the sabbath and work

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Those of you who regularly read my blog know that I often post as if I know what I’m talking about.  Whether I do indeed know what I’m talking about aside, this post is not like those others.  In my studies on Isaiah 58 (
here, here, and here), I’ve come to the section on Sabbath — and I’ve got more guesses than answers.  Here is Isaiah 58:13-14 directly from the NIV (because I feel that I can’t paraphrase and summarize that which I don’t fully understand):

If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.

Here is what I do know:

  • This passage follows the section on fasting — which encourages fasts that promote or empower social justice and service to others.  The chapter as a whole seems to disapprove of holy days for the sake of holy days and downplay seeking God for the sake of personal relationship.
  • This passage begins with familiar words to not “do as we please” on the Sabbath.  This is the same phrase we saw in verse 3 — “yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please.” — and was defined as exploiting others and quarreling, or simply by being disobedient to God.
  • I assume, taking into account the context, that keeping the Sabbath has some meaningful relationship with social justice and service in the community — or at least in creating the kind of people who spend themselves on such.
  • This is not the first time we see justice and the Sabbath in relationship.  For example, just two chapters earlier (Isaiah 56), we see keeping the Sabbath as part of a definition of maintaining justice and doing what is right.  Honoring the Sabbath may be used in these two chapters simply to designate what those who trust in God do and how they act — as if “keeping the Sabbath” is a phrase that could be translated “being obedient to God.”

So this is my current understanding / view of Sabbath (which is very open to discussion):

  • I find Sabbath written about in a great many ways, which seem (to me) to be difficult to harmonize — so I’ve taken most of my understanding from the example set by God himself during creation.  God worked for six days, creating that which was good, and then rested on the seventh day.  We place a great deal of importance on the resting part (and probably have good reason to do so), but I have to at least wonder if part of the significance of Sabbath is the work itself.  Perhaps the six days of creating and doing that which is good might indeed be the focus?
  • I see the Sabbath as a day to rest in God AND to reflect on all the good I have done during the week (by God’s power in me, of course).  God is glorified as I work to the best of my abilities, but even more so, the work I do should create an “atmosphere of good.”  In God’s image, I create.  I create a life of obedience to him.  I create situations in which he is given glory.  I create opportunities to share his goodness with others.  In essence, I create worship by being obedient to God — not only my own life of worship, but others will see my good works and worship he who has changed my life.
  • So the Sabbath becomes, in a way, the sign of my obedient and worshipful life.  It’s not that I’ve set aside a day to worship God; it’s that I’ve set aside six days to worship God, and one to reflect on that week and take it all in.  It’s not that I celebrate God one day each week; it’s that I’ve set aside that one day to celebrate all the good he’s accomplished (through me, even) during that one week.

I think this definition addresses the synonymous use of the phrases “keeping the Sabbath” and “being obedient to God.”  Only if we are maintaining justice in our communities, only if we are feeding the hungry, only if we are creating good, can we truly “keep the Sabbath.”

I, too, believe these ideas speak deeply to the communal Christian life.  Sunday (if that’s the day of your Christian gathering) shouldn’t be about offering God the worship of that day;  but it should be a celebration of all that you’ve offered in worship that week.  On Sundays we bring our lives of obedience and lay them before God as a sacrifice to him.  We offer to him the fruits of our labors, the good we’ve created in his world.  It wasn’t the day of rest that was called good, but the six days of work prior to that day of rest.

What are your thoughts?  I truly am seeking to have a better understanding of the Sabbath, and am definitely open to ideas.  What does it mean to celebrate the Sabbath?  How is it related to social justice and community service?


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21 responses to “the sabbath and work

  1. randy morgan

    appreciate the thoughts, brett, and your suggestion that sabbath is a time to “reflect on all the good i have done during the week” is one i had never considered (but i will).

    my opinion might be the result of a man crush (he’s my favorite writer), but mark buchanan has the best perspective on the sabbath i’ve ever seen. you need to read “the rest of god.” in the meantime, here’s a link to an interview.

