The fourth commandment is about the rhythm of work. It tells us nothing about which day is appointed for rest. If we were washed up on a desert island, the sabbath would depend on which day we began to work. "Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath." (Exodus 20:9,10)
The Jewish nation began work on Sunday so their day of rest became Saturday. Christians chose Sunday wherever possible because Jesus Christ rose from the dead on that day, appeared to his disciples on two Sundays, and had the Holy Spirit inaugurate his world-wide church on that day.
Regardless of what day our nation appoints for the regular day of rest, or what day our churches choose for weekly services, people on shift work have to adapt their day of rest to their rotation. Mothers with young children have to snatch their eight hours of recreation at various times during the week to get the equivalent of one day in seven. And parents and husbands who love them will make that possible knowing that without time for sabbath the mother would be in serious trouble.
There is no need to review the universal experience that unrelenting work seven days a week is physically, mentally, and psychologically destructive. During the Battle of Britain, when munitions and spare parts were desperately needed, workers were told to work seven days a week. After the first month they were producing less in seven days than in six, so the day of rest was restored. The executive who ignores the need for rest is likely to have a heart attack or nervous breakdown. Students who take no proper day off for long periods have been known to come into the final examination and write nonsense for three hours.
But we should beware of legalism. One's person's work is another person' recreation. I once had a country parish, and by the end of three services I was frazzled. Happily I found that digging in the garden was a marvellous cure. So one Sunday afternoon I was digging and planting potatoes, and a farmer came and watched me. After a while he said "You are a minister and you shouldn't be setting a bad example by working on Sunday." I explained that for six days I had to work at studying the Bible, sermon preparation, office work, visiting and listening. He needed a change from work on the farm, so visiting and reading would good on Sunday. But digging potatoes was my form of recreation. He watched for another ten minutes and said I was planting my potatoes too deep and they wouldn't sprout. Happily that year they came out perfect.
The reason given for the fourth commandment is that God has a rhythm to his work. He does not create by a perpetual assembly line. Trees grow and then lie dormant. There are seasons of spring and winter. In the first chapter of the Bible there is the rhythm of six days of work and rest, and also the daily rhythm of the evening and the morning. This is a helpful way to order our lives.
For the executive, overnight mail and new problems have to be worked at during the day. The farmer finds that weeds have grown and fences need repair, so he shares with God in the work of creating his garden. The mother at home cleans up the mess from the previous evening. The artist sets herself to order the new ideas, and corrects the colours and composition that now look unbalanced from the night before.
In addition to the daily rhythm of evening and morning, one day in seven is needed for authors, students, farmers, athletes, social workers, ministers, politicians, and every other kind of work. Creativity is restored, new ideas are generated by doing something quite different just for fun.
What of the five day work week? For most people, one of the two days off has to be devoted to self-employment around the house and garden. We do our baking and laundry, repairs, necessary banking, income tax, insurance, and mortgage arrangements. We should be grateful for a day of self- employment, but if we work at chores to fill up the seventh day we are again in trouble.
Sabbath is supremely important for resolving guilt. The compulsive worker who cannot relax is driven by the idea that if he does not keep working he will be blamed, his business will fail, or the needed good will not be done. If she can bring herself to turn off totally one day in seven, an executive realizes that the work gets done far happier and better in six days.
Most of all by spending a couple of hours a week for worship with others we connect our work and vision with God's rhythm of work and recreation. The many small items of hurt and anger and failure during the week, which would otherwise build us destructively, can be brought to the light and forgiveness of God.
The moral absolute of proper work and rest is not only for our own good but it is also essential for faith. Without a day in which we have absolutely nothing that we have to do, it is very hard to enter into God's peace and rest. Our minds become cluttered till we have no time for God. Business and duty, pressure of work, guilt about what is left undone, all result in squeezing out love and freedom, joy and forgiveness. And without these, God would be a very hard taskmaster indeed.