Abraham Joshua Heschel called the Sabbath the “bride of heaven” in his inspiring little book, “The Sabbath.” Heschel offered a necessary respite for me as I was struggling to respond to the devastating critique of one Marxist author who suggested that capitalism would always run out of time and space. The problem with his critique was that I knew he was right.
Kelly, my wife, and I had often discussed our frustration with the non-stop inclination to tear up land with yet another shopping complex while many shopping centers sat empty on dead concrete land. When I look at the continuous drive to develop yet another shopping center, yet another subdivision, yet another giant church building, I sometimes feel sick at what appears to be a total disregard for the wonder of the world around us.
Combine our insatiable need to consume more and more space with our non-stop schedules and the critique about running out of time and space seems accurate. Our inability to slow down makes me think of Randy Stonehill’s indicting song, “Keep Me Running.”
Keep me runnin’ keep me movin’ keep me always on the go
Keep me makin’ sure my footprints never show
Keep me runnin’ keep me movin’ keep me numb from head to toe
Keep me hiding where my past will never go
In the late 1980s, I served at a church where we were running and running and running. We worked seven days a week and didn’t take vacations. We were on a mission to win the world, but within four years our relentless drive resulted in a church that fell apart with a total a 42 divorces.
In 91, Kelly and I walked out of organized church and decided never to return. I went back to school with plans to leave ministry and pursue a life in film-making. But in the midst of my program, the Lord renewed a sense of calling to ministry, and I changed the focus of my studies to relationships and rest. I had a vision to eventually develop a retreat ministry to teach and model a life of rest and relationship.
Jump ahead to the late 90s, and I’m reading Heschel’s book, “The Sabbath.” In this treasure, I began to capture an image of how the Biblical pattern resists our consumptive use of time and space and offers a clearer creational vision of rhythm. Heschel describes the coming of Sabbath this way:
When all work I do is brought to a standstill, then candles are lit. Just as creation began with a word, “Let there be light!” So does the celebration of creation being with the kindling of lights. It is the woman who ushers in the joy and sets up the most exquisite symbol; light, to dominate the atmosphere of the home.
And the world becomes a place of rest. An hour arrives like a guide, and raises our minds above the accustomed thoughts. People assemble to welcome the wonder of the seventh day, while the Sabbath sends out its presence over the fields, into our homes, into our hearts. It is a moment of resurrection of the dormant spirit in our souls. 66
A thought has blown the market places away. There is a song in the wind and joy in the trees. The Sabbath arrives in the world, scattering a song in the silence of the night: eternity utters a day. Where are the words that could compete with such might? 67
Zion is in ruins, Jerusalem lies in dust. All week there is only hope of redemption. But when the Sabbath is entering the world, man is touched by a moment of actual redemption; as if for a moment the spirit of the Messiah moved over the face of the earth. 68
In Heschel’s description of Sabbath I hear a song of God’s grace and love sweeping over all and in all. This picture of beauty, of wonder, of harmony offers a starting place for me to consider a few thoughts on how I’ve begun to understand Sabbath in light of the rhythms of Scripture.
In the movie “August Rush,” we see a glimpse of this harmony imaged as a song that pulses through all creation. This song permeates the world that God has created and the world that man has created. There are several scenes where the song is connecting characters and places together.
In the beginning of the film, we see a young boy conducting a wheat field into a symphony of joy and dance. The same image is repeated later in the city when the same boy begins to conduct the sounds of the city into a song. But his beautiful music suddenly collapses. After a glimpse of harmony, he descends into cacophony of discordant city noises out of harmony.
This makes me think of the experiments in dissonance by John Coltrane in songs like “Sun Ship.” While the music is still connected, it is connected on such an abstracted level that only a few people could honestly say the music is pleasing. Coltrane captures the chaotic energy of the age in his. There may still be a center but we feel as though we are spinning on an carousel that has lost it’s bearings.
Into the midst such chaotic dissonance, the Sabbath speaks God’s word of rest, peace, renewal and refreshment. The harmonic beauty of the Sabbath cannot be fully appreciated outside the context of the 10 Words. And these 10 Words cannot be fully comprehended outside the storied context where they appear. (Note: I’ll be using 10 Words and Law interchangeably in this essay.)
