October 7, 2015

God and Sleep

“Oh sleep! it is a gentle thing, Beloved from pole to pole!”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

It stunned me as soon as I began my study of what the Bible says about sleep. Or perhaps I should say it startled me awake! I was astonished at how much there is to learn.

Some couples I’ve counseled and married, especially if the pair has also sat through a class of mine, would have heard this creation story before: of how the Lord God formed Adam from dust, breathed life into him, set him to stand next to Him, and stride along with Him as he sensed the powerful reality of his own physicality.

Then, in the perfect manner of making His point, God brought to him, in procession, the creatures of the earth—one fantastically variegated, polyphonic panorama of feather, fur, roar, buzz, and cackle that galloped, soared, plunged, and cavorted in red and yellow, black and white and green, and high and low, and wet and dry, and in between before his sparkling eyes and buzzing brain: every living creature! Adam named them all (Gen. 2:19).

First Sleep Ever

Then God’s own cradle-song lulled Adam off to humans’ first sleep ever. And as he slept, that gorgeous, glorious, indescribable panorama passed in magnificence through his REM sessions—there is more to sleep than loss of consciousness—while the God of involvement busied Himself with still higher joy. Something higher than bulging biceps, wings and pecs, and six-pack abdominals, something beyond physicality. The day had been perfect. Adam wasn’t even tired when God put him to bed.

And of course, the dream of this first sleep was flawless—a dream of cuddly koalas and star-destined eagles; birds that swam and fish that flew, and each foal for his filly and each ram for his ewe. So totally different from and exactly like each other, dreamed the man, as a smile played around the corners of his lips.

Then he found that his eyes were open, and his mouth, too, from slack-jawed amazement. For his eyes were saying that his dream had come true. Here was one like him yet not like him. Like him enough to share with him all he would share with her; yet different enough to enthrall; like him enough to be of him, part of him; yet different enough that he could give her all and yet not be selfish! Such is love—God’s love.

What Else Did I Know?

I knew that much about sleep, that Eve was Adam’s dream come true. But beyond that, what did I know? I knew of virgins who slumbered when they should have been chirpily waiting for the bridegroom (Matt. 25:5, KJV); that unlike other people, faithful Christians must stay awake and sober (1 Thess. 5:6); that Jesus insisted that He must work during the day because nobody can work in the night (John 9:4). Wasn’t He signaling that good Christians ought to prefer the diligence and sobriety of work to the vegetating stupor of drunken sleep?There is more to sleep than slumber. Is there danger too?

What I Needed to Learn

Setting out to find what more there might be, I learned, from an overview of general usage, that reference to “sleep” in the English versions shows rather significant variation. When all related terms of the root “sleep” are considered,1 the King James Version of the Bible (KJV) totals 149 occurrences, 16 percent more than English Standard Version’s (ESV) 129, and 19 percent more than New American Standard Bible’s (NASB) 125.2

How consistent are the Biblical depictions of sleep? The KJV translation of the Hebrew verb škb as “sleep,” in “sleep with thy fathers” (Deut. 31:16), deals with a reference to death and burial that literally means “lie down with your fathers” (thus, ESV, NASB).3 This expression, and another, “sleeping with” as a euphemism for sexual intercourse,4 also highlight a difference to be borne in mind between the English idiom and the biblical Hebrew; for the Hebrew verb that these English metaphors translate does not necessarily mean “sleep.” Biblical “lie down” [škb] may or may not include a Hebrew verb for sleeping [yšn] when sleep is intended.5 Nevertheless, some references to škb alone [without yšn] clearly mean “sleep” and are so understood across the versions (Ex. 22:27; Deut. 24:12, 13).

A review of the principal Hebrew and Greek terms translated “sleep”6 exposes an intriguing variety of positive and negative messages about sleep through the stories, metaphors, similes, adages, and other instructional contexts in which they occur.

Before my study I might have leaped at the fact that, conspicuously, five Old Testament and 19 New Testament references are to sleep as a metaphor of death. My closer look at the data now teaches me how much this simple datum signifies, and by the same token, how cautious we must be about any simple conclusion based on it.

