Sleep is an important part of our lives, even though we can recall very little of it. We spend about a third of our lives asleep, which amounts to twenty-five years for a seventy-five-year-old man. And if the chief end of our lives is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, as the Shorter Catechism puts it, this necessarily includes our sleep. And when we turn to the Bible for instruction, we are not disappointed.
“My son, let not them depart from thine eyes: keep sound wisdom and discretion: So shall they be life unto thy soul, and grace to thy neck. Then shalt thou walk in thy way safely, and thy foot shall not stumble. When thou liest down, thou shalt not be afraid: yea, thou shalt lie down, and thy sleep shall be sweet” (Prov. 3: 21-24).
The author of Proverbs is instructing his son on the value of wisdom and discretion. Keep them in full view at all times (v. 21). They are the life of your soul; treat them that way (v. 22). They are grace hanging around your neck (v. 22). When you do this, you will walk prudently and be safe; you will not stumble (v. 23). The crown of this series of blessings is this—when you lie down, you will not be afraid of what might happen while you are in that defenseless state. When you lie down, your sleep will be sweet (v. 24).
SEEKING A BLESSING:
We need to begin by fixing a central principle in our minds. Even as Christians, we are broken sinners in various stage of repair. God is fitting us for heaven, and He is doing it His way. Some require drastic treatment, while others do not appear to need that. God’s blessings and chastisements—within the covenant—are His instruments for doing so. Now as children of the covenant, we are authorized to pursue the blessings He offers, and we must pursue them. But we have no right to demand them in accordance with our own schedules or timetables. Part of what we learn is that when we seek a blessing from God, we are necessarily seeking everything that goes with that blessing. “Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows: for so he giveth his beloved sleep” (Ps. 127:1-2). This is one of the great blessings of the covenant. Pursue it fully, and all its scriptural commandments, but do not demand it in your own name. “There be many that say, Who will shew us any good? LORD, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us. Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased. I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety” (Ps. 4:6-8).
A SLEEPLESS GOD:
We must begin by assuming certain things as given. The first is that God does not sleep. Because God does not sleep, you may. “Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is thy keeper: the LORD is thy shade upon thy right hand” (Ps. 121:4-5).
Another way of putting this is that a restful sleep is one of the best possible metaphors for faith, trust. The “letting go” that is involved in sleep is just the way we ought to be with God all the time. And when you are wound way too tight, the result is a sleep that is not very much like a sleep—tossing and turning all night. Sleep is to be like trust; sleep is to be trust.
SLEEP AND DEATH:
One of the most striking things about Scripture’s teaching on sleep is the fact that sleep and death are so often compared. And keep the previous point about sleep and faith in mind. Sleep, death, and faith all should involve a basic surrender to God. “And the LORD said unto Moses, Behold, thou shalt sleep with thy fathers” (Dt. 31:16; cf. 2 Sam. 7:12). ” . . . for now shall I sleep in the dust; and thou shalt seek me in the morning, but I shall not be” (Job 7:21). “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). “Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep” (John 11:13). “For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption” (Acts 13:36). This is far more than a convenient metaphor. There is a deep reality here.
A JUDICIAL STUPOR:
The Bible teaches that there are people under a judicial stupor, a judgment sleep sent from God. “For the LORD hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered” (Is. 29:10). “Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him” (1 Thess. 5: 6-10; cf. Rom. 13:11-14).
A TIME AND A PLACE FOR EVERYTHING:
In the sermon my father preached for us a few months ago, he made the point that sleep is either obedient or disobedient. Someone might ask how that can be—and he said, “Well, you either should be or you shouldn’t be.” Obedience to God encompasses every aspect of our lives, including how and when we sleep. “Love not sleep, lest thou come to poverty; open thine eyes, and thou shalt be satisfied with bread” (Prov. 20:13). “And said unto them, Why sleep ye? rise and pray, lest ye enter into temptation” (Luke 22:46). “Slothfulness casteth into a deep sleep; and an idle soul shall suffer hunger” (Prov. 19:15; cf. 6:9-11; 24:33-34).
SOME PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS:
First, learn to see sleeping as obedient discipleship. It is not the time for you to “check out,” in order to clock back in as a disciple in the morning. Second, look forward to each morning as a small resurrection, a type of the resurrection. That is what it is. Third, look for God’s blessing in that resurrection (Gen. 2:21-22). Fourth, seek first the kingdom of God in the day before you seek to sleep. “I will not give sleep to mine eyes, or slumber to mine eyelids, Until I find out a place for the LORD” (Ps. 132:4-5). And fifth, work like you really believed there was such a thing as the Puritan work ethic. “The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep” (Ecc. 5:12).