The Blessing of the Law
The 10 Words appear at two places in the Bible: once when Israel has been delivered from the enslavement of Egypt and they are receiving God’s bridal gift of Torah at Mt. Sinai; and later when the children of the wilderness prepare to enter into the Promised Land as a nation of priests.
These two stories rest upon many other preceding stories. The story of Adam and the story of Abraham. In the story of Adam, we come to realize that humanity is under a curse that leads to death and destruction. Yet, we also see a promise that God will break the curse and crush the serpent’s head through the son of Eve, the seed of Adam.
A little later, we encounter the story of Abraham. God calls Abram out from the midst of his people to be blessed and to become a blessing for all peoples. Paul teaches us that Jesus is the seed of promise that comes through Abraham to bless the whole world. He also explains that the Law was given as a guard and as a tutor for Israel until the fullness of this blessing had come.
As we read back through Jesus, we see how the blessing to Abraham and the whole history of the children of Israel are leading to Jesus: the true seed who fulfills the promise to break the curse and crush the serpent’s head. According to Paul, through Jesus’ victory in the cross we are no longer “under the Law.” But if we take a moment and think through the story of the Law from a Hebrew perspective, we might see a different light.
Listen to the promise to Abraham in a translation by Jewish scholar Everett Fox.
Yhwh said to Avram:
from your land,
from your kindred,
from your father’s house,
to the land that I will let you see.
2 I will make a great nation of you
and will give-you-blessing
and will make your name great.
Be a blessing!
3 I will bless those who bless you,
he who curses you, I will damn.
All the clans of the soil will find blessing through you! (Gen 12:1-3)
The promise is rooted in this world. It is a blessing to the people and to the soil on which they live. “All the clans of the soil will find blessing through Avram.”
Hundreds of years later, Moses prepares the children of the wilderness to enter into the land God promised by preaching a series of sermons that recount the Law of God while pronouncing the blessings of keeping the Law and the curses of forsaking the Law.
Even in these promises a provision is made for failure. A whole sacrificial system is in place to mediate their relationship with God. The Law is not a mediator of that relationship. Rather, the Law is the wisdom of God that teaches them how to live and thrive in the land. Through the Law, all nations will fear Israel and come to realize their great wisdom and understanding.
The Law as Wisdom to Love
In the middle of Moses’ discussion about meditating and obeying the Law, he focuses on the pivotal command to love God.
4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. (Deut 6:4-5)
Deuteronomy makes a connection between fear of God and love of God related to observing the Law through thought and action. The Law teaches Israel how to love God and love one another. This deserves more development at another time by looking at Jesus discussion on love and the commandments in the Gospels, particularly in John. But let’s return to Moses for the moment.
The Law as Glory
In Deuteronomy 4:1, Moses comes to a place in his sermon where he focuses on the blessings of the Law. He says,
“Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I teach you to observe, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord God of your fathers is giving you.”
Written on Stone
For now, I just want to focus on the words “statutes” and “judgments.” The word for statues is khuqqim, and it is related to the idea of inscribing or carving. Moses is talking. Think about his experience in relation to the 10 Words. God inscribed the stone tablets with the 10 Words. The glory of this encounter was so great that it changed Moses image into glory.
Written on Hearts
According to Paul, the only glory in the Bible that surpasses this glory is when God inscribed the Word upon Flesh in the person of Jesus. In Jesus the 10 Words are enfleshed, and by His Spirit the Law will be written on the hearts of His people. Paul says this is an even greater glory (See 2 Cor 2:3).
This light in turn helps us to understand the difference between being “under the Law” and “resting in the Law.” If Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law, I might suggest that the idea of the Law being written on our hearts expresses the relationship we now enjoy with Jesus. His Spirit is transforming and leading us from glory to glory in Christ.
The Law as Wisdom to Rule
The other Hebrew word used for “judgments” is mishpatim. This word has to do with the ability to judge. James Jordan understands wisdom as the ability to judge between good and evil. We see Solomon practicing wisdom in judging between two prostitutes with similar stories. He speaks and by the power of his word, reveals the liar (thus judging between good and evil).
This power to judge is directly tied to ruling. If we cannot judge, we will be like the simpleton who cannot distinguish between the house of lady wisdom whose house leads to life (Proverbs 4, 8 and 9) and the foolish woman whose house leads to death (Proverbs 4, 5, and 7).