For it embraces virtually every term involved in our study, employing them in contexts charged with everything from negative, through neutral, to thoroughly positive sentiment: the Lord’s promised punishment of “perpetual sleep” for Babylon’s rulers (Jer. 51:39, 57—Heb., yšn); Daniel’s assurance that sleeping saints will awake (Dan. 12:2—Heb., yšn); neutral commentary on the night as time for sleep (1 Thess. 5:7—Greek, katheudō); Jesus’ rebuke of His disciples for letting Him down, unable to watch with Him even one hour (Matt. 26:40-45; Mark 14:37-41; Luke 23:46—Greek, katheudō); Jesus’ sweet consolation concerning Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:52—Greek, katheudō; John 11:11; Greek, koimaō); assurance of security in Jesus even though we sleep (1 Thess. 5:10—Greek, katheudō); the tragedy of death that comes to those who unworthily participate in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:30—Greek, koimaō); the resurrection of sleeping saints at Jesus’ triumphant cry, “It is finished!” (Matt. 27:52—Greek, koimaō).7

So What Does It Mean?

There is more to sleep than this limited explanation exposes. But it does demonstrate that no biblical term for sleep carries any inherently negative connotation. Sleep, in Scripture, is not intended as our enemy, but as our gift. It’s not just Adam’s gift. God doesn’t mind any of His children savoring His gift of sleep. He just doesn’t want us misusing His gifts.

As the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Tim. 6:10), so the love of sleep conducts the sluggard to poverty (Prov. 20:13). Again, whereas practitioners of mischief cannot sleep except they do evil (Prov. 4:16), sleep after hard work is nevertheless a sweet privilege (Eccl. 5:12). And as surely as every good and perfect gift is from above (James 1:17), so surely is sleep a gift from God to those He loves (Ps. 127:2). There is more to sleep than loss of consciousness.

There is divine bestowal of the privilege of rest, there is the insight of revelation—to patriarchs Abraham and Jacob (Gen. 15; 28:11-13); to Josephs of both Testaments (Gen. 37; Matt. 1:20, 21; 2:13, 14, 19, 20, 22, 23); to Daniel and a multitude of holy prophets (Dan. 7; Num. 12:6); to heathen rulers and commoners—Philistine (Gen. 20:3-7), Egyptian (Gen. 40; 41), Babylonian (Dan. 2). So prized is the gift of revelatory sleep that deception has proposed its own substitutions (Jer. 23:25-32), of which Job 4:12-21 may be the Bible’s most conspicuous fraud.

There Eliphaz claims to receive in his time of sleep a supernatural disclosure that contradicts what God Himself says about His servant Job (Job 1:8 versus Job 4:18, 19). There is more to sleep than loss of consciousness. There is even the possibility of supernatural deception, a misuse of the sweetness of sleep that confounds revelation and distorts God’s own character.

Concluding Thought

My “biblical sleep” study began at a time when devotional reading for my wife and me was the book Christ in His Sanctuary.8 There Ellen White comments on how the Adventist fervor of revivalist William Miller and his followers suffered from the same illness that beset Christ’s disciples 1,800 years before them. In both cases earnest believers erred by accepting popular understandings about what the Bible taught, instead of ascertaining from the sacred Book what its own teachings were.

In consequence, Christ’s disciples looked for Him to overthrow the Romans, and Millerites looked in vain for Jesus’ second coming. Careful and thorough Scripture study, including what the Bible says about sleep, should help alert our generation to a range of possible spiritual deceptions, and keep us awake and ready to hail new Eden’s dawn. Indeed, “it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed” (Rom. 13:11).

  1. Sleep, sleeps, sleepest, sleepeth, sleeper, sleepers, sleeping, slept.
  2. Except as otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. Texts credited to ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  3. Note that for the occurrence of škb in 1 Kings 1:21 these versions do use the idiom “sleep with your fathers”; KJV is simply more consistent.
  4. Regularly used in such versions as the New English Translation Bible (NET), the New International Version (NIV), and the New Living Translation (NLT).
  5. E.g., 1 Kings 19:5—“he lay down” [škb] “and slept” [yšn]; similarly, Ps. 3:6 [verse 5, English]—“I lay down and slept”; Ps. 4:9 [verse 8, English]—“I will both lie down and sleep.”
  6. Hebrew: verb yšn, 25 times; noun šēnâ, 23 times, including one instance of the Aramaic cognate, še, in Daniel 6:19 [verse 18 in English]. Other Hebrew verbs occasionally implying “sleep” include škb, already mentioned; lyn (“to lodge”); and rdm (“sleep soundly”), whence the noun tardēmâ (“deep sleep”). Greek: verbs katheudō, 22 times, and koimaō, 18 times; and noun hupnos, six times.
  7. Jesus’ final cry included the words of John 19:30 (“It is finished”) and Luke 23:46: (“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”).
  8. Ellen G. White, Christ in His Sanctuary (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1969).

Lael Caesar, an associate editor of Adventist Review, loves God’s gift of sleep, and according to his dream come true (his wife), has highly organized dreams.