The Beautiful Meaning and Story of “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”
This prayer has become a part of human history, being shortened, lengthened and adapted to various circumstances and seasons. “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” seeks peaceful sleep, rest that comes only from the Lord. No amount of worry or toiling will achieve the peace and rest we experience in Christ.
“In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety.” (Psalm 4:8 NIV)
Brimming with influence from Psalm 4, “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” is a popular prayer that has been passed down for generations. Although it’s experienced various changes and additions, the prayer reminds us of our humble state in the world. The Lord is the keeper of our souls. God is the Author of every minute we breathe on this earth.
This popular prayer reminds us to “pray continually,” trusting our souls and our lives into the hands of our Good Father as we sleep each night.
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Versions of "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep"
The version of this prayer most of us are familiar with reads:
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my Soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my Soul to take.”
However, longer versions of this prayer exist, originating in the 17th century, like the following:
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.
If I should live for other days,
I pray thee, Lord, to guide my ways.
Historically, this prayer has also been adapted from another prayer and nursery rhyme called the “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,” or the “Black Paternoster:”
“Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,
Bless the bed that I lie on.
Four corners to my bed,
Four angles round my head;
One to watch and one to pray
And two to bear my souls away.”
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Where Did This Prayer Come From?
“When I lay me down to Sleep,
I recommend myself to his Care;
when I awake,
I give my self up to his Direction.”
Addison, son of a reverend and a literary presence and politician in England, co-founded The Spectator magazine. His literary fame was perhaps launched in 1704 by a poem he was given the opportunity to write, “The Campaign,” which commemorated the WWI battle, “Battle of Blenheim.” With many dire straights littering the landscape of his country, the world, and his personal life, I personally wonder if the prayer was a common heart cry of his own to God.
This prayer has many notable influences from Psalm 4, perhaps from the influence of Addison’s upbringing. David wrote Psalm 4 about throwing false security, and even blame for circumstances beyond a king’s control, on the king (NIV Study Bible). Instead of looking to the LORD, God’s people choose to look to a human being, albeit a king, for answers and security, which is beyond any king’s capability to secure in comparison to the One True God.
This prayer has become a part of human history, being shortened, lengthened and adapted to various circumstances and seasons. On a World War I poster advertising Government Bonds, the prayer was written in this way:
“Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
God bless my brother gone to war
Across the seas, in France, so far.
Oh, may his fight for Liberty,
Save millions more than little me
From cruel fates or ruthless blast,’
And bring him safely home at last.”
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The Meaning and Significance of "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep"
“Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” seeks peaceful sleep, rest that comes only from the Lord. No amount of worry or toiling will achieve the peace and rest we experience in Christ. Lord, keep my soul, the prayer suggests, for if the author remained tight-fisted with his own soul unrest would be inevitable. As members of the family of God, we can all relate to the need we have for Jesus to soothe our minds as we toss restlessly at night. He is our source of peace and comfort.
Prayer is our lifeline to God. Through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we no longer need to be shielded from God’s presence by the temple curtain, or offer animal sacrifices to atone for our sins. We can simply ask God for forgiveness, through prayer. We can talk to Him, conversationally, through prayer. Though there are many different formats and favorite prayers, there isn’t a specific way we have to pray in order for God to hear us.
Sleep is built into the fabric of human functioning. As simple as this prayer is, it’s importance is paramount.
Sleep not only aids our physical function, but keeps our souls humble. “Every time we go to bed,” wrote Jonathan Parnell for desiring God, “we humbly admit again that the world will be fine without us for a while.” Moreover, “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” gives authority over to God. He is the One, and only One, who knows our first breath from our last, the number of our days, and the unique purpose designed for our lives.
“Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer.” (Psalm 4:1)
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What does the Bible Say about the Power of Prayer?
The apostle John wrote: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14). James reminded us to pray and praise God in times of trouble and happiness (James 5:13). The Psalms remind us that He is close to the brokenhearted. Luke wrote, “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1).
Whether to ease sleepless nights or a simple bedtime prayer, God is faithful, and God is close. When we don’t have words to say, the Holy Spirit, dwelling in every believer, intercedes to translate for us (Romans 8:26). Paul, who underwent many afflictions in his life, reminded the church in Philippi, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).
Christian life is devoted to prayer. We walk through each day in prayerful conversation with the One True God, the Creator of the Universe and Author of our very lives. “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” is a wonderful reminder to pray each night, but moreover a lesson in submitting our lives to Him, repetitively, over the days of our lives. Each day is fresh with new purpose, each sunrise unique to any other day. “The cross of Christ—his death in the place of sinners—is the foundation of all prayer,” exhorts John Piper, “There would be no acceptable answer to why or how we pray if Christ had not died in our place. That’s why we pray, ‘In Jesus’ Name.” Jesus, the name that is above every other name.
Though the traceable history of “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” is obscure and limited, the most important note is the common thread of the blood of Christ woven between all who pray in Jesus’ name. Our purposeful God doesn’t allow sleepless nights to befall us by accident. I believe we are called to remember Him, resubmit our lives humbly to Him, and as Paul reminds us in Philippians 2, “value others above ourselves; not thinking of our own self-interests, but each of (us) to the interests of others.” Maybe we aren’t being awakened in the still of the night to remember our own mortality, but also to dedicate our breathe in prayer to our brothers and sisters in Christ, whomever might be suffering around the world, as it turns, while we rest.
Growing up Catholic, I memorized many prayers, Sunday mass, and multiple hymns. As I continue to grow and seek Christ, the wisdom and truth in many of them still resound in my ears, faithfully reminding me how long we’ve journeyed together. However we choose to pray, the most important note of history is the Savior that binds all of our prayers, hope, and peaceful sleeps together: Messiah, Jesus Christ.
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Meg writes about everyday life within the love of Christ as an author, freelance writer, and blogger at Sunny&80. Her first book, “Friends with Everyone,” is available on amazon.com. She earned a Marketing/PR degree from Ashland University but stepped out of the business world to stay at home and raise her two daughters. Besides writing, she leads a Bible Study for Women and serves as a Youth Ministry leader in her community. She lives in Northern Ohio with her husband, Jim, and two daughters.
This article is part of our prayer resource meant to inspire and encourage your prayer life when you face uncertain times. Remember, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us and God knows your heart even if you can't find the words to pray.