In verse 5-6, we see a connection between the giving of the 10 Words and wisdom and understanding. Moses says,
5 “Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. 6 Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’
Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, observance of the Law (which is both meditation and action) is linked to wisdom, understanding, loving God, fearing God, ruling, life, and many blessings in the land.
Listen to what Moses says about the requirements for future kings in relation to the Law:
18 “Also it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this Law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this Law and these statutes, 20 that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren, that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right hand or to the left, and that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children in the midst of Israel. Deut. 17:18-20
The Law provides wisdom on many levels: personal, social, and cosmic. The king (and all Israel) will be blessed personally by meditating upon the Law. But he will also gain wisdom for teaching individual clans as well as the whole nation how to live at peace with God and one another. But the impact is even more far-reaching because as the king meditates and responds his actions in psalms and prophecies will impact ideas, movements, and peoples that will live long after the king.
Law as Love and Wisdom
So I would suggest that the Law generally and the 10 Words specifically are seeds of wisdom. As Israel meditates upon and walks according to them, the seeds grow up into songs or psalms, into wisdom literature, into the great reigns of David and Solomon, in the words of the prophets, and finally into the Word made Flesh: Jesus Christ.
Once Jesus comes we are not “under the Law,” but we live and move and have our being the Law made Flesh. In this relationship, we can meditate upon the word of God and learn wisdom and understanding for ruling in our personal lives, our families, our jobs, our communities and our world.
The heart of this wisdom is love. This love is embodied in the ways I treat other people, in the words I speak, in the person I become, in the families I live, in the businesses I start, in the buildings I build, in the world I create.
Before focusing on the Sabbath, let me list a few highlights about the Law:
The Ten Words do not justify or sanctify. But reveal how to love God and man in seed form.
Because of Jesus, I am not under the Law. Rather, I am in relation with the Word (the embodied Law) by Holy Spirit. So all my meditations, all my actions with the 10 Words are rooted in relationship.
There can be universal norms and personal applications of the 10 Words at the same time.
The Spirit develops these seeds in my life into fruit.
The whole New Testament reveals how the seeds by the Spirit can grow up into wisdom for all types of relationships and situations.
The 10 Words operate on multiple levels. Some broad categories might include: personal, social, and cosmic. Personal (inward and outward implications); Social (examples include relationship within and between family, friends, churches, organizations, communities, and nations), Cosmic (relationships within and between worlds, systems, and epochs)
Sabbath Teaches Wisdom
12 ‘ Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. 15 And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. Deut. 5:12-15
While this passage offers much worth reflection upon, I will limit myself to three observations:
Sabbath is about both resting and remembering.
Sabbath is connected to the beginning and end of all things.
Sabbath observance moves outward from person to community to strangers.
Sabbath teaches us how to delight in creation
God creates for six days, and then it is finished. At the completion of His work, He looks at what He has created and judges that it is “very good!” Now He spends time enjoying the space He has created. When the 10 Words are given to the children of Israel, He invites them into His pattern of rest and remembering.
In the Exodus account, we see that command is a patterning or remembering of the creation story. The children of Israel look back and rejoice just as God looked back and rejoiced. Just as He declares, “Very Good!” So they join in praising the work of His hands as “Very Good!”
On a smaller scale, they can also look back and praise the work of their hands as “Very Good!” For six days we labor, but on the Sabbath we offer a two-fold thanksgiving, one to God for His creation, and another to God for His blessing upon the work of our hands.
By paralleling Israel’s six days of work with God’s six days of work, we see a glimpse into man as image of God. God creates a world of wonders. Man also create everything from skyscrapers to smartphones to socks.
In the Deuteronomy Sabbath command, Israel is reminded that God redeem them from slavery. We normally call this the redemption story.
The creation story and the redemption story are two central stories that weave through every other story in the Bible. When Israel takes a day to rest, they remember. Not simply in thought but in word, in sermon, in ritual. They rehearse the story of God’s creating and redeeming action again and again. The story enters their hands, their feet, their mind, their whole body, their whole body.
God’s redeeming action
These two stories or two songs that overlap, contrast and resolve again and again in the text. In the interplay between the two stories, I see wisdom about understanding more about the nature of our creation. God created a wonderful world and called it, “Very Good!” In His mercy and grace, he recreates this world spoiled by evil.
Man’s redeeming action
Humans create but their creation is also ‘’subject to deterioration and even extinction but that should never stop us from creating. We rejoice in the gift God has given us, and we offer it back to Him in worship. Though it crumble and fail, we learn from His pattern of making all things new.
