In Isaiah 58.13 we have laid out for us the chief purpose of the Sabbath day: …turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honourable… honour it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly…
The central thought here is that we are to delight in and honour the Lord’s holy day. The word ‘holy’ means ‘set apart’, and that in two directions: on the one hand the Sabbath is to be set apart from the rest of week—we are not to use it to gratify our own desires and preferences. But at the same time, the Sabbath is set apart for God. In other words, the reason for setting it apart from other six days is so that the Lord will be the focus of the day. We abstain from the work and leisure pursuits of the other six days not so we’ll be bored for a whole day, but so we can concentrate on the Lord without distraction.
Isaiah spells out three things involved in honouring the day:
- Not going your own ways. This probably refers to our work. The duties and occupations of everyday living—housework, our jobs, gardening, committee meetings, shopping, homework, exam revision, etc. All these things are to be put on hold on this special day. What a blessing to be able to stop work for a whole day without feeling guilty about it! As someone has said ‘If you don’t enjoy the Sabbath, you’re probably not working hard enough during the rest of the week!’
- Not seeking your own pleasure. This means our leisure activities as opposed to our work. They may well help us to relax, but they are not allowed to get in the way of God on this holy day.
- Not talking idly. We’re not to spend this holy day talking predominantly about our work and sports and hobbies either. Our conversation should be intentionally spiritual.
Perhaps you think Isaiah is being very negative here. Isn’t he turning Sabbath-keeping into a list of don’ts? Yes… and no! Because when you think about it, this is actually the most liberating way this teaching could be given. Suppose Isaiah had tried to list positively everything that honouring the Sabbath involved. That would be a vast and very restrictive list: ‘Here are all the things you have to do to honour the Sabbath!’
These few negative commands set limits, but they’re like the lines that mark out a football pitch or a tennis court. There have to be boundaries—imagine trying to play a football game or a tennis match without them! But within the limits there is enormous freedom for players to show their skill and play exciting games—no two games are ever exactly the same. What the prophet is really saying is this: “Do you want to know how to honour the Sabbath? Don’t do anything that gets in way of focusing your thoughts on God.” And that is good news for the Christian who wants to concentrate on God, who finds the hectic pace of 21st century life leaves him little quality time for meditation and reflection.
Think of it like this. You’re about to go on a well-deserved, long overdue holiday. As you’re leaving work your boss gives you some negative commands: ‘Don’t take any work with you. Don’t take your business phone. Don’t crash the car!’ Do these commands restrict your enjoyment of your holiday? Is it spoiled because you’re not allowed to do these things? Of course not! The commands are there to help you get the maximum amount of pleasure and good out of your holiday!
That’s just how it is with the Sabbath—a true believer wants to focus on God. And all the Sabbath requires of us is that we get rid of anything that would hinder us in doing that!
And once we understand that the Sabbath is for focusing our thoughts on God, it will really help us in deciding what should and shouldn’t be done on the Lord’s holy day. Here’s the key question to ask, in light of Isaiah 58.13: ‘Will this activity genuinely enable me to focus on the Lord? Will it teach me more about him? Will it bring me closer to him? Or am I really just indulging my own preferences?’ If we are honest in answering that question, all kinds of ‘grey areas’ are immediately resolved. Will this TV show really bring me closer to the Lord? Will watching/playing this sport really deepen my fellowship with him? How will doing those few hours of work focus my mind and heart on the worship of God? Should I go to an evening worship service? If the Sabbath is all about focusing our souls on the Lord, that is a no-brainer.
Isaiah exposes our faulty reasoning about the Sabbath too. Sometimes people say “It’s OK to do this because it helps me to relax.” But the Sabbath isn’t primarily about relaxing! Who cares if you’re relaxed or not?! It’s about resting from our normal responsibilities so we can focus on the Lord. Does it help you do that? That’s the key question.
How kind our heavenly Father is—he remembers that we are dust. He knows we need a day each week when all our distractions are taken away from us so we can see and hear him more clearly. He gives us space to be with him.