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

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

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).