In a multitasking, speed-dating world, what happened to the Sabbath rest? It’s like the fourth commandment was written in disappearing ink!
True confession. This is the sixth post in a series on Divine Appointments: Insights from God’s Calendar. (Nothing in the Bible is old news!) By rights this post on Shabbat should have come first–or at least second–in the series, but the fact is this one deeply challenges me! So… I found a long list of other blog topics to tackle first.
But here we are. And as usual, once I started to dig into His word, the Lord showed me some truths worth digging for!
Like so many other transformations in my life of faith, this one started two years ago on a family vacation to Israel. Shabbat (Sabbath in English) intrigued me. It’s a serious thing there! Shops close. Even those that cater to tourists. Beautifully braided Challah bread appears, for one day only, on the hotel buffet line… then disappears again.
And our hotel had a Shabbat elevator! During Shabbat, it travels up and down without ceasing, for 25 hours, stopping on every floor. That way the super-observant don’t have to violate their consciences by pushing a button on Shabbat. I was told that a button might cause a spark, which would disobey the Lord’s command against kindling a fire on Shabbat, you see.
Hearing so much about Shabbat, it struck me I’d never invested in any kind of methodical study of the Hebrew scriptures. It was high time to address that. After all, Jesus says the Law will never pass away. (Matt 5:18) Paul says that all scripture is inspired by God and profitable (2 Tim 3:16). And when he wrote that, the New Testament as we know it didn’t exist! So he was primarily talking about the Hebrew scriptures.
Observant Jews read through the Law (the Torah, the first five books of the Bible) every year according to a set schedule. I started to follow their weekly reading plan (Hebrew4Christians.com, highly recommended!). It’s been an eye-opening experience. I’m so amazed at the beautiful unity of God’s message in these sixty-six books we call the Bible!
Something struck me. You don’t get far into reading the Hebrew scriptures before you realize how central Shabbat is to God’s covenant with Israel–and how close it seems to be to the heart of God. But for modern Christians, the concept of Shabbat or Sabbath seems to have largely passed out of the vernacular. In fact, if you’re involved in church programs, Sunday may well be the least restful day of the week. What gives?
I said earlier that Shabbat should have been the first post in this series. As stated by the Jewish Virtual Library:
Shabbat is the most important ritual observance in Judaism and is the only ritual observance instituted in the Ten Commandments. It is also the most important special day, even more so than Yom Kippur.
We all know the Genesis account traces Shabbat all the way back to the order of creation. (Gen 2:3) After that, the concept of a seventh-day rest doesn’t appear again until the Israelites embark on their journey to become God’s covenant people. But at that point, Shabbat takes on tremendous prominence.
The Lord gave Shabbat to Israel even before He gave them the Law. As soon as the children of Israel completed their dramatic safe passage through the Red Sea, God provided a tangible demonstration that He would be the Source for meeting their physical needs. When they grew thirsty and grumbled, God miraculously provided water (Ex 15:25, 27) When they complained they were hungry, He gave them manna, a miraculous “spiritual food.” (1 Cor 10:3) Manna and Shabbat were given in almost the same breath! (Ex 16:4-5) And the Lord told Moses both were part of a crucial spiritual test.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in My instruction. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.
It came about on the seventh day that some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. Then the Lord said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions? See, the Lord has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” (Ex 16:4-5, 27-29)
What was the crucial spiritual test? Whether the people would trust God and rest.
Side note: Did you know the word manna actually means “what is it”? The children of Israel named this miraculous food… “what is it”!
I’m struck by how God’s provision of spiritual food was intimately intertwined with his provision of rest. I think there’s a crucial spiritual lesson there. If we’re resting in Him, He will sustain us! And… resting in Him is powerful. It only takes one day of rest to fuel us for six days of labor.
Remember, the journey in the wilderness was about making the children of Israel “a people for God’s own possession” (Deut 7:6) In Egypt, the Jewish people literally belonged to Pharaoh. They marched every day to the drumbeat of Pharaoh’s brickyards. But now they were God’s people, not Pharaoh’s. What a contrast! He wanted to be sure they heard no drumbeat but His own.
When we add… the Hebrew word pictures for the letters Shin, Bet, Tav, we begin to see how Shabbat is used to identify his people as set-apart from the surrounding culture.
Shin is a tooth or fire, and it means devour, consume or destroy. Because the glory of the Lord is a consuming fire, Shin also refers to the Shekinah or divine presence of God.
Bet is a house, a physical house, household or a body.
Tav is a sign or mark of ownership. It refers to the joining of two things or a covenant.
When we put these word pictures together they reveal that Shabbat is the covenant sign of the divine presence of God in the house.
Isn’t it interesting that in the ancient script, Tav, which is a “a sign or mark of ownership… joining of two things or a covenant,” is a cross!
When the Law was given at Sinai, Shabbat became the fourth commandment. That positioning makes it a sort of bridge between the first three commandments, which deal with loving God and recognizing His singular holy nature, and the six Commandments which deal with loving our neighbors.
Another spiritual lesson, methinks. Time set apart to rest and stand in awe of God, our Creator and Redeemer, becomes the conduit that enables us to truly love our neighbor.
So where’s the Biblical instruction book for Shabbat? What exactly are we to rest from?
Given the importance of Shabbat, I find the Hebrew Scriptures to be a little short on specifics, actually. Here are a few:
But what is work? That’s a tricky one! What might seem like drudgery to me (gardening, for example) might be a relaxing and renewing hobby to you.
I went to the Jewish Virtual Library for help.
Before you can begin to understand the Shabbat restrictions, you must understand the word “melachah.”
Melachah generally refers to the kind of work that is creative, or that exercises control or dominion over your environment. The word may be related to “melech” (king; Mem-Lamed-Kaf). The quintessential example of melachah is the work of creating the universe, which G-d ceased from on the seventh day. Note that G-d’s work did not require a great physical effort: He spoke, and it was done.
Gardening? Definitely out. Crafting fictional worlds for a novel? Probably also out!
In their usual thorough-going manner, the Jewish sages have elaborated the Biblical guidance into a much longer list of specific prohibitions. Many of these stem from an application of Ex 31:13, which states that even construction of the Tabernacle had to pause for Shabbat. Therefore, orthodox Jews honor Shabbat by refraining from 39 categories of activities represented in constructing the Tabernacle.
But equally important… there are also Biblical do’s related to Shabbat. Turning again to the Jewish Virtual Library:
We are commanded to remember (zachor) Shabbat; but remembering means much more than merely not forgetting to observe Shabbat. It also means to remember the significance of Shabbat, both as a commemoration of creation and as a commemoration of our freedom from slavery in Egypt.
In Exodus 20:11, after the Fourth Commandment is first instituted, G-d explains, “because for six days, the L-rd made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and on the seventh day, he rested; therefore, the L-rd blessed the Shabbat day and sanctified it.” By resting on the seventh day and sanctifying it, we remember and acknowledge that G-d is the creator of heaven and earth and all living things. We also emulate the divine example, by refraining from work on the seventh day, as G-d did. If G-d’s work can be set aside for a day of rest, how can we believe that our own work is too important to set aside temporarily?
In Deuteronomy 5:15, while Moses reiterates the Ten Commandments, he notes the second thing that we must remember on Shabbat: “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the L-rd, your G-d brought you forth from there with a might hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore the L-rd your G-d commanded you to observe the Shabbat day.”
What does the Exodus have to do with resting on the seventh day? It’s all about freedom. As I said before, in ancient times, leisure was confined to certain classes; slaves did not get days off. Thus, by resting on the Shabbat, we are reminded that we are free. But in a more general sense, Shabbat frees us from our weekday concerns, from our deadlines and schedules and commitments. During the week, we are slaves to our jobs, to our creditors, to our need to provide for ourselves; on Shabbat, we are freed from these concerns, much as our ancestors were freed from slavery in Egypt.
…To those who observe Shabbat, it is a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week, a time when we can set aside all of our weekday concerns and devote ourselves to higher pursuits.
In Jewish literature, poetry and music, Shabbat is described as a bride or queen, as in the popular Shabbat hymn Lecha Dodi. It is said “more than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.”
From Lauren Crews’ post:
…Many use this verse to say God rested as in relaxed, but in Hebrew, it says he observed the vast array of his creation and ceased in creating. He completed his creative work, so he paused to admire it, declared it good, and set the day apart as holy….
So Shabbat is a “ceasing” from our creative or burdensome labors so we can actively admire God’s!
Given all we’ve learned:
What’s the implication for Christians today–for followers of Yeshua?
I’ve been asking the Holy Spirit the same question. There are a dozen different perspectives on this. In next week’s post, I’ll give you the one I’ve arrived at as I’ve sought the Lord.
A sincere thank you for the time and attention you’ve devoted to this post! I’m wrapping up this series on Divine Appointments: Insights from God’s Calendar, which focused on the Feasts of the Lord and other insights from God’s Calendar. Nothing in the Bible is old news! Here’s an invitation to a free eBook related to the series:
Here is the full list of posts, if you’d like to check them out. I’ve bolded and put asterisks on a couple that I think are critical reading right now!