God and the Graveyard Shift

The first full-time job I ever had was as a telephone operator at a Marriott hotel. Given the pay differential, I took the 3rd shift, i.e. 11pm to 7am. Weeknights were tame but weekends were awful-inebriated wedding attendees calling every other minute: the nice ones wanting extended conversation while the mean ones were threatening to beat me up because room service shut down at 1am. There were noise complaints, domestic violence reports, bar fights and toilet overflows. Sometimes the security and maintenance personnel used empty rooms for cat naps, and were often unreachable when the frantic calls came in.

Yes, it was stressful but I was young, and actually remember many good times. Yet I remember best the middle hours: 2am to 5am. Most guests were asleep by then, few outside calls came in and wake-up calls usually began after 5. Sometimes I would help the night auditors with their overnight accounting; sometimes I read a book or listened (quietly) to the radio. Still, these were the hours when fatigue hit hardest…and I could not steal away for covert naps. Those who are working-or have worked-nights know the havoc graveyard shifts wreak on the circadian rhythms. Even with adequate daytime rest, making it through the night is physically challenging, especially when sitting.

I share all of this because I have lately been working my way through 1 Chronicles and I just realized that the temple in Jerusalem was a 24/7 operation. Music, for example, was offered up continuously:

Those who were musicians, heads of Levite families, stayed in the rooms of the temple and were exempt from other duties because they were responsible for the work day and night. (1 Chron. 9:33)

And Psalm 134 leaves no doubt that temple worship continued through the dark of night:

Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who minister by night in the house of the Lord. (Psalm 134:1)

Talmudic sources suggest that, in addition to worship, priests undertook various custodial tasks in anticipation of the coming day, i.e. cleaning out the ashes and adding fresh wood for the altar; filling the Sea of cast metal with clean water for the priests to cleanse themselves; and refilling the menorah with new oil. While all of Israel