Published on November 13, 2013 by Mark DeVine  
dividing our time copy

For everything, there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven (Eccl 3:1). So declares The Preacher of Ecclesiastes who somehow, if ever so briefly, found a way to pop his head up from a sea of discouraging reflections, not about life on this fallen planet generally but about the futility of human labor especially--"all is vain and a striving after wind" is the dominant refrain of this book.

But in these few verses, a comparatively cheerful source for The Preacher's reflective musings appears. The usually dismal warp and woof of The Preacher's mood and message cannot be reduced to the blunt observations of a cold realist. A dazzling vision of a primal reality penetrates the darkness--the divine division of time itself. A pause in the momentum of futility allows a glimpse into realities obscured by the cataracts of sin but still operative and beneficial for those with eyes to see--the reality of a world in which time itself is ordered--differentiated by the Lord of time.

The reality glimpsed by The Preacher belongs to the fundamental and permanent shaping of earthly and especially human reality itself from the very beginning--the shaping of the Garden into which the creator set the crown of his creative work, our first parents. Because there too, there first of all, God ordered time by differentiating all time between Sabbath and, well, not-Sabbath. This way of putting the matter is accurate but awkward; awkward because it fails to allow the negative dimension of the Sabbath to highlight its positive and integrating dimension.

That first Sabbath was literally, and first of all, not a "resting" as such (God was not tired!) but a cessation; this is the negative dimension. Sabbath cessation points away from itself to the work from which God ceased. This is the positive dimension of time Sabbath illumines, namely work. Yes, work. The Sabbath never exists for its own sake. Work binds Sabbath and not-Sabbath together as an ordering first of God's work and then of ours.

God creates history and steps into that history precisely as THE WORKER, par excellence. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." God works for six days, then creates Sabbath by ceasing from this work, because work is meant to serve others but also to be beheld, enjoyed, and bring appropriate glory to the ones who do it.

Humanity's first day was a Sabbath, not a day of work. Why so? Holy Scripture consistently asserts that the Sabbath is "for" man but also that it "belongs" to God. Sabbath is forever defined by the cessation of God from his work. Even when man is expected to "keep the Sabbath" by ceasing from his work, the rationale for man's ceasing remains grounded in God's own original cessation. "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" (Exodus 20:11).

The Sabbath belongs to God because it is connected to God's work in ways that it can never be connected to man at all, including to man's work. The Sabbath is not created by humanity's cessation from his work, but always by God's cessation from his.

The Sabbath carves out space and time for the beholding of THE WORK of THE WORKER. But not only for beholding; also for acknowledging God's work as good and wondrous--Sabbath provides space and time for the work of God to prompt the worship of God, the ascribing of glory to God for the things he has done. And the things he has done must include a second divine "work" alongside the work of creation.

A second rationale for humanity's Sabbath-keeping is revealed in Deuteronomy 5:15--"You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord you God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day."

To know and worship God as creator only is not to know him as he is; he is from all eternity both creator and redeemer. To God be the glory, especially on the Sabbath day, for the things he has done. What has he done? Created and redeemed. So the Sabbath is "for" humanity because it provides a special time and space for an activity humanity was designed to enjoy, namely the beholding and the remembering of the work of God, prompting the worship of God.

But there is something more. In God's wise and permanent ordering of time, Sabbath occupies first place in the midst of all time. Sabbath precedes both the emergence of Israel and the rise of the church. It belongs to primal history. It shapes all of reality and time for all time. It should not surprise us that Sabbath pops up in the New Testament--"there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God" (Heb. 4:9).

All time is to be understood by man through the prism of Sabbath time. Thus man lives always between Sabbaths; always taking leave of one Sabbath and always headed for the next. But Sabbath, again according to God's wise ordering, occupies only one-seventh of the whole of time. God set man first into the dazzling beholding of his own work as the necessary precursor and launching pad for man into the other six days carved out for humanity's own work! There, in the six days, just as essential to the fulfillment of God's purposes for the crown of his creation, man reflects his creator and redeemer precisely in the midst of and through the accomplishment of his own work. The redemption of the whole creation includes the "No" of God to the distortion of "our work" lamented by The Preacher. Thus believers are admonished "Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord" (Col. 3:23).