The Sabbath Day: Its Meaning and Observance

This was a talk I gave a month or so ago as part of High Council Sunday.

In preparation for this talk, I read through Elder Nelson’s April Conference address on the Sabbath, in which he stated, “I am intrigued by the words of Isaiah, who called the Sabbath “a delight.” Yet,” he continued, “I wonder, is the Sabbath really a delight for you and for me?”[1] Well, Joseph Smith revealed that the Lord’s day should consist of “confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord” (D&C 59:12), so here’s my confession: the answer to Elder Nelson’s question, for me personally and on average, is a big No. My Sabbath experience has often been far from a delight. Maybe some of you can relate to this. For one, I work every other weekend. Half of my Sabbaths each year are typical workdays. But even those I have off don’t fend much better. I end up leaving church with an Elders Quorum-induced headache (though that has decreased ever since I became finance clerk and get to skip the third hour), while the rest of the day is agreeable, if unexceptional. However, the Sunday afternoon boredom tends to be coupled with a modest level of anxiety over what we are actually allowed to do. Even growing up, I saw Sunday as the day I had to go to church and couldn’t do anything else. Despite these misgivings, I recognize that the Sabbath is meant to be more. It is not an arbitrary commandment; an item waiting to be marked off of some gospel checklist that will for whatever reason grant us access into the celestial kingdom. While simple obedience to the commandment is a start, obedience without understanding or purpose is limited at best. Obedience for the sheer sake of obedience is not inherently virtuous and never has been. What’s worse is that believing obedience is the end game can lead to a habitual pawning off of personal responsibility on to others. In the Book of Moses, God revealed his “work and [his] glory”—his end game–to be our “immortality and eternal life” (Moses 1:39). Therefore, God’s commandments are intended for the mass flourishing of his children and the Sabbath is no exception.

There are two major strands of thought found in the scriptures regarding the reasons for the Sabbath. The first largely dominates the books of Genesis and Exodus and hearkens back to the Creation. As we read in Exodus, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy…For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Ex. 20:8,11; cf. Gen. 2:2; Mosiah 13:16). Scholars have recognized for some time that the sequence and literary structure of Genesis 1 parallels that of ancient Near Eastern temple building, thus depicting the Creation as a cosmic temple (for fruitful scripture study, try comparing Genesis 1 to the building and dedication of the Tabernacle or Solomon’s temple).[2] Within this context, God resting makes much more sense. “Deity,” explains Wheaton professor John Walton, “rests in a temple, and only in a temple. This is what temples were built for [in the ancient Near East]. We might even say that this is what a temple is—a place for divine rest.”[3] With Genesis 1 as a temple text, it is worth noting that the Sabbath is the first mention of “holiness” in scripture and was later put on par with the temple itself: the Sabbath became a sanctuary or temple in time, while the temple became a Sabbath in space.[4] This is why the temple and the Sabbath could be profaned in similar ways. In summary, the first interpretation of the Sabbath entails Creation, divine rest, and holiness.


The second train of thought is found mostly in Deuteronomy and the later prophets. The Deuteronomist version of the commandment reads, “Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it…And remember that thou was a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out of thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:12,15). This follows an admonition in which the entire Israelite household is told to cease from labor, including servants, foreign guests, and even animals (vs. 14). The reminder and celebration is that of liberation and the Sabbath itself acts “as an affirmation of human freedom, justice, and equality”[5] by providing rest for all living beings. Therefore, the second interpretation is about remembrance, deliverance, and (given its connection to other practices such as the sabbatical years and Jubilee) social justice.

These two approaches are not in conflict, but are instead complementary. The story of the Exodus draws heavily on creation imagery. As one scholar puts it, “Israel’s day-to-day life is a re-creation. God saved Israel to be a new creation community whereby all things would become new…As God ordered the universe in Genesis 1, he is now giving Israel order in its existence amid the chaos of the world around them.”[6] On a deeper level, however, we see that creation and liberation are two sides of the same coin. To be liberated from evil is the way the creation was meant to be. This hope of re-creation and liberation among the ancient Jews was equated with their hope in the long-awaited Messiah. According to New Testament scholar Ben Witherington,

The Sabbath [in Jesus’ day] had become a symbol of the eschatological rest…that God would one day provide for his people when…Messiah came and brought in the age to come. The longed-for Sabbath was the coming of the dominion of God…a time when creation would be relieved not just of the toil and turmoil of a fallen world but of disease, decay, and death as well. From this perspective, there was no better time to heal a person than on the Sabbath as an indicator that the ultimate Sabbath was coming.[7]

