“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested and tried me,
though for forty years they saw what I did.
That is why I was angry with that generation;
I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”
There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.
When I was a teenager I got a birthday card. There were messages in the card from a few different staff and leaders at my church, but one of the messages was only two words, and they’re the only two words I still remember from it.
Stay soft. -Ads
Adam – a friend and a church leader I looked up to – would often talk about the importance of keeping your heart soft, responsive to God, not being hard-hearted. When he picked those two words to write to me, I took them to heart, and it’s been a formative posture for me, a big part of shaping who I am now.
And that’s the message coming out from this passage in Hebrews too: stay soft.
The couple of verses I’ve quoted are part of the passage I remembered that originally drew me back into reading the bible earlier this year. Our family life has been a real struggle, and we have been exhausted and depleted, and the promise of a sabbath rest, some kind of deep, fulfilling rest, and a call to enter that rest, sprung out of my memory and, like a siren song – so appealing and so urgent – its words drew me back into this passage, and back into the bible.
Do not harden your hearts.
Not like in the rebellion, the time of testing in the wilderness.
The psalm being quoted actually includes the names “Meribah” and “Massah”, which suggests its probably referring to the two stories where the Israelites have run out of water in the dessert and are wishing they were back in the Egypt, the land of their slavery, because at least there was water there. In both stories Moses strikes a rock with his staff, and miraculously, water comes out – enough for the whole community.1 While much of the commentary on this story is about if Moses did something wrong, Numbers 20:13 puts the focus on the people not trusting God:
This place was known as the waters of Meribah (which means “arguing”) because there the people of Israel argued with the LORD.
Numbers 20:13 (emphasis mine)
And that’s what both the psalm and the book of Hebrews seem to focus on too: the community of Israel didn’t trust God to look after them and give them water.
Despite all the miracles they’d seen so far – “for forty years they saw what I did” – they didn’t trust they’d be provided for. They’d rather go back to slavery because they knew there was an agreement there – they’d do work and they’d get water and food.
All the miracles and provision that came during their time in the desert had not helped them internalise that God would provide for them, and so they kept trying to make other plans. “They have not known my ways, their hearts are always going astray”.
They shall never enter my rest.
But in Hebrews, the author tries to remind us that they think we’ve still got a better offer open: “Dear friends, even though we are talking this way, we really don’t believe it applies to you.” (Hebrews 6:10).
There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God… Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest…
The point being made in Hebrews is about an eternal Sabbath, a permanent rest, full of joy and liveliness and deep delight, that lasts forever – not just the weekly rhythm and the seventh day. But as I’ve been dwelling on this passage in Hebrews, and this rallying cry to “stay soft”, I realised that a weekly Sabbath practice can be a part of keeping a soft heart.
Here’s how I see it:
- God was doing work among their people, and they saw it.
- But they did not know God’s ways – they never took it in, never seeing it or beginning to understand who God is and how God works, never internalising it, never learning to live in a way that trusted God’s working.
- So they argued with God, and made other plans.
- And so they never entered the promised land, or the promised rest.
So, we don’t want to harden our hearts. We want to stay soft. What can we actually do?
When I was in my early twenties I ran a fortnightly small group meeting for young adults in my church, and there was about 30 of us, and to facilitate some kind of conversation that attuned us to what God was doing, I would ask everyone to break up into groups of two or three, and ask a question to each other: where did you notice God this week?
There’s a similar question I ask myself in an end-of-day “Examen” reflective exercise I do, at least when I’m not so tired I fall asleep instantly:
Where have I felt true joy today?
The Examen: A Daily Prayer
What has troubled me today?
What has challenged me today?
Where and when did I pause today?
Have I noticed God’s presence in any of this?
This kind of reflection requires you to pause.
To rest from your works.
And when you do, your heart rate shifts. Your thoughts shift. You stop problem solving and stop rushing and stop striving and … notice things. Notice the things that brought you joy. The smile from a kid, or the sunshine through the window. You notice the things that were really hard. The words spoken that pierce your heart and cause your stomach to churn. You notice where God’s presence was in it all.
You see, when you’re so focused on what you have to do, it’s easy to miss what others are also doing, easy to miss what’s going on around you, or what’s already happened. This is why gratitude is such an important practice. But more than just the gratitude, there’s the stopping. The ceasing.
When we cease our work, we have the opportunity to see what God is doing, and to know God’s ways, and to stay soft.
