In the Scriptures the words that designate sleep are used in both a literal and a figurative way. When the word is used literally, as it frequently is, it usually depicts sleep as a simple fact of human experience ( Gen 28:16 ; Dan 8:18 ; Matt 25:5 ). Even our sleeping state is not outside the active involvement of God, who neither slumbers nor sleeps ( Psalm 121:4 ). The Lord watches over us while we sleep ( Psalms 121:3 Psalms 121:5-6 ), and the darkness of night is as the light of day to him ( Psalm 139:11-12 ). God uses our sleep on occasion to give us revelatory dreams and guidance ( Gen 20:6-7 ; Judges 7:13-15 ; 1 Kings 3:5 ; Matt 1:20 ; Matthew 2:12-13 Matthew 2:22 ). In the Old Testament, natural sleep is occasionally referred to as a sweet blessing of God ( Psalm 4:8 ; 127:2 ; Eccl 5:12 ).
The word "sleep" is also used metaphorically of spiritual dullness, sloth, or lack of watchfulness. In the Book of Proverbs, laziness, sloth, and sleep are used in a quasi-moral way to depict the irresponsible person who refuses to acknowledge the reasonable demands of human life ( 6:9-11 ; 19:15 ; 20:13 ; 24:33-34 ); such a person will suffer the inevitable consequences. In Isaiah 29:10 and frequently in the New Testament ( Mark 13:36 ; Rom 13:11 ; Eph 5:14 ; 1 Thess 5:6-9 ) it is used to describe a spiritual heaviness that must be shaken off in order to remain awake in this evil time. It is often used in this way in an eschatological context, warning us to be alert to the signs of the times.
"Sleep" is also used metaphorically of death. This is common in the Old Testament ( Job 7:21 ; 14:12 ; Psalm 13:3 ; Jer 51:57 ; Dan 12:2 ). The expression "he slept with his fathers" is a fixed formula in reference to death, and is used over thirty-five times in the Old Testament. This expression does not continue into New Testament times, although the metaphorical use of sleep for death does. Six observations can be made about this expression in the New Testament.
First, Jesus is never said to have fallen asleep. There is no softening of what he experienced at the end of his earthly life. Second, unbelievers are never said to fall asleep. They, too, experience death in a stark and crushing way. Death is no pleasant sleep for them, but a final, unending negation. The difference from Jesus is, of course, that the unbeliever dies for his or her own sins, whereas Jesus died for the sins of others and rose again in triumphant life. Third, believers are said to fall asleep at death ( 1 Corinthians 15:6 1 Corinthians 15:18 1 Corinthians 15:20 ; 1 Thessalonians 4:13 1 Thessalonians 4:15 ), and in one instance "to fall asleep in Jesus" ( 1 Thess 4:14 ). Although believers are still occasionally said to die, death is described as gain ( Php 1:21 ); it has lost its sting ( 1 Cor 15:54-57 ). Death comes attended by blessedness and rest ( Rev 14:13 ) and a conscious sense of the presence of Christ ( 2 Cor 5:8 ). Death is, in fact, not death anymore, and those who believe in Jesus will never really die, even though they might still experience what used to be called death ( John 11:25-26 ). So the metaphor of sleep is used to emphasize that we have no more to fear from death than we do from falling asleep. Fourth, believers are never said to have fallen asleep in the death of Jesus; rather, we died with him ( Col 2:20 ; 2 Tim 2:11 ) or were crucified with him ( Gal 2:20 ). It is only because of Jesus' death, and our death in him, that death no longer holds any terror, becoming instead a peaceful sleep and a blessedness ( Rev 14:13 ). Fifth, even when believers are punished by the Lord with temporal death, it is still no longer death but a falling asleep ( 1 Cor 11:30 ). Finally, not only do believers never experience death (in the old way) anymore, although they must go through what is metaphorically called sleep; there are some who will not even experience thatthat single generation of believers, who are alive at the second coming of Christ ( 1 Cor 15:51 ), they will not sleep, but will be transformed instantaneously into their new unending life.
Walter A. Elwell
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Represents many words in Hebrew and Greek. For the noun the most common are shenah, and hupnos; for the verb, yashen, shakhabh, and katheudo. The figurative uses for death (Deuteronomy 31:16, etc.) and sluggishness (Ephesians 5:14, etc.) are very obvious.
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