A Biblical Theology of Sleep
Everyone has dealt with restlessness and sleepless nights at some point. We've all schlepped through a groggy morning after a night of no sleep. Sleep is crucial to life. The restoration and revitalization that comes through a good night's sleep is vital. We all want the sleep of Proverbs 3:20, “If you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.” But often we experience the tossing and turning of Job 7:4, “When I lie down I say, 'When shall I arise?' But the night is long, and I am full of tossing till the dawn.” What does the Bible say about our sleep?
The Scriptures speak of sleep in both literal and metaphorical ways. The primary metaphorical use of sleep is for death. “Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David” (1 Kings 2:10). There has always been a close connect between sleep and death. Paul refers to those who have died in the faith as those who are “asleep” (1 Cor.15:6, 18, 20; 1 Thess. 4:13-15). Euphemisms like this are used to avoid naming that which should not be named. Death is scary, so it is avoided by calling it “sleep.” But more than just as euphemism, the Bible speaks of death as sleep because of the reality of the resurrection. Paul speaks about those who have died in the faith as being “asleep” because when Christ returns they will physically arise from the slumber of death. In this way, the Scripture paints the death of a believer as merely a temporal rest until the resurrection. It's as if the believer is merely asleep for a time. This truth about the metaphorical use of sleep provides a great truth to help us when our literal sleep escapes us. We can find rest and peace tonight because not even death can separate us from the peace and rest that has been won for us in Christ.
When the Bible speaks of sleep in a literal manner it speaks in two ways; a sleep of sloth and a sleep of peace. The sleep of sloth is like the sluggard in Proverbs, “How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man” (Prov 6:9-11; cf. 10:5, 19:5, 20:13, 24:33). This was also the cry of the prophet Nahum against the king of Assyria because his “shepherds (i.e. city leaders) are asleep...[his] people are scattered on the mountains with none to gather them” (Nah. 3:18). Likewise, Jesus admonishes his disciples for sleeping while he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:40-46). Jesus woke Peter up to warn him to “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” We must be watchful to not allow our sleep to be slothful. This kind of sleep is simply avoiding the good work that God has called us to do. This avoidance happens figuratively by just drifting through life and ignoring responsibility or literally by sleeping the days away. This is what the prophet Jonah tried to do when he was avoiding God's call. In the midst of a great tempest on the sea, Jonah had gone down into the ship and lain down and was fast asleep (Jonah 1:5). Jonah was using sleep to avoid the reality of God's calling on his life. We are prone to do this in periods of depression and deep sadness. When we suffer significant trauma like losing a loved one, divorce, or losing a job, we can retreat to sleep. But this kind of sleep is simply shutting the door on the reality of life's difficulties. It seeks to ignore the hurt and pain of life instead of seeking God's comfort, healing, and redemption by faith through it. The sleep of sloth is faithless and never results in restoration or revitalization.
The sleep of peace, however, is faithful. Whereas Jonah avoided God's call by sleeping in the ship during a storm, Jesus exhibited faith in God's call by sleeping in the boat during a storm (Mk 4:36-41). As they sailed across the lake, Jesus fell asleep in the stern of the boat. A storm comes upon the boat and the seasoned fishermen are fearful that their boat will be swamped. Through the tempest Jesus slept. When the disciples wake him, Jesus replies, “Where is your faith?” Jesus was supremely assure of his intimate fellowship with the Father; so much so that in a great storm he could sleep. There is a calm and rest that comes from the LORD's blessing that leads the faithful to sleep. “I will make with them a covenant of peace...so that they may dwell securely and sleep...” (Ezek 34:25). The LORD alone will bring this comfort to his people so that they can rest without anxiety or fear. “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me” (Ps 3:5). “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety” (Ps 4:8). The sleep of peace is a sleep that comes to those who are able to rest by faith in the promises of God.
This is not a Pollyanna-ish answer for those who struggle with sleepless nights. I have suffered through many such nights in recent days. There are organic and inorganic reasons for sleeplessness; and, it is wise to discern the root cause of it. But often God will disrupt our sleep to open our eyes to his will. God did this with Abraham in Genesis 15:12-16. Concerning this, Jonathan Edwards noted:
If we consider those extraordinary manifestations which God made of himself to saints of old, we shall find that he commonly first manifested himself in a way which was terrible, and then by those things that were comfortable. So it was with Abraham; first a horror and great darkness fell upon him, and then God revealed himself to him in sweet promises.1
He used this method with King Ahasuersus in Esther 6. God used the restless dreams of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2 & 4 as well as Daniel's own dream in Daniel 7. David was led to call out to the LORD in repentance through his sleepless nights in Psalm 6. God will use our sleep, or lack thereof, to draw us to Himself, but we have to be humble and ready to listen in the midst of our sleeplessness. My prayer is that we may rest in the sweet sleep of peace as a gift from the God who “neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Ps 121:4).
1. Jonathan Edwards Religious Affections (WJE Online Vol. 2), pp. 153-154.