When You Can't Sleep

Bible Book: Psalms  4 : 1-8
Subject: Sleeplessness; Peace; Rest

When you can't sleep, don’t count sheep, talk to the Shepherd. We find this advice printed on posters and plaques and in books and on billboards.

Harvard psychologists, Drs. Richard J. Davidson and Gary E. Schwartz conducted a study on insomnia and concluded, "Visualizing sheep prevents the brain's right hemisphere from processing anxiety-provoking imagery, while the counting keeps the left hemisphere from straying into problematic thought" [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University papers, 1979]. Sometimes people can’t sleep because of excitement, like a little boy on the night before Christmas. Sometimes sleep disorders require medical attention, but it is important to rule out spiritual causes first. Recently, I read the following: "A young woman just out of college went to her first teaching position in a city many miles from her home and parents. The city was located on the seacoast, and the wind from the ocean blew incessantly. On the first night in her new home, the young school-teacher was all alone for practically the first time in her life. She shuddered at the howling wind outside. As the wind roared, the building creaked and swayed. How will I ever go to sleep? she wondered. The terrible noise, the fear of being alone in a strange city at the top of a rickety old house, the dread of her first day in front of a roomful of youngsters nearly as big as she--all of this engulfed her with wave after wave of terror. I'll read my Bible, she thought wildly. She leafed through her Bible to the psalms. Barely able to concentrate, she began to read the fourth Psalm. The words blurred before her eyes."

Psalm 4 is known as an evening psalm due to the content and context. For example, we read in Psalm 4:4b and 8a, “Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still. . . I will both lie down in peace, and sleep.” Dr. John Phillips (1927-2010) ties Psalms 3, 4 and 5 together, therefore, we will approach them as a trilogy related to the rebellion of David’s, Absalom. David prays in Psalm 4:2, “How long, O sons of men, will you turn my glory into shame? How long will you love worthlessness / And seek falsehood?” He also prays in verse 6, “There are many who say, ‘Who will show us any good?’ LORD, lift up the light of Your countenance upon us.” Dr. F. B. Meyer (1847-1929) explains, “Absalom’s rebellion is a type of all those plots against Christ and His saints which begin in falsehood, and end in confusion.” Dr. Meyer cautions, “We must be sure that our cause is a righteous one before we can ask God to vindicate it, and we do well to go back to God’s former deliverances.”[1]

From Psalm 4:1-8 we read, “Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have relieved me in my distress; / Have mercy on me, and hear my prayer. How long, O you sons of men, / Will you turn my glory to shame? How long will you love worthlessness / And seek falsehood? Selah / But know that the Lord has set apart for Himself him who is godly; / The Lord will hear when I call to Him. Be angry, and do not sin. Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still. Selah / Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, / And put your trust in the Lord. There are many who say, / ‘Who will show us any good?’ Lord, lift up the light of Your countenance upon us. You have put gladness in my heart, / More than in the season that their grain and wine increased. I will both lie down in peace, and sleep; / For You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”

Please note three things from our text to remember when you can’t sleep.

I. When you can’t sleep because of distress.

In Psalm 4:1b the psalmist prays, “You have relieved me in my distress. . .”
After an experiment failed, Lord Kelvin said to his students, “When you’re faced with a difficulty, you’re up against a discovery.”[2] David said, “Lord, You have enlarged me when I was in distress.”

Scottish pastor and hymn writer, George Matheson (1842-1906), reportedly commented, "Often I have sent up prayers to which the only response seemed to be the echo of my own voice, and I have cried out in despair, 'Why art Thou so far from helping me?' But I never thought the seeming farness was instead the nearness of God; that the very silence WAS an answer! This was true also in the household of Bethany. They had requested not too much but too little. They had asked only for the life of Lazarus, but received instead a special demonstration of Christ's power and a new revelation of eternal life!" We find the account of this encounter of Jesus and his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus in John chapter 11.

