Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva Dawn

Book Summary

This is a book I wish I had read and put into practice when I was much younger. I saw the Sabbath as one of the most wonderful gifts God had given. Who wouldn’t love a God who tells us to “take a day off.” And kept the Sabbath for more than 45 years. I worked very hard for the 6 days out of the week – but then I stopped. I rested. I napped. I was exhausted. I am convinced that keeping the Sabbath enabled me to be more productive the other six days. And that seemed to work. But Marva opens up a whole new dimension to the Sabbath which I have only dipped my toes in. And I have such a long way to go.

Executive Summary

I would say that her central premise is that the church is supposed to keep the

The Fourth Commandment

Sabbath. Other than the conventional arguments for obeying the 4th commandment, her new [to me] argument for this is a good one. Jesus battled the existing interpretation of how one was supposed to keep the Sabbath continually in His ministry. It is recorded in all four accounts of the Gospel. One has to believe that the disciples asked him to clarify and to instruct them in private as to how to keep the Sabbath. And yet, on the day of the crucifixion and on the next day, the disciples did not anoint the body with oil, either Friday night or Saturday – because they were keeping Sabbath. So clearly Jesus did not teach his disciples that keeping the Sabbath was not important.

She then develops four major components of keeping Sabbath:

    • Ceasing
    • Resting
    • Embracing
    • Celebrating – She calls it Feasting

She develops these in the rest of the book.

She begins the book by talking about “going to church” on the Sabbath.

We are NOT ”going to church”! We are going to a sanctuary to participate in an order of worship together with other people of God gathered in community, to be nourished by all that we do there together so that we can go out into the world and be church.


Dawn opens this section with what she has found is a benefit of Sabbath keeping:

A great benefit of Sabbath keeping is that we learn to let God take care of us — not by becoming passive and lazy, but in the freedom of giving up our feeble attempts to be God in our own lives.

The first part of the book looks at all the different ways that the Sabbath emphasizes Ceasing. Ceasing from our:

    • Work – “To cease working on the Sabbath means to quit laboring at anything that is work. Activity that is enjoyable and freeing and not undertaken for the purpose of accomplishment (see the next chapter) qualifies as acceptable for Sabbath time. … What God wants from us is a whole day that we set apart to honor him by gathering with a sacred assembly and by ceasing from work—a day that is a Sabbath ceasing unto Yahweh.”
    • Productivity and Accomplishment – “The second kind of ceasing for which we are freed by the practice of Sabbath keeping is the delight of quitting this endless round of trying to produce. … We join the generations of believers—going all the way back to God’s people, the Jews—who set aside a day to remember that we are precious and honored in God’s sight and loved, profoundly loved, not because of what we produce.
    • Anxiety, Worry and Tension – “The Sabbath is not a running away from problems, but the opportunity to receive grace to face them.”
    • Trying to be God – “A major blessing of Sabbath keeping is that it forces us to rely on God for our future. On that day we do nothing to create our own way. We abstain from work, from our incessant need to produce and accomplish, from all the anxieties about how we can be successful in all that we have to do to get ahead. The result is that we can let God be God in our lives.
    • Possessiveness – “One of the reasons for refraining from buying or selling on Sabbath days is that to buy or sell puts the focus on all the wrong things. We think about what we want instead of what God wants. We let possessions dominate our desires instead of longing for the presence of God. …. ‘And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.’ There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.” I never thought of that before. What other objects in space did God make holy? Wasn’t the temple an object in space? Wasn’t it made holy? Her limiting phrase is “in the record of creation.” Or in other words, in Genesis 1-2. Even with that limitation, I still think it is a powerful point. The Sabbath is not an object in space. It is in time . And God calls that time “holy.”
    • Enculturation – “Abraham Heschel begins his book entitled The Sabbath by contrasting our technological civilization and its emphasis on space and the things of space with the religion of Judaism and its emphasis on time. The same contrast should obtain between our culture and Christianity, for Christianity is also composed of holy time and the events that took place in time—the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.”
    • Humdrum and Meaninglessness – “Celebrating the Sabbath is different from running away. We do not merely leave the dimensions discussed in the preceding six chapters—we actually cease letting them have a hold on our lives.  … the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. … The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays.” This thought has changed my view of Sabbath completely


