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.
Apparently it is possible to rise up early “in vain.”
I know plenty of people—including myself, most days—who would say that getting up early is ridiculous, and that extra hour or three of sleep is worth more than whatever else you were planning to do with your time. Teenagers and college students all over the world agree wholeheartedly with the psalmist that rising early is for… other people. (Although they’d probably object to the next line, about the futility of staying up late.)
But the Bible doesn’t generally agree with that sentiment.
Instead, the Bible shows people rising early to pray and to work. We see right at the beginning of Mark’s gospel that Jesus rose while it was still dark and went out to pray (Mark 1:35). And near the end of His life, He was up late in the garden of Gethsemane—so late His disciples couldn’t stay awake (Matthew 26:43).
Surely the psalmist didn’t have Jesus in mind1 when he declared this crack-of-dawn business “vain.”
We are left to wonder what the difference is between the people in the psalm, who really ought to get to bed earlier and relax later in the mornings, and Jesus, who liked being the first one awake and the last one asleep2.
As usual, the difference requires some context, so let’s go back to the passage.
In the first verse, the purpose of rising early is to build a house, and the purpose of staying up late is to keep watch over the city3.
In both cases, the psalmist tells us that unless the Lord blesses your work, you labor in vain. The biggest, strongest, most beautiful house is worth nothing if God does not dwell there with you.
You may remember that, hundreds of years later, Jesus told a parable about building houses that speaks directly to this point. He spoke of one house built on the rock, and when the storms came and raged against it, it withstood them. And He spoke of another house built on the sand, and in the storm, it fell, “and great was its fall” (Matthew 7:24–27).
This psalmist would say that the first house, the one built on the rock, was built by the Lord. But the second house, built on sand, was built in vain. One was built with the blessing and presence of God; the other was not.
So when is it good, and when is it vain, to get up early to pray, or to learn, or to teach, or to build a house? It is good when God is part of it; and vain when He is not. It’s not the time of day that determines the value of the task, but the degree to which God is invited and involved. Without God, it doesn’t matter how early you get up to build, or how much time you put in—you’d be better off asleep.
It’s always nice to see the Old Testament and the New Testament in such harmony.
What about setting the watch? That one’s a little trickier.
Not because there’s any disagreement, but because Jesus’s parable—it’s amazing, isn’t it, that every time we have a question, Jesus has already addressed it?—doesn’t just hand us the answer as it did with the house.
Jesus actually told two parables about waiting and watching: the faithful servant (Matthew 24:42–51) and the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1–13).
They both seem to suggest that we as Christians should watch and wait, exactly the opposite of what this psalm says. In the first parable, we should be awake in case the master returns. In the second, we should be prepared so we don’t miss the bridegroom when he comes. But this psalmist seems to think we should be sleeping instead.
I promise Jesus isn’t arguing with the psalmist. Remember, the psalms were God-inspired with the rest of Scripture, so for Jesus to argue with them would be for God to argue against Himself. Not very likely.
So how do we resolve the tension?
The answer should come as no surprise: we’ll do it the same way we did with the house, but with one extra step. The problem isn’t with staying up late or waking up early. The problem isn’t with building the house. And the problem isn’t with setting a watch.
The problem is doing any of these things apart from God. The problem is assuming that we can build a strong house or protect a city or do anything at all without God’s help.
It might be helpful to consider the problem from the other direction: how early would we have to get up to build a house that God did not want built? Even the builders of the tower of Babel couldn’t complete that task. Or how late would we have to stay up to protect a city God intended to destroy? Even Abraham could not save Sodom.
So in the parables, why should we wait for the bridegroom? If we are asleep when he comes, we may miss the feast. The bridegroom is Jesus, and the feast is the heavenly banquet. There is no amount of human effort that can earn us heaven. Unless God watches with us, we will not meet the bridegroom.
Or why should we wait for the master? Again, the master is Christ, and we Christians are the stewards. If God is not watching with us, we must be waiting for another master—and that would indeed be vanity.
So we can resolve the parables with the psalm. Let’s see if that understanding helps us resolve Jesus’s actions as well.
In Mark 1:35, we see Jesus’s early-morning regimen:
And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.
…and that’s it. He gets up before dawn; He goes somewhere alone; and He prays.
When God the Son prays to God the Father, God is obviously present and participating. And that’s what the psalmist is getting at.
He doesn’t say not to build the house. He doesn’t say not to set the watch. He says don’t do it without God, or you should expect your enterprise to fail.
While it may be true, that’s very negative: “Work with God or fail.” But the psalmist doesn’t leave us there. Read every word, and be encouraged.
The end of verse two tells us, “He gives to His beloved rest.”
There may be no sweeter words in the Bible than these.
Building a house is hard—but with God, you can rest assured the house will stand. Guarding a city is hard—but with God, you can rest assured the city will stand.
The labor is still there. And it may be hard work. It may be frustrating work. It may even be work that appears to bear little or no fruit.
But if you labor with God, doing all things for His glory (1 Corinthians 10:31), the promises rain down through the ages. From way back in Genesis (Genesis 2:3), to Abraham (Genesis 22:16–18) and Moses (Exodus 20:8–11) and Joshua (Hebrews 4:2–3), down through this psalmist and on to Jesus (Matthew 11:28–30) and, gloriously, in the letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 4:9–10).
Just as, after His work, God rested, after your work in Christ, He will give to you, His beloved, rest.
Okay, sure, the psalmist didn’t know Jesus, but go with me here. ↩
Except that one incident on the boat. ↩
Jerusalem. Of course, it’s almost always Jerusalem. But this psalm is one of the “psalms of ascent,” a series of psalms (120–134) specifically focused on the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem, so this city has a special significance. ↩