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Fourth in a Series on the Ten Commandments
by S. M. Hutchens
The fourth commandment, to keep the Sabbath day, of all the commandments seems the most peculiar, most arbitrary, and most difficult to appreciate. It is based not so much in our practical need for rest, a need which is built into our bodies and enforced by those bodies if we attempt to override it, as the mere imitation of a God who, for reasons we have enormous difficulty understanding, did something called “resting” on the seventh day of creation.
Let us begin, then, at the point of our greatest perplexity. God, who never grows weary, rested. Why? Because he did. It is part of who he is, and is something he wants us to know about himself. He is a God who not only works, but also rests. The rest of God is not presented by the Book of Genesis as something he needs, but something he does, and bids us do along with him:
Keep the Sabbath day, to sanctify it, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your ox, nor your ass, nor any of your cattle, nor the stranger that is within your gates, that your manservant and maidservant shall rest as you do. And remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God brought you out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:12–15)
The law of the Sabbath is strictly enjoined on all God’s people here so that they might have the time and freedom to remember, to look back upon time past, as God looked back upon the six days of creation, and to declare it very good. Remember. “Do this in remembrance of me.” “We offer here the memorial of redemption. . . . Take and eat this bread in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart by faith, with thanksgiving.” It is at this place where we come to God and also come to ourselves through the remembrance of Christ’s work, a remembrance that becomes a participation not just in the mind, but in the whole man.
You cannot know who you are or what your work means unless you look back upon it, nor can you receive its fruit. If one works continually on, there can be no receiving the harvest, no feast at the end of the hunt, no time for rest or reward, for all these final things must be done during times of rest when work is put aside and remembered. What we have here in the Lord’s Supper is the Instituted Remembrance that we are to have until the Lord returns and the Great Sabbath begins.
The remembering is the culmination of and greatest part of doing, the part in which the doing is perfected by turning back upon it and joining oneself to it in a way that was not done while the doing was in progress. (When you have done something well, don’t you stand back and admire it? And isn’t that moment the whole point of the doing?) The thing that is done, if it is a great work, has by the Sabbath of its doer become itself, having a being of its own, and does its own work as the original doer has done his. It is like seeing the children that you have made grow up and become the parents of children themselves; it is like watching the things you have written and taught move others to do and write and teach themselves, to carry on your work, which you yourself have carried on from your masters. This Sabbath act of remembrance, sometimes despised as the province of the elderly or inactive, is the necessary completion of the action of life, and fulfills its meaning. Our Lord said of the bread and cup that it was to be taken in remembrance of him, and so in us his servants and brothers, who are of one flesh with him, his act of sacrifice is perfected.
It used to be that the Lord’s Day, the Sabbath as transformed by the resurrection of Christ from the last day of the week to the first, from the end of things to their beginning, was protected by the laws and customs of this country. It is no longer, for the most part, and I think it is worthwhile to ask why. The public argument for abolishing the Sabbath laws mostly had to do with their inconvenience but could be sauced with Christian reasons. Did not Jesus declare himself Lord of the Sabbath, breaking it by doing what his fellow Jews regarded as work? And did he not teach, to shame them, that it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath? Surely this justifies the doing of any good thing on the seventh day. My wife works on occasional Sundays because the hospital where she is employed is in the business of healing every day, thus imitating the Lord who healed the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath and shamed his critics for invoking the Mosaic blue laws.
Let us agree, then, that it is good to do good on the seventh day, or the first day, if we celebrate it as the seventh. But let me suggest that as we begin to crumble, both singly and as a culture, Sabbaths become less attractive because we do not wish to remember, we do not really wish to think on who we are or what we are doing, for that means a coming to one’s self, in the presence of God, and this we wish to avoid. Remember the voice of the Lord to Adam the sinner as he walked in the garden in the cool of the evening: “Adam, where are you?” That was the first call we hear bringing man to his Sabbath; that is the Sabbath question: “My child, where are you?” To answer this, we must remember, we must know ourselves in a true and encompassing recollection of the past of which we are made. The blessed answer would have been, “Here I am Lord, your creation brought from dust. As you have done your work, I have done the work you have taught me to do, loving and serving you with gladness and singleness of heart, and it seems to me very good. I rejoice and give you thanks.” But instead the answer was, “I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, and hid myself.”
