When I read Leviticus a while ago, I got a bit confused about all the different types of offerings, who’s pouring blood at the base of the altar, who’s removing the fat and kidneys and who’s carrying it outside the camp to burn it up. Among all those instructions, one thing intrigued me most and that was the command of having ‘solemn rest’.
First of all, it appeared many times in Leviticus 23 and 25, often enough for me to look up the word ‘solemn’ in the dictionary. It’s an adjective with two meanings:
Entry 1. Formal and dignified (sub-entry: Not cheerful or smiling; serious).
Entry 2. Characterised by deep sincerity.
That’s immediately interesting. ‘Solemn’ and ‘rest’ are almost contradictory in terms! By our definition and in our experience, ‘rest’ is, most of the time and most typically, slouching on the sofa watching Netflix (or any equivalent service of your choice). It’s certainly not ‘formal’. And ‘being dignified’ or ‘sincerity’ don’t associate with ‘rest’ at all. So what does ‘solemn rest’ mean? What does it look like? Have we got ‘rest’ wrong?
So, secondly, I looked up the context of some of the examples of ‘solemn rest’ in the Bible. Here’s a list of five from Leviticus (there are a few more in Exodus):
No.1 “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwelling places.” – Leviticus 23:3
So ‘a Sabbath of solemn rest’ here is described as ‘a holy convocation (a large formal assembly of people)’. My understanding for now: Israelites gather for the set-apart purpose of God. My question: What do they do when they gather? What is the mood? Is this like having a Christmas dinner or like taking Holy Communion?
No.2 “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with blast of trumpets, a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work, and you shall present a food offering to the LORD.” – Leviticus 23:24-25
This one adds the purpose of the ‘day of solemn rest’: ‘a memorial’. It’s to remember what God has done for the Israelites (more on purposes of Sabbath, read Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15). And they shall do no ordinary work and they shall present a food offering. What counts as ‘ordinary work’? (This might be where the Pharisees went a bit over the top.) How does this ‘present a food offering to the LORD’ translate for us?
No.3 “Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the LORD. And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God. For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people. And whoever does any work on that very day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall not do any work. It is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It shall be to you a Sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict yourselves. On the ninth day of the month beginning at evening, from evening to evening shall you keep your Sabbath.” – Leviticus 23:27-32
This one add another bit of information: ‘you shall afflict yourselves’, repeated twice. ‘Afflict’ means ‘(of a problem or illness) cause pain or trouble to; affect adversely’. It’s usually used passively, e.g. ‘When a man is afflicted with a leprous disease, he shall be brought to the priest (Leviticus 13:9)’, or as a noun, e.g. ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry (Exodus 3:7)’. Here are a couple of examples of ‘afflict’ used as a verb as in this verse: ‘Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. (Exodus 1:11)’, ‘But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. (Genesis 12:17)’ There are usually two parties involved. What does it mean to ‘afflict’ oneself?
No.4 “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD seven days. On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.” – Leviticus 23:39-40
This one seems to say ‘solemn rest’ can be given specific time and dates.
No. 5 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD. For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land.” – Leviticus 25:2-5
‘Solemn rest’ is not just for people. It’s for land as well. Is it because the land is tired that it needs rest? Or is it because other reasons that this command of rest is given?
I can sense this blog post rapidly growing out of my control and wishing to go a different direction, which is the whole topic of Sabbath. But I didn’t set out to discuss that humongous subject! I merely wanted to know what a ‘solemn rest’ looks like and if our modern day definition and practise of rest is aligned to the teaching of the Bible, and if we as Christians can rest in a better and God-centred way. I do not have the answer. Really sorry that you read all the way to the end and it’s a dead end! Any suggestion will be gladly received!
Want more on this topic? The Bible Project just did a 13-part series on the topic of 7th Day Rest – Sabbath. It’ll take some time to listen to them all. Or you can cheat like I did: reading their show notes instead!