May we sing in the words of Elisha Albright Hoffman (1839-1929), “I must tell Jesus all of my trials; / I cannot bear these burdens alone; / In my distress He kindly will help me; / He ever loves and cares for His own.”[3]

Sometimes the Lord delivers us from our distress and at other times He delivers us in our distress. Ultimately, He will deliver all believers from every distress for eternity.

II. When you can’t sleep because of depression.

In Psalm 4:7a the psalmist prays, “You have put gladness in my heart. . .” In the face of the madness and the sadness of David’s situation he recognizes the LORD is the source of gladness.

Dr. Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910) comments, “That glad heart possessing Jehovah can lay itself down in peace and sleep though foes stand round. The last words of the psalm flow restfully like a lullaby. The expression of confidence gains much is ‘alone’ be taken as referring to the psalmist. Solitary as he is, ringed round by hostility as he may be, Jehovah’s presence makes him safe, and being thus safe, he is secure and confident. So he shuts his eyes in peace, though he may be lying in the open, beneath the stars, without defences or sentries. The Face brings light in darkness, gladness in want, enlargement in straits, safety in peril, and any and every good that any and every man needs.”[4]

Rev. Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) confessed, "I am afraid that all the Divine Grace that I have got out of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows and pains and griefs, is altogether incalculable. What do I not owe to the hammer and the anvil, the fire and the file? What do I not owe to the crucible and the furnace, the bellows that have blown up the coals and the hand which has thrust me into the heat? Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister’s library."[5]

Todd Beamer (1968-2001) was on United Flight 93 hijacked by terrorists and crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on September 11, 2001. His widow, Lisa, shares the following comparison of her husband’s memorial service and the one held in Pennsylvania for all the victims of the crash:

“I couldn’t help but compare this service to the one in Cranbury the day before. Todd’s memorial service had been so uplifting, so inspiring, because the emphasis had been on hope in the midst of crisis. On Monday, as I listened to the well-intentioned speakers, who were doing their best to comfort but with little if any direct reference to the power of God to sustain us, I felt I was sliding helplessly down a high mountain into a deep crevasse. As much as I appreciated the kindness of the wonderful people who tried to encourage us, that afternoon was actually one of the lowest points in my grieving. It wasn’t the people, or even the place. Instead, it struck me how hopeless the world is when God is factored out of the equation.”[6]

III. When you can’t sleep because of danger.

In Psalm 4:8b we read the psalmist prays, “You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” Dr. Joseph Parker (1830-1902) comments in The People’s Bible, “Thus David retires the controversy to lie down and sleep though his enemies be many and his foes be men of might. He finds true safety only in the Lord; yea, when he appears to have no home and no rest, he feels that he is encircled by the everlasting arms. There is room in the tower of God for thee, my soul! Run away from all controversy, and make thyself quiet in God! The beloved of the Lord shall dwell in safety by him; and the Lord shall cover him all the day long, and he shall dwell between his shoulders.”[7]

Dr. Paul R. Van Gorder (1921-2009) former pastor of Colonial Hills Baptist Church, East Point, Georgia, and former associate teacher with Radio Bible Class, shares, “A mother and her 4-year-old daughter were preparing for bed. The child was afraid of the dark. When the lights were turned off, the girl noticed the moon shining through the window. ‘Mommy,’ she asked, ‘is that God’s light up there?’ ‘Yes, it is,’ came the reply. Soon another question: ‘Will He put it out and go to sleep too?’ ‘Oh no, He never goes to sleep.’ After a few silent moments, the little girl said, ‘As long as God is awake, I’m not scared.’ Realizing that the Lord would be watching over her, the reassured child soon fell into a peaceful sleep.”[8]

Dr. Paul S. Rees (1900-1991) shares the following in his book titled The Adequate Man, "A ship named Zamzam was torpedoed. Passengers were forced to leap into the sea, were picked up by an armed freighter and were placed in the hold of the ship. The next morning they asked each other, 'Were you nervous?’ 'Were you cold?’ 'Were you afraid?’ 'Could you sleep?’ An elderly missionary answered, in substance: 'The floor was terribly hard. But the Lord reminded me of His word in the 121st Psalm: 'He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.’ So I said, 'Lord, there really isn't any use for both of us to stay awake tonight. If Thou art going to keep watch, I'll thank Thee for some sleep.’ 'And,' said he, 'I got it!'"[9]


