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Is it OK to Have “Fun” on the Sabbath?

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“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please 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 way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” For the mouth of the Lord has spoken. – Isaiah 58:13-14

Growing up I never really gave this text much thought. I figured it was just another one of the clear commandments in scripture to honor the Sabbath day. No big deal right? Well, it wasn’t for me. But some take this text to say something, which if true, would have far reaching implications.

The argument goes something like this, “The Bible says that on the Sabbath day we are not to do as we please, therefore anything pleasurable should be avoided on the Sabbath.” And what do these well-meaning Sabbath keepers mean by “pleasurable”? Well, that depends on who you are talking to. Some would say that this text forbids sex on the Sabbath. Others would say that it forbids doing anything that would be considered “fun” like jumping in the pool or a lake. I know of some Adventist families that would allow their kids to go to the beach on Sabbath but only if they didn’t let the water go past their knees. If they went any deeper they were “breaking the Sabbath.” But is this interpretation of the text correct?

The problem with this interpretation is that it ignores the context in which this text was given. This text was part of a much larger message that God gave to Isaiah for the nation of Israel. Therefore, in order to understand the text we have to ask the question, “What did “pleasurable” mean for the Israelites? Is God here rebuking them for having sex on the Sabbath? Is he rebuking them for going out for a swim at the lake or for laughing or enjoying themselves on the Sabbath? Let’s find out.

Isaiah 58 is a message of rebuke to Israel from God because they were being, for lack of a better word, hypocrites. They were acting religious and going through all of the proper religious rituals but their hearts were not right with God. Because of this God’s blessing was not on Israel. Israel then got upset and said to God, “’Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’”

In other words, Israel is saying to God, “Hey, we are being faithful to you, but you aren’t being faithful to us. What gives?” God then responds to Israel and says something that unlocks the meaning of “pleasure” in verse 3. He says:

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.”

Did you catch it? The text mentions 3 things. First, the Israelites are fasting. This is a religious activity. Next, they are engaged in business with their workers. This is a business activity. Finally, they are exploiting their workers. This is a criminal activity. God is telling the Israelites “You do religious things because you think it gives you a license to do sinful things.” In other words, the “pleasure” God is referring to is the religious hypocrisy of Israel. They found pleasure in their religious activities because they thought all of their pious activity gave them license to mistreat others, which they also found pleasure in. Pleasure then refers to religious activity, business activity, and criminal activity – all of which were intricately related to one another in Israel’s streets.

So what is God saying when he says, “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day…”? He’s telling the Israelites, “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from being religious hypocrites who mistreat others on my holy day then” and he continues saying, “if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” And just in case you aren’t convinced that verse 13 is referring back to verse 3 note that the word “please” in verse 3 and “pleasure” in verse 13 are the same exact Hebrew word and these are the only times that this Hebrew word appears in the book of Isaiah. Clearly then, Isaiah’s use of “pleasure” in verse 13 is in reference to the word “please” in verse 3.

This text has nothing to do with not having sex on the Sabbath. It has nothing to do with not having fun on the Sabbath. On the contrary, it says to call the Sabbath “a delight.” Pleasure is not forbidden on the Sabbath. Going your own way, doing as you please, and speaking idle words are all references to Israel performing business on the Sabbath, exploiting their workers, and being religious hypocrites. God was calling them to be genuine in their faith, in their Sabbath keeping, and to treat others right.

So how should we interpret this text in light of today’s world? The same exact way. God is calling us to call his Sabbath a delight, not a religious demand. He’s calling us to enjoy it, not just go through the motions of keeping it while our hearts are far from him. He’s calling us to be sincere and to treat others right. If we do, he promises that we “will find your joy in the Lord.”

As Ellen White so passionately put it, “The Sabbath–oh!–make it the sweetest, the most blessed day of the whole week.” – White, Ellen G. The faith I Live By. p 36

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Roger Hernandez

Roger Hernandez is the Ministerial and Evangelism Director for the Southern Union. He has served in the ministry for over 20 years. He is a motivational speaker and has spoken at division, union and conference events as well as at SEEDS, the church planting conference run by NADEI (North American Division Evangelism Institute) in Berrien Springs, Michigan, as well as camp-meeting, leadership conventions, and trainings. Pastor Hernandez is fully bi-lingual and has presented to many groups as well as done evangelism training and crusades. He is the author of 5 books, his most recent Epic Fail. He was born in Cuba and is married with four children. He also blogs regularly at leadsu.org

This Post Has 6 Comments
  1. You have a good point Marcos and I’m not going to disagree with your conclusions, but I can’t shake the feeling of feeling more when I read that verse. After reading the verse, isn’t there something deep inside most of us that says, “Hey, do I leave any room for God on Sabbath?” The answer often being – No.
    Most people just don’t relate fun with God and that has a bit to do with what is considered fun in society and how we fail to include God in most of what we do.
    I get your point the Isaiah was addressing a certain issue, but let’s not restrict what he is addressing too tightly. I still get this undeniable feeling like this text is meant to address so much more.

    1. Hey Jason! Thanks for your comment. I totally agree dude 😀 I am not suggesting that the Sabbath is a chill day to do whatever. Obviously its a special day for God so keeping him central is key. All I am saying is that the Sabbath is a delight and a joy and should be the best day of the week. But yes, I agree with what you are saying. I may write a future article that wrestles with those other concepts 😀

  2. Fantastic article! And if you think about it, the arbitrary rules some people impose on their children or friends are similar to what God was reprimanding Israel for, acting religious while their hearts were corrupt.

    1. Very true Sally! Ill never forget the first time I heard a guy tell his youth group that you could splash your feet in the water on Sabbath but couldn’t jump in. Sounded like something that would fit right in the list of 1000 rules the Pharisees had invented regarding the Sabbath. But God is merciful and continues to lead us along toward a fuller understanding of what Sabbath is all about. I thank him for that!

  3. The pleasures of God is to see his children happy, in the fullest sense of the word happy. His children are happiest when they are in God’s presence. Psalms 16:11 reveals the following “Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.” The more our thoughts are trained to dwell on God and His character (what He is like), the greater our appreciation of Him and our desire to be with Him. Things, conversations and activities that distract us from dwelling on Him, whatever it may be, as well as hypocrisy, sinful thoughts, our selfish pleasure seeking, will detract from the true meaning and purpose of the Sabbath. “The Sabbath calls our thoughts to nature, and brings us into communion with the Creator.” DA 281.4 I’m still learning and trying to figure out things myself as I have some kids I’m trying to raise in the fear and admonition of the Lord. I want my kids to appreciate and enjoy the hours of the Sabbath but not under the umbrella of ” anything goes as long as you love Jesus”. It may appear correct but ultimately are we seeking to please ourselves or the Lord of Hosts? Although those two don’t have to be contradicting each other, so often, because of our sinful natures and bent toward sin it can and often does. This does not mean that we are to police others. God has not given us that job. We are, however, to bring to light principles God has revealed and help each other as we “grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 3:18 As I know you Marcos, are trying to do.

    Sorry for the longer than intended response. Just sharing some thoughts.

    1. Great comment Eugen! I couldnt agree more. That search for balance is key. Some people settle for an anything goes attitude which robs the Sabbath of its significance. Others settle for a nothing goes attitude which also robs it of its significance. Its about recognizing its beauty and seeking to enter into it. 🙂

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