March 8th, 2012 by Ron S.
Here’s the 5th installment in this series:
Biblical Common Sense – Death – Usage of the Sleep Metaphor
I’ve been to several funerals the last few years where I have heard the preachers often say that the deceased is now “more alive than ever” up in heaven. Yet this runs counter to the most consistent description used in The Bible in reference to the dead. A description that isn’t something that means energized and alert, but the exact opposite with the word “sleep”. Of course this is a metaphor (something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else) to describe the death. This metaphor is repeatedly used throughout many of the Old Testament books.
In Deuteronomy 31:16, Moses was told by God before his death “thou shalt sleep with thy fathers..” (KJV).
First and Second Kings and Second Chronicles repeatedly tell (over 30 times) of king after king that upon dying “slept with their fathers” (1 Kings 2:10, 11:43, 14:31, 15:8, 15:24, 16:6, 16:28, 22:40, 22:50 2 Kings 8:24, 10:35, 13:9, 13:13, 14:16, 14:22, 14:29, 15:7, 15:22, 15:38,16:20, 20:21, 21:18, 24:6, 2 Chron 9:31, 12:16, 14:1, 16:13, 21:21, 26:2, 26:23, 27:9, 28:27, 32:33, 33:20).
Job wrote that if he had died at birth he would “have lain down and been quiet; I would have slept then, I would have been at rest” (Job 3:11-13). The he used it with startling clarity when he said “man lies down and does not rise. Until the heavens be no more, He will not AWAKE nor be aroused out of his SLEEP” (Job 14:12).
King David wrote in “Consider and answer me, O LORD, my God; Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,” (Psalm 13:3).
Daniel wrote “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt” (Dan 12:2)
Later in the New Testament we also have numerous examples of sleep being used for death.
Jesus sad the daughter of the synagogue official was only sleeping.
Matt 9:24 “He said, “Leave; for the girl has not died, but is asleep.”
Mark 5:39 “And entering in, He said to them, “Why make a commotion and weep? The child has not died, but is asleep.”
Luke 8:52 “Now they were all weeping and lamenting for her; but He said, “Stop weeping, for she has not died, but is asleep.”
Jesus specifically uses the sleep metaphor when talking about the death of Lazarus. In the story we learn that Jesus was ready to head back to Judea and told his disciples “Our Friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, that I may awaken him out of sleep” (John 11:11). The disciples must have heard the message that Jesus received “Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick.” (John 11:3) because they naturally thought that sleep would do a sick man some good since they replied “Lord if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” However like many people today, the disciples were not fully grasping that Jesus was using the Biblical “sleep metaphor” in describing death. So Jesus had to spell it out for them by plainly saying “Lazarus is dead.” (John 11:14).
At Jesus’ crucifixion, Matthew writes “The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised;” (Matt 27:52).
Luke records Paul’s speech about Jesus’ resurrection in Acts 13 where he said that King David “after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep, and was laid among his fathers and underwent decay” (Acts 13:36).
Paul used the sleep metaphor many times in his own writings. In the great resurrection chapters of 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul uses it repeatedly in referring to dead followers of Jesus:
1 Cor. 15:6 “After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep”.
1 Cor 15:18 “Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.”
1 Cor 15:20 “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.”
1 Cor 15:52 “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed”
1 Thes 4:13-15 “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.”
Generally the reason for metaphor is to construct an analogy between two things, to have one help understand the other. A good metaphor is one that is easy to recognize and understand. Certainly sleep is easy for all people to understand. Every single person on earth knows what it means because they have experienced it firsthand. Sleeping is universal. We lie down, drift off into unconsciousness and then regain consciousness and wake up sometime later. Yet when we’re in deep, sound sleep we have no knowledge of the passing of time. Without a time keeping device or seeing some indication from the world around us, it is hard to know just how long has passed since we dozed off. Did we nod off for a few minutes or several hours?
So if death is compared to sleep in Scripture common sense should tell us that we’re not active and we’re not aware of anything happening while we are asleep. It would be ridiculous to say a person is “more awake than ever” while they are asleep. When we sleep we are unconscious and not thinking, planning, or praising God – all things the bible tells us that the dead do not do.
Psalm 6:4-5 “Return, O LORD, rescue my soul; Save me because of Your lovingkindness. For there is no mention of You in death; In Sheol who will give You thanks?”
Psalm 115:17 “The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor do any who go down into silence;”
Psalm 146:4 “His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.”
Eccl 9:5-6, “For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.” 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.”
Defenders of the immortality of the soul who say that a person’s body “sleeps” in the grave while their “soul” continues on living, defy the plain, common sense truth of these Scriptures. Besides, for the metaphor to make any sense, it must have a similar meaning as it does in reality. And in reality when we’re asleep, we’re not balancing our checkbook or figuring out solutions to our problems of the day/week. No, when we’re asleep we are “off” until we wake from our sleep. Death is the same. We are “off” until Jesus returns and awakens us at the Resurrection of The Dead!
Biblical Common Sense Series:
13. Death – Usage of the Sleep Metaphor (current page)