Is There Really "No Rest for the Wicked" in the Bible?
You may have heard the saying, “There’s no rest for the wicked.” Perhaps you’re even aware that it’s vaguely biblical in origin. But where does the phrase really come from? And what does it mean?
The first important thing to note is that the phrase “no rest for the wicked” is not actually in the Bible. The phrase does originate from the Bible, specifically Isaiah 57:21. However, in the dozens of versions and translations of Isaiah 57:21 listed here, each one instead of “rest” states that there is no “peace” for the wicked.
Isaiah 57:21 states, “‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.’”
Perhaps the substitution of the word “rest” for “peace” comes from the preceding verse, Isaiah 57:20: “But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud.”
Thus, it isn’t fair to say that the idea of restlessness for the wicked isn’t in the Bible. However, the Hebrew word “shalom,” translated to “peace” in Isaiah 57:21, holds so much depth that we must focus on the true quotation of the verse to discover what it means for us.
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What Does "No Rest for the Wicked" Actually Mean?
The word “shalom” appears over 200 times in the Bible, a strong indicator of its importance.
“Rest” might work as a translation for shalom, but it wouldn’t do justice to the word; this is probably why “peace” was the chosen translation, rather than the word “rest” we find in the popular expression. Though “peace” is a more apt translation of shalom, it still doesn’t quite capture the nuance or importance of the word.
“Shalom” was used as both a greeting and farewell. It wasn’t just meant to wish a person a lack of war or struggle; rather, shalom goes deeper.
Shalom might be called the peace of the Lord. It is completeness, soundness, wellbeing, and complete reconciliation. One of the names of God is Yahweh-Shalom, or The Lord Our Peace (Judges 6:24), and Jesus is called the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).
Since true shalom is only reached through God, it makes sense that there would be no shalom for the wicked. Taken at face value as the common saying, “no rest for the wicked” might seem to have a simple explanation: those who do wicked deeds will never be able to sleep, or rest, soundly, knowing their wickedness will one day catch up to them. But the Lord was talking about far more than the dangers a wicked lifestyle might bring in the earthly sphere.
“No peace for the wicked” gives the bigger picture. Certainly, the possibility of earthly reckoning might haunt the wicked, robbing them of wellbeing. However, it also encompasses the inner emptiness that comes from seeking fulfillment outside of God. It indicates the toll that wicked acts take on a human physically. It points to the lack of peace between God and man; the wicked cannot be reconciled to God. And it points to eternity; the wicked will not pass on to eternal shalom.
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Who Is Isaiah Speaking to in This Verse?
Isaiah wrote at a tumultuous time in Judah’s history. As a prophet, Isaiah prophesied to Judah around the time the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians. The book of Isaiah covers a broad timespan and topics from the fall of Israel, to prophecies against the nations, to a foretelling of the Babylonian captivity, to the most comprehensive Old Testament prophecy about Christ.
Isaiah chapter 57 is in the section of Isaiah known as the “Book of Comfort,” the second half of the book, the first half of which is the “Book of Judgement.” Chapter 57 falls right at the end of the second section of the Book of Comfort – the section that predicts Christ’s coming and Israel’s restoration.
Chapter 56 starts out with God reassuring foreigners (non-Jews) who pledge themselves to the Lord that they will not be cut off from His coming blessing. “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations,” Isaiah 56:7 says.
Halfway through chapter 56, the Lord turns His attention to the wicked within Israel. “Israel’s watchmen are blind,” He says scornfully in Isaiah 56:10. Continuing into chapter 57, He says, “When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you!” (Isaiah 57:13).
However, His wrath isn’t without bounds. “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15). He continues in Isaiah 57:18-19, “‘I will guide them and restore comfort to Israel’s mourners, creating praise on their lips. Peace, peace, to those far and near,’ says the Lord. ‘And I will heal them.’”
This line is immediately followed by our verses in question: “But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. ‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked’” (Isaiah 57:20-21).
Isaiah 57:20-21, though it can be more broadly applied, was directed at the wicked in Israel.
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Is This Verse Translated Differently, and Does That Impact the Meaning?
Isaiah 57:21 is translated largely the same way regardless of version. “Shalom” is translated either as “peace” or left alone as simply “shalom.” “The wicked” is also universal, except for a few more obscure versions (e.g. “wicked men” in the Wycliffe version, or “evil-doers” in The Bible in Basic English).
Two notable exceptions are the Good News Translation (which is dedicated to ease of understanding) and the New International Reader’s Version (which is dedicated to simplicity and intended for children, those struggling to read English, and non-native English speakers). The GNT says, “There is no safety for sinners,” while the NIRV says, “There is no peace for those who are evil.”
While there is no significant difference between “the wicked” and “those who are evil,” there is arguably something lost in the GNT version of “no safety for sinners,” as safety doesn’t quite hold the same breadth of meaning as peace. However, on the whole, there is very little difference between any of the translations.
Who Are “the Wicked”?
Isaiah lays out many characteristics of the wicked in chapters 56 and 57. Here is what God has to say about them in Isaiah 57:4-8:
“Are you not a brood of rebels,
the offspring of liars?
You burn with lust among the oaks
and under every spreading tree;
you sacrifice your children in the ravines
and under the overhanging crags.
The idols among the smooth stones of the ravines are your portion;
indeed, they are your lot.
Yes, to them you have poured out drink offerings
and offered grain offerings.
In view of all this, should I relent?
You have made your bed on a high and lofty hill;
there you went up to offer your sacrifices.
Behind your doors and your doorposts
you have put your pagan symbols.
Forsaking me, you uncovered your bed,
you climbed into it and opened it wide;
you made a pact with those whose beds you love,
and you looked with lust on their naked bodies.”
The wicked were engaged in all sorts of pagan worship. They were greedy, they worshiped other gods, they sacrificed their own children (v.5), and they were consumed with lust.
In this passage, the wicked were the evildoers in Israel. But in general, the wicked are those who worship anything—idols, money, power, relationships, careers—over God.
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Does God Still Care for the Wicked?
Interestingly, Isaiah 57 itself answers this question.
“I will not accuse them forever,
nor will I always be angry,
for then they would faint away because of me—
the very people I have created.
I was enraged by their sinful greed;
I punished them, and hid my face in anger,
yet they kept on in their willful ways.
I have seen their ways, but I will heal them;
I will guide them and restore comfort to Israel’s mourners,
creating praise on their lips” (Isaiah 57:16-19).
The Lord does not give up on the wicked. After Judah was sent away into Babylonian captivity, God’s people were ultimately brought back. By extension, humanity as a whole was desperately wicked, yet the Father sent Jesus the Son to die in our stead.
How Can We Attain God's Peace?
All of us were once “the wicked.” Romans 3:10-12 states, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
We did not deserve peace, yet the Prince of Peace, Jesus, came and paid the price, taking on the punishment we deserved. It is only by the grace of God that those who commit themselves to Him may no longer count ourselves among the wicked.
For those concerned that they may be among the wicked, turn to God and submit to Him. Though all of us will fall short from time to time, those who submit to Christ are not called wicked, but rather the children of God (John 1:12). The Lord no longer sees us as wicked, but as His beloved children.
Peace, shalom, only comes from God. As such, it can only be attained by submitting ourselves completely and fully to Him, giving up everything we worship instead of Him. Shalom comes from a right relationship with the Lord, a gift He offers to those who put our trust in Him.
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Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. She is the co-author of Dear Hero and has 200+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.