For everyone who opens Scripture, moments come when familiar words suddenly acquire new meaning—when the magnified, monocular view we’ve had of one text widens to a panorama, showing us a landscape we never knew was there.
I remember such an “Aha!” moment on the day I first read all of Isaiah 58.
Like most born-and-bred Adventists marching through Sabbath School and church-run elementary classrooms, I had memorized thethirteenth verse:
“If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words . . .”
It was a “go to” Bible text that shaped our understanding of how to keep the Sabbath—or mostly, how not to keep it. The unmistakable emphasis of our Bible classes and baptismal preparation was on things we should avoid each Sabbath, and verse 13 was linchpin to the case.
For all we knew, Sabbath was a great negation—and a great uncertainty. If I found pleasure in a Sabbath nap, was this a breaking of the fourth commandment? Must Sabbath always cut against the grain, an irritant to harmless joys available six days a week? What definition of “delight” included only solemn sermons, uncomfortable dress shoes, and (quietly) fighting with your brother for elbow space in the pew?
In my first 12 years of Adventist education, no one ever asked me to read the first seven eighths of Isaiah 58.
And when I did—when I read all of the words—I found that what God cared about was vastly different from whether my brother caught me mindlessly humming a tune that wasn’t “a Sabbath song.” God cared—God cares—about the way I treat the homeless and the helpless every day—and isn’t much impressed when I temporarily deny myself some pleasure, thinking that will make Him smile. He looks for faithfulness in brothering the hungry and protecting the mistreated at all times far more than my fastidiousness in keeping one dusk-to-dusk segment.
True Sabbathkeeping, according to the whole of what Isaiah wrote, is seven-days-a-week religion. This is the Word that brilliantly unites Exodus 20 and Matthew 25, reminding us that keeping Sabbath holy must include keeping faith with the unwhole and oppressed. The “Remember” of the Sabbath commandment finds its great echo in the self-forgetfulness of those whom Jesus calls His “sheep” on judgment day:
‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ (Matt 25:37-38, NRSV).1
This is historic, essential Adventist Christianity, the kind that honors Jesus every day of every week. Sabbathkeeping is no more—and no less—significant than our keeping of our Lord’s command to “Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him” (Isaiah 58:7, NRSV).
One hundred twenty-five years ago, Ellen White wrote in this journal, “Look about you, and see if there is not a work which the Lord has given you. The 58th chapter of Isaiah presents before you a work that has been neglected. . . The Bible means just what it says. The blessings are distinctly apportioned to those who are Christ-like, whose hearts are touched with human woe, and who realize that they are trading with their Lord’s money.”2
The “breach” we Adventists are called to repair (Isa 58:12) isn’t only the injury done to God’s law, but the injuries still happening to “the least of these.”
Protect the Sabbath. Protect the hurting.
“Against such there is no law” (Gal 5:23).