In Marva Dawn’s classic book on Sabbath3, she talks about what the Sabbath is for:
Marva J Dawn, an excerpt from “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly”
- Its Ceasing deepens our repentance for the many ways that we fail to trust God and try to create our own future.
- Its Resting strengthens our faith in the totality of his grace.
- Its Embracing invites us to take the truths of our faith and apply them practically in our values and lifestyles.
- Its Feasting heightens our sense of eschatological hope — the Joy of our present experience of God’s love and its foretaste of the Joy to come.
Ceasing from “the many ways we fail to trust God and try to create our own future”.
We’re so damn busy trying to create our own future, that we don’t even notice the future God is creating right around us. We have not known his ways.
Ceasing on the Sabbath is an antidote to that, a weekly chance to stay soft, to notice God, and to know God’s ways, and to live in trust. And from there we can move to experience the resting and embracing and feasting too.
And as we practice Sabbath each week, it is indeed practice for that greater rest that is talked about in Hebrews 4.
So I’d encourage you, make every effort to enter that rest. Practice for it by practicing the Sabbath.
One day a week, cease your work.
Notice instead where God is working.
Learn to trust God’s ways.
- The “water from the rock” stories are super interesting. In the Numbers 20 version, Moses is supposed to speak to the rock but instead hits it twice, the miracle happens and water comes out, but for some reason, God is pissed. God says Moses will die in the desert and not see the promised land. But no one is quite sure why God is so angry. This article has a whole gamut of theories from Rabbis who are trying to make sense of it. One particular theory from the 15th century made me laugh:
“Moses and Aaron’s sin was not particularly terrible; they merely made a mistake. However, G‑d did not want them entering the Land for other reasons. Moses, because he sent the spies, and Aaron because of his involvement, albeit unwilling, with the sin of the Golden Calf. G‑d wanted to protect Moses and Aarons’ honour, so He pretended that the rock was the reason for their punishment, to cover up the true reason.”
Once you start going down this rabbit hole you notice the death of Miriam at the start of the story, and that leads you to Miriam’s Well and then you start learning about how Miriam was probably a much more important leader than is recognised, and the texts we have tried to diminish her role. Patriarchy 🙄
Also the Numbers 20 story sounds like it happened at Kadesh, right on the border of the promised land, the same place where the Israelites were when 40 years earlier they had spies come back and tell them about the promised land, and they didn’t trust God would make it theirs. In both this story and the water-from-the-rock story, God was trying to give them something good but they didn’t trust it, and wanted to go back to Egypt where they worked for the things they need.
- I’ve written before about how my beliefs around hell and eternal punishment are not what most Christians might expect, and I’ve probably had a few years of having a fairly “universalist” worldview, seeing God in all different places, and so trying not to think about the reality that some people live lives in a way that is not just “a different experience of God” but is actually separate from God and that there’s a pain and despair in that. I still don’t think the dividing line of those who experience God and live in line with God is the same as what religion you put on your census form. But this experience of reading Hebrews in depth for the past few months has actually forced me to open up to that: God’s promise of entering his rest still stands, so we ought to tremble with fear that some of you might fail to experience it. (Hebrews 4:1)
- One day I was looking at my parents bookshelf and I picked up “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly” by Marva J Dawn. I’m glad I did. Sabbath wasn’t a concept that was well taught in my childhood churches, and so this book was my starting point. Even read the dedication:
This book is dedicated to all the people who need the Sabbath
the busiest, who need to work from a cohesive, unfragmented self;
social activists, who need a cycle of worship and action;
those who chase after fulfillment and need to understand their deepest yearnings and to hear the silence;
those who have lost their ability to play because of the materialism and technologization of our society, who need beauty and gaiety and delight;
those who have lost their passion and need to get in touch with feelings;
those who are alone and need emotional nourishment;
those who live in community and need solitude;
those who cannot find their life’s priorities and need a new perspective;
those who think the future is dictated by the present, who need hope and visions of the future to change the present order;
those who long for deeper family life and want to nurture certain values;
the poor and the oppressed, who need to mourn and dance in the prison camp;
the rich and the oppressors, who need to learn nonviolence, stewardship, and God’s purposes in the world;
those who suffer, who need to learn how suffering can be redemptive;
professional theologians, who need to bring the heart back into theology;
those who don’t know how religion fits into the modern world, who need a relationship with God;
those who are disgusted with dry, empty, formalistic worship and want to love and adore God;
those who want to be God’s instruments, enabled and empowered by the Spirit to be world changers and Sabbath healers.
From “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly – Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Fasting” by Marva J. Dawn.