On purely rational grounds there is a lot to be said for taking a break from work. However, there are also good Biblical grounds. This week I want to explore two passages in the Bible which precisely say that.
First, in Exodus 31.12-1-17 we have account of the institution of the Sabbath. There God says: “Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a day of rest, holy to the Lord” (Exodus 31.15).
The division of time into a week of seven days is not a Jewish invention. It probably originated in Babylon, where the seven days of the week were seven days sacred to the seven gods of spirits of the seven planets. The Romans likewise assigned a day to each one of their gods: Saturn, Apollo, Diana, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus. But only the Jews exalted one day above the others as a day of rest, and that day was called the Sabbath day. The word ‘sabbath’ is derived from a Hebrew word which means to ‘cease’. For Jews the Sabbath related to the story of creation. So we read in Genesis 31.17 that “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested” and “was refreshed”.
Personally, I find it difficult imagining God needs to rest. For as Isaiah said, “God “he does not faint or grow weary” (Isaiah 40.28). Indeed, according to the Psalmist God is the great insomniac: “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121.3-4).
God has never-ending energy. By contrast we humans need to rest and have time “to draw breath” (Exodus 31.17 GNB). The Greeks used to say, “The bow that is always bent (i.e. stretched taut) will soon cease to shoot straight”. We say: “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy”. We need to develop a proper rhythm of work and relaxation. In that regard schoolteachers tell us how at the beginning of the week children work harder and better, whereas the worst lesson in the week is on Friday afternoon last period.
The second passage I wish to explore is found in Mark 6.7-13, 30-32 which tells of how the twelve disciples returned exhausted from a week of preaching and healing. After hearing their report, Jesus said: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while”. Or as the GNB puts it: “Let us go off by ourselves to some place where we will be alone and you can rest awhile” (Mark 6.30-31).
There are times when we need to get away and rest. Having a rest sometimes means not just stopping work but getting away from home turf. Jesus on this occasion took his disciples off for a break in the countryside. Getting away from it all is part of being a man or woman of God. ‘Burn-out’ is not God’s plan for any of us.
How do we take a break? By letting Sunday become our Sabbath, our day of rest. If we are a shift-worker or like ministers have to work on a Sunday, then clearly this means that we have to make another day of the week our rest day. For instance, when I was a minister of a local church, I made Friday my day off. Unless there was a death or some other emergency, I was not available.
True, Sunday and the Sabbath are not the same. They commemorate two very different events. The Sabbath commemorates the end of the old creation, for it was on the seventh day that God rested from his labours. While Sunday commemorates the beginning of the new creation: it was on the first day of the week God raised Jesus from the dead.
Interestingly it was not until the eighth century that the early church saw a link between the Sabbath day and Sunday.
The principle of having a day of rest is still valid today as ever it was. The fourth commandment is not of temporary value. We still need a regular break today, as the French revolutionaries found out in the eighteenth century. They were so intent on abolishing everything to do with religion that they tried to do away with Sunday. Instead, they introduced a ten day week, but in the end they had to bring back the seven day week, because the health of the nation was suffering. They discovered the truth of the words of Jesus that “The sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the sabbath (Mark 2.27). Or in the words of the GNB: “The sabbath was made for the good of human beings; they were not made for the sabbath” (Mark 2.27).
We in turn need to make Sunday (or our rest day) “holy” (Exodus 31.14): i.e., by making it “different”. We make it different not least by making time for ourselves. The fact is that if we don’t take care of ourselves on a regular basis then we are unlikely to be able to care of others. Caring for ourselves may mean following the example of Jesus and his disciples by having a day off in the countryside. Or it might mean getting away from the chores and duties of life by sitting in a corner of the garden having a quiet read; or it might mean going off and playing a round of golf. In one way or another all of us need to take care ourselves.
To return to where I began. All of us need to take a break. It makes sense. Indeed, this is God’s plan for humankind.