For the earliest Christians, the resurrection of Christ–“the last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45) and “the firstfruits of them that slept” (1 Cor. 15:20)—was the beginning of that new creation and the ushering in of the messianic age.[8] Even Joseph Smith’s revelation on the Sabbath in section 59—which followed the dedication of the temple land in Missouri–weaves together creation and millennial imagery, the principle of consecration, and the concept of Zion.[9] Like most rituals and observances, the Sabbath remembers the past (Creation, Exodus, Resurrection), looks forward to the future (the Millennium, paradisiacal glory, our own resurrection), and attempts to–in some degree–bring those experiences into the present.[10] If the temple is meant to provide a taste of heaven, so also does the Sabbath. Abraham Heschel, one of the most celebrated Jewish theologians of the 20th century, put it this way: “All week there is only hope of redemption. But when the Sabbath is entering the world, man is touched by a moment of actual redemption; as if for a moment the spirit of the Messiah moved over the face of the earth…The Sabbath comes like a caress, wiping away fear, sorrow and somber memories.”[11]

But how? How can we tap into this weekly holiness? How do we move beyond the mere motions of Sabbath day observance into a heavenly state? How can the Sabbath lead us to flourish as individuals and a community?

One way I’ve seen the Sabbath described is that of resistance: resistance to anxiety, to coercion, to exclusivism, and to multitasking.[12] It is resistance to the idea that you’re not enough and is instead a reminder that “the worth of souls [including yours] is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10). It is a chance to put aside the anxieties of output, of production, of deadlines, of being and doing more than you are right now; to put aside busyness and exhaustion as symbols of your self-worth. While I by no means intend to downplay the importance and value of industriousness, our meritocratic culture of “bootstrapping” can make it difficult to even acknowledge dependence. But this is what the Sabbath asks of you: to let go of “make your own way” and receive God’s gracious gifts; to remember that creation, liberation, atonement, and resurrection are given to you because God loves you. It provides a chance to cultivate a sense of gratitude in the here and now. The equality of rest should allow us to drop self-comparison with others and competition between the saints along with the coercion and abuse that can accompany it. Throughout the week, we have different successes and failures, jobs and careers, worries and problems. Unfortunately, we sometimes step on each other in competition for status. Here, however, we are all at rest and at worship. Here, we begin to build Zion, a people of “one heart and one mind” with “no poor among [us]” (Moses 7:18). Furthermore, the equality of rest should be inviting. It should break down barriers of glib judgment, prejudice, and bigotry. The Sabbath should provide safe haven and rest for all. I have sometimes heard it said that church (and by extension the Sabbath) is “for the sacrament” and “not a social club.” While I understand the meaning, I would stress that if the sacrament is taken without its communal context intact, then I’m afraid we’ve missed the point. To cherish the sacramental emblems and not each other is a gross violation of the covenant the ordinance represents. C.S. Lewis, as always, provides much wisdom on this subject:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.[13]

(Remember that the next time exclusion seems like a good idea.)

Finally, the Sabbath is a chance to give up control. The world can spread us thin throughout the week as we attempt to be and do more than we likely can. Between secular and spiritual worries, we enter the Sabbath with our hands full. But the Sabbath reminds us who created the universe, who liberated us from sin, and who conquered death. It invites us to drop our burdens, “be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).

The Sabbath is ultimately a day of vulnerability.[14] It is a day to connect with and be truly seen by others. It is a day-long meditation and reflection. It is day of being instead of doing. It is a day of belonging; a day of enough. It is a day in which we can get a taste of the celestial and to participate in the kingdom of God. But only in as much as we seek to build it. May we all seek to make the Sabbath a delight, for ourselves and for each other.



