Is Pleasure "Forbidden" on the Sabbath?
“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.”
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. By that I mean that Israel was keeping Gods law externally but not internally. They thought they were keeping the Sabbath simply because they weren't working, but they really didn't enjoy the Sabbath For many of them it was a drag rather than a delight. 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.”*
Note: The word please in verse 3 and pleasure in verse 13 are the same exact Hebrew word and these are the only times that that 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.
Further Reading: The Sabbath, Holy Day, Sour Day, Or Holiday?
* White, Ellen G. The faith I Live By. p 36