Rejecting the Gift of Sabbath

By Mark D. Roberts

September 26, 2023

Scripture — Ezekiel 20:10-13 (NRSV)

So I led them out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. I gave them my statutes and showed them my ordinances, by whose observance everyone shall live. Moreover I gave them my sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, so that they might know that I the LORD sanctify them. But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness; they did not observe my statutes but rejected my ordinances, by whose observance everyone shall live; and my sabbaths they greatly profaned.


Though God gave the gift of sabbath to Israel, often the Israelites rejected this gift, preferring to work on the sabbath. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God communicated divine disappointment and disapproval. But God also reminded the people that the sabbath was given so that “everyone shall live.” Regular rest is life-giving, enhancing our quality of life while adding to our quantity of life.

Series: Unwrapping God’s Gift of Rest


In Ezekiel 20, the Lord expresses considerable disappointment in the Israelites. Even though God saved them from slavery in Egypt and “gave them [God’s] statues and showed them [God’s] ordinances, by whose observance everyone shall live,” the people rejected what God had given (Ezekiel 20:11). Specifically, according to the Lord, “I gave them my sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, so that they might know that I the LORD sanctify them. But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness, they did not observe my statutes but rejected my ordinances, by whose observance everyone shall live; and my sabbaths they greatly profaned” (20:12-13).

This passage from Ezekiel testifies yet again to the goodness of God’s laws, including the sabbath regulations. They were given by God so that “everyone shall live” (20:10, 13). Sabbath-keeping contributes to our quality of life as well as to its quantity.

Moreover, through Ezekiel the Lord explains that “my sabbaths” are “a sign between me and them, so that they might know that I the LORD sanctify them” (20:12). When the Israelites stopped working for one day each week, this was a sign of their specialness to God. It reminded them of how God had set them apart from the rest of the nations for God’s own purposes and glory.

Yet, in spite of how much the sabbath meant to God and was central to God’s covenant with Israel, the people rebelled against God and God’s laws. They failed to honor the sabbath in egregious ways. As the Lord said, “My sabbaths they greatly profaned” (20:13). Or, as God says in The Message, “They totally desecrated my holy Sabbaths.”

I wonder if God looks upon us today much as God once looked upon the Israelites. Does God see our tendency to overwork as a rejection of the good gifts God has for us? Might God say about so many Christians today, “They totally desecrated my holy Sabbaths”?

I’m old enough to remember when sabbath-keeping was built into our culture as well as our religious observances. When I was a freshman in college in Massachusetts, for example, most major businesses were closed on Sundays. If you wanted to go on a shopping spree, you were out of luck. Sabbath observance was embedded in the secular community as well as the religious community.

But in my junior year of college, during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, many major department stores opened on Sundays. For the first time in centuries, people could enjoy formerly forbidden Sunday shopping sprees. By the time I was in graduate school, most major stores in Massachusetts were open every day of the week. (Interestingly, however, Massachusetts still has the “One Day of Rest in Seven” statute that requires many businesses to give employees at least one day of rest each week.)

For many of us today, going shopping in person isn’t compromising our day of rest. Digital technology is the new destroyer of regular rest. Our ubiquitous digital devices enable us to work, shop, and study all day, every day, right from where we eat and sleep. I’m not saying these devices are all bad, mind you. They make many things in life better. (Can you imagine going through a global pandemic without the internet?) But when our phones are buzzing in our pockets with text messages and emails, it’s hard not to let them lure us back into work.

If God has indeed given the sabbath to human beings as a gift for our benefit, then we may want to rethink our tendency to minimize or even profane that gift. I say this as someone who finds it very easy to let my work spill over into my regular time of rest. I’m not pointing fingers at others as if I’ve got this all figured out. But I am convinced that we need to take seriously God’s gift of rest and figure out how best to receive, honor, and delight in this gift today.

I’ll continue to work on this challenge with you in future devotions. For now, let me invite you to consider the following questions.


As you reflect on your life, past and present, how have you experienced sabbath (or not)?

How intentional are you about devoting regular time each week to stopping work and resting?

Do you ever experience rest as a gift from God? If so, when? What is this like for you?

For Christians, how might sabbath be a sign of our relationship with God?


If you have not already done so, choose to devote a certain time in the next week for rest rather than work.


Gracious God, I wonder if you look upon us – upon me – as people who have rejected your gift of sabbath. Are we like the ancient Israelites who failed to obey your instructions? Are we saying “No” to something that would enrich our lives even as it also honors you?

Teach us, dear Lord, how we should receive your gift of rest today. Help us to see when and how we should stop working. Give us a community of people who are working out with us what sabbath means today. May our commitment to rest draw us nearer to you even as it says to the world that you are a gracious, sovereign, caring Lord. Amen.

Banner image by Rob Hampson on Unsplash.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Why People Can’t Rest – Human Nature Revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures.

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Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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