In Sabbathkeeping circles, Isaiah 58:13, 14 looms large, being partially quoted and haphazardly applied. The text reads:
“If because of the Sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and honor it, desisting from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure and speaking your own word, then you will take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (NASB).
This passage is often used as a trump card, played against any activity that one considers taboo on the Sabbath but that is not directly covered by the prohibition against work. Television? Shopping? Games? “Secular” conversation? Sexual intercourse with your spouse? Resting somewhere other than in an all-day church service? All these, and more, are quickly labeled as “doing your own pleasure” and condemned, based on Isaiah 58:13. But is that what Isaiah intended?
Reading Isaiah 58, we find a prophet crying out against a people who engage in religious rituals — like fasting and Sabbath observance — while dishonoring God with their lifestyle. On the very day they fast, they oppress their hired help (v. 3). Their fasting is done for division and violence, not to seek God (v. 4). They do wickedness, oppress, and enslave one another and think God is impressed by their show of religion (vv. 5, 6). God would rather they share their bread with the hungry, invite the homeless poor into their houses, and clothe the naked (v. 7). This kind of true religion would bring them the healing and restoration they seek. God would answer, and their righteousness would shine (vv. 8, 10). If they’ll stop gossiping and blaming each other and instead sincerely seek God, they’ll find Him (v. 9). Ultimately, God would give them strength and vitality, allowing them to rebuild and restore their desolate places (v. 12).
To close the chapter, Isaiah turns from fasting to the Sabbath and speaks of the importance of turning away from their pleasure. In context, the “pleasure” Isaiah is opposed to is the pleasure the people derived from being evil, the pleasures of oppression, injustice, greed, and hypocrisy. The words he’s opposed to are words of gossip and blame. For the Sabbath to be acceptable to God, it must accompany a lifestyle of righteousness; otherwise it is an empty charade. But when the Sabbath is observed as part of a righteous life, it is a day of delight.
And there’s the problem with applications of Isaiah 58:13 that forbid people from engaging in pleasurable activities on Sabbath. God is not opposed to all kinds of pleasure and delight, but only those that are immoral. If there are clear biblical prohibitions against certain activities, then we should avoid those activities every day. If otherwise moral activities (e.g., work) are explicitly prohibited, then we should abstain from these activities on the Sabbath. But an activity being pleasurable is not sufficient grounds to abstain from engaging in it on the Sabbath. Instead, the Sabbath should be a day of delight, full of delightful activities that bring glory and honor to God. Not only is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, it is lawful to feel good too.
Israel Steinmetz is dean of Academic Affairs for LifeSpring School of Ministry.