Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Ex. 20:8-11
When thinking about the Sabbath, it's common to focus on the character of the Sabbath day and what it means to rest. You shall not do any work, etc. But it's equally important to consider the character of the other six days as days of work. What did it mean to work and how was work different from rest? These may seem like odd questions since we can tell fairly quickly when we're working and when we're resting, but what should we understand from the Bible about work? More importantly, what would the Israelites have understood about work when Moses gave this command?
Going back to the opening chapter of Genesis, we receive a biblical picture of work:
And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.” Gen. 3:17-19
Work is hard stuff. It's a constant reminder of man's fall into sin, daily showing us that the world as we know it is far removed from its original state. Being pricked by a rose bush is God's way of telling us that any beauty we enjoy here is still corrupted by sin. When we read of farmers losing their crops to floods or drought, any hope we have in this world is rightfully being frustrated. For the Israelites, six days out of every week were filled with toil and hard labor. Surviving meant daily sweat in the fields.
However, God gave them one day in seven when things were different. On the seventh day of the week, they were to avoid all labor and toil. It was a sharp contrast to the other six days.
Not work, but rest. Not sweat, but rest. Not thorns and thistles, but rest.
The seventh day was a pardon from the curse brought about by sin. It was a reminder of a time before sin - the time of rest that Adam and Eve entered on their first day of life. Adam and Eve didn't enter a world cursed by sin, but a world blessed by their Creator. Their first day - the seventh day of creation - had been set apart (i.e. "made holy") from God's days of work and they enjoyed fellowship with the Lord and one another.
Israel was given the Sabbath day as a reminder that would point them to something they didn't possess. The contrast with the other six days was meant to intensify in them a longing for a permanent rest.
Later in the book of Exodus, God tells Moses, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest." (Ex. 33:14) God is promising them rest in the land He will give them - a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3:8; 3:17; 13:5; 33:3), a land with cities they did not build, houses full of good things they did not fill, cisterns they did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees they did not plant (Dt. 6:11). They were promised rest in a land that wouldn't demand their toil.
But "those who formerly received the good news failed to enter [God's rest] because of disobedience" (Heb. 4:6). What was promised was not obtained because of Israel's sin. The author of Hebrews goes on to say,
So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.
Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. Heb. 4:9-11
The nation of Israel never found the rest to which God was pointing them, but this doesn't mean God has failed to keep his promise. God has indeed provided the rest he intended. Jesus said,
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Mt. 11:28-30
Those who labor under the curse of sin can come and find rest in Jesus. He has become a Sabbath rest for everyone who comes to him. He provides rest to weary souls. In Jesus, we receive the fulfillment of God's promised rest, a rest that will one day be made permanent and complete for those who follow him.
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, "Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on." "Blessed indeed," says the Spirit, "that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!" Rev. 14:13
But for those who refuse him,
he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name. Rev. 14:10-11
Israel's Sabbath observance highlighted the contrast between curse and rest, but those contrasts will ultimately carry on into eternity. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. (Heb. 4:7) Come to Jesus and He will give you rest.