And so man runs from the Sabbath because he cannot bear to contemplate his own nakedness, which has now become the principal result of his activity. He thrusts ever forward, not looking behind, refusing to give an honest account of where he is to the one who, in the Sabbath commandment, has asked for it. Socrates wisely told us to know ourselves, but man will not, not because he cannot but because he will not. Our problem is not at base intellectual, but moral. We justify ourselves by calling our refusal to stop freedom or progress or science or the enlightenment of this age, which casts off the hobbles of petty and misconceived moralities and conventions to achieve the fulfillment of self. We hide from the trail of blood that follows us wherever we go.
Man does not wish to remember with gratitude the grace and kindness that has made and sustained him. He does not wish to return any portion of his substance to his Maker in the acknowledgment that all things came from him, for in that he must invariably be reminded of the horrifying idea that all things return to him as well. He does not wish to shop on Sunday because he needs food or clothing on that particular day. If he did, there would be no sin in selling to him. He wishes to shop on Sunday because he wants a world where there is no Sabbath. To him the law of the Sabbath is as burdensome and as hard to obey as all the others, for it establishes and makes real to him the fundamental condition and reason for keeping the others.
The Jews had many laws concerning Sabbath observance, and many Christians have in their own way followed them. These laws defined what is “work” and therefore what one may and may not do on the Sabbath. Such laws are not in themselves bad, but when they become heavy they destroy the reason for their own being, which was to remove the burden of labor, not to add another, this time the labor of punctilious Sabbath observation. The Sabbath was made for man, so that he might be able to take the necessary time to consider the present and future in light of his salvation’s history.
So, what should we do on our day of rest, which has become the first day of the week, since the resurrection of the Lord joined the first and last days to one another? For many of us this has become a day of religious labor. We must set up the altar, or preach sermons, or put out the coffee, or listen to teaching, or teach, or tend the children while others do these things. So far as this happens, are we failing to rest? I would say this: It is important that we celebrate the Sabbath; indeed, it is commanded by the Lord. If you cannot do the things you do on Sunday as Sabbath acts, then you must learn to do them as such, or stop doing them and do what is.
When you take care of the children, for example, do you consider them simply little pests (or even little darlings) with whom you must put up for a certain period until their mothers finally retrieve them? Or are these children something infinitely more? Are these little people in themselves remembrances of God’s love and mercy, whom to touch with hand or mind is to touch the heritage of the Lord that links the past with the future and carries the meaning of both, and to whom your presence is a certain part of the presence of God? Do you understand that you are to the children living symbols of the ancient faithfulness of God, for you are to them very, very old, old beyond their imagining. First you stand in the place of God to them, then later you move aside from that place and bring God to their minds, and then finally you move aside altogether and they come to God themselves. But consider what you are to them now, great images of the mystery of life in God. And someday you will be the memories of their own Sabbaths; they will think upon your faithfulness and grow wise.
If you preach or teach or perform the liturgy, or give us music, do you do it in true remembrance of the magnalia Dei, the mighty acts of God, as you have been commanded? Or in your preparations and delivery of your Sabbath duties are you principally trying to make a good impression, or to sell your church or your ministry? Do you exercise skill in your work because skill is needed to do it well, and so honor God, to paint the icon well, or because you wish to please or coddle or excite your audience? Whoever does the latter will end up losing both his audience and his effectiveness. All his abilities will eventually come to seem plastic and pedestrian to his jaded hearers, for the Spirit will no longer bear them into the heart. God honors those who only try to preach, or sing, one thing and do it well. Their words and songs will always be new and bring his children the refreshment the Sabbath was meant to bring.
You can see that the meaning of the Sabbath is very deep, and that we have only begun to speak of it. The Book of Hebrews speaks of the eternity of the redeemed as a Sabbath rest—the rest of God himself as giving life and meaning not only to his old creation, but also to the new one into which we are beginning to enter, the labor of our Lord and the rest into which he has entered, a rest which overlies the age in which we still labor, and is drawing us into itself. Of these we have not spoken much. But I think we have begun to understand why we are given the command to rest. It is the law in which our Creator says, “Here, be like me. I command you, against your will, perhaps, but still, I command you: Rest, and think. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh is the day of the Lord your God. In it you and yours shall do no work, but shall remember what I have done for you, and in that remembrance take my life into you.” •
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.