For centuries religionists have tried to divorce the fourth commandment from the other nine in the Decalogue, contending that the Sabbath is mere ritual. They haven't understood the moral and ethical reasons why God devised it in the first place.
In any given weekend in the United States, the freeways from the cities to the countryside will be clogged with cars and campers. The cities pour forth their teeming masses, yearning to breathe free — and cleaner — air. Though people have just gotten off work, they are, ironically, frantically working in order to get away from work! Some families wryly proclaim that instead of fighting bumper-to-bumper traffic in a national park they will stay home and rest during their weekend vacation. The weekend throngs are enslaved to the world of work. They may have "leisure," but they don't use it leisurely: the frantic weekend hardly disturbs the rhythm of the workweek. Which is where we broach the question of the fourth commandment. "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.... in it thou shalt not do any work" (Ex. 20:8-9). Of all the Ten Commandments, it is the one which has come under the most fire. Theologians delicately excise it from our religious consciousness by asserting that the Sabbath was a specific institution given to the ancient Jews in order to keep them, as God's nation, symbolically separate. In this way of looking at it, the Sabbath has nothing intrinsically to do with one's relationship to God or man; it is merely a hangover from bygone days, a sort of spiritual Edsel, God's own version of planned obsolescence. Most people see the eminent logic of the commandments against murder, stealing and lying. Some nonreligious people even believe that coveting and adultery are wrong. And most religious people see the logic of the commandments about worshiping the one true God, not idols, and not taking His name in vain. But the Sabbath gets left out. It is not kept because most people — including theologians — don't see the logic behind it. They don't see how keeping a period of time "holy" could possibly be important to God.
The Beat of a Different Drum
But the Sabbath is a means by which God protects His investment in human beings. If God had made the Sabbath only because we need the weekly rest (and, of course, we do), He wouldn't have made a specific period of time holy. "Any ol' time" would do. The Sabbath is justified because it protects and enhances man's relationship to God. It exists to keep us in a proper frame of mind. We live in a grubby, material world of everyday things. We only see material things. There is, as we face each day, a built-in bias towards materialism. It isn't hard at all to avoid anything spiritual. And unless we take some time to consider, to think upon a realm other than the material, most of us might plod through our lives oblivious to the major facts of the universe. There is no reason for a Sabbath — a day of rest to consider God and His creation — without a God. We need time to think about that God — because, even though God really exists, the natural tendency is to go through life as if He didn't exist. Most men, wrote Thoreau, live lives of "quiet desperation," like so many bees in a hive, squandering their lives in a furious race to get to the end, never considering why they are alive in the first place. The Sabbath marches to the beat of a different drum. Or, more properly, strolls. It presents us with an opportunity' to consider the whys of life, not just the hows. It represents a chance to get one's head on straight; a time to achieve a philosophical orientation in life; to know where one should aim in life.
The Eternal Treadmill
Our routinized, modern "work" gives us a strong push to materialism, and subtly tells us that the only reality is grubby, mundane, earthly and perceptible. If it completely inundates our life, it cuts us off from God. Paul condemned ancient thinkers who did not like to keep God in their knowledge (Rom. 1:28), and David noted that it is the evil who say in their hearts that God doesn't see them (Ps. 10:11) — in other words, that God doesn't really exist. We can often get so bound up in our work — or our various recreational activities that we do in order to rest up for more work — that we forget what work is all about in the first place. An individual can spend his life in a corporate treadmill, if he's an ambitious type, a contestant in what is properly called a "rat race," and never ask himself why he's doing it. It is only as we stand off, ponder the universe and our existence, consider God, His laws and His creation, and place ourselves consciously in the context of the whole universe, that we can be fully human. That is one way in which the Sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:27). It is not a binding force to enclose us in even more mundaneness, but a liberating force for freeing our minds and bodies from ordinary humdrum existence. In our daily lives, we are often barely conscious of what we do. We get up, we eat breakfast, we go to work, we get on with the household chores, we do our work, we eat lunch, we do our work, we continue the same things, often by rote. In one way of looking at it, we might as well be robots, preprogrammed to a certain way of doing things. The part of us that is uniquely human, our intellectual consciousness, may not even come into play. Even if we work "with our brains," we still may never be self-conscious in the sense of acutely realizing our unique position in the universe — in the whole of God's creation. The Sabbath gives us time to consider ourselves in relation to the around.