The spiritual rest which God especially intends in this
commandment [to keep the Sabbath holy] is that we not
only cease from our labor and trade but much more—that
we let God alone work in us and that in all our powers do
we do nothing of our own. Martin Luther

But we don’t just cease from something we also enter into a special rest. In this Part she looks at four ways of resting:

    • Spiritual Rest – “The spiritual rest which God especially intends in this commandment [the covenant command to keep the Sabbath holy] is that we not only cease from our labor and trade but much more—that we let God alone work in us and that in all our powers do we do nothing of our own.
    • Physical Rest – “Perhaps that is why a weekly cycle of work and physical rest had to be commanded by God rather than merely suggested. As Eugene Peterson, author of ‘The Pastor’s Sabbath [NOTE: This is an excellent article from Christianity Today which I used on a Pastor’s retreat. ] ,’ insists, ‘Nothing less than a command has the power to intervene in the vicious, accelerating, self-perpetuating cycle of faithless and graceless busy-ness, the only part of which we are conscious –  being our good intentions.’”
    • Emotional Rest – “… the Sabbath gives us emotional rest by offering us a different place to stand in our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with the world.
    • Intellectual Rest – “However, the fragmented nature of our experience prevents us from grasping a coherent view of the whole. One of the best analyses of all of this is Jacques Ellul’s Humiliation of the Word, which laments the fact that our view of reality is so distorted by the ‘news,’ which comes to us in small, disjointed pieces that change every day and that usually focus on the catastrophic. The result is that we develop an inadequate perspective on world events and a consequent dwindling of our sense of hope and meaning. We don’t have much time to think about any of the headlines except when they impinge on us directly, and then our view is usually an isolated one that does not take into consideration the relationship of that one dimension to the whole of our situation. … Sabbath keeping offers us the time to gain a larger perspective, to view our fragmented existence in light of a larger whole — in Jacques Ellul’s terms, to view our visible reality in light of the invisible, and larger Truth.”
    • Social Rest – In this section she is talking about justice and integrity in relationships. “My prayer has been that this book will reawaken a desire among Christians to keep the Sabbath. That prayer is extended by the petition that our Sabbath keeping in the Church will also issue in justice keeping and peace keeping in the world.”


But, we are not just called to cease and to enter into rest but we are called to embrace. In this Part, she:

“will consider how important it is that we as a Sabbath people deliberately embrace the values of the Christian community. In making this choice we embrace time instead of space and giving instead of requiring.”

    • Embracing Intentionality – “One of the treasures of learning about Sabbath keeping for me has been coming to understand better the Jewish emphasis on acting intentionally. Judaism has often been criticized as a ritualized religion of law, but we must rethink that false notion. Of course, the carefulness of Jewish practices can easily become empty formalism or legalistic duty. On the other hand, we must respect their insistence on practices that set them apart from the culture—not in any elitist, “holier-than-thou” way, but in a way that attempts to prevent their biblical faith and its particular values from being swallowed up by the surrounding culture.” Lauren Winner was a practicing Jew who converted to Christianity. One of the things she missed as she got involved in the church was this intentionality of the Sabbath that she practiced before. She writes about this in her book: Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline. Lauren writes: “… I miss Jewish ways. I miss the
      rhythms and routines that drew the sacred
      down into the everyday. I miss Sabbaths on
      which I actually rested.”
    • Embracing the Values of the Christian Community – “Sheldon Wolin brings all of these factors together in this description of the human condition in the modern world : ‘Without a stable society, an unquestioned authority, the tight bonds of family, community, vocational group, and religious order, the individual feels lost, beset by an overwhelming sense of loneliness and personal futility.’” This stability and tight family bonds are some of the things that keeping Sabbath instills in us.
    • Embracing Time instead of Space – “We must return to the question of how we in our busy lives can afford to spend a whole day in Sabbath ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting when it seems we don’t have enough time to do what has to be done. Surrounded as we are by the rapid pace of too much change, we think we cannot set aside such time.” This was a wonderful and new concept to me that she claims is the way the Hebrews saw the world. Embracing space means that we concentrate on the things that need to be done. Embracing time – means that we are free with this gift of time to do anything He brings to us. “[During Sabbath] there is no need to hurry – for there is nothing we have to do.”
    • Embracing Giving instead of Requiring – In this world of consumerism, “perhaps the Christian community could repel this invasion with a weekly counteroffensive—the Sabbath practice of giving rather than accumulating, of caring for the needs of others instead of requiring for oneself, of putting aside one’s personal pleasure in order to create pleasure for many.”
    • Embracing Our Calling in Life – Practicing Sabbath where we  “dwell on who God is and who I am in light of his character always leads me to sheer gratitude for the privilege of my own unique position as his servant.”
    • Embracing Wholeness—Shalom – “One of the ways in which the Sabbath contributes to our wholeness is that it frees us to enjoy all the dimensions of our being. As we enjoy art or music and appreciate beauty, as we experience the healing and rediscovery of our emotions, as we celebrate our true masculinity and femininity, these things bring greater balance to our lives. Moreover, in the integration that thorough ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting produce, we know our real identity, and that leads to the genuine humility and confidence of truth.”
    • Embracing the World – “Furthermore, we can tell from the obedience of his followers — who rested on the Sabbath day and did not go to his tomb to anoint his body more thoroughly for its burial — that he had not instructed them in any way other than to observe the Sabbath day.”

