In the beginning, God created rhythms. He spoke on day four,
Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years. (Genesis 1:14)
When Adam entered Eden two days later, he stepped into a dance of day and night, month and year, winter and spring and summer and fall. And then, between the rhythms of the day and the month, God added one more, a pattern taught not by the heavens but by his own example: the seven-day rhythm of the week (Genesis 2:1–3).
God could have made a rhythm-less world if he wanted — a world without days and weeks and months and years. But in his wisdom, days four and seven of creation serve day six; rhythms make the world a good habitation for finite humans, in need of rest and refreshment. As creatures of dust, we are creatures of rhythm.
“Which is why it’s so concerning,” Kevin DeYoung writes, “that our lives are getting more and more rhythm-less.” He represents many when he says,
We don’t have healthy routines. We can’t keep our feasting and fasting apart. Evening and morning have lost their feel. Sunday has lost its significance. Everything is blurred together. The faucet is a constant drip. (Crazy Busy, 94)
In other words, life today looks less like Eden, and more like Egypt.
Days in Egypt
By the time we reach Exodus 1, Genesis 1–2 is a lost world. We find no reference to weeks or months, seasons or years in Egypt — only to an endless sequence of workdays. Perhaps some Egyptians lived by routines of work and rest. But for Pharaoh’s slaves, Egypt was a world without rhythms.
Unlike the restful God of creation (Genesis 2:2–3), Pharaoh exhibits a single-minded madness for labor and production. When Israel grows mighty, he sets them to work (Exodus 1:11). When Moses tells him to let the people go, he makes their work harder (Exodus 5:4). And when Israel finally leaves Egypt, he pursues, wondering how he could have allowed them to leave their work (Exodus 14:5). To Pharaoh, a slave’s 80-year life was merely a sequence of 29,200 workdays, inconveniently disrupted by the need for sleep.
“As creatures of dust, we are creatures of rhythm.”
Though the modern West has no singular equivalent of Egypt’s restless king, the cultural air we breathe carries a pharaonic scent. Not only do average work hours in America exceed that of many other countries, but as DeYoung notes, the boundaries between work and rest have stretched and blurred. We no longer need to go to the office to make our bricks; we just need Wi-Fi. And even our “off time” regularly falls prey to what Andrew Lincoln calls “the hectic round of activities [showing] that leisure itself is caught on the treadmill of working and consuming” (From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, 404).
Such is the rhythm-less life, a life with no square on the calendar labeled “Rest.” And many need a fresh exodus.
‘You Shall Not Work’
As soon as God rescues Israel, rhythms return. The first mentions of month and year appear as God commands Israel to celebrate the exodus annually (Exodus 12:2–3). Soon after, we find the first reference to the Sabbath (Exodus 16:23), Israel’s weekly commemoration of creation and redemption (Exodus 20:11; Deuteronomy 5:15). The drumbeat of endless days gives way to the rhythm of the seasons.
Pharaoh knew only how to say, “You shall work,” but God knows how to say, “You shall not work.” Over a dozen times, he tells his redeemed people, “You shall not do any work” (or “any ordinary work”) — a command that applied not only to the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10), but also to Israel’s festivals (Leviticus 23:7–8, 21, 25, 31, 35–36). In this blessed shall not, God snatched something of Egypt out of the lives of his people, and put something of Eden in its place.
Today, of course, we no longer live under the old covenant and its cultic rhythms. Christians are not bound to observe Israel’s festivals — nor even to keep a literal Sabbath, which, along with the festivals, has found its fulfillment in Christ (Colossians 2:16–17). But the imperative to rest still reaches us today, indirectly if not directly.
The heavens above still sing their rhythmic song. We still walk as creatures of the dust. God’s 6-and-1 pattern still invites our imitation. And Jesus’s own routines of work and rest still model the fully human life (Mark 1:35; 6:30–32). “You shall not work,” though not a covenantal command, is still the wisdom of the saints.
