Men Who Slept
In this paper it is assumed that David was the author of the Psalms for which the appropriate quotations are made. The psalms are the finest lyrics ever written. They have a universal appeal because they conserve in fitting language feelings which have surged through the being of the writers. Judged by the highest standards of criticism, David’s poems are the noblest and best of their kind, and among them are included Psalm 3 and Psalm 4, both of which were spontaneously composed on successive days at the time of the Great Rebellion when Absalom drove his father ingloriously from Jerusalem and the king was forced into exile in the wilderness. Psalm 3 was written on the morning after an unexpected undisturbed sleep, “I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the Lord sustained me” (v. 5). Psalm 4, composed at the close of the next day which had been spent on the march, shows how David had gained confidence in God from his experience on the previous night: “I will both lay me down and sleep; for Thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety” (v. 8).
One interesting feature of the psalms is the frequent reference to night experiences. Take a few of them. The very first is in the opening psalm. The blessed man is one whose “delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night” (v. 2). “Thou has proved mine heart; thou hast visited me in the night” is a quotation from psalm 17:3. One of the most appealing of such references is found in Psalm 63: “Because thy loving kindness is better than life, my lips shall praise Thee. Thus will I bless thee while I live: I will lift up my hands in thy name. My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips: when I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night watches (vv. 3-6). Those who have had prolonged illness and have suffered the distress of sleeplessness can testify to the truth of the psalmist’s word, “The Lord will strengthen him upon the bed of languishing: thou wilt make all his bed in his sickness” (41:3).
Psalms 3 and 4 were composed in a time of adversity, and they bear witness to the fact that David had found in the wilderness a new conception of the goodness of God. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown; but now that his throne seemed to be toppling in the revolt of his pampered son, he was learning that adversity may be a blessing in disguise. He would have corroborated the dictum of the great Dr. Johnson that “Adversity leads us to think properly of our state”, or that of Shirley that “the glories of our blood and state are shadows, not substantial things.” He would have concurred with the Shakespearean pronouncement that “sweet are the uses of adversity,” for his trying circumstances had taught him as trying circumstances should teach those who profess to know God, reliance upon divine help and intervention.
Psalm 3 is a record of David’s feelings in what were most unpropitious circumstances, as the heading indicates. It was written when David fled from Absalom his son, As he and his little band of loyalists had left the city the curses of Shimei; broke upon his ears, convincing him that there was no safety within the walls of Jerusalem. Now in flight, the king and his fear haunted army had reached their first camping place. As night drew on, hasty preparations had to be made for the bivouac. Protection for the women and children had to be secured. Kindly monarch as he was, and experienced soldier, he saw to the placing of the guards, superintended the sleeping conditions of his followers and then perhaps last of all, tired and apprehensive, David laid himself down with his shield for protection.
When he woke in the morning, maybe before the camp was astir, his first thoughts were of the goodness of God. The revolt was a serious matter. Many, he wrote, were in the uprising against him. Perhaps he was thinking of Shimei when he complained that many were sneeringly saying of him, “There is no help for him in God” (v. 2). The remainder of the psalm is David’s attestation of the fact that God had been his helper and keeper while he had slept. Perhaps, as he had tried to sleep, and the past of his life, like a panorama, swept before him, he was disturbed in mind. His former misdemeanours, like a nightmare, might have risen before him, torturing his conscience and making him wonder if God’s forgiveness was genuine and was still true. Then sleep came, and it was daybreak when he woke, what a different world it was! He could have sided with Robert Browning when he wrote. “God’s in His heaven: All’s right with the world.” He knew that God was in command, and in the end good would triumph. That is the message from verse 3. As he lifted his shield which had lain beside him in the darkness he declared, “Thou, O Lord, art a shield for me; my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.” He knew now why he had slept the night through. God had given His beloved sleep.
As he turned his gaze towards Jerusalem, and thought that there Jehovah had placed His name on the mountain of holiness, he recalled his prayer of the night before and exclaimed, “I cried unto the Lord with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill” (v. 4). Anxiety which can be a grand disturbor, vanished. Fears were allayed. Confidence in God had been restored. Peace came; so that he could write with joy of heart, “I laid me down and slept; I awakened; for the Lord sustained me” (v. 5). The outlook changed, and whereas on the previous day haste in flight had been his portion, now with confidence derived from the knowledge that God had heard him, he could face the new day, saying, “I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about” (v. 6), what a difference a good night’s sleep makes especially if it is recognized as a definite gift from God in circumstances that otherwise would have been disturbing!
Psalm 4 was written at the close of the next day. David had felt while he was on the march through the winding defiles down towards the Jordan valley that if Absalom had overtaken him he would have been hemmed in. At the close of the day he was still safe, and confessed that the Lord had set apart him that is godly for himself (v. 3). Perhaps in verse 4 he was addressing the sons of men who love vanity, and rehearsing his experience of the previous evening before he had gone to sleep, “Stand in awe, and sin not; commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still; Offer sacrifices of righteousness, and put your trust in the Lord” (vv. 4-5). He seemed to be remembering the experiences of the previous day before he was wrapt in the slumber which refreshed and invigorated him. Now he contrasts the joy which he had in the recognized protection of his God with the natural joy which men have when their harvests of grain and wine are bumper ones (v. 7). His gladness did not rest in the abundance of material goods, but in the spiritual joy of fellowship with the God who could lift upon His unfortunate servant the light of His countenance and give him peace.
Another day in the flight from Jerusalem was over. The sun was beginning to cast its slanting rays across his camp settling down for the night. Absalom’s forces had not caught up with them, and David, skilled general as he was, had chosen a place of safety for his camp. Having placed his sentinels, and assured that all was well, the king, who had slept so well the previous evening, mused upon that fact and, recalling the goodness of God, murmured to himself in quiet confidence, “I will both lie down in peace and sleep; for thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety”. And David slept on the pillow of contentment made of infinite wisdom, infinite love and infinite power.
One outstanding lesson those two psalms teach. The recollection of a previous goodness of God should induce in us confidence that He will not fail in the future.