Release from Slavery

Ten Commandments - 4

Release from Slavery

The Blessing of the Fourth Commandment

(Exodus 20:1-2, 8-11)

The Sabbath commandment has often been misrepresented by a kill-joy attitude. In fact, its provision of a weekly respite from toil is a remarkable piece of humanitarian legislation, designed to enrich human life and liberate people from slavery to work. This address, fifth in a series on the Ten Commandments, was given by Rob Yule, minister of St Alban’s Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 11 October 1998.

Distortions of the Sabbath

‘Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy’ (Exodus 20:8). The Hebrew noun shabbat comes from a verb meaning ‘to rest’ or ‘cease from work’. What harm the kill-joy mentality has done to this commandment, which is actually one of the most liberating prescriptions in the Bible. Among Jews after the return from exile, the prohibition from work was interpreted with an awful literalness: you were not allowed to light a fire, move a lamp, cook a dinner, tie a knot, or use your false teeth. In Jesus’ day, there were 1,521 things which you couldn’t do on the Sabbath - so many things, in fact, that I’m surprised that the effort of remembering them all didn’t qualify as forbidden work! If you accidentally scuffed your foot in the dust, that was a kind of ploughing, and ploughing of course was prohibited work. Until the resolute Maccabees taught them better, Jewish armies would let themselves be slaughtered on the Sabbath rather than do the ‘work’ of self defence.

Closer to home, there has been a legalistic sabbath keeping in the Church, especially in our Scottish tradition, whose attitudes have been just as contrary to the spirit of this commandment. A generation ago New Zealand poet James K. Baxter remarked on people leaving church on Sunday morning with their ‘long Jehovah faces.’ In seventeenth century Scotland an unfortunate fellow was actually hauled into court for smiling on the Sabbath! Considering the state of Scotland at the time, he deserved to be congratulated for managing to raise a smile at all!

To Enrich Life

How tragic, and how utterly contrary to what this commandment enjoins. It was as if it said: ‘You shall not enjoy life on the sabbath.’ I think it was the Russian novelist Boris Pasternak who once pointed out that the real intention of the sabbath commandment is to enrich life. It is certainly not meant to make life burdensome. It points to the importance of being free from drudgery and immersion in the workaday world. It is an invitation to share in the delights of creation, and to anticipate God’s eternal rest and joy. The early Christians enjoyed their Sundays so much that the ancient Romans, whose religion had long declined into a listless and sceptical routine, suspected them of holding obscene orgies in their love feasts.

What then does the fourth commandment actually require of us?

Honest Work

First of all, the fourth commandment requires us to do six days of honest work. ‘Six days you shall labour and do all your work’ (Exodus 20:9). ‘Sleeping is no mean art,’ said the German philosopher Nietzsche,’ you have to stay awake all day to do it.’ By analogy the fourth commandment could be paraphrased: ‘Resting on Sunday is no mean art; you have to work all week to do it!’ There’s nothing here to encourage personal laziness or bludging, and certainly no mention of a 35 hour week! The Bible encourages a robust, diligent, responsible attitude to work. You can’t enjoy rest if you don’t apply yourself to work.

A Special Day

Secondly, the commandment requires that we cease from all avoidable work and make the sabbath a special day. The rest day is to be hallowed or kept holy. ‘Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy’ (Exodus 20:8). The basic meaning of the word ‘holy’ in Hebrew is ‘distinctive’ or ‘different’. The temple is holy because it is different from other buildings. The Bible is holy because it is different from other books. God is holy because he is different from all other beings. Similarly, the sabbath is to be holy because it is one day in the week which is different from all the other days. The sabbath is to be a special day. On it as far as possible we should seek to avoid the routines and work that characterise our daily life throughout the week.

