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At first glance, the Sabbath command would seem to be the last place to look for a Biblical understanding of work. After all, the day is about resting or ceasing from labors (the word sabbath is derived from the Hebrew word shabat—“to cease”). Yet, it is often the case that by studying the opposite of a thing we can come to a clearer and deeper understanding of the thing itself. The command not to commit adultery has much to teach us about the covenant of marriage. Likewise, the command not to murder indicates the high value God places on human life. In the same way, the Biblical understanding of work comes into bold relief when examined in the light of the Biblical command to rest—that is, to keep the Sabbath.
The core of Sabbath observance is found in the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 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 cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates” (Ex. 20:8–10).
The opening verse commands us to remember and hallow the Sabbath day. The Sabbath is to be different—set apart—from the other days of the week. It is to be “remembered,” indicating that the day was observed even before the giving of the commandments on Mount Sinai (Ex. 16:22–30).
Verse 9 tells us, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.” Theologians have debated whether these words are to be taken as an imperative (a command) or as an indicative (a statement of fact). Does verse 9 positively command us to work six days of each week as a counter-balance to the command to rest on the seventh day? John Calvin disagreed with this understanding of the verse: “This must not be interpreted to mean that God commands us to work. Truly we are already born to that end.” For Calvin, work was a creational given for mankind: It had its beginning in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Work was basic to what it was to be a human being created in God’s image. The covenant people of God did not need to be reminded that they had to work; rather, what was needed was a respite from work in order to focus on the formal worship of God. But even if we agree with Calvin that this verse is not an imperative, as a statement of fact it still carries normative weight. God’s declared expectation is that we ordinarily will work six days out of every week at the “everyday” tasks we have been called to perform.
The fourth commandment, as it is recorded in Exodus, is closely tied to the first two chapters of Genesis. The six/one weekly pattern is portrayed as a copy of the Creation week. Genesis 2:2–3 reads: “And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all the work which God had created and made.” Many literary echoes of this passage appear when we come to the Sabbath commandment in Exodus 20:11: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (cf. Ex. 31:17). The relationship between the fourth commandment and the first chapters of the Pentateuch could hardly be more apparent.
The Genesis passage uses the striking Hebrew term melakah (a generic term for work) to describe God’s creational activities. When, in the fourth commandment, we are told “you shall do no work [melakah],” the close relationship between our work and God’s work is confirmed.
Of course, the Sabbath is not to be a day of total inactivity. Although God rested from His works of creation, He is still working to preserve and govern all of creation (John 5:17). We, too, have work to do on the Sabbath, but it is of a different sort than what we do on the other days of the week.
There is another Hebrew term for work in Exodus 20: abad (rendered “labor” in the New King James Version.) In Genesis 2:15 we read, “Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend [abad] and keep it” (cf. Gen. 2:5). The Hebrew verb abad is a rich word, carrying the three-fold connotation of work, service, and worship. Thus, we see that the human race is called to deliberately interact with—work, till, cultivate—the earth while at the same time lovingly serving the divine Master with undivided devotion and worshiping man’s Maker.
Work in Genesis 2 points to the intimate relationship we have with earth/soil. Adam was taken from the ground (“ground” is from the Hebrew adamah, Gen. 2:9) so that he in turn could work the soil and bring out the potential invested within. Even after the fall of Adam in Genesis 3, work continues, albeit fraught with toil, sweat, and thorns (Gen. 3:23; 4:2). Mankind’s calling to work is never rescinded; in fact, we are redeemed, in part, in order that we can be restored to our place of working joyfully to God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31; Eph. 2:10). The appearance of melakah and abad in the fourth commandment invites us to ponder the opening chapters of Genesis in order to meditate on God’s work in Creation and our calling to work the earth. It is against this rich background that we are called to rest from our labors.
The Sabbath marks a basic chronological division in the life of the covenant community between work and worship. It is part of recurrent rhythms of life, which, along with the seasons, point to God’s gracious unfolding of history (Gen. 8:22). For six days God’s people are to do all their work, but on the seventh day (the remaining day of the week) they are to cease (rest) from their labors and worship God. In this sacred division of time, there is no sacred/secular distinction. One’s everyday work is the Lord’s work (Col. 3:23), even though there is a differentiation made between it and the formal worship that is to be celebrated on the Sabbath day. But the work/worship distinction is not absolute. “Everyday” work is to be done as an act of worship (with a worshipful attitude) toward God, and formal, Sabbath-day worship involves various kinds of work (prayer, singing, preaching, receiving the sacraments, etc.).
The Sabbath is a holy day to be spent in reflection, preparation, consecration, and refreshment that contribute to our sanctification (Ex. 31:13). It is in this day of resting from our labors that we are made more fit to do the work of the other six days in a holy and honoring manner unto the Lord.