  2. “be still and know that I am God.”

    in journal coaching i instruct people to have one day a week to go back over the entries they’ve written during the week. when we are busy with life we miss things. we need time to sit back and reflect, a chance to connect the dots. i think this is why so many people miss the hand of God at work in events in their lives, because they never stop and reflect and evaluate….

  3. Good thoughts, Brett. I believe you are correct to identify the “rest” of Sabbath as more reflecting on the week. There are strong indicators that it carries the sense of celebrating. We know that Papa God was not tired out by his six days of creation. As he reflects he celebrates that it is “very good.”

    Another angle on the community side of Sabbath is the importance of extending rest to servants and even the animals. It is social injustice for the wealthy and powerful to demand rest for themselves and refuse to extend the same to those under them. The book of Isaiah seems to be especially critical of the powerful members of the nation.

    • Jason Miller

      John, I really appreciate you bringing it back around to community so often. I’ve noticed this in several recent comments.



      • Jason, I am convinced our Western individuality is a way many of us have been “conformed to the world” that calls for transformation by having our thinking renewed. Living in submission to the reign of God will produce a healthy awareness of and concern for the community.

        I speak of a Sabbath day because that’s the way it first appears in the text. It is certainly broadened and somewhat spiritualized in Hebrews.

    • thanks, john, for pointing out the rest for servants and animals and the like. i never have thought about that before. and it especially meshes with the section beginning in verse 3 — about doing as you please, and equating that with exploiting your workers. brilliant.

  4. In a lot of languages from cultures that have been Christian for a very long time, Saturday is called “Sabbath” and Sunday is called “Lord’s Day” or “Resurrection.”

    In other words, old Christian cultures seem to say that Sunday is the day for celebrating the Resurrection, and Saturday is the day for taking a Sabbath, for resting from labors. I don’t believe it was until well after the Reformation that some Christian sects began conflating Sabbath with the Lord’s Day.

    This is an encouragement for church workers who might be extremely busy on Sundays. Sunday is the Lord’s Day, but it is not also the Sabbath. The Sabbath is the day of rest.

    With this caveat– Sunday does not equal Sabbath– your thoughts are helpful to me. The Sabbath is good for us, and it is especially good for those who work for us. If I keep the Sabbath, that means my employees get a day off. If I keep the Sabbath, then those who serve me are also granted rest. For me to deny rest to myself may be unhealthy and ungrateful. For me to deny rest to those around me is certainly unjust.

    • james, i guess i just think of “the” sabbath not necessarily as a particular day of the week, but as a way in which i spend time, or reflect on time spent. but it seems to mesh well with sunday to me, if that’s going to be a time that we come together as a church community and the body of Christ. i feel that instead of bringing offerings of sacrifice, i am laying my life of sacrifice before God on that day, along with my brothers and sisters.

      but, part of that is probably reaction to sunday being referred to as “the” time of worship, something with which i disagree strongly. if we speak of sunday more as a celebration of the resurrection, i might not have the same thoughts. i guess my heritage has not referred to it a great deal in this way. i’m going to give it some thought.

      • Could we say there is a distinction between “the day of Sabbath” (which is traditionally Saturday) and the concept of “Sabbath” (which is a way of spending time/ resources, and not restricted to a single day) ?

        • i can say there’s that distinction, and it seems many do. but what i can’t say is whether or not we’re correct in doing so. i have a strong hunch, though, that yes, we are correct to distinguish between the two.

  5. I like this idea of reflecting. I have never heard God’s day of rest discussed in this way, but I can see that what you say about the 6 days of doing good coincide closely with what you’ve written in your previous posts and it all makes sense to me.

    I’ve always taken Sunday as my day to get ready for the new, upcoming week. This has nothing to do with what I’ve read in scripture, just my rhythm of life. I always think of Sunday as the beginning of a week, not the end. So I think I will try the reflection thing on Saturday when I like to fit in some rest, and then on Sunday I will plan to do more good than I have been during my 6 days.

