The Bread of Anxious Toil

December 12, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Posted in Devotional thoughts | Leave a comment

How would you feel if you worked hard at buying just the right Christmas gift for someone you loved, exactly what he needed and wanted, but he decided to never open the package because he believed it would interrupt his agenda?  Unfortunately, we often treat God that way.

This morning I was reading in Psalm 127 and had some thoughts about the first two verses.  “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.  Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.  It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” (ESV)

There is a rhythm of work and rest that God designed into creation, particularly into the human race.  That rhythm includes daily cycles of so many hours to work and so many hours to rest.   It includes a weekly cycle of six days work and one day rest; it includes annual periods of work and of rest as well.  In our culture these cycles are broadly ignored.  We are often pushed to work seven days a week; I’ve read that we take less vacation time than most other prosperous cultures; we have the desire to “burn the candle on both ends” as the saying goes.  It is this last matter that Psalm 127 addresses.

There is nothing wrong with staying up late to finish a project; and there is nothing wrong with getting up early to get some extra work done, but when we do both of those on a regular basis, we are ignoring God’s design for us, and we will eventually pay the toll for that.  The internal pressure to do more is exactly what the author of this Psalm means when he says “eating the bread of anxious toil,” and in the end it is empty.  When we constantly urge ourselves to get more done, we practice the vanity of building the house without God.  Ultimately, the push to get so much done and to sleep little is a sign that one does not trust God to do what he says he will do, or does not trust that God’s plan is really the best.

One part of the passage that stood out to me was the phrase “he gives to his beloved sleep.”  I’d learned this verse years ago in the NASB which said, “he gives to his beloved even in his sleep.”  Though the italics indicate that the words are not in the original, I never thought about it until I read the ESV today.  I always thought it to say that God gives us what we need when we sleep, which is true and appropriate for this context, but we should also read the passage to say that sleep itself is a gift from God!  A gift many of us treat with contempt because we believe it will interrupt our agendas.

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