There are many new creation stories in Scripture. After the flood, we see a new creation story. The call of Abraham is a new creation story. The birth of Isaac is a new creation story. And on and on and on.
The focal new creation story will be the story of a family who became a enslaved, losing their name and status and wealth. At the edge of extinction, God calls them out of Egypt and re-creates them. He gives them a name, a land, and a Law. By His grace, they become a great and might people. And yet, this nation rebels against the Law, is cast out of the land, loses their and their identity.
From the place of darkness and exile, God calls them yet again. He re-creates them. So how might I understand Sabbath in light of this story? It is a day of rest and re-creation (recreation). In celebrating the creative work of God, I am being recreated myself.
As a reminder, on Sabbath I am reminded of two stories: creation and re-creation. If I penetrate the story of creation, it becomes obvious that man is created as small “c” creator. So how might the Spirit of God teach me to rest and remember, celebrating the stories of God and man’s creative and re-creative works?
Human creativity should be celebrated in my life, my family, and my business. I should take time to rest and remember the great blessing of those in my world.
Creation is messy. Right after God says “Very Good” and enjoys Sabbath, He encounters Adam’s sin and rebellion. On Sabbath, I pause and rejoice and celebrate every type of creation (person, family, art, business, idea) even though I know it is messy and may not turn out how I expect.
Everything I/we create is subject to deterioration and extinction. I savor and rejoice in it, giving God glory, and yet I do not hide from the fact that it will falter and fade. When I cook a meal for others, they can rest and enjoy the fruit of the meal, but there is still a mess to clean up.
Discard and destroyed creations can be re-created. Just because a person, a place, a business or even an idea has been cast aside, does not mean that it is worthless. It can be called back into being. It can become a new creation.
Sabbath is a marker in time, reminding me that matter matters. People and things and nations and ideas all matter. I rejoice in them, yet remain ever aware of the challenges. This makes me think of Paul’s stunning passage in Roman’s eight when creation groans, humans groan and the Holy Spirit groans. In the midst of suffering, we groan for the glory that is to come (Romans 8:18-30).
Sabbath teaches us to celebrate in the middle of the struggle
Sabbath stretches from beginning to the end of all things. While Sabbath appears at the consummation of creation week, it points toward the consummation of new creation in Christ Jesus.
Even as we remember the wonder of God’s created world, we strain forward to the glory in His created that is still to come. This makes me think of an idea from Abraham Joshua Heschel. He says,
Judaism tries to foster a vision of life as a pilgrimage to the seventh day; the longing for the Sabbath all days of the week which is a form of the longing for the eternal Sabbath all the days of our lives.
As God’s people, we live from Sabbath to Sabbath. In the midst of this longing, Sabbath celebration reminds me of God’s absolute faithfulness to His word and His promise. Deuteronomy is filled with promises connected with entering the land. In Joshua 21:43-45, we see the land of promise fulfilled:
43 So the Lord gave to Israel all the land of which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they took possession of it and dwelt in it. 44 The Lord gave them rest all around, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers. And not a man of all their enemies stood against them; the Lord delivered all their enemies into their hand. 45 Not a word failed of any good thing which the Lord had spoken to the house of Israel. All came to pass.
The writer of Hebrews teaches me that while Joshua did lead the people into fulfillment of God’s promised land, there was still a land of promise to come.
8 For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day. 9 There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. 10 For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. (4:8-10)
In Joshua, we see the completion of one story. This is the story of God’s promises concerning possessing the land of Canaan. God completely fulfills the promises made to the children of Israel as they are entering the land of Canaan. But the writer of Hebrews reveals that the land conquest story is middled within a greater story that has to do with a land of promise that extends beyond Canaan. This great story starts much earlier than the promise to Joshua. It can be traced through Abraham back to Adam. This land of promise is the land lost to serpent. Joshua did not possess that land. Only Jesus could lead that conquest.
So the faithfulness of God operates in and through multiple stories that extend throughout Scripture and out from Scripture to all of history. In this midst of all these stories, Sabbath reminds us of God’s constant faithfulness. And according to the rhythm established in Deuteronomy, God calls us to pause “in the middle” and celebration consummation while we still wait to truly rest from our work.
