We live in a world with increasing levels of stress. For some there is a shorter working week with better wages and conditions than ever before. Yet life as a whole has become intolerably stressful. There is a drivenness about life, a sense of guilt about ever being idle. Yet in the fourth commandment, the Creator himself is giving us permission to "take a break".
"Sabbath" is a Hebrew word meaning "rest". The Bible does not subscribe to that modern idea that work is evil, though it does teach that work is more arduous and tedious since man chose a course of disobeying the will of God. In this commandment it teaches the necessity of rest. In our society with its short working days and short working weeks, the significance of this provision may well be lost. In any case, the restless modern spirit, though having little real love for work, sees little point in "rest" either! It seems a waste of time. Yet there is a great need for refreshment of body and spirit. It is important to note that God's rest is not inactivity, but rather marks the completion of his special acts of creation. So Jesus could said (in answer to criticism of a healing performed on the Sabbath), "My Father is always working, and I too must work" (Jn 5.17).
God never ceases to be active in the universe which is his creative handiwork. Undoubtedly those who give no thought to God may think the idea of a Sabbath rather pointless, but those who know that the meaning of life is to be found in God and his purposes will see in the Sabbath an indispensable provision so that, refreshed and re-oriented, another week's work can begin.
It is helpful to recall that "holy" refers to what is set apart for special use, and to note that "the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me." Some have said that every day should be the Lord's day. Yet in practice if we do not have one day especially devoted to him each week, we fail to acknowledge his Lordship over every day. It is significant that Jesus regularly attended public worship on the Sabbath (Lk. 4.16).
The command very definitely links the Sabbath with creation, but its observance is no mere matter of "copying" God. It is in a very real way meant to be a commemoration of the Creation and so the worship of the Creator. Our week-day work is so much concerned with the physical world. We need this weekly pause, lest we begin to worship creature rather than Creator (Rom. 1.25). This command helps us to fulfil effectively the first three.
The commandments were meant to express continually the relationship between the people and the God of their redemption. Yet again and again the Israelite people degenerated to an outward and formal observance of these laws with little or at best faulty reference to their God. This sort of non-fulfilment of the Sabbath-command is specifically condemned in Isaiah 1.13. But the issue persisted nonetheless - what constituted true fulfilment of the Sabbath ordinance? and what constituted the profaning of the Sabbath? This was debated in the rabbinical schools, with the result that observance of the day became loaded down with countless negative commands, even though the basic command is positive. So the interpretation and application of this command became one of the major points of issue between Jesus and his critics.
Particular objection was raised to his acts of healing on the Sabbath, as in the second part of today's reading (Mk. 3.1-6). Their rules permitted necessary work (Lk. 13.15) and even the extra work of rescuing a farm animal (Mt. 12.11). But Jesus went further – it is in keeping with the purpose of this day "to do good" (v. 12).
The Lord of the Sabbath is merciful, so the Sabbath healings are especially fitting - "Now here is this descendant of Abraham whom Satan has kept bound up for eighteen years; should she not be released on the Sabbath?" (Lk. 13.16).
It is, of course, necessary when establishing our priorities and patterns of behaviour for this day to keep these physical and spiritual needs in mind.
A. Rowland writes, "Nature teaches the need of Sabbath-rest for souls. For all organic life God has provided periods of repose, during which repair goes on in order to counteract the waste caused by activity. In the spring-time we see movement and stir in gardens, fields and hedgerows, which continues till the fruits are gathered in and the leaves fall; but then winter's quiet again settles down over all, and nature is at rest. Even the flowers have their time for closing their petals, and their sleeping hours come so regularly, and yet are so varied in distribution among them, that botanists can construct a floral clock out of our English wild-flowers, and tell the hour of night or day by their opening or closing. The same God who created the flowers and appointed the seasons, ordained the laws of Israel, and by these definite seasons of rest were set apart for the people – the Sabbath, the jubilee year, and the annual festivals. Indeed, in every age and in every land, the coming of night and the victory of sleep are hints of what God has ordained for man."