Man Who Is Born to Work
A rather jaded French writer expressed a modern attitude toward life: "Work is less boring than pleasure." He was noting the desperation of life without God: without work, such a life would be boring, meaningless and absurd. That is the problem with the general weekend frenzy in modern Western society. Individuals find no meaning or variety in their work so they seek it in various pleasures and pursuits. But meaning, a solid basis for one's life which ties all of its diverse elements together, cannot be found solely in physical things. Again, the Sabbath — an observed Sabbath — is needed to remind us of this fact. The same meaninglessness is also the problem with the traditional ersatz sabbath that most of Christendom has produced, the religious observance of Sunday. The authority for worshiping on Sunday derives from tradition and history, not the Scriptures. (Some scrupulously celebrate Sunday as a commemoration of the resurrection, but this neither Christ nor the apostles anywhere commanded. We are, however, enjoined to observe the annual anniversary of His sacrificial death for our sins. Read our free booklet How often should we partake of THE LORD'S SUPPER?) Anything deriving its authority mainly from tradition and history is sufficiently fuzzy, and allows for enough spiritual "fudging" so that the net effect of Sunday observance is simply to make it another day of the week, one on which to play golf or mow one's lawn. The Sabbath, unlike Sunday, is firm; the source of its authority clear. The Greeks had a myth about Sisyphus who was condemned to continually roll a large stone up a hill, the stone always rolling back down the hill just as he was about to get it to the top. Modern man, without the genuine Sabbath, is like that: continually working, immersed in material life, but never quite attaining his goal of lasting happiness because material things are temporary. The Sabbath is classless. Everyone — no matter what he does the other six days of the week — has basically the same leisure time for reflection and contemplation as the richest man of property. For one seventh of the week, everyone is commanded to take leisure time necessary to think things over. The Sabbath confers upon its keepers a "superfluity" of time: time, the most precious resource of man, is being used for something other than material, utilitarian functions — a luxury that is normally only within the province of the rich. It is no accident that totalitarian governments make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for their subjects to keep the Sabbath. Those governments recognize no other reality than the material, and no higher authority than themselves. They claim, in effect, the prerogatives of God. They dare not let any subject recognize the existence of God by keeping the day which marks Him as Creator. Totalitarian governments constitute the extreme form of a world of "total work." Everyone under their control is a cog in the materialist wheel, reduced to a mere function, subordinated for the good of a material commonweal. But the Sabbath is an institution which shows that man is God's creation, made by Him for a purpose. A totalitarian government can tolerate no space of time which isn't subordinated to the work of serving the state.
The Celebration of the Universe
The Sabbath is, in effect, a celebration of the end of God's work and the prospect of — man's becoming God, just the same way that God celebrated His accomplished work by resting on the seventh day when He had completed the basic creation of the physical universe and physical life on earth. The atheist existentialist philosophers have been content to tell us that human life is absurd, that all of man's life is merely a preparation for death. And, given the materialistic premises of these writers, life is absurd. But God intends to make man into His image spiritually as He has already made him in His image physically. The weekly rest on the seventh day is a "celebration" of this fact. Thus the Sabbath commandment embodies a principle as profoundly moral as any other of the Ten Commandments — it affects the deepest part of our being, what we believe about the origin and purpose of the universe in our heart of hearts. It is, in a sense, the commandment which God gave to keep us right internally, to keep our priorities and perspectives right in the way we look at reality. God intends for us to become like Him. And to do that, we need the "leisure time" which the Sabbath provides to think about our lives — or to "examine ourselves," as the apostle Paul put it. God made the Sabbath to give us just such an opportunity.