Stop making bricks — you can stop.
Because of who God is, this reality rings as true today as it did in the life of ancient Israel, dating all the way back to their slave labor in Egypt just before the exodus.
The hysteria of that exodus is meant to distance us from the deplorable conditions of Israel’s servitude, not distract us from their significance in the story of God’s salvation. But chances are, by the time we get to Exodus 20, after walking through the plagues and crossing the Red Sea, we’re prone to forget the impossible workload that was shackled to Israel’s feet.
Therefore, God reminds us, as a preface to the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lᴏʀᴅ your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). This deliverance reverberates throughout the entire Bible as the key moment in the Old Testament where God’s faithfulness was put on display. It is the dramatic, identity-shaping act where God, through his mighty works, calls his people to himself — and away from Egypt.
So what was Egypt like, again?
It was bricks — more bricks, all day, everyday. It was work, work, work, an infatuation with the bottom line, with no restraints on how to get there (Exodus 5:4–9). It was about production, not flourishing; strict commerce, not neighborly love. It was about the commodity of idols, not the imaging of God. In other words, it was a world in opposition to humanity’s purpose — and one not too unlike sectors of our society today.
Ancient Egypt, like many modern cultures, was itself enslaved to a merry-go-round economy — one whose value is measured by its size and speed, one whose passengers keep yelling “faster, faster, faster,” one whose bars, once you grab hold of and start pushing, you mustn’t let go. Run and keep running. Push and keep pushing.
And then, on the other side, simultaneous to the endless churning and mulling and doing to be bigger, better, and more popular, is the insatiable buying and earning and trading to get bigger, better, and more popular things. The result is restlessness. Old Testament scholar Walter Bruegemann writes that this creates “a society of 24/7 multitasking in order to achieve, accomplish, perform, and possess” (Sabbath As Resistance, Locations 88–92). He explains that “the rat race of such predation and usurpation is a restlessness” that twists and turns throughout all of life, leaving an aftermath of inescapable anxiety that is often unmanageable. Which is to say, unbearable. It is a weight that leads people to do unthinkable things like jump off bridges and sacrifice their children, whether literal or metaphorical.
And all of it, in essence, says something about the deity under whom they live.
So Says the Deity
As Bruegemann shows, Egypt’s relentless drive to produce points to the commitment of their gods. The gods of Egypt were as devoted to the aggrandizement of Pharaoh’s system as anyone because Pharaoh’s glory meant their glory. They demanded to be served by human hands because they needed the good promotion. There was a void to be filled, an ever-increasing glory quota that had to be met, and therefore, there was no time for stopping.
It is against this background that we’re to understand the meaning of Sabbath. Our English word “Sabbath” is simply a transliteration of the original Hebrew which means “rest” — first appearing in verb form in Genesis 2:2, “and [God] rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.” It later became a prescribed observance to the people of Israel upon their exodus (Exodus 20:8). But far beyond a mere command to his people, the Sabbath is meant to say something powerful about God himself.
God, as we see in creation, isn’t a deity wringing his sweaty hands in panic, trying to milk dry every last drop of what’s there. No. He speaks and it comes to be, out of nothing, and he does it in six days, resting on the seventh just because he can. He wants us to know, right from the start and in the rhythms of our lives, that he doesn’t need anything. He is the one who works, in perfect precision, neither too little nor too much, and we exist to bask in his glory, not barter for its increase. We exist to magnify his radiance, not supplement his worth.
And because this is the case, in a world where everyone’s deity says to do, do, do, the God of Israel says to stop. The air we breathe of this fallen world is anxiety: Keep busy and stay nervous. And it’s into this mess, striking through the smog like flashes of lightening, the fundamental message of God’s salvation resounds: Trust me and rest.
The principle of Sabbath is a glorious picture of God’s self-sufficiency and unwavering ability to provide. As God’s people, our rest becomes “a decisive, concrete, visible way of opting for and aligning with the God of rest” (Location 278). Perhaps as much now as in that early biblical context, one of the most head-turning, soul-stirring moves we make as a witness to God’s holiness is when we stop.
At night when we go to bed, on a whole day when we pause our projects, in a season of vacation or Sabbatical, our stopping work is our saying Enough! to the merry-go-round. We don’t have to ride this thing. There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God (Hebrews 4:9–10). Rest, then, becomes our regular dramatization of the heart of the gospel: “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith will be counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).
We can put down our tools. We can close our computers. We can forbid those thoughts about that next meeting or those emails waiting for a reply or how the numbers aren’t as high as we’d like. We can stop and trust him who justifies the ungodly. We can trust that when Jesus died in our place on the cross, he died to destroy all the anxieties of our lack, to still our ceaseless striving, to hush the winds of our self-justifying labor, to irrevocably connect us to the abundance of his grace we possess by his work, not ours.
We can trust the Lord of Rest who came to give us rest, and say, because of who he is: Stop making bricks — you can stop.