The Fourth Commandment: Enjoying God’s Gift of Rest
By Dr. C. John Collins Professor of Old Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner that is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. EXODUS 20:8-11 (ESV)
I come from a basically secular upbringing, and I was converted in a “broadly evangelical” setting. All of this means that I had no grasp of the Christian Sabbath – in fact, I really had no idea of just what a Christian should think of God’s moral demands in general. What is this “freedom from the law” that the New Testament is supposed to bring us?
Well, I finally got it sorted out that God expects us to show our love and thanks to Him by aiming to obey His will. And, about 20 years ago, I heard a convincing argument that showed me that the fourth command- ment applies to me just as well as the other nine do; so I accepted it, and tried to put it into practice: but I can’t say I really loved it.
I got a different perspective when Covenant Seminary was courting me to come here and teach. I couldn’t sell my house in Spokane until I had put in a lawn and sprinkler system; and I couldn’t do that until I had taken care of drainage for the rainwater – a special problem in Spokane, because of erosion. This meant I had to put in “French drains” – the perforated drainpipe had to go underground about three feet. The last of these drains was to be 30 feet long, and I had to make it with my own hands: dig the trench, lay down the gypsum to break up the clay, haul the river-run gravel from half a mile away, and put it in the ditch, lay the pipe, make an inlet that wouldn’t clog, and cover the whole thing with the dirt I had dug out. I used a week of vacation to do this, Monday through Saturday – and when Sunday came around, boy was I glad that I wasn’t allowed to work that day!
I came to feel something of what it was like to be a farmer in ancient Israel – to work the dirt, and to enjoy a day of rest, and to appreciate going to church and praising God, without worrying about chores in the afternoon. My conviction about the rightness of the Christian Sabbath was a good one – but now I could add to it the element of pleasure. The way the Ten Commandments are set out shows us that God wants us to take pleasure in learning to do His will. The preface reminds us that we start with God’s saving grace – “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”
(Exod. 20:1). The commandments were never given as a list of what you have to do to make God love you – nor even a list of what you have to be in order to measure up as a believer. Rather, they describe the kind of character that God aims to produce in those who love Him; and as we obey them, He’s at work changing us. And they’re a gift: they come from the same God who saved His people, and express exactly the same love for us as His works of salvation. God has honored us by giving us these requirements.
So yes, we can say that we’ve got to keep them, because they come from God; but that’s not what I want you to think about right now: it’s not just that you’ve got to keep them, it’s also that you get to keep them. It’s a privilege. In order for us to think this way about the fourth commandment, we need to consider briefly three points. First, what is the “rest” that this commandment requires? Second, what is the expected character of the Sabbath rest? And third, why is this arrangement so delightful?
What Is the “Rest” That This Commandment Requires?
What exactly does it mean to “rest” on the Sabbath day? There are two kinds of rest that the LORD expects from His people: for the first, consider Exodus 23:12: “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.” We might call this rest and recuperation for our natural life; as Exodus 31:17 tells us, the Sabbath “is a sign forever between [the LORD] and the people of Israel, that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.” Just as God rested after His workweek, so God’s people are to rest on their Sabbath.
So the first kind of rest is physical rest. The other kind is what we might call spiritual rest. Leviticus 23:3 says, “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwelling places.” Besides the gladness that comes from the relief of the body, comes the gladness of public, sacramental worship (which is what a “holy convocation” is, see Isaiah 1:13), entering His gates with thanksgiving (Psalm 100:4).
The Character of the Sabbath Rest
What is the character of the Sabbath rest that God has required? By this I mean, not just what were they to do, but how were they to go about it, and what was the day supposed to be like? Again, I can find two aspects that I want you to think about. Look at Genesis 2:1-3, which is the model for man’s Sabbath:
1Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2And on the seventh day God fin- ished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
If someone asks you “What happened?” in a bit of Old Testament narrative, the first thing you should do is look for the verbs in the narrative tense; in this passage, “heavens and the earth were finished… God fin- ished his work… [God] rested, blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” Well then, what happened? Nothing! Nothing, that is, but inactivity, and enjoyment of the world that God made. Oh, blessed day of relaxation from ordinary toils!
