By Olive Hemmings  |  9 July 2019  |

“If you keep your feet from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable; and if you honor it by not going your own ways and seeking your own pleasure or speaking merely idle words, then you will take delight in the Lord, and he will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; and he will make you feast on the inheritance of your ancestor Jacob, your father. Yes! The mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isa. 58:13-14, ISV).

Many believe that prophecy in Scripture is concerned primarily with prediction, but that’s not true. Biblical prophecy is almost always speaking God’s word on behalf of the oppressed. The prophetic task is often one of calling out corruption and injustice.[1]

This is the context of Isaiah 58:13-14. We Seventh-day Adventists often use this passage as a proof text for proper seventh-day Sabbathkeeping. But read in context, it’s actually a prophetic oracle about how to treat others, not a dogmatic assertion on how to spend your Sabbath afternoons. The prophet Isaiah speaks out against the authoritarian abuse of Sabbath and calls Israel to see that the Sabbath’s spiritual significance is justice.

Isaiah 58 begins with the dismissal of religious rituals—new moons and Sabbath observances—as he calls for justice for the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow and then ends with this passage about the Sabbath.

This prophecy is not to nullify Sabbath observance, but to make the point that mere worship ritual and abstinence from certain activities does not fully express the spirit of Sabbath. The spirit of Sabbath embraces how we act toward others, not just how we amuse ourselves—or refuse to—on that day.

Shabbat Is More Than a Day

We Seventh-day Adventists have generally taken this passage to refer specifically to the seventh day of the week. It may include the Saturday Sabbath, but that is not all it addresses. None of the references to Sabbath in Isaiah carry the definite article “the;” Isaiah speaks of Shabbat, not the Sabbath.

In the Hebrew Bible, Shabbat transcends the ritualistic observance of a day in favor of an all-encompassing principle of justice that defines the prophetic ideal. This is true in both the Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 versions of this commandment: the seventh day is a principle, not just an event.

Shabbat refers to more than just the seventh day in Scripture, as well. The word is also is used for other events, such as every seventh (sabbatical) year and the seven-times-seventh Jubilee Year. After six years of planting, the land must rest. After six years of service, the slave must be emancipated and given enough provisions to start over. Jubilee comes at the end of seven cycles of sabbatical years, falling on the fiftieth year. According to Leviticus 25:10, the fiftieth year is sacred; it is a time of freedom and of celebration, when everyone receives back foreclosed property, slaves return home to their families, and the land rests (Isaiah 58:13-14).

A close reading of the fourth commandment in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 indicates that Sabbath is about solidarity in community. Everyone must rest, including the livestock and the slaves. Exodus 20:8-11 reminds Israel that all creation—even servants and animals—comes from one God. Deuteronomy 5:12-15 reminds Israel that as slaves in Egypt, they were once outcasts on the margins of society.

In summary, the fourth commandment is a comprehensive call for solidarity to do to others as you would have them do to you.

Shabbat Is Justice[2]

Observance of the seventh day is emblematic of the entire message of justice and liberation that characterizes the story of salvation. Isaiah 61:2 describes Jubilee (the seven-times-seventh Shabbat year) as the “year of the Lord’s favor” (NIV, ISV) or “the acceptable year of the Lord” (KJV). It is the ultimate Shabbat because it is emblematic of the practice of justice, which is the focal theme of Hebrew prophecy.

This is demonstrated in Isaiah 61, where the prophet describes his mission as the proclamation of Shabbat as expressed in the Jubilee Year: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (verses 1-3, NIV).

In Luke, Jesus read from this very passage on his first seventh-day Sabbath in the synagogue after his baptism when, filled with the Spirit, he returned to Galilee to begin his ministry (Luke 4:16-20). After reading it, Jesus handed back the Isaiah scroll to the synagogue attendant and declared: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (verse 21, NRSV). Luke portrays Jesus as resurrecting Shabbat from where it was buried underneath the quagmire of Judaic dogmatic self-indulgence, instead making it “good news to the poor” (verse 18).

What Are Your Interests?

When we Adventists read Isaiah 58:13-14, we focus almost exclusively on the part about doing “as you please” (NIV) or pursuing “your own interests” (NRSV, ISV) on Sabbath. What exactly does Isaiah mean when he speaks of “your own interests”? He tells us a few verses earlier: “Look! On your fast day you serve your own interest and oppress all your workers. Look! You fast only for quarreling, and for fighting, and for hitting with wicked fists. … Isn’t this the fast that I have been choosing: to loose the bonds of injustice, and to untie the cords of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Isn’t it to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him with clothing?” (verses 3-7, ISV).

In light of the context, and the meaning of Shabbat, this is how Isaiah 58:13-14 might actually read: If you cease abusing the Sabbath principle—that is, if you attend to justice and refrain from all kinds of oppression; if you make the practice of just principles your delight, not imposing your own will, or serving your selfish interests—then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.

The church that observes the spirit of Sabbath will not countenance any form of power abuse. Human communities flourish in peace and security when we practice justice—a reflection of Sabbath rest and peacefulness. This is the gospel of liberation that Isaiah preaches, which Jesus of Nazareth resurrected by reading his manifesto from Isaiah 61. Sabbath is good news to the poor, release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed, the stigmatized, and profiled. If we attend only to the ritual part of Sabbathkeeping, as many of us Seventh-day Adventists do, we rob it of its deepest meaning as surely as the Pharisees did.

  1. This is true even in the case of apocalyptic books such as Daniel and Revelation. The 2,300-days prophecy in Daniel addressed the Syrian oppression of Jews and the desecration of the Hebrew temple. The apocalyptic visions of Revelation addressed the oppression of the early church by the Roman Empire. Even the Scriptures that many rely on for prediction are really messages of hope and assurance as well as calls to persevere in righteousness, in spite of oppression.
  2. The words translated “righteous” in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament actually mean “justice.”

Olive J. Hemmings is a professor of religion and ethics at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland. This piece was originally published in the Autumn 2017 edition of the Adventist Today paper magazine.

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