Bible reference – Exodus 20:8-11:
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God. In it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day. Wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.KJV
What I thought this meant: Don’t work on Sunday. Go to church.
What I think it really means: Stop and smell the roses. Keep your work and rest separate. Take time to appreciate what you have in the moment.
Growing up, I despised going to church. I didn’t want to get up early. I didn’t want to dress up. I didn’t want to sit in a boring sermon. I didn’t want to waste half of my precious weekend being clean and not watching cartoons. At the time, the 4th Commandment sounded like just another mandate. Worship Me only, worship Me every week, and by the way, drop everything else you are doing to do it. What is crazy is that despite this being the hammer that my mom used to beat into me the notion of going to church every Sunday, there is actually no mention of church at all. I always took keeping the sabbath holy to connote some kind of worship to God. It just means “time to rest”. Indeed, nothing says “rest” to a boy like wearing a tiny suit, with tiny tie and tiny dress shoes, and trying to sit still in an auditorium full of people I don’t really care about for 2 hours, am I right?
The concept of going to church activated my doubt and resentment toward religion around this time. If God is everywhere, why do we need to go to church? If God can hear everything, why can’t we just stay home? If God knows everything, why do we need to pray at all? How can we reconcile a remote group of people, with no church or no bible to learn the Word of God… perishing in hell just because of… bad luck? Was it God’s design for them to be born damned because they didn’t have the fortune of having a “holy” building or book nearby?
On closer inspection, the Fourth Commandment is not about church at all. The holiness of the day is not a building or a book; it is rest itself. The phrase “keep it holy” is immediately followed by the example of not working. Remember the day of rest, and keep it holy by… actually resting. The message God is hammering is different from my mom’s. It’s seemingly the opposite. Take off those tiny dress shoes. Let holiness be the holes in your socks and your T-shirt.
So why would God want us to rest? And why again would it be a priority over not murdering people?
As much as younger me would have liked for it to mean watching cartoons, justifying that interpretation proves challenging. What does it mean to rest then? It could mean recover, recuperate. It could mean do absolutely nothing. Or, it could mean to reflect.
This Commandment evokes the Genesis story:
For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day.
Let’s look closer at Genesis and the Creation:
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good:Genesis 1:3~4, KJV
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.Genesis 1:10, KJV
And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.Genesis 1:12, KJV
In these and other instances, the Bible deliberately makes effort to repeat the phrase: “it was good”. There are protracted moments of toil, of work, followed periodically by an acknowledgement, almost like a sigh.
Could the Fourth Commandment mean to take the time to appreciate what you have done? Good things have the annoying trait of being easily forgotten. We tend to only pay attention when things have gone wrong. We can get fixated on failures, regrets, lost opportunities, lost potential. Those things can become burdens and overshadow the meaning of all the effort put forth. It takes discipline to periodically take an inventory of what really matters in your life. It’s useful to be reminded to rest, and to make a habit of resting. Then you will have moments to reflect on what you’ve amassed and be able to put their value in context.
Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God. In it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.
This portion suggests 2 important aspects. First, do all your work. Get it done. Don’t put things off. Insert all those motivational tidbits here. Second, which I think is more subtle, is to keep your work and your home life separate.
Talking to some well-adjusted and successful business people… they often cite leaving their work at the office as a key to their well-being. Having a job that pays piles of money helps, but there is merit to the mandate of not allowing yourself or anyone around you to think about work at home.
Curiously, the verse does not mention the spouse… so I guess your significant other will be the one making the snacks and cleaning the bathroom for your children, servants, strangers, and even cattle.
It makes sense for rest to mean not only “not to work”, but also to establish an environment that is separate from your job, and even further to reflect on the fruits of your labor.
It would be amazing if God were also warning against over-planning vacations. I know I have used 2 weeks off to plan a 2-week vacation only to return more exhausted than when I started (regardless of how awesome Disney World was)… but, I suspect this is not that, although it does conveniently deal with it.
The final aspect is the when. Most people are fixated on 7 calendar days, or on the Genesis parallel – God made the earth in 6 days, and rested on the 7th. Does it literally mean every 7 days? I don’t want to go into how long a day means in terms of making a universe, or if God’s days are equal to people days or any weird interpretations of space-time. However, if you look at it from a contemporary calendar perspective, would checking in with yourself every 7 days be a bad thing? Would telling yourself to crush it for 6 days, and then just shutting down for 1 day be crazy? In the end, maybe a week is intentionally vague. It could be your week, God’s week, whatever… as long as you do it periodically.
I think it’s notable that the time is frequent, that it’s not every month or year, or save it for the entire period near the end of your life. You work for a week, and after the task is done, take a day to rest. It’s an ongoing, continuous process.
Does it pass the Ricky Gervais Test? Yes. Take away the Bible, and eventually intelligent, civilized people will come to some version of this concept. Go to church every Sunday? Not so much. But the alternative is a cliché: Don’t take your life for granted. Stop and smell the roses. And it’s important to do it periodically.
Does it make sense at #4? Again, I was puzzled as to why mandatory rest/going to church was more important than telling people not to murder others. However, maybe God is saying to do tasks to completion, then separate yourself (and others) from work, and just rest. Why? Because the rest itself is sacred. This seems to be another check on obsession (in addition to the Second Commandment). Don’t be singularly focused, leave some space for distance, recovery, and even reflection. You can keep things in perspective and make sure everyone around you keeps things in perspective.
That can be further extrapolated to knowing and understanding one’s role. Suddenly, this feels very essential to a society. If everyone is together in a moment of rest, they can become more aware and appreciative of one another’s individual efforts and contributions, as well as how it all comes together to a greater purpose or importance within your home, your community, your world. That sounds like a worthy Fourth Commandment.
Wow, that was pretty good.