I don't know why, but the other day I was thinking about what the Bible has to say about sleep. I think therefore I blog, so here is an attempt to sketch out a biblical theology of sleep.
1. The Lord caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam
The first reference to sleep in the Bible is found in Genesis 2:21-22. God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam in order to conceal from him the mysterious moment when the Lord removed one of his ribs, closed up his flesh and then "built" the woman from the rib. Adam fell asleep a single man, all alone in the world, bereft of human companionship. He awoke to find the woman whom the Lord had created from his side, "bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh". She had come from his flesh and in the bond of marriage they two would become one flesh once more. Whatever Adam had dreamt of in his deep sleep, the reality of seeing the woman before him, shaped by the hand of God must have been more than a dream come true.
2. Good sleep
A good night's sleep is a gift of God. David reflects on this in Psalm 3:5-6 cf. Proverbs 3:24. There he was, on the run from his rebel son, Absalom. Yet the psalmist could rest peacefully knowing that "Salvation belongs to the Lord." (Psalm 3:8). The anxious workaholic knows nothing of this. He rises up early and sits up late, trying in vain to build his own house. But those who trust in God the Builder are blessed with sleep, Psalm 127:2. Jeremiah slept sweetly when he dreamt of the the redemption of Israel and Judah, Jeremiah 31:26. When feeling troubled unable to sleep, we should remind ourselves that the Lord "replenishes every sorrowful soul." (Jeremiah 31:25). But we can only sleep well if we are right with God and other people, hence Paul's injunction Ephesians 4:26.
3. Bad sleep
David also knew what it was to experience restless nights, Psalm 6:6-7. Sometimes it was a sense of sin and guilt that drove sleep from his eyes as day and night the Lord's hand was heavy upon him. He would only find rest when he confessed his sin and experienced God's forgiveness, Psalm 32:3-5. Too much sleep is a form of laziness and will only lead to poverty, Proverbs 6:9-11. The disciples' drowsiness when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane earned them repeated rebukes from their Master, Mark 14:37-38, 41. Paul urges spiritually drowsy Christians to "awake out of sleep", Romans 13:11-14, and "awake to righteouness and do not sin", 1 Corinthians 15:34. The world is asleep to the prospect of the day of the Lord, but this is not to be the case with the believer, 1 Thessalonians 5:4-8.
4. Jesus slept
The fact that human beings together with many other creatures need to sleep is a reminder of our creatureliness and frailty. Unlike God we are not possessed of boundless energy and infinite power. After the labours of the day we need rest to replenish our stores of energy. It is testimony to the reality of Jesus' humanity that it is recorded that he slept. Granted that on occasion he would spent all night in prayer, (Luke 6:12), we are also told that he fell asleep. In fact his sleep was once so deep that not even a terrible storm at sea disturbed his rest. The Father gave his beloved Son untroubled sleep and it took the cries of his terrified disciples to rouse him. The fact that he who had just been fast asleep arose and calmed the storm with his commanding word prompted his followers to ask, "Who can this be, that even the winds and waves obey him?" (Matthew 8:23-27).
5. The sleepy God
We are assured that "He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep." (Psalm 121:4). But it can sometimes seem like the Lord is asleep and unconcerned about the lot of his afflicted people. This prompts the psalmist to cry out, "Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord?" (Psalm 44:23 cf. Isaiah 51:9).
6. Eschatological sleep
Death is described as "sleep" in Psalm 13:3. Jesus said, "Our friend Lazarus sleeps", meaning "Lazarus is dead", John 11:11, 14. Paul describes the death of believers as "sleep" 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. This does not entail so-called "soul sleep" where it is held that believers are in an unconscious state in heaven. But it does suggest that in death the soul of the believer is at rest, Revelation. 14:13. I love the way Luke describes Stephen's death in Acts 7. The faithful martyr announces that he sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God. The crowd howls for his blood. Rocks rain down on his body. Yet his last words are of forgiveness, after which he peacefully "fell asleep". (Acts 7:59-60). In describing the death of the Christian as "sleep", the Bible points to the resurrection hope when the bodies of believers will arise from their graves as from their beds, Isaiah 26:19, Daniel 12:2-3, cf. John 5:28-29.
Awake, you who sleep,
Arise from the dead,
And Christ will give you light.