Divine Rest For Human Restlessness: A Theological Study Of The Good News Of The Sabbath For Today, by Samuele Bacchiocchi
Some years ago, when the opportunity came for me to speak and write at some length and depth about the Sabbath in a way that had never been the case before in my life, I was convinced that to do the subject justice would require a mention of areas of liberty, of freedom from slavery and debt, of a focus on the larger picture of grace and reconciliation that the Sabbath pictures. I could look at the Bible and see this picture, but I did not remember where it came from, as this approach to the Sabbath is very unusual in my own religious tradition where concerns about rest for the land or the gracious granting of forgiveness of the personal debts that others owe us as a result of their offenses is not particularly frequently commented on, much less practiced. I did not know where I had picked these ideas up, given that they seemed to come out of nowhere. In reading this book again for the first time in about twenty years, since I was a teenager, I was reminded that this book is the likely source of that particularly approach, as it is an unusual one but an immensely worthwhile one. Given the fact that I have written often about this perspective of the Sabbath, without remembering the source of my own reflections on it, I must take this book review as a chance to at least acknowledge the debt I have owed in my own thinking on the Sabbath to this immensely learned and gracious man, who I never got the chance to meet or write to as he died when I was still a child long before my writings ever attracted the attention of the wider world. While this debt can never be repaid, like so many I have owed in my life, it is worthwhile at least to acknowledge this debt and to give credit where credit is due, to a man whose all-too-short life was filled with a passionate and erudite scholarship into God’s word and into the human history of religion involving the knowledge and practice of Sabbath observance and its counterfeits.
To call this book a masterpiece without some explanation of its contents and its importance would be an injustice. The book is introduced, strikingly enough, by a devotee of Sundaykeeping whose writing reflects a respect for Dr. Bacchiocchi’s research and gentle approach. This book could easily have been harsh and sarcastic and polemical, but instead it is written with a sense of graciousness and compassion, even if it is uncompromising and detailed in explaining its reasoning from the scriptures as well as history. Its seven chapters begin by talking about the Creation in the Garden of Eden, looking at the origins of the Sabbath in God’s creation. Then the author proceeds to talk about the importance of perfect Creation, with the Sabbath serving as a bridge between paradise lost in the past and paradise restored in the world that is yet to come. After this comes a chapter that speaks about the Sabbath in terms of God’s care for our well-being, and then another chapter that examines the Sabbath from the point of view of our belonging with God and with other believers. After this comes a chapter about the Sabbath from the point of view of redemption, grace, forgiveness, and liberation. It is this chapter in particular which had a most profound effect on me in seeing how the Sabbath was structured in all of its elements to set us free, and to make us the sort of people who would want to set others free and place no unnecessary burdens on others, but rather to work to lift those burdens from weary shoulders so that all could know the rest that God meant for us to enjoy. After this comes a chapter on the service involved in the Sabbath, our acceptable offerings to God and to others, including and especially those who are vulnerable and in distress. After these six chapters comes the seventh chapter, a short conclusion that points out that the solution to our weariness and anxiety and tension, all of which are called by the author under the term restlessness, is the rest and peace of the Sabbath in its fullness. Following this conclusion is a summary of the author’s other noted book, From Sabbath To Sunday, and then a series of endnotes that are worth reading, filled with humanity and many intriguing explanatory comments about the author’s reasoning.
Among the many qualities that make this book such a worthwhile one is the fact that it is not only written by someone who is obviously in command of the scriptures on the Sabbath, as well as the writings of those who do not keep the seventh day Sabbath as commanded in scripture, but someone who writes with a kind and compassionate heart as well as a learned and able mind. In reading this book, one sees a man who sees in the Sabbath an often misunderstood way for people to reflect on God’s creation and meditate, not limited for privileged elites but provided for all men, as well as all animals and also for the land. One sees a man who looks with concern at the exploitation of humanity, the lack of respect for life, the predatorial treatment of creation in violation of our commands to tend and care for the earth as stewards rather than harsh lords. One sees a man who is troubled by the difficulty that people have in showing compassion to their neighbor or in communicating with family members or brethren. Not only does the author show his own heart for God’s creation and for God’s people, but one also sees him talk about his father’s conversion from Catholicism, his own solitary Sabbaths spent in communion with God in the countryside, his long engagement with his wife and how he kept the spark of attraction alive through separation. To see head and heart committed to writing about and honoring God’s Sabbath as the author did in the course of his life is an immensely inspiring matter, and it is little wonder that the author’s approach inspired me so much when I first read this book as a teenager. This is a book that deserves to be read and thoroughly digested, given the fact that there are few people on this earth who could write about the Sabbath with the felicity and focus on the Sabbath from a broader perspective of service to God and others as is done here. The highest and truest honor I can give to this book is to say that it has greatly inspired my own thinking and writing about the Sabbath, even if the author’s achievements are far above my own.