The Sabbath Principle and the (Christian) Musician, Part One

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.
(Genesis 1:31-2:2)

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
(Exodus 20:8-11)

 This Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.
(Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 21, Paragraph 8)

With apologies to John MacArthur for modifying a term he has applied to himself, I have sometimes described myself as a “leaky sabbatarian.” By that I mean that I find the Westminster Standards’ exposition of the Christian Sabbath and how it is best observed to be an ideal, and strive to follow this in practice as much as possible. At the same time, certain New Testament passages, as well as the arguments of D.A. Carson and others, give me pause, and make me hesitant to regard the full rigor of this view of the Lord’s Day to be an absolute requirement in the present era. Even stopping short of fully embracing Westminster on this point, I still believe that Scripture is clear that a due proportion of time must be set aside for worship and rest, and that we neglect doing so at our spiritual, physical, and emotional peril.

Musicians, in some ways perhaps more so than members of other professions, do a bad job of recognizing and observing the Sabbath principle. Whether because of a perceived need for additional practice, Sunday afternoon concerts and activities, or even because of musical obligations during corporate worship, even Christian musicians often fail to set aside adequate time for worship and rest as we are taught in Scripture by both precept and example. Beginning with today’s post and concluding, Lord willing, in the post on Friday, January 31, I will discuss ways that musicians can think about and observe the Sabbath principle in their lives and work. While my thoughts will apply primarily to those musicians who profess faith in Jesus Christ, I have placed the word “Christian” in parentheses in my title because some of these ideas will have broader application than to Christians only.

I will organize my thoughts under five statements that I believe we should consider when thinking about these things, discussing two today and three more in my next post on this topic.

1. Music is not everything.

Music is a tremendously demanding profession, one in which success requires a level of focus and devotion found in few other professions. Complete “days off” come very rarely, and our professional culture conveys an expectation—sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly—that we should be somehow making music or thinking about music at all times. The difficulty of this can be exacerbated by the lack of understanding sometimes found among our family members, friends, and fellow church members regarding the musician’s work and the demands upon his time.

Despite the many and competing pressures we face, we must realize that music is not everything. Even our colleagues outside of the Body of Christ eventually discover that their physical and emotional health is harmed if they don’t have hobbies, interests, and relationships beyond our professional communities. The Christian’s understanding is like this, but deeper and fuller. We know that “man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 1). We know that anything that displaces Christ as our central focus creates difficulties that extend beyond physical and emotional health. Spiritually speaking, the God that will tolerate no competing “gods” (Exodus 20:3) still demands that we exercise even our secular professions to the best of our abilities and for His glory (Ecclesiastes 9:10). So, somehow musical excellence cannot be incompatible with a healthy view of the centrality of Christ, with everything else not only secondary to Him, but placed in His service.

What does all of this have to do with the Sabbath? Only this: if music is made the primary focus of our lives it will be a relentlessly demanding “god.” Do we ever really think we have practiced enough, or listened enough, or networked enough, or studied enough? Of course not. Learning to rest begins with placing our whole lives—including our professional lives—into the hands of the One who promised perfect rest to those who come to Him (Matthew 11:28-30). If His providence extends even to the lives of the smallest of creatures (Matthew 10:29-31), then it includes our work in the music business, as well.

2. Human beings require rest.

Learning to rest involves not only putting music in its proper place in our lives and thinking, but also placing rest in its proper place. While musicians face a level of commitment not always found in other professions, a simple Google search makes plain that workers “across the board” in advanced societies feel tired, haggard, and overworked, and are looking for ways to rest. We want every imaginable product and service to be available 24/7, and somehow fail to recognize that this requires commerce—and thus employment—to continue without interruption. We pursue constant activity, constant exchange of products and services…and then wonder why we’re so tired.

All of this is contrary to Scripture, which is permeated with the God-ordained pattern of six working days followed by a day of rest. Genuine Christians disagree as to the vigor with which a weekly Sabbath should be observed and enforced in our communities, but at the very least we should see that if God saw fit to establish this 6-1 pattern by His own example, it is because a day given over to rest from regular labor best promotes healthy human existence. For the musician I would except from this only some minimal “maintenance practice,” as I think can even fall under the Westminster Confession’s “necessity and mercy” clause. I have found that devoting a day to worship and rest, excepting only 30-45 minutes of maintenance work, to be tremendously restorative physically, mentally, and spiritually. Indeed, in hindsight I can say that the times when I have been most successful at setting aside Sundays have been the times in my career when the other six days have been the most productive and successful. We are made to function best when we set aside a due proportion of time for worship and rest!

I thought I would be able to cover this topic in a single post, but I will have to finish in a second post. That will appear, Lord willing, on Friday, January 31.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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