A good night’s sleep, like so many of God’s gifts, is one of those ordinary glories you don’t quite appreciate until it’s gone. As a fracture shows the worth of working bones, and a bout with the flu teaches the value of health, so sleeplessness has a way of turning a normal night’s rest into a land of gold.
A recent season of mysterious sleeplessness made me wonder how I had taken such a precious gift for granted. It also gave me a sense of what many deal with — for one reason or another — for far longer than a season. The low-grade dread of nighttime. The rising anxiety when sleep does not come. The toss, turn, bathroom break, book, pillow flip, toss, turn. The slow procession of silent hours. The fear of another exhausted day. The dull burn behind the eyes come morning.
On such nights, or in such seasons, Psalm 127:2 can feel less like a warm sentiment and more like a blessing beyond reach — or even (in our desperation) a taunt. “He gives to his beloved sleep,” Solomon says. So how do we respond when he takes from his beloved sleep?
Psalms in the Night
We might start by considering what else the Psalms have to say. Psalm 127:2 may be the book’s most familiar line about sleep, but it is not the only line: nighttime testimonies are scattered through these 150 songs like so many stars. And surprisingly — especially for the weary among us — the psalmists often found something in sleeplessness worth singing about.
True, nighttime could bring weeping (Psalm 30:5), lonely ruminating (Psalm 77:1–2), tired moaning (Psalm 6:6), or a sense of God-forsakenness (Psalm 22:1–2). But the same hours could also bring a song in the night (Psalm 42:8; 149:5), a word from above (Psalm 16:7), and a sense of the steadfast love of the Lord (Psalm 8:3–4; 136:9).
By faith, the psalmists discovered that sleeplessness could become a sanctuary adorned with the glory and goodness of God (Psalm 119:55, 62), and that no hour was too early (Psalm 119:147) or too late (Psalm 119:148) to pray and praise and meditate. Whereas I often experience sleeplessness as famine, they could taste it as feast (Psalm 63:5–6).
Nighttime was no dead, blank space to these saints of old — a time when, functionally, God was absent. God was near in these “watches of the night” (Psalm 63:6; Psalm 119:148), there to be sung to, prayed to, remembered, loved.
Midnight Means of Grace
We need not imagine, of course, that David, Asaph, and the others relished sleeplessness itself. The psalmists were not superhumans; they, like us, needed about seven or eight hours of sleep a night to function well. Surely, then, they would encourage the sleepless to ask for rest from the God who gives it (and to seek that rest using reasonable natural means).
But suppose we have prayed and done what we can to get the sleep our body needs, yet we still find ourselves staring holes in the bedroom ceiling. What can we do? How might we follow the psalmists beyond the misery of sleeplessness and into the comfort of a God-filled night?
1. Declare God’s sovereignty over nighttime.
Yours also the night. (Psalm 74:16)
Left to myself, I do not naturally treat nighttime as a God-filled land; I am more prone to treat it as a God-forsaken one. How quickly my thoughts can turn over the past day’s events, and how hesitatingly they can turn to him. How quickly I can attach my hopes to a sleeping pill or some other remedy, and how slowly to “the God of my life” (Psalm 42:8). How reflexively I can see sleeplessness as mere menace, and how reluctantly as somehow God’s servant (Psalm 119:91).
Yet how differently the psalmists saw nighttime. Good Bible readers that they were, they knew that night, no less than day, was God’s creation, with moon and stars testifying to his power even over the deepest darkness (Psalm 104:20; 136:7–9). They remembered too how the same God who led his people by cloud during the day led them by fire at night (Psalm 78:14; 105:39). And so, they saw his glory in black skies just as they did in blue (Psalm 19:2), they confessed night to be bright as day to him (Psalm 139:12), and they hailed him as King over darkness. “Yours is the day, yours also the night,” they sang (Psalm 74:16). Midnight belongs to the Lord.
“The watches of the night may lie outside my control; they do not lie outside God’s.”
The confession may be basic, but it has a way of fitting unwanted wakefulness within a larger Godward frame. The watches of the night may lie outside my control; they do not lie outside God’s. His sovereignty rules my sleeplessness. So instead of merely enduring the nighttime hours, I can begin to trace his hand in the dark.