We read in Psalm 127:2b, “For He gives His beloved sleep.” Rev. Matthew Henry (1662-1714) explains, “Bodily sleep is God’s gift to his beloved. We owe it to his goodness that our sleep is safe (Psalm 4:8), that it is sweet, Jeremiah 31:25, 26. God gives us sleep as he gives it to his beloved when with it he gives us grace to lie down in his fear (our souls returning to him and reposing in him as our rest), and when we awake to be still with him and to use the refreshment we have by sleep in his service. He gives his beloved sleep, that is, quietness and contentment of mind, and comfortable enjoyment of what is present and a comfortable expectation of what is to come. Our care must be to keep ourselves in the love of God, and then we may be easy whether we have little or much of this world.”[10]

Dr. Richard W. DeHaan (1923-2002) recounts, “Some time ago I read about a youngster who was rattling off the words of this bedtime prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake,
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to take.

But when he came to the line ‘If I should die before I wake,’ he got mixed up and said, ‘If I should wake before I die.’”

Dr. DeHaan comments, “This started me thinking. Many people lay their heads on their pillows at night without being sure of the destiny of their souls should they die before they wake.”[11]

The psalmist prayed, “Hear me when I call. . . Have mercy on me, and hear my prayer. . . But know that the LORD has set apart for Himself him who is godly. . . The LORD will hear when I call to Him” (Psalm 4:1a, c, and 4b). We find the basis of David’s confidence in Psalm 4:5 “Offer your sacrifices of the righteous and put your trust in the LORD.” Therefore, the basis of his confidence is faith, which is to trust and obey.

Remember to talk to the Shepherd when you can’t sleep.

[1]F. B. Meyer, “Hear Me When I Call,” Psalm 4, accessed 11/09/13, https://www.wordsearchbible.com/products/20423/sample_text

[2]Accessed 02/18/13 http://www.quotespapa.com/authors/lord-kelvin-quotes.html

[3]Elisha A. Hoffman, “I Must Tell Jesus”, (1893), Available from: http://library.timelesstruths.org/music/I_Must_Tell_Jesus/ Accessed: 12/01/12

[4]Alexander Maclaren, The Psalms, Vol. 1, Psalms 1-38, (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1900), 36

[5]Charles H. Spurgeon, "The Trial of Your Faith," Sermon Notes, (1 Peter 1:7)

[6]Lisa Beamer, “Let’s Roll” [Excerpts from her book], WORLD, Vol. 17., No. 31, August 17, 2002, (Ashville, NC: WORLD, 2002), 26

[7]Joseph Parker, The People’s Bible, The Psalter, Vol. XII, (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, Publishers, 1890), 49

[8]Paul R. Van Gorder, “Always Awake,” Our Daily Bread, April 5, 2006, Accessed: 10/27/13 http://odb.org/2006/04/05/always-awake/

[9]Paul S. Rees, The Adequate Man: Paul in Philippians, (London: Morgan, Marshall & Scott, 1958 / Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1959)

[10]Matthew Henry, An Exposition of the Old and New Testament, Vol. 2 of 3, (London: Joseph Ogle Robinson, 1828), 435

[11]Richard W. DeHaan, “Rest—In Peace,” February 1, 1996, Accessed: 10/27/13 http://odb.org/1996/02/01/restin-peace/

By Dr. Franklin L. Kirksey, pastor First Baptist Church of Spanish Fort 30775 Jay Drive Spanish Fort, Alabama 36527

Author of Sound Biblical Preaching: Giving the Bible a Voice Available on Amazon.com and WORDsearchbible.com



fkirksey@bellsouth.net / (251) 626-6210 / © November 10, 2013 All Rights Reserved