Valuing God’s Gift of Sleep in a Restless World
Alexander Nisbet (1623-69) was a Covenanting minister and Bible expositor in and around Irvine in Ayrshire. He was ordained in 1646 and was removed from his church in 1662 for refusing to comply with the re-establishment of Episcopacy.
1 Dec, 2017

Sleeplessness is something of a modern epidemic. In general we are sleep-deprived with the average person losing the equivalent of an entire night of sleep every single week. In general, this seems to be caused by the stresses of modern lifestyle and the erosion of a 24/7 online world into the domain of nightly rest. Man seeks to conquer time itself but is overmastered by his own needs. For some of course, sleep is not yielded voluntarily; it is a persistent concern or symptom of deeper health troubles. Insomnia can seem like the hole through which our life is draining away. The need for sleep is not just a divine reminder of our frailty. It also points us away from seeking true rest in this world.

The stresses of a consumer society and its frenetic gathering as well as spending are not uniquely modern. Scripture speaks of how “the abundance of the rich” robs him of sleep  (Ecclesiastes 5:12). We must be diligent in our calling and outward concerns but not in such an excessive and anxious way. Those with responsibilities in the Church or a desire to study God’s Word more may find that it encroaches on their necessary rest. So much more knowledge is available to us in an internet connected age that we may be tempted to spend excessive time in it.

We have the gift of sleep from God to relieve our anxieties and remind us to commit matters in faith to Him once we have done our duty (Psalm 127:2). Perhaps sometimes we need to better appreciate the gift. We pray “give us this day our daily bread”, which includes the ability to get it and all the outward necessities of this life.

Sometimes we cannot give ourselves sleep and it is a severe trial. Our rest is still in the only One who does not slumber or sleep (Psalm 121:4). We may seek to draw near to and meditate on Him in the night watches (Psalm 119:148; Psalm 63:6).

If we seek our best portion in an abundance of the things of this world we will suffer by it. The “rich” referred to in Ecclesiastes 5:12 are not just those who have considerable wealth.  Scripture provides examples of godly rich men such as Abraham and Job who experienced rest in body and soul. It is the covetous that are in view who through excessive love to the world and anxious care about keeping and fears of losing, deprive themselves of what the Lord gives to us. It refers to the ordinary course of events. The Lord may of course try His own dearest people with a lack of rest and may sometimes plague the rich with false peace and rest of body and mind.

Ecclesiastes 5:12 also speaks of a labouring man whose sleep is “sweet”. Alexander Nisbet provides a fuller explanation.  It is someone who despite all his labour has little of this world but is also labouring for the true riches. This must be the case; if he were covetous his anxiety to get would make him as restless as those with abundance. Moderate diligence about our outward calling and seriously seeking the true riches gives sweet sleep and rest both to body and spirit. Diligent labour and a good conscience makes sleep refreshing.


Rest is a Gift from God

Natural rest or sound sleep not interrupted by troubles of body or soul is a sweet mercy from God. It separates us from seeing and feeling the miseries of this life. When rest is sanctified we are refreshed by it and recreated in body and spirit for the further service of the Lord. It is a sweet blessing to the labourer that fears God.


Diligence and Rest Go Together

Ordinarily, the busier we are in honest and moderate labour in our callings, the sweeter will be our rest and sleep from God. Diligence disposes our bodies for rest. Moderate, honest labour prevents the reproaches of conscience that would mar our rest. We should digest the efforts of lawful diligence and beware of gorging ourselves on it. Beware also of marring peace of conscience and the sweetness of the rest and sleep given by God. The one who labours diligently and moderately has sweet sleep.


Moderation and Rest Go Together

Anyone should take a moderate portion of outward things when (in God’s providence) they have less or when calls them to distribute a share to others in need. At other times they may be more liberal (but not excessive) when the Lord blesses their labour with greater success. Their bodies must be upheld for their labours and strengthened by created benefits. Solomon here supposes the labourer to eat more at some times and less at others. He says his sleep is sweet, whether he eats little or much.

The Lord can strengthen their bodies and spirits whether they have little or much to eat.  Their rest and quietness of spirit does not come from how much they have but from God’s blessing. The light of God’s countenance makes their sleep sweet and sound (Psalm 4:8).


There is No Rest to the Wicked

Eternal torment and unrest awaits those who have chosen their portion in this world. They often have the down payment of that everlasting unquietness given them in this life. There are many unquiet nights and vexing thoughts about how to keep and increase what they have. These are many messengers sent to warn them of their folly in having chosen such a god to serve that cannot give his worshippers a sound and sweet sleep. They are foolish in neglecting to serve He who will give “his beloved sleep” when it may be good for them. “The abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep”.

Covetousness Steals Rest

It is evident that mammon is the idol of those whose hearts are so preoccupied with such thoughts that their rest is stolen. Their abundance is a curse and snare to them when their hearts are so distracted with cares and fears about worldly things. They are deprived of the ordinary rest and refreshment which God gives to the children of men in the night time. Solomon identifies this characteristic of the covetous; “his abundance will not suffer him to sleep”.


Our Study Must Not Rob Us of Rest

It is not just those who serve mammon and their lusts who are excessive in their efforts and may be cruel to themselves out of love to their idols. Even the best of God’s children in their best studies, are sometimes in danger of exceeding their efforts. This may be partly out of a love for their own honour and partly due to lack of humble dependence on God. Such dependence would abate any such anxiety and sweetens their study. Ecclesiastes 8:16 speaks of the danger of this; seeking to know wisdom and denying ourselves sleep night and day. It implies excessive effort  seeing that night is appointed for our rest when the Lord gives his beloved sleep. It seems that Solomon himself engaged in excessive study in this way.



We ought to have great sympathy for those who suffer from chronic sleep loss. Sleep is God’s gift to both our souls and bodies. We can’t do without it. Lack of sleep drains our physical resources and immune system. It can have the same impact spiritually and morally.  Nightly rest is also a daily reminder of our dependence on God’s sovereign care (Psalm 4:8). We are able to glorify God by night as well as by day through humble dependence on Him. “Oh, we are little with God! and do all without God! We sleep and wake without Him; we eat, we speak, we journey, we go about worldly business and our calling without God!” (Samuel Rutherford). Modern lifestyles devalue God’s gift of sleep as we fail to observe both the moderation and diligence that Scripture counsels. May we find that our need for rest makes our lives yet more God-centred.

Find out more about Alexander Nisbet and read other articles featuring his work.


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