2. Search your heart.
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. (Psalm 16:7)
We should beware of over-spiritualizing sleeplessness. Often, our inability to sleep says more about our technology habits or our exercise routines than our souls. Still, we also should beware of under-spiritualizing sleeplessness — and in our secular age, this may be the more common danger. We would do well, then, to at least consider (alongside wise friends) what God might be saying in our restlessness.
It may be, for example, that sleeplessness comes from God’s heavy hand, sent to search out unconfessed sin. When King David “kept silent” about his sin, he writes, “Day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:4). The distress eventually brought David to his knees, where he confessed his hidden sin and received the forgiveness God was so willing to give (Psalm 32:5). God took David’s sleep for the sake of his soul.
Other nights, we may search our hearts and find not guilt but needed wisdom. Such was David’s experience in another psalm: “I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me” (Psalm 16:7). The word instructs, often translated discipline, “has a purposeful firmness,” Derek Kidner writes, “as of schooling one to face hard facts” (Psalms 1–72, 102). So may our wakeful hearts instruct us, if we let them — perhaps impressing upon us the need for some difficult conversation, or the ways we are beginning to drift in our devotion to God, or the helpfulness of a course correction in work or family life. The heart’s quiet counsel is often drowned by daytime noise; in the silence of night, however, its voice may be heard.
In the book of Esther, the plot hinges on a providential sleepless night (Esther 6:1). Our lives are likely not caught up in the drama of nations — but might there be more happening in our own sleeplessness than we assume?
3. Meditate on God’s word and works.
My soul will be satisfied . . . when I remember you upon my bed. (Psalm 63:5–6)
If we had to name one bridge between us and the psalmists’ experience — if there were one key that opened the door of night, one word that transfigured the darkness — meditation would be it. By meditation, the tears of Psalm 42:3 become the steadfast love and song of Psalm 42:8. By meditation, the night watches in Psalm 119 become a time not of dread but of anticipation (Psalm 119:148). And by meditation, David’s sleepless soul is satisfied.
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate upon you in the watches of the night. (Psalm 63:5–6)
Of course, as most know, meditation does not come easily, and especially at midnight. Simply survey the string of disciplined I will statements in Psalm 77:11–12 to sense the kind of resolution required. We instinctively meditate on our current troubles and tomorrow’s tasks, but how do we learn to “meditate upon you” (Psalm 63:6)?
We can take some cues from the psalmists’ own practice. Asaph, for one, fastened his mind on “the deeds of the Lord, . . . your wonders of old” (Psalm 77:11). Can you tell yourself the story of the exodus, or walk through the wonders of Holy Week? The author of Psalm 119 meditated on “your name” and “your promise” (Psalm 119:55, 148). Can you turn over the phrases of Exodus 34:6–7, or ponder Jesus’s sevenfold “I am” (John 6:35; 8:12; 10:7, 11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1)? Can you rehearse some marvelous memorized promise, receiving each word as if from God himself? David, meanwhile, remembered how “you have been my help” (Psalm 63:7). Can you recall the answered prayers and interventions of days’ or years’ past, assuring yourself that the God who helped you then will help you now and tomorrow?
One friend of mine, psalmist-like, decides before he lies down what he will meditate on should the night find him awake. Such planning — and pre-bedtime praying — may help us respond to sleeplessness as Asaph did: “Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart” (Psalm 77:6).
Return, O My Soul, to Your Rest
We might go on to describe the many ways the psalmists speak to God after meditating upon God — how they declare his faithfulness (Psalm 92:2), praise his righteousness (Psalm 119:62), sing his goodness (Psalm 63:7), and cry for his help (Psalm 119:147). Such responses illustrate the truth of Henry Scougal’s line that “to be able to converse in an instant with him whom their souls love transforms the darkest prison or wildest desert [or most restless night!], making them not only bearable but almost delightful” (The Life of God in the Soul of Man, 81). The suggestions given may suffice for a start.
“The mercies of the Lord, new every morning, are strong enough to last through midnight.”
Though I cannot claim to have reached the heights of a Psalm 63 or Psalm 119, I long to be a pupil of these sleepless saints. Even as I pray for the rest my body so badly needs, I long to say with the psalmist, “Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you” (Psalm 116:7). I long for sleeplessness to become a sanctuary, my pillow a place of prayer and praise.
Such saints can testify that the mercies of the Lord, new every morning, are strong enough to last through midnight.