So the first aspect of the day is relaxation from ordinary toils. The second aspect comes out in Exodus 34:21: “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.” Yes, even in plowing time and harvest, when there’s so much to do, and the weather cuts you no slack with its deadlines. And why? Because God’s people need to learn to trust Him in all things, so that they don’t fall prey to anxiety and fear – and the way to conquer anxiety includes doing the things we would do if we trusted as we should. So the day is supposed to be one that brings us freedom from anxiety, worry, and fear.
Why Is This Arrangement So Delightful?
Why does it go beyond the power of human tongue to tell how great is this gift of God? Think for a second about the Ten Commandments – given to a people that had just been delivered from oppressive slavery in pagan Egypt. “In Egypt you were surrounded by gods everywhere you turned; but now there’s just one, the maker of heaven and earth. There you couldn’t help but see carved images that degraded the nature of God and man; but now you get to worship the true God according to the way He really is. There they made you work all the time, and called you lazy if you wanted time off to rest or worship; but now you get to follow the rhythm of work and rest that God built into the world when He made it. There, if you wanted to get ahead, you had to reject your father and mother, and follow Egyptian ways; but now you can see what a glorious thing it is for covenantal parents and children to walk with God together.” And so on.
Just think what it would be like if everyone around you really embraced these commands: you’d never have any occasion to fear another, or to be jealous or envious. You’d know what it was like to walk hand-in-hand with brothers and sisters in the faith, and to help one another to heaven. And just think of the fourth com- mandment in particular: it tells you to build rest and worship right into your very life – and it also requires you to respect the rest and worship of others. Now, working the ground was a good thing for our first parents; but by their fall they polluted it, and brought in painful toil. (And it’s the same for us, who work with com- puters instead of hoes and rakes.) Work has been polluted with worry and frustration – and God, in His love, wants us to be able to work hard without being worn down by worry.
And what of public worship – when the maker of the universe invites His redeemed people into His pres- ence, not to grovel there, but to receive His love, and His word of grace, and His very presence, the things that our souls yearn for – God has given it to us out of His overflowing goodness. If we had any sense at all we’d be breaking down the doors of the church, and carrying the ministers there straight out of their beds, so we could worship. I suppose it shows you how foolish we are that we have to be commanded to do this – but it also shows you how devoted our God is to loving us, that he stoops to our foolishness.
I know that there’s so much more to say about the Sabbath – the questions of casuistry and whatnot. All of these matter a great deal, mind you: but don’t let your thoughts of the day get so bogged down that you miss the main point of delight.
Walter Hooper observed C.S. Lewis up close and wrote this about him: “Lewis really wanted and liked the happiness which the Divine Son died to give all men.” He tells us that Lewis wrote in a letter to his brother, “I begin to suspect that the world is divided not only into the happy and the unhappy, but into those who like happiness and those who, odd as it seems, really don’t.”1
My brothers and sisters, the Son of God shed His blood so that you and I could receive the only genuine happiness there is, the kind that He himself gives. And He’s given us His commandments so that we can live out that happiness, even now, before we are perfect.
And He’s given us a gift as well: a special day for renewing our happiness and enjoyment. I thank God that He’s done so much to change my own attitudes; that, in some little way, I can begin to see this day for the gift that it is, as the Queen of the week. May God bless us with great delight in His holy and lovely will.
1. From Walter Hooper’s introduction to C.S. Lewis, The Weight of glory (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996, page13).
This article originally appeared in Covenant magazine, the quarterly magazine of Covenant Theological Seminary. Reprint permission is available upon request by e-mailing email@example.com.
© 2003 Covenant Theological Seminary.