Since sleep is such a significant part of the human experience, it is no surprise that biblical writers should allude to it frequently. There are a variety of ways in which this term is employed in the literature of scripture.
The word “sleep” is used literally of the state of the body in normal, unconscious repose. On one occasion when Jesus and his disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee, the Lord was sleeping on a cushion in the stern of the boat (Mk. 4:38). This is but one of the many evidences which argue for the true humanity of the Savior.
It is interesting that the Scriptures refer to different levels of sleep. At Troas, Eutychus, in a late-night church service, was borne down with “deep sleep,” and fell from an upstairs window to the ground (Acts 20:9). Science makes a distinction between a lighter sleep (REM = Rapid Eye Movement, i.e., the dream stage) and a deeper sleep (non-REM). This is determined by the measurement of brain waves on an electroencephalograph (EEG). In adults, deep slumber represents about 75% of one’s sleeping time.
Sleep as a Symbol
The term “sleep” is used symbolically in several different senses in the Bible. A consideration of these makes a fascinating study.
Does God sleep?
The concept of sleeping is biblically employed with figurative language to stress certain truths about God.
In emphasizing the fact that the Lord is ever watchful of our needs, a psalmist wrote:
“He will not allow your foot to slip; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psa. 121:3-4).
As a result of the Lord’s providential care, the faithful saint takes consolation.
“In peace will I both lay me down and sleep; for you, Jehovah, alone make me dwell in safety” (Psa. 4:8).
On the other hand, when the Hebrew people drifted into sin, and the Lord allowed them to suffer the consequences of their rebellion, it was as if he was asleep (i.e., he did not intervene to deliver them from certain calamities). They exclaimed:
“Awake. Why do you sleep, O Lord? Arise, do not cast us off forever” (Psa. 44:23).
A symbol of laziness
Sometimes sleep is used as the equivalent of being lazy.
“Do not give sleep to your eyes, nor slumber to your eyelids .... Go to the ant, O sluggard. Observe her ways and be wise .... How long will you lie down, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest. And your poverty will come in like a vagabond, and your need like an armed man” (Prov. 6:4-11).
The destruction of the wicked
Sleep can portray the utter and final punishment of a wicked power that has stood in opposition to God. The prophet Jeremiah foretold the complete destruction of the evil Babylonian regime.
“Babylon shall become heaps, a dwelling-place for jackals, an astonishment, and a hissing, without inhabitant .... When they are heated, I will make their feast, and I will make them drunken, that they may rejoice, and sleep a perpetual sleep, and not wake, saith Jehovah” (51:37-39).
For a full discussion of precisely how this was accomplished, see the Wayne Jackson’s commentary, Jeremiah and Lamentations.
Sometimes spiritual lethargy is represented as a sleep. To the brethren in Rome Paul wrote:
“And this, knowing the season, that already it is time for you to awake out of sleep: for now is salvation nearer to us than when we first believed” (Rom. 13:11).
The apostle subsequently amplifies the significance of the figure by suggesting that the pursuit of an ungodly lifestyle is tantamount to a spiritual coma (v. 13). A similar thought is suggested in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
“Awake, you who are sleeping, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall shine on you” (Eph. 5:14).
Sleep can suggest the notion of being unprepared to meet the Lord at the time of his return. Jesus warned:
“Watch therefore: for you do not know when the lord of the house is coming ... lest he come suddenly and find you sleeping” (Mk. 13:35-36).
When Paul corresponded with the brothers in Thessalonica, he warned about a false sense of security. Folks will be relaxing in a delusional state of “peace and safety,” when suddenly destruction will come upon them. And so he admonished:
“let us not sleep, as do the rest, but let us watch and be sober” (1 Thes. 5:3-6).
To be awake is thus to be vigilant, ever prepared.
The dead are asleep
Sleep is commonly used as a designation for death, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. David petitioned the Creator:
“Consider and answer me, O Jehovah my God: Lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death” (Psa. 13:3).
When Lazarus of Bethany died, Jesus informed the disciples: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep....” The Master’s men did not comprehend the nature of his language. They initially thought that Christ spoke of natural sleep; he therefore had to tell them plainly: “Lazarus is dead” (Jn. 11:14).
Why is death figuratively depicted as sleep?
First, there is a common appearance between a sleeping body and a corpse. The analogy is thus quite natural.
Second, just as the soul of a sleeping person still exists but is oblivious to its material surroundings, even so, in death the soul of man is not extinct; rather, it is only unaware of earth’s environment. Solomon asserted that the dead have neither knowledge of, nor reward for, anything transpiring “under the sun,” i.e., on earth (Eccl. 9:5-6).
Third, as the sleeping person awakes and rises from his bed. Even so, the dead will rise from their graves at the time of the Lord’s return. We must briefly pause and comment further about these final two points.
It is not the case, as alleged by some, that the dead are unconscious, i.e., they are in a state of mindless sleep, awaiting the day of judgment. There is ample evidence that the dead are entirely conscious in their own realm of existence. Both the rich man and Lazarus were cognizant (Lk. 16:23-25), and so were the martyred souls in John’s heavenly vision (Rev. 6:9-11). (For a more detailed discussion of this theme, see Are the Dead Conscious?).
Whenever the Bible describes death as a sleep, it is only the body that is under consideration.
For example, Daniel referred to those who “sleep in the dust of the earth” (12:2). Note that the part of man which sleeps is that part which is planted in the dust. A common Greek word for the “sleep” of death is koimaomai (cf. Mt. 27:52), a kindred term to koimeterion, from which derives our word “cemetery,” the abode of dead bodies (see “Asleep,” W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary).
Finally, as suggested above, the term “sleep” implies the future resurrection of the human body. In spite of the fact that there are some who say, “there is no resurrection of the dead” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:12), e.g., the advocates of “realized eschatology,” the Bible unequivocally teaches this doctrine.
Paul argues that Christ “is the firstfruits of them that are asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). This is a clear affirmation that Christ’s bodily resurrection is Heaven’s pledge that we shall be raised similarly—the firstfruits being the initial harvest (cf. Ex. 23:16), and the guarantee of that which is to follow. As the Lord awoke from the dead, so shall we.
“Sleep” is an intriguing study—both from the literal and figurative perspectives. May we be enriched by an investigation of this theme.