Among the many kinds of restlessness the psalmists bring to their beds, the restlessness of sorrow may be the most common. Throughout the Psalms, we read of midnight weepers (Psalm 30:5), of wakeful, comfortless souls (Psalm 77:1–2), of saints whose tears stain their sheets (Psalm 6:6). Sorrow often makes for a sleepless heart. In such moments, God’s voice in creation joins his voice in Scripture to speak comfort over our pain.
On some nights, as the lights go off and the house grows quiet, a restful hush seems to descend on everything around us — but not on us. We lie on our bed like Gideon’s fleece, the only dry spot in a world bedewed with sleep.
A thousand thoughts may keep us awake when all around us rests. Thoughts of work unfinished and questions unanswered. Thoughts of living sorrows and dead comforts. Thoughts of last day’s regrets and next day’s needs.
Falling asleep may seem simple enough. “All it takes,” writes sleep researcher Nancy Hamilton, “is a tired body and a quiet mind” (The Depression Cure, 207). Yet the second half of that equation sometimes feels like a wish beyond reach. We might sooner touch the moon.
Our Lord “gives to his beloved sleep,” Solomon assures us (Psalm 127:2). But on nights such as these, we can hold the gift in helpless hands, wondering how to unwrap it.
Calm and Quiet Mind
The psalmists knew just how easily cares, sorrows, and mysterious causes could chase the sleep from their eyes. They, like us, had lain for long hours on their beds, thoughts churning (Psalm 77:1–3). They had watched many moons roll slowly across the sky (Psalm 22:2). They knew that sometimes, for good and kind reasons, the God who gives to his beloved sleep also takes from his beloved sleep.
And yet, Solomon and David and the other psalmists also knew that sleep really was possible, even on the most unlikely nights. Even when hunted in the wilderness (Psalm 3:5), or sunk down in sorrow (Psalm 42:8), or consumed with thoughts of life’s half-finished buildings (Psalm 127:1–2), they had experienced the wonder of laying their cares before their God, and laying themselves down to sleep. The psalmists knew that a quiet mind could be theirs, even when a quiet life was not.
No doubt, a quiet mind comes, in part, from simple wisdom: if we drink coffee in the late afternoon, or try to sleep in the afterglow of our smartphones, we should not be surprised to find ourselves still awake at midnight. But ultimately, the Psalms remind us that a quiet mind comes from the hand of our sleep-giving God, who nightly draws near to our beds as the Lord who is our shield, our shepherd, our comfort, our life.
The Lord is Your Shield
I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me. (Psalm 3:5)
The David of Psalm 3 had every reason to be anxious, every reason to lie down on a bed of cares. Chased from Jerusalem by a treacherous son, he now ran through the wilderness, hunted like a beast (Psalm 3:1–2). I can scarcely imagine a scenario less hospitable to sleep. Yet sleep David did, and apparently without much trouble: “I lay down and slept,” he says (Psalm 3:5). But how?
David’s words just before these shed particularly helpful light on the faith that sent him to sleep:
I cried aloud to the Lord,
and he answered me from his holy hill. (Psalm 3:4)
David, king of Israel, was used to reigning on the holy hill of Jerusalem. He once sat atop that hill with tremendous authority, royal power. Yet David knows that even when his own throne sits empty, or occupied by a rebel son, God’s throne is always and ever full. David didn’t need to reign on his throne in order to sleep; he just needed God to reign on his. If only God was on his holy hill — his character sure, his covenant firm — then David could sleep in the wilderness.