For a variety of reasons I have often looked at Psalm 127 and its importance (often alongside Psalm 128) . Although Psalm 127 is short, it touches on a lot of themes that are of deep personal interest to me, and so it was little surprise when the sermonette speaker commented on Psalm 127:2 as being emblematic of God’s view of sleep and of God being with us while we sleep. Psalm 127:1-2 reads as follows: “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows; for so He gives His beloved sleep.” It should be noted at the beginning that this is not the only verse in Psalms that deals with sleep, nor the only such verse that was mentioned in today’s message, for we have the case of Psalm 139:18b, which says: “When I awake, I am still with You.” Obviously, this implies that God is with us while we sleep.
Yet for a variety of reasons I have seldom found Psalm 127:1-2 to be of personal comfort to me. Like Romans 8:28 and a variety of other verses that are quoted in order to comfort others, this verse carries with it a nasty edge if we are not careful. When Solomon writes in Psalm 127 that God gives to His beloved sleep, how does he mean this? This is the sort of verse that is particularly tempting for people to name and claim. If we enjoy the sleep of the blessed, we view it as a sign of divine favor, whether or not that is warranted. If we want the sleep of the blessed, we may view having peaceful sleep as an obligation that God has to provide to us as His people. Unfortunately, if we do not enjoy the peaceful sleep of those whose mind is free of anxieties and torments, we may view ourselves as not being beloved of God because we do not enjoy the sort of sleep that those beloved of God expect of themselves and others. Is this fair or just? Is this verse a promise and a commitment?
There is good reason to think that this is not the case. It is important to remember that the psalmist here is Solomon, and when we examine this verse in the context of Solomon’s writing in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, there are many similarities that we can find. Similar to Ecclesiastes, Solomon speaks of vanity and futility as being the characteristic quality of someone who thinks that anxious surveillance can substitute for divine favor. Likewise, the statement that God gives peaceful sleep to those whom He loves appears to be the sort of probabilistic statement that one finds throughout Proverbs concerning the relationship between being and doing good and the one hand and enjoying good even in this life on the other. We might expect, ceteris paribus, that those who live their lives in a godly fashion, rest on the Sabbath, and have a trust that God will provide will enjoy a better sleep than those whose lives are filled with anxious care and restless striving. That was true in Solomon’s time and, statistically speaking, it is also true in our own time.
Yet it is wrong if we view Psalm 127:2 as the sort of statement that should make someone unhappier because they do not enjoy the sleep of the blessed. There are all kinds of reasons why people sleep badly. As someone whose sleep has frequently been filled with torment, I can think of many reasons why someone may not sleep peacefully even with the general expectation that those who live well will enjoy peaceful slumber. For one, our bodies may let us down. Many nights I have lost sleep because of massive pain in my foot or knee or hamstring, where cramps or gout or a torn meniscus or something else of that nature has wrecked my ability to enjoy a peaceful night of sleep, even if I am not a notorious evildoer who could expect to be particularly cursed with regards to my sleep. Sometimes, my sleep is poor for reasons for which I am personally to blame. My fondness for sweet tea has often led me to drink too much caffeine which has ruined my sleep, with no one to blame but myself. Likewise, a lack of proper meditation and calming before sleep has certainly caused me to lose hours of sleep on many occasions, and that too easily falls under my own responsibility. However, in my case, and surely in that of many others, a great deal of my sleep throughout the course of my life has been lost or at least harmed because of my alarming proclivity to have terrible nightmares, something I struggle with to this day. Often some alarming nightmare has led me to wake up frozen in panic or has brought me out of the dream state to a dreary awareness of heightened adrenal activity when I was hoping for a calm night. It is one thing to say that God is with us when we sleep, and another to experience God’s awareness of the course of our live as being one that brings us peace and calm.
For those who suffer such torments, it is easy to wonder if their presence in our lives is a sign that we are not beloved of God. Lacking any desire to torment or abuse others, we may understand intellectually that our own suffering springs from the torments and abuse we have suffered at the hands of others. But to know that we are not to blame for the fact that our minds are tormented by the evils we have experienced does not make it any more pleasant for those evils to manifest themselves when we are least able to defend ourselves against them. Perhaps, in such circumstances, it is best to realize that when people cite verses like Psalm 127:2 that they are speaking in general terms and are not trying to create universal expectations of good sleep for all who believe, or for everyone every night. Likewise, knowing that having trust in God’s beneficent providence makes one’s sleep better need not taunt those who have experienced the absence of that providential care in their own lives through no fault of their own. It does suggest, though, that our personal experiences do make it more difficult to relate to the truth of what a psalmist is trying to get across, because we lack the experience that would give us comfort to know that God is within us when we sleep, even when our sleep is often less pleasant than we (or God) would wish it to be.
 See, for example: