and train soldiers. Israel had to trust God not to let a day of rest lead to economic and military catastrophe.

Making time off predictable and required

Read more here about a new study regarding rhythms of rest and work done at the Boston Consulting Group by two professors from Harvard Business School. It showed that when the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited. (Harvard Business Review may show an ad and require registration in order to view the article.) Mark Roberts also discusses this topic in his Life for Leaders devotional "Won't Keeping the Sabbath Make Me Less Productive?"

We face the same issue of trust in God’s provision today. If we heed God’s commandment to observe God’s own cycle of work and rest, will we be able to compete in the modern economy? Does it take seven days of work to hold a job (or two or three jobs), clean the house, prepare the meals, mow the lawn, wash the car, pay the bills, finish the school work, and shop for the clothes, or can we trust God to provide for us even if we take a day off during the course of every week? Can we take time to worship God, to pray, and to gather with others for study and encouragement, and if we do, will it make us more or less productive overall? The fourth commandment does not explain how God will make it all work out for us. It simply tells us to rest one day every seven.

Christians have translated the day of rest to the Lord’s Day (Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection), but the essence of the Sabbath is not choosing one particular day of the week over another (Rom. 14:5-6). The polarity that actually undergirds the Sabbath is work and rest. Both work and rest are included in the fourth commandment. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work” (Deut. 5:13). The six days of work are as much a part of the commandment as the one day of rest. Although many Christians are in danger of allowing work to squeeze the time set aside for rest, others are in danger of the opposite—of shirking work and trying to live a life of leisure and dissipation. This is even worse than neglecting the Sabbath, for “whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). What we need are times and places for both work and rest, which together are good for us, our family, workers, and guests. This may or may not include twenty-four continuous hours of rest falling on Sunday (or Saturday). The proportions may change due to temporary necessities or the changing needs of the seasons of life.

If overwork is our main danger, then we need to find a way to honor the fourth commandment without instituting a false, new legalism pitting the spiritual (worship on Sunday) against the secular (work on Monday through Saturday). If avoiding work is our danger, we need to learn how to find joy and meaning in working as a service to God and our neighbors (Eph. 4:28). 

The Sabbath and the Work People Do for Us

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Of the few variations between the two versions of the Ten Commandments, the majority occur as additions to the fourth commandment in Deuteronomy. First, the list of those you cannot force to work on the Sabbath is expanded to include “your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock (Deut. 5:14a). Second, a reason is given why you cannot force slaves to work on the Sabbath: “So that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 5:14b-15a). Finally, a reminder is added that your ability to rest securely in the midst of military and economic competition from other nations is a gift from God, who protects Israel “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut. 5:15b).

An important distinction between the two texts on this commandment is their grounding in creation and redemption, respectively. In Exodus, the Sabbath is rooted in the six days of creation followed by a day of rest (Gen. 1:3-2:3). Deuteronomy adds the element of God’s redemption. “The Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). Bringing the two together, we see that the foundations for keeping the sabbath are both the way God made us and the way he redeems us.

Dinnertime Sabbath at Bandwidth.com

Bandwidth.com, a telecommunications company based in North Carolina, has a policy that everyone should leave work by 6 pm in order to spend dinner time with the people they love. If necessary, people may work from home after 8 pm or so, but workers are expected not to work or communicate with one another between 6 and 8. Co-founder Henry Kaestner says the biblical Sabbath is an inspiration for the policy, not because of its religious particularity, but because it gives everyone time for rest and relationship.

Kaestner doesn’t claim the policy would work everywhere, but says it has been embraced by workers at Bandwidth.com regardless of religious affiliation.

Henry Kaestner, panel discussion at Movement Day, New York City, October 10, 2013.

These additions highlight God’s concern for those who work under the authority of others. Not only must you rest, those who work for you—slaves, other Israelites, even animals—must be given rest. When you “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt,” it reminds you not to take your own rest as a special privilege, but to bring rest to others just as the Lord brought it to you. It does not matter what religion they follow or what they may choose to do with the time. They are workers, and God directs us to provide rest for those who work. We may be accustomed to thinking about keeping the Sabbath in order to rest ourselves, but how much thought do we give to resting those who work to serve us? Many people work at hours that interfere with their relationships, sleep rhythms, and social opportunities in order to make life more convenient for others.

The so-called “blue laws” that once protected people—or prevented people, depending on your point of view—from working at all hours have disappeared from most developed countries. Undoubtedly this has opened many new opportunities for workers and the people they serve. But is this always something we should participate in? When we shop late at night, golf on Sunday morning, or watch sporting events that continue past midnight, do we consider how it may affect those working at these times? Perhaps our actions help create a work opportunity that wouldn’t otherwise exist. On the other hand, perhaps we simply require someone to work at a miserable time who otherwise would have worked at a convenient hour.

The fast-food restaurant chain Chick-fil-A is well known for being closed on Sundays. It is often assumed this is because of founder Truett Cathy’s particular interpretation of the fourth commandment. But according to the company’s website, “His decision was as much practical as spiritual. He believes that all franchised Chick-fil-A Operators and Restaurant employees should have an opportunity to rest, spend time with family and friends, and worship if they choose to do so.” Of course, reading the fourth commandment as a way to care for the people who work for you is a particular interpretation, just not a sectarian or legalistic one. The issue is complex, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. But we do have choices as consumers and (in some cases) as employers that affect the hours and conditions of other people’s rest and work.