  1. Russell M. Nelson, “The Sabbath Is a Delight,” Ensign (March 2015):
  2. See John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009).
  3. Ibid., “Proposition 7” (Kindle).
  4. See Jared C. Calaway, “Heavenly Sabbath, Heavenly Sanctuary: The Transformation of Priestly Sacred Space and Sacred Time in the “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice” and the Epistle to the Hebrews,” Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 2010.
  5. Arthur Waskow, “Rest,” 20th Century Jewish Religious Thought, eds. Arthur A. Cohen, Paul Mendes-Flohr (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2009), 795.
  6. Peter Enns, Exodus: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), Kindle edition, “Exodus 20:1-21.”
  7. Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 100.
  8. This features prominently in the work of N.T. Wright. For example, see his Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperCollins, 2008) or Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).
  9. “Though terminally ill, [Polly Peck Knight] had nonetheless made the journey to Missouri, hoping to be buried in Zion’s blessed soil. She died shortly after her arrival in [the newly consecrated] Zion…After the funeral Joseph received Doctrine and Covenants 59…The revelation reiterates the law of consecration, which, simply put, is the two great commandments: [D&C 59:5]. Then follows a review of the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments, to which the Lord adds commandments to thank God in all things and to offer him a broken heart. He gives a specific purpose for observing the Sabbath: [D&C 59:9]. The Sabbath is for offering oblations–that is, time, talents, and material resources–for the establishment of Zion” (Steven C. Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants: A Guided Tour through Modern Revelations. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2008, “Doctrine & Covenants 59,” e-book). As for millennial and creation imagery (which are often one and the same), the revelation speaks of those who “inherit the earth” (vs. 2) and “receive for their reward the good things of the earth, and it shall bring forth in its strength” (vs. 3). Later, “the fulness of the earth” is promised along with “the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which climbeth upon the trees and walketh upon the earth; Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth” (vs. 16-17).
  10. Though likely dated in some respects, Mircea Eliade’s Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959) is still helpful in getting a feel for ritual, myth, and sacred time.
  11. Abraham J. Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning For Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005 [1951]), 56.
  12. See Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).
  13. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 45-46.
  14. This draws on Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Letting Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Center City: Hazelden, 2010).

12 comments for “The Sabbath Day: Its Meaning and Observance

  1. Thanks for sharing your observations, Walker. Although I must confess that I have long found the idea of a Sabbath Day meaningless. Its early observance was a means through which early Hebrews controlled their own and distinguished themselves from the Gentile heathens. Its traditional practiced carried on into Christianity. In the LDS church, the idea of Sabbath observance is still used as a control mechanism. It is a way to evaluate members’ devotion and a way for people to distinguish themselves from the heathen non-LDS. But thankfully the LDS leaders and members don’t ostracize Sabbath-breakers like the Hebrews did in days of old. They allow for personal interpretations of how one should best keep the Sabbath and allow for people who have to work. It is seen as bad to tell on-call doctors that they are in violation of the Sabbath for working.

    I’ve never understood is the rationale for not shopping on the Sabbath. It is said that in so doing, you keep others from being able to observe the Sabbath (going to church, I guess). I have a way around that: have multiple days of observance. Heck, the LDS church leaders allow for branches in Israel to congregate on Saturday. In Egypt and Jordan, LDS branches congregate on Friday. Why not extend that option in North America?

  2. Wonderful post. Walton’s thesis suggest to me that the very purpose of the Genesis account was the establishment of sacred space (temple) and time (Sabbath). Without these elements we are lost in the universe.

    Long ago, while reading Heschel’s classic “Sabbath,” I learned that the Sabbath is to time what the temple is to space. The temple is a holy space. The Sabbath is holy time. Jews reverence G-d, His creation and the Exodus by observing the Sabbath. Latter-day Saints reverence those things and the atonement as well. I have enjoyed the Sabbath much more knowing that it is my effort to recognize the sacred rather than imposed rules or mere duty. Sabbath is to one’s relationship with Deity what dating is to marriage. Sabbath without joy is like marriage without love and laughter. Sabbath observance for me is simplicity, a recognition of beauty and mystery, an homage to the divine in ourselves and each other. It is rest.

  3. I really don’t think the sabbath originated as a control mechanism. That strikes me as excessive cynicism, not exegesis of ancient evidence. Sure it was something the collective community enforced. But in a world where the vast majority of people had to be in their fields seven days a week, an “enforced” day off is hardly a bit of power-struggle and control.

  4. Ditto to Ben S. I’d also say there’s a bit of classism in the discussion as well. We’re rich enough to want to indulge our leisures all the time. The problem Ben mentions, of being poor enough that one never gets a rest remains a real problem. Of course just requiring an absence of work doesn’t help the poor alone. If you need to work 7 days to earn enough then stopping that will just make you worse off. I just note that there is a huge difference in perception between the rich and the poor that’s tied to what one does with ones time.

  5. The following verses from the Old Testament make me think that “enforced day off” is not an adequate description of the practice of Sabbath-day observance among early Hebrews, and that “control mechanism” is more apt:

    Exodus 31:15

    Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord: whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.