So, how might we begin unlearning the rhythm-less ways of Pharaoh? How might we gather up our days into some sustainable pattern of work and rest? Though we would be wise to consider, at some point, seasonal or annual rhythms of rest (in the form of weekend retreats or weeklong vacations, for example), weekly rest is likely our best starting point.
“If nightly sleep places a period at the end of each day’s sentence, weekly rest adds a paragraph break.”
If nightly sleep places a period at the end of each day’s sentence, weekly rest adds a paragraph break: once a week, we slow down, catch our breath, and live in the white space of life’s page. We pause after the pattern of the world’s first week and remember that we were made for rhythms; we were made for work and rest.
Consider, then, a few modest first steps.
Rhythms of rest require boundaries. The best resters build a gate in time, the entrance of which reads, “No work allowed.” The boundary need not protect a strict 24-hour period (since, again, we are not under the fourth commandment). But unless we put a boundary around some period of time — Friday morning, Thursday afternoon and evening, sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday — rest will likely prove elusive.
Setting a boundary, of course, is far easier than keeping a boundary. As soon as we build a gate, something will start banging on it. Keeping the door closed calls for bold faith that God will provide for us once we set down the pen, close the computer, finish for the day. God told Israel to rest not only when work allowed for it, but even “in plowing time and in harvest” (Exodus 34:21). In other words, “Even in your busiest seasons, when your livelihood seems to depend on restless work, trust me and rest.”
To be sure, we would be wrong to set our boundaries so firmly that we close our ears to urgent needs. That kind of coldhearted boundary-keeping made Jesus angry (Mark 3:1–5). But exceptions to our boundaries should be just that: exceptions. If they become the rule, we may need to reevaluate our sense of what needs truly are urgent.
As many quickly discover, however, a day off does not equal a day of rest. Just as some people return from a trip saying, “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation,” so we sometimes end a day off feeling like we need another. Maybe we packed the day with good but exhausting activities (sports practices, home projects, taxing social events), or maybe we entertained ourselves into oblivion. Either way, our “rest” has left us more restless than rested.
Again, God’s own pattern gives us our goal: “In six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed” (Exodus 31:17). Following God into this kind of rest requires not only setting boundaries, but also filling those boundaries with genuinely refreshing activities — activities that send us back into our work replenished in mind, soul, and body, ready to spend and be spent for the good of others.
The kinds of refreshing activities available to us will vary according to life stage, of course. Rest for a husband and father will look different from rest for a single man — less reading and napping, perhaps, and more time with the kids outside. Even still, all of us would do well to consider (and discuss with family or roommates) what some refreshing rest might look like, taking all factors into account.
Perhaps some time alone refreshes us — or perhaps people time does. Maybe we benefit from reading poetry or taking a walk. Some will want to be more physically active; others less. Probably everyone could benefit from curbing digital technologies and finding what Albert Borgmann calls a “focal practice”: an activity that “has a commanding presence, engages your body and mind, and engages you with others” — playing music, fishing, handwriting a letter, cooking a meal.
And of course, one activity rests at the heart of the Christian’s refreshment: worship.
Worship your Redeemer.
Before God gave Israel the fourth commandment, he gave them the first: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2–3). The Sabbath rested on (1) the reminder of redemption and (2) the call to revere God above all. Which implies that, if Israel were really to rest — if they were really to find refreshment in the Sabbath, and not just a day off — they needed to worship their Redeemer.
“Ultimately, rest flows not from a weekly pause, but from a Person.”
Millennia later, Jesus would issue an invitation that follows a similar pattern: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Ultimately, rest flows not from a weekly pause, but from a Person. Unlike Pharaoh, he has no need for store cities and slave labor, for he owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10). He looks not first for workers but for worshipers, and he calls us not to Egypt but to the Eden of Himself.
For good reason, then, many Christians seek to join their weekly day of rest with their weekly day of corporate worship. If we can do the same, wonderful. If not, we can at least find some special way to say with both our hearts and our lips, “Jesus, not Pharaoh, is Lord” — and then live it out by laying down our bricks.