The Sabbath: rest for the body or for the soul?

Philo of Alexandria, defending Jews from Roman accusations of laziness because of their strict observation of the Sabbath, wrote:

“On this day we are commanded to abstain from all work, not because the law inculcates slackness. . . . Its object is rather to give man relaxation from continuous and unending toil and by refreshing their bodies with a regularly calculated system of remissions to send them out renewed to their old activities. For a breathing spell enables not merely ordinary people but athletes also to collect their strength with a stronger force behind them to undertake promptly and patiently each of the tasks set before them.”

How many Christian readers of this blog would say a hearty Amen! to that defence of the Sabbath? I have often heard the same arguments stated in defence of Sunday as a day of rest, albeit with somewhat less eloquence. Folks, we are missing something here if Philo’s argument makes sense to us.

Jewish author Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book The Sabbath, points out the error:

“Here the Sabbath is represented not in the spirit of the Bible, but in the spirit of Aristotle. According to the Stagarite, ‘we need relaxation, because we cannot work continuously. Relaxation, then, is not an end’; it is ‘for the sake of activity,’ for the sake of gaining strength for new efforts. To the biblical mind, however, labour is the means toward an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labour. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. ‘Last in creation, first in intention,’ the Sabbath is ‘the end of the creation of heaven and earth.’”

In other words, the Sabbath was intended to draw man into a closer relationship with God and heaven, not to give him rest for his earthly toil. There is no biblical basis for arguing the benefit of the Sabbath as a rest in order to be able to work more efficiently.

Consider these verses from Isaiah and consider if they don’t point to the New Testament era where Christians enter into a perpetual Sabbath, not seeking salvation through works, but learning to delight in the ways of the Lord:

“If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it” (Isaiah 58:13-14).

The Sabbath © 1951 by Abraham Johua Heschel, published by Farrar Strauss and Giroux, New York.

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