"It is vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives his beloved sleep." (Psalm 127:2)
Sometimes the hardest part of the day is the time just before sleep. At that time, if struggles or stresses abound, we can be kept up by racing thoughts. This fretting and over-analyzation, the frantic search for options, can leave us exhausted and depleted, feeding the cycle of stress that is already at work in us.
King David knew this struggle well. If he seems condescending or trite with his advice in Psalm 127:2, it is only because he has been victimized by racing thoughts so many times before. When he was younger, Saul, the king at that time, put a death bounty on his head and hunted him. Frightened and alone, David knew no other place to hide then in the dangerous terrain of the desert. How bad do things get when you go to the harsh environment of the desert for safety? Alone, confused, terrified, and feeling abandoned, David knows he needs his strength for the coming struggles. That strength is dependent on rest, something he finds impossible to attain. No sleep adds to the stress and makes it more difficult to sleep in a dangerous pattern of unwellness.
In Psalm 3 David records his thoughts at that time. He says that in his moment of trouble, God was a shield-wall all around him, protecting him. He then writes, “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me. I will not be afraid of the many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.” What a testimony! God’s care has produced faith that has sustained David to the point where his fear is turned to rest. This is not dissimilar to our Lord, who reminds us to come to him in our weariness to find the rest we need.
Psalm 127:2 offers a critique of the “Protestant work ethic,” which promises success from hard work. It condemns the view that what is needed to be safe, happy, and at rest is conditioned upon human effort. We must be careful not to miss the point. David is not saying that work is bad or that no effort is required on our part to achieve a fruitful living. Rather, he is calling out the notion that hard work achieves peace. It does not. We cannot work our way out of our problems. We cannot simply try harder or hustle more. This doesn’t mean we should be irresponsible or lazy but that we should firmly understand the limits of hard work’s benefits. Hard work can lead to some form of mastery and worldly success. But not always. And it never can give what all hard workers are working for: peace, happiness, and joy. Work is always a means to these ends, and in that sense, it is utterly incapable of delivering.
David tells us that working for peace and rest is vain. That’s another word for “foolish” or “meaningless.” Because peace is a gift and not a product, you can’t work your way into it. However—you can receive it by grace.
Jesus is our Prince of Peace. He is Immanuel, “God with us.” Only he can offer the rest we need. Jesus can offer this rest because he was the man of sorrows for us. He treads the path of sin and death, hell, and damnation so we can be free of its curse. The eternal consequences of our sin, the everlasting haunt of death and hell, are no longer threats to us. Because Jesus has defeated these threats by walking our path for us, and because he has shown us a new way, that is himself, we have been given the gift of peace. That is why, traditionally, at church people will greet each other in “God’s peace.”
Jesus’s peace is not as the world gives. It cannot be taken away by bad circumstances. Perhaps you find that hard to believe. Perhaps one reason why that is the case is that you are set upon working your way out of your struggles. What if God’s peace was different? What if God’s peace, instead of rescuing you out of every trouble, was so powerful that you no longer feared going through it? That is the promise of Psalm 23, where we hear that we, “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Not around it—through it. Why? “Because we fear no evil!” Why? “Because he is with us.” That is godly peace. It is not a buffer from all wrongs but a present God of peace that is not intimidated by life’s worst. After all, he has faced the worse, for us, and he has won.
God’s peace is simply this: whatever may come, and whatever may happen, whatever you may lose, and whatever you may endure, it will be okay. It will be okay because he is with you and gives your faith promises to grab hold of.
May his peace be yours today, in each fragile moment. Let us live in this promise.