Knowing God better really should help us to sleep more soundly.
Don’t believe me? Ask King David.
Psalm 3 begins with him describing a situation of appalling stress: “Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me!” (v 1). It’s so bad that the talk of the town is that “God will not deliver him” (v 2). David wrote this psalm whilst on the run from his son Absalom, who had led an apparently successful coup d’état to take the throne (see 2 Samuel 15 – 18). David escaped, but now had a target on his back.
But Psalm 3 holds a remarkable surprise: “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me” (v 5). To David, the amazing bit of that verse was probably the middle portion: “I wake again”. After all, there were plenty of people trying to prevent that outcome.
For me though, I can’t get over the fact that he slept at all.
Sleep is something we can normally only do when we feel safe. Apparently, on the first night in a new place, half your brain remains alert all night, vigilant to threats. When you think about it, you realise what an act of trust falling asleep normally is. You are so vulnerable: you have no idea what’s going on around you and you cannot look after yourself. When we face stress or threats, our bodies’ “fight or flight” mechanisms make restful sleep feel like unicorn tears: hard to imagine and impossible to obtain.
So, if people are literally out for your blood, as they were for David’s, sleep won’t come easily. A soldier in enemy territory won’t just lie down and sleep because it’s bedtime. Only the watchful eye of a comrade keeping lookout makes sleeping a vaguely safe thing to do. But David slept through this period of terrible stress because he had someone better than a comrade watching over him: “You, Lord, are a shield around me” (v 3). Safe in that knowledge, David says that he will “not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side” (v 6). As the very next psalm puts it: “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).
David knew just how powerful God is, and how faithful he is to his promises.
Marvel at God’s Otherness
To think about God’s greatness, we naturally tend to talk about what God can do. We, however, are going to consider what God can’t do—and when you realise what God can’t do, his greatness might just blow your mind.
To show you what I mean—and while we are on the subject of sleep—consider this: God can’t sleep. That’s a truth we find in Psalm 121. It’s part of a series of psalms called the Songs of Ascent which were sung by pilgrims on the challenging, dangerous (and uphill) journey to Jerusalem. As they walked, they sang songs of praise to God to encourage and comfort each other:
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel;
will neither slumber nor sleep.
God will never take his eye off the ball; he will never drift off and fail to watch over and take care of his people. His people can rest, because he won’t. Victor Hugo, the author of Les Misérables, expressed the point beautifully:
Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.
We sleep because we need to sleep. But God doesn’t.
We tend to see things from our own point of view. So, we often think about God as basically like us, just much, much, bigger. But one of the main things that God wants us to know is that he is not like anything in creation and we shouldn’t think of him as if he were. Hence we sleep, but he doesn’t.