    This not “doing as I please” thing, however, is going to be tough. I almost quit reading for that reason. Sometimes we don’t like to hear that we might need to change a thing or two…

    • janie, i feel like my morning runs serve to some extent as my sabbath. however, i’m usually reflecting only on the previous day — and not on 6 of them. honestly, i’m not sure that i practice sabbath well.

      which is exactly why i’ve been studying it a bit lately. we’ll see where i end up on things.

      • I do a lot of that too…my question is does that count as “resting”? I mean, I find it restful, but it does take effort. Unless the “rest” is simple reflecting and maybe some planning.

  6. David Robinson

    I love all the thoughts above.

    I’d like to offer one additional insight that has been enlightening to me. I had been studying sabbath a little bit a few months ago.

    I got into it a bit and started reading up in Leviticus 25 about the Sabbath Year and the year of Jubilee.

    It seemed to me that the Sabbath year was about rest-yes, but even more so it was about Faith. You had to have a lot of faith to not “sow you’re fields of prune you vineyards.”-verse 4.

    In verse 20, ” You may ask, “What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?” 21 I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. 22 While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in.

    Work, to us, yields security. It seems to me like God was suggesting that we take security in him and his provisioning, by taking a day (or in this passage a year) off while believing he will provide.

    The end of your passage seems quite a reinforcement of the idea that God will bless you with more-than-enough if you manage to trust him by keeping his commands.

    • Jason Miller

      Following from John Kenneth King and David Robinson above, we seem to have a desire to say, “The day of rest” or “the Sabbath day.” We also seem to intrinsically understand Sabbath as rest designed for people.

      But I’ve been trying to train myself to say just “Sabbath,” more like a mindset, while also trying to see the faith involved in Sabbath and the fact that the land itself was to lay fallow, or have Sabbath (a season of it in fact).

      And although the historical sources seem to question whether or not Jubilee was ever actually celebrated, it was in the plan of God for his people to have Sabbath, Jubilee being a double year and a step further normal.

      And while in essence I agree with you about all you said, I know that with myself sometimes its unhealthy to “look at my weeks work.” I think your ideas about first fruits, etc., are right on, but for me it could create a cycle of pride that “I’m not JUST resting, I’m getting it right…just like what’s talked about in Isaiah 58.”

      Which is why I would recommend Mark’s book like Randy did. Not, again, b/c he gets it right, but because he says some things that I personally really need to hear, such as it is ok and not falling short of any mark just to sit and be in the presence of God and to revitalize your ability to minister from his holy presence. I can have failed for months on end and be totally bone dry spiritually and have nothing, not a week, not a month of work worth bringing, yet I can still come and have Sabbath. I don’t think you’re saying this, but there seems to be a logic that flows from your post which speak to the aughtness of doing things in that way…an aughtness I like, but which probably narrows the meaning of Sabbath. More than likely, it can be much more than any one idea about it…yours or mine or Mark Buchanan’s.

      Of to a meeting. Which, by no definition whatsoever could be considered Sabbath.

    • thanks, david, for the thoughts on faith and trust. i need to work those into my own thoughts on sabbath.

      do you think playing settlers of catan could be called sabbath?

      and jason, now that i’m living here, if i look at my week’s work, i often am disappointed by how little i’ve gotten done. but i try to think less in terms of physical work accomplished, and more in terms of attempting to be Christ in the community. not have i found the land on which to put a demonstration farm, but did i feed the hungry today? did i encourage those with whom i spoke? etc.

      so meetings aren’t a sabbath, huh?

      • David Robinson

        I’m pretty sure Jesus said something about sheep…and sabbath, so I think Catan is certainly permissible. Just don’t cause anyone to stumble.

  7. Pingback: God’s image, our creation | aliens and strangers

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