    Numbers 15:32-36

    32 And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day.

    33 And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation.

    34 And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him.

    35 And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp.

    36 And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses.

  6. The Sabbath and sabbath-keeping were held to be the sign of the covenant, not merely a suggestion. They took it a bit more seriously than we do. Whether this is an actual account or (like others) legal rhetoric is up for debate.

  7. It’s not so hard to be LDS and keep the Sabbath when compared to what Orthodox Jews go through to keep it.

  8. When the Sabbath was first given, most people were working from sunrise to sunset, just to make sure that they could eat. Then the Sabbath was given as a way to say “Take a day off regularly, stop worrying about starving for a day, think of God, and have some fun”. But when do we have fun? Lots of nights, and most weekends. If I really wanted to make the Sabbath a delight now, I’d make a rule that I don’t get to watch any fun shows or movies, except for on Sundays. If I did that, I’d look forward to Sundays, because it’s a day where I could do something that I enjoy that I wouldn’t do on other days. I’m kind of torn with the idea that this is how God wants us to observe the Sabbath.
    Am I the only one who sees making it a day full of nothing but worship, and trying to make it a delight, mutually exclusive?

  9. Exodus 31:15 & Numbers 15:32-36 makes me think the Lord was serious about how he regarded Sabbath observance. The “schoolmaster to Christ” was indeed pretty harsh at the time, but if left to their own devices before you know it those Israelite children would be off worshiping the golden calf again…as a nation. It’s reassuring to live in our own time, governed by the higher law of Christ, where people are trusted to do the right thing on their own. As Joseph said, to my recollection, “teach them correct principles and they will govern themselves.” I am sure enough of the Saints try to do that on their own, such that we can leave the stones on the ground. But, reminders from the pulpit and elsewhere are helpful from time to time. After all, God could be much more forceful in His reminders to us if he had a mind to, currently. Sometimes, if we look back on how seriously he took things anciently, it helps us to see what his mind and will is concerning us at present, even though there is much greater, apparent, leniency now.

    As I see it, every moment I have walked this earth has been a gift from God through his Son, Jesus Christ. I believe in the paradigm that I had something to do, by choice, with all of us being here. (If I didn’t I would find other things to do with my time instead of reading columns like this). I also believe only one out of seven days to devote to the Lord, to do what He wants me to do, is quite reasonable and that he actually demands more, though not much, on the other days as well. Perhaps King Benjamin was thinking along these lines when he said:

    Mosiah 2:
    20 I say unto you, my brethren, that if you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another—
    21 I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.

  10. Six days shalt thou labor…

    I suggest that half or even most of Sabbath observance is what you are doing the rest of the week.

    Kinda like trying to determine the gravitational pull between two planets and not considering the mass of one of them. Or maybe even 6 of 7 of them in a system.

    Many of the blessings promised are more likely to happen to the ambitious and diligent.

    How does this factor into the other points made above in the contemporary context?


    My brother in the bishopric was describing how early he gets up on Sunday morning and all the meetings he attends and how little he sees his family including 3 teenage or nearly teenage sons and how exhausted his duties leave him. This is the same brother who called me to repentance for taking my son camping once a month with a non-LDS scout troop that includes being in the woods on Sunday and doing our own boy-created religious service. Seriously, how can any LDS leader with any significant responsibility claim they are keeping the Sabath? Not in my experience.

    Might blogging during the week be against the Sabbath? :)

  11. “Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden “to dress it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Labor is not only the destiny of man; it is endowed with divine dignity. However, after he ate of the tree of knowledge he was condemned to toil, not only to labor “In toil shall thou eat … all the days of thy life” (Genesis 3:17). Labor is a blessing, toil is the misery of man. The Sabbath as a day of abstaining from work is not a depreciation but an affirmation of labor, a divine exaltation of its dignity. Thou shalt abstain from labor on the seventh day is a sequel to the command: Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work [Ex. 20:9]…The duty to work for six days is just as much a part of God’s covenant with man as the duty to abstain from work on the seventh day” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning For Modern Man. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005 [1951], Kindle edition, 15-16)

  12. “Heck, the LDS church leaders allow for branches in Israel to congregate on Saturday. In Egypt and Jordan, LDS branches congregate on Friday. Why not extend that option in North America?”

    Brad L, this isn’t an example of an option. In Israel it isn’t that one can meet on Saturday *or* on Sunday, it is that for the vast majority of us Saturday is the only day. Sunday is a regular work and school day. Allowing members to meet on Saturdays instead of Sundays is a pragmatic concession allowing members to attend regularly. We are expected to treat it precisely as we would were it on a Sunday. There is still only one day, and that includes no shopping.

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