My mum used to make our rest day special for us when we were little kids by putting a lolly by our pillow for us to discover when we woke up on Sunday mornings. Consequently I grew up seeking to make Sunday a different day from others, by not training on Sunday when I was an athlete, and by not studying on Sunday when I was a student. My brother and I used to reckon that we did as well if not better than many runners of our ability; we certainly weren’t worse off, and I think we were actually fresher for not training one day a week. I also used to notice as a student that many students who did work on Sundays did so spasmodically, not actually accomplishing very much, but losing the benefit of a complete day off. If some activity is your regular work or routine during the week, avoid doing it on your rest day, and you’ll be better off for it.

Abstaining from work is not just a luxury for the well-off who can afford it, who expect others or pay others to do their work for them. There’s a strong element of justice in the fourth commandment that requires us to arrange our lives in such a way that our family and dependents, our workers and staff, are to be released from avoidable work too (Exodus 20:10). The commandment even includes agricultural animals, which, in the days before machinery, were beasts of burden to cultivate the land, and significantly, the resident alien, or as we would call them today, migrant workers, who tend to end up doing the menial jobs to make life more leisured for others. The fourth commandment doesn’t allow us to make rest and leisure the preserve of the rich at the expense of the poor.

Life is More than Toil

Thirdly, the sabbath commandment means that God intends there to be more to life than work and toil. ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery’ (Exodus 20:2). God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The sabbath commandment is a boundary fence to stop Israel going back to slavery. William Barclay describes it as ‘a great piece of social and humanitarian legislation’, ‘one of the great merciful laws of the Old Testament.’ (The Plain Man’s Guide to Ethics [London & Glasgow, Collins Fontana, 1973], p. 27).

The sabbath commandment is social legislation based on religious belief, which we ignore to our peril. The French Revolution rejected God and tried to do away with a seven day week and a weekly day of rest, but they found they were destroying people’s health and wellbeing, and had to bring it back. Our New Zealand way of life has known the immeasurable benefits of a weekly day of rest. But we don’t learn from history, and seem condemned to repeat it. Today our society too is rejecting God, and suffering the consequences. In the last ten years we have eroded a rest day in New Zealand, and are getting increasingly caught up in work and commerce. People who were typically doing 40-45 hours of work a week ten years ago in New Zealand are doing 60 hours or more a week today. Are we, or the economy, any better off for it? In the last few months we’ve started to hear reports in the news media of the problems of high stress levels this is creating.

A day of rest is a social and industrial necessity. Without it health and work inevitably suffer. By ignoring God’s provision of a rest day, we are returning to a self-imposed slavery to drudgery and toil - the very thing God delivered Israel from.

Enjoying God’s Creation

Fourthly, we should enjoy a rest from our labours as God did to enjoy the fruit of his labours. ‘For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it’ (Exodus 20:11). The fourth commandment relates the human institution of a weekly day of rest to God’s resting after he had completed his work of creation, to enjoy what he had made. This suggests that the pattern of work and rest is built into the very structure of the universe. The theologian Karl Barth has pointed out that the seventh day of the Genesis account of creation (Genesis 2:1-3) is not a empty day, a day without content. It is a day full of content - filled with God and the entire content of the preceding six days - namely, God and all of his creation (Church Dogmatics, III, 1, pp. 213-19). The sabbath rest is not meant to be a boring day, a day without anything to do, but rather a day when we desist from the demands and restrictions imposed by our regular work, so that we may enjoy God and his works!

Time for Eternity

Fifthly, the sabbath commandment enjoins us to sanctify time, to set aside time specifically for God. ‘The seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work’ (Exodus 20:10). Hallowing the sabbath goes beyond making one day a week a special day. Holiness is the unique possession of God - it is God’s character and integrity. To keep the Sabbath holy is to set aside one day a week for God - to enter into God’s realm, to worship, to commune with God himself. It is time on a weekly basis to enter eternity. The sabbath rest is intended to be a weekly taste of eternity, a release from the captivity of chronos , clock time, to enjoy the blessings of kairos, high time, God’s time. How right the early Christians were to move it from the seventh day of the week, the last day of creation, to the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, the eighth day, the beginning of a new octave, the first day of the age to come.

Rob Yule
11 October 1998

© 1998, St Albans Presbyterian Church,
Palmerston North, New Zealand