Naked in the Universe

Facebook friends recently showered me with birthday greetings.  Many students from my past school years sent additional messages—things they recollected from my instruction.  A few that stood out were the remembrances of my antipathy for the word vacation. “You are not to go on ‘vacation!’  These days off from school are a holiday!  Don’t forget the Americans who died (Memorial Day), sacrificed (Veteran’s Day), served (President’s Day), worked (Labor Day), started (Thanksgiving), and motivated (Martin Luther King Jr. Day) our country!”  Included in my harangue would be a plea to remember Sabbath—to recall why we work and Who gave us the privilege.

The fourth commandment is the longest of all, the only one of the ten not repeated in the Second Testament.[1] It is a positive command; a release from, not subservient to time.  For those who would denigrate the First Testament as arcane, an awful imposition on people, God’s Word was a halogen headlight in the darkness of the Ancient Near Eastern world.  Unlike any other nation, Israel treated people as people, not property.  Outsiders and strangers were incorporated in the weekly celebration.  Even animals were included.[2] Leviticus 23:1-3 sets precedent and principle for keeping The Sabbath for both remembrance and rest.

Israel held a weekly convention.[3] Sabbath was for commemoration.[4] Holidays had a purpose.  Holidays created memories, reminded people of their place, established repetition, formed memorials, and produced anticipation.[5] Scripture heralds further ideas not already mentioned:  The Sabbath was a sign between God and His people; blessing resulted from keeping the day; treating Sabbath like any other day was grounds for chastisement; the Sabbath was made for people; and external appearances were no way to judge a person’s activities on the Sabbath.[6] Sabbath was to be a collective event; there were no geographical boundaries.[7] Sabbath was a contemplative focus on Yahweh.[8]

But like every other gift given for our benefit, we humans mess it up.  Sin always produces extremes.  In the First Testament, folks just plain did not keep The Sabbath.  One of the reasons for a seventy year exile in Babylon was that the land-rest-law was not practiced.  2 Chronicles 36:21 records God’s specific reason given for national discipline: for at least 490 years, fields were not rested and soil nutrients were not replenished.  Gardening is the first work of The Almighty in His creation.  Land and place are of primary importance in His decrees for Israel.  So it should come as no surprise that the reason why beans, tomatoes, corn, and other crops should be rotated in a garden is for the sake of the soil.

The pendulum then swung the other way.  Exile sharpened Israel’s focus on God.  Yet, over time, law became legalism, regulation replaced rest.  Pharisees debated the definition of work.  For example, should one walk one or two miles on Sabbath?  Loopholes were created.  One group said that a person could travel 1 mile before Sabbath, find a tree, deposit food there, declaring the spot temporary housing.  When the last day of the week began a few moments later, the individual could then walk another mile![9]

Blaise Pascal, the brilliant 17th century Christian mathematician, zeroes in on the necessity of both/and instead of either/or.  In his Pensees (or Thoughts), Pascal records two statements, one after the other, explaining our two problems, the two sides of the same sinful coin.  Restlessness is a result of the laborer who works too hard.  Weariness is the result of a man with nothing to do.

Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study.  He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness.  There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.[10]

Interestingly, Pascal refers to the overworked as restless and the one who has no work as weary.  I have spent some time displaced from vocational service.  Focus, meaning, and purpose were taken from me.  Pascal’s words are exact replicas of my experience.  Yet, when I was fully employed, much “on my plate,” I found my mind wandering, looking, anticipating something else.  The results of no rest or too much rest in Israel’s day are no different than our own: the gift is either misused or not used at all.

[Work] saves man from the solitariness that he fears . . . for when a man is alone he is really alone . . . he is then naked in the universe; he is face to face with God; and this confrontation is formidable. . . . Modern man. . . . takes refuge in anesthetics, and most of all the opiate of work, which keeps his thoughts away from contemplation by keeping his eyes fixed on the conveyor belt or the drawing board.[11]

Sabbath compels us to be alone with God.  Perhaps this is why we replace remembrance of God’s gift with more work or more rules.  Perhaps we do not use the word holiday because of its meaning: a day set apart or holy.  Vacation comes from the Latin root “to vacate,” “leave empty,” or in our parlance “veg out!”  It may be easier for us to erase responsibility for The Sabbath than to remember it.  Memorials are forgotten both to our shame and our loss.  Sabbath forces us to look up to The One who has given us Genesis law down here.

Mark believes word choice is important.  The word “vacation” is only used in derision when he teaches, which he does regularly at Crossroads Bible College, Indianapolis, IN.


[1] Exodus 20:8-11.

[2] Far from being simply “beasts of burden” God’s covenant included animals in Genesis 9.  During the tenth plague in Egypt, even the firstborn cattle died (Exodus 11:5).  When Jonah preached, the animals too were draped in sackcloth (Jonah 3:8).  PETA cannot hold a candle to the groundbreaking concern for animals in the First Testament.

[3] Leviticus 23:3 says Sabbath was “a day of sacred assembly,” our word for convention today.

[4] “Remember” has the idea of establishing a memorial in Exodus 20:8 (NIV).  “Keeping” meant to protect, pay attention to, and exercise care for as in Deuteronomy 5:12.

[5] Leaving Egypt, Leviticus 23:42-43; God is the ‘landlord,’ 25:23; ‘for generations to come’ 23:41; benefiting descendents, 23:33, 42; and the possibility of release from debt 25:10.

[6] Exodus 31:12-17; Deuteronomy 15:1-11; Nehemiah 13:15-22; Mark 2:20-28; John 7:21-24 and Colossians 2:16-23.

[7] Leviticus 23:3 “wherever you live.”

[8] “A Sabbath to The LORD.”  Elsewhere God calls this “MY Sabbath” (Leviticus 26:2; Isaiah 56:4).

[9] Some good cultural background material on the Pharisees and the Sabbath can be had by reading William Barclay The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 2 (Westminster, 1958, 2nd ed.), 20-30 and Craig S. Keener The IVP Bible Background Commentary on the New Testament (IVP), 77-78 and 141-43.

[10] Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 130, 131

[11] Arnold Toynbee, “Work, the Great Anesthetic,“ Milwaukee Journal, 6 August 1971.

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