At the end of creation week, God looked at His work and declared, “Very Good” and rested. He commanded Israel to do the same. They did it week after week after week while they were securing the land. In other words, long before they knew the rest of looking back upon completion, they begin to live in the reality of completion and celebrate it. They became a people who could celebrate Sabbath mid-week because they trusted the promise of God: His word is faithful.
Now I would suggest to all of us, that Jesus comes mid-week. He lives, dies, and declares, “It is finished.” Now we are invited to trust in His faithfulness and on the basis of His faithful promise can Sabbath. We can rest and remember our redemption that both came already and is still to come. In the middle of our darkness and suffering, we can still celebrate Sabbath, rejoicing in completion for all is “Yes” and “Amen” in Jesus.
Can I apply wisdom from this idea of rest to other spheres of life?
In business, there may be times to pause mid-week and celebrate. Maybe I extend trust in the people working and express confidence and encouragement before I see the finish.
Even projects in companies and with people who are unbelievers, even these projects are in the hands of a faithful God. Our habit of remembering work well-done and rejoicing in one another, may very well provide the energy that will help our team go on to complete the job.
We can look at the people around us and celebrate God’s faithful work even though we are beholding unfinished works. In the midst of their suffering, Paul can exhort the Philippians that he is “confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Ph 1:6). He can encourage the Corinthians that they are his letters of commendation even when they seem to be opposed to him. He is confident of God’s faithfulness (2 Cor 3:2).
Based on this idea of the mid-week, I might suggest that Sabbath can often be a celebration in the midst of transition between days. In other words, during the night of faith, I must not fret but rest and remember God’s faithfulness.
Sabbath teaches me hospitality and peacemaking
Sabbath observance begins with me but extends out to my son, daughter, male servant, female servant, ox, donkey, cattle, and stranger who is within my gates. In this list, I see a commanded observance that ripples out from my life to the lives of humans and animals in my care to the stranger who comes to me for refuge.
In light of Jesus’ proclamation that He is “Lord of the Sabbath,” I come to realize that abiding in Christ, I am in abiding in Sabbath. The peace and renewal and hope of harmony and healing extends through me to all those within my sphere. In light of Sabbath, I wonder if Paul’s description of Christ’s redeeming work might resonate in a fresh way?
7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace 8 which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, 9 having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, 10 that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him. (Eph 1:7-10)
Just as sin rippled across creation through Adam’s transgression, grace ripples through all creation in the second Adam’s faithfulness. I bear that reconciliation in me and it flows out from me. I would suggest that this last understanding of Sabbath might offer ideas about a vision hospitality that operates on a personal, social and cosmic level.
This provides as least one place possibility for connecting Isaiah’s vision of responsibility to the oppressed, the poor and the needy. Following the pattern in the first two applications, we might begin to list the ways Sabbath rest extends out from us to all those within our world.
Applying this command, may challenge me to open my life and my doors and my heart to people within my family, my church, my business and my community. It may give us a picture of how nations might extend grace and blessing to other nations.
A Final Picture of Sabbath Hope
As I contemplate the way in which Sabbath harmony connects me to all those within my life and outward to those beyond me, I see the beauty of God’s grand harmony resonating in me and in all his creation. This brings to mind one of my all time favorite movie scenes. In “The Fisher King,” a poor homeless man has fallen for a simple girl he passes each day.
In one scene, he see her passing through Grand Central Station. As she enters the scene, everything changes. The world becomes a symphony and everyone is engaged is a dance of love. When she passes out of sight, the world returns to its busy, disconnected pace.
I would suggest that the personal discipline of Sabbath observance through times of rest and remembering, opens our eyes to wonders and connections we never imagined. Soon like the homeless lover, we see the lover of our souls pass by in the most unusual places. And whenever he passes, the harmony of His love touches and turns everything into a dance of love.
Here are some writings that have helped me over the years as I’ve reflected on Sabbath.
Berry, Wendell. A Timbered Choir. City: Counterpoint Press, 1999.
Dawn, Marva. Keeping the Sabbath Wholly. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1989.
Douma, J. et.al. The Ten Commandments. Phillipsburg: P&R Pub, 1996.
Edwards, Tilden. Sabbath Time. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1992.
Frame, John. The Doctrine of the Christian Life. Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2008.
Heschel, Abraham and Ilya Schor. The Sabbath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.
Jordan, James. Through New Eyes. City: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2000.