Okay! I got it – but embracing all of these in 24 hours make me tired. But thankfully that is not what Marva is inviting us to. But she does expand my definition of “keeping Sabbath.”

One of the things Marva opened up to me in this chapter was the literary structure of Gen 1-2

… the septenary structure of Genesis 1 : 1 — 2 : 3 is less obvious in our English translations. The Hebrew account is composed of seven sections ; verse one contains seven words ; verse two contains fourteen words. Many words occur in multiples of seven—the words God, earth, the heavens, and light occur 35, 21, 21, and 7 times, respectively. In addition, Genesis 2:2-3 has three sentences of seven Hebrew words each, and the middle word in each sentence is the word for seventh day, used to emphasize this as the goal of creation. … Even as we cease working although our work is not done and spend the Sabbath as if we have no work to do, just so we embrace wholeness on that day even when we are not experiencing wholeness in our present circumstances. The God who ordained that the Sabbath be kept holy is able to watch over our dark nights of the soul and give us Sabbath rest and hope even in the midst of the desolations. …

PART IV – FEASTING (or Celebrating)

The Cubs celebrate after winning the 2016 World Series.

Ah, but we don’t just cease and enter into rest and in the process embrace the call to community, but we are called to CELEBRATE! She calls it feasting and opens up the following ways to feast/CELEBRATE:

    • Feasting on the Eternal – “Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise. … Many times we cannot hear God’s voice because we want him to speak our language. …As Abraham Heschel declares, ‘What we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us.’”
    • Feasting with Music – Do we take time to just listen to great music – not while we work or eat – but just feast on music for a day?
    • Feasting with Beauty – Do we take time to just feast on beauty?
    • Feasting with Food – Whoa! Food requires work but if we see food preparation as part of Feasting, perhaps we can do this.
    • Feasting with Affection – “This frequently used image is wonderfully true : our relationships are like the spokes of a wheel — the closer we draw to the center, which is God, the closer we are to the other spokes. Our feasting on the presence of God involves the rhythm of solitude and community within the framework of our Sabbath keeping.”
    • Feasting and Festival – “The handicapped teach us this important lesson : We do not need to wait until suffering is over to celebrate, and the festivity itself deepens our communication with God. For this reason, to keep the Sabbath necessarily has involved celebration—even in times when the Jews were being persecuted. To continue to observe the festival of the Sabbath enabled many of them to maintain great courage in the death camps of the Holocaust. … As Downey stresses, celebration is not a compensation for suffering. Rather, ‘Joy born of deep suffering is nourished by moments of celebration…. Celebration properly understood is the acceptance of life in an ever growing recognition that it is so precious.’”

Marva closes the book with some rituals to begin that Sabbath. If your concept of Sabbath keeping is ready to be challenged – pick up this book and read it and put it into practice! You won’t regret it.