by Bob Wheeler


Jean-Francois Millet: The Gleaners


The Fourth Commandment reads, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8; NKJV).  Interestingly this is the only one of the Ten Commandments that is not repeated in the New Testament, which raises the question, is it really a part of the moral law?  Are Gentiles required to keep the Sabbath?

To answer that question we must examine the purpose and nature of the institution.  The Ten Commandments are given in two different places in the Old Testament, and in each place a different reason for it is given.  The first place is the one just cited, Exodus 20:8-11.  There the reason given is that God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh (cf. Gen. 2:1-3).   Thus the Sabbath is presented as a kind of “creation ordinance” – something that is built into the very nature of things, and intended for all mankind.  It was designed to meet a universal human need.

But then when Moses repeats the Ten Commandments in Deut. 5:12-15 he gives a different reason for the observance of the Sabbath.  He reminds the Israelites that they had been slaves in Egypt, subject to harsh exploitation.  The Exodus was a deliverance from misery and oppression, and the achievement of a long sought rest.  Therefore the Israelites were under a special obligation to observe a weekly day of rest.  Furthermore, it was called “a sign between Me [i.e., God] and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Ex. 31:13).  In other words, the Sabbath was a sign or token of the special covenant relationship that God had with Israel.  Gentiles are not included in this covenant.

At one point Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  In other words, the primary intention was to serve a humanitarian purpose, not to be an unbearable burden.  The idea is to give both man and beast a needed periodic rest.  “Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest, that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female servant and the stranger may be refreshed” (Ex. 23:12).

Christian believers are not under the covenant that God made with Israel, but we are still human beings and have the same basic human needs as all the rest of mankind.  Thus the basic underlying principle remains valid: we need regular, periodic rest from our secular pursuits and labor that we might be physically and spiritually refreshed.

The Sabbath is, in fact, a part of the larger theme in Scripture condemning labor exploitation.  In Deuteronomy 24:14,15 we read “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy.  Each day you shall give him his wages, and not let the sun go down on it, for he is poor and has set his heart on it; lest he cry out against you to the Lord, and it be sin to you.”  And the same theme carries over into the New Testament as well.  “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries are coming upon you! . . . Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth” (Jas. 5:1-6).

As our modern society become more secularized, and imagines itself as having thrown off the shackles of religion, the business community becomes more ruthless and rapacious.  We got rid of our “blue laws” that forbade most businesses to operate on Sundays.  Now most businesses want to operate seven days a week, twelve hours a day or more.  Most business owners seem to think that the only thing that matters in life is making money, and they want to do it “24-7.”  Workers are paid less than a living wage and are required to be available for work any day of the week, including weekends and evenings.  This obviously makes it difficult for them to meet family obligations and religious commitments.   But that does not matter to investors – money is the main thing.

The great prophet of modern laissez-faire capitalism, Adam Smith, tried to argue that in pursuing one’s own self-interest a capitalist is advancing the interests of society at large.  “. . .he is led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention” (Wealth of Nations, IV.II).  Unfortunately it does not always work out that way in real life.  Too often we have sacrificed our souls and the common good on the altar of material gain.

We need regular, periodic physical and mental rest.  But more than that, we need regular time off to put life in its proper perspective.  What is life all about?  What are we trying to accomplish here on earth?  Why do we work in the first place?  In the long run employees are more reliable, trustworthy, highly motivated and productive if the spend time each week in a place of worship contemplating the larger issues of life.

But most of all we need to spend a certain amount of time thinking about God.  As finite human creatures we are all ultimately dependent upon Him, “for it is He who gives you power to get wealth” (Dt. 8:18).  Therefore we ought to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matt. 6:33).  We need to keep our priorities in life straight.

Thus when a company requires its employees to be available for work any day of the week, any time of the day, it shows a complete disregard for the personal well-being.  And regardless of what Adam Smith says, the essence of morality is to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and that means practicing the Golden Rule.  If you would not want to work those kinds of hours for that kind of pay, then you should not make your employees do it either.

When we insist on a seven day business week we are ultimately destroying ourselves – we are weakening the social and moral fabric of the nation.  If we neglect church where will our children develop the moral sense to know that it is wrong to lie, cheat and steal?   And how can the business community thrive and prosper in a dishonest society?  Ultimately we ignore God’s will to our own detriment.