A Song of Ascents. Of Solomon.
Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives sleep to his beloved.
I had never thought of going to bed earlier than usual as a step of faith. Nor had I ever thought of getting a good night’s sleep as practicing a spiritual discipline. But I have begun to practice this and am noticing my spiritual health as well as my physical health improving. I have written in previous weekly eVotionals about Seven Spiritual Practices for Busy People, and now I want to add number eight: sleep!
Let’s face it! Busy people are often overdrawn on their bank of sleep, and their sleep deficit is taking its toll. It is even called a “public health epidemic” by The Center for Disease Prevention and Control as they warn about the epidemic’s serious consequences.
A plethora of research reveals that lack of sleep contributes to stress, anxiety, medical disease, and psychological-psychiatric illness. One study showed that too little sleep – defined as less than six hours a night – was one of the best predictors of burnout on the job. Yet another study by Harvard estimated that our sleep deficit cost American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity. Nose to grindstone for too many hours actually undermines the work we labor to get done. Yet we strangely wear our tiredness as badges of courage and proof that the world can’t make it without us.
Today’s Scripture warns about the futility of burning the candle at both ends. Written by Solomon, one of history’s most productive and creative persons, it declares as “vain”, or empty, to “rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil”. No one would ever think Solomon a slacker, but he had learned the “vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1) of working as though it all depended on him.
Misstep after misstep, Solomon had come to understand that God is a Builder alongside us as we build, and that He is also a Guard who watches over our lives. Solomon had learned that all our building and working is “vain” if we leave out God. Solomon allows no room for total self-reliance. He knows that unless the Lord build and the Lord guard, it will all come to nothing over time.
This leads Solomon, then, to an important life-principle: God “gives sleep to his beloved”. Here is balm for the workaholic, and rest to the heavy -laden: sleep is a gift from God.
Today’s Scripture is taken from the New Revised Standard Version, which has in its margin a more literal translation of this critical phrase: the Lord “provides for his beloved during sleep”. Solomon intends for us to understand that God not only provides sleep for His beloved, but He provides while we sleep. All the while we are sleeping and recharging, God is hard at work to bless and do us good!
The Bible’s radical way of looking at work and the world is reflected in the ancient Hebrews’ understanding of time: for them the day began at sunset as they rested from the labors of the day. So, our day does not begin when the alarm goes off in the morning, but when we begin to rest as God goes to work.
God provides sleep for us, and He provides in our sleep. He intends that we sleep peacefully each night knowing He works the night shift. “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is your keeper” (Psalm 121:4-5a).
Solomon reminds us that we are not the keepers of our lives. Constant vigilance and work are the Lord’s domain, not ours. Here is incentive to stop being so anxious and cutting corners on our sleep.
I have always found something very humbling about sleep. Sleep challenges all my illusions about being in control, as it demands of me each night that I let go. I am never any more weak, vulnerable, helpless, or childlike than when I am sleeping. Thus never more ready to receive from God’s unmerited favor. Sometimes I can become so frenzied and frantic that the only way God can give to me is that God asks me to go to sleep.
If we read carefully between the lines of today’s Scripture, we see that Solomon wants to give us clues from his personal experience. One of the clues is found in Solomon’s phrase that God “provides for his beloved during sleep.” Forgotten by most, but not by Solomon, was the Lord’s pet name for him: “Jedidiah” or “beloved of the Lord” (II Samuel 12:24-25). Solomon had come to learn that the Lord gives His best to those who know how to rest in Him. Sometimes we can express our reliance on God by going to bed and resting.
The farmer and poet Wendell Berry, writes from his own personal experience in this fragment from “The Sabbath Poems”:
…And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.
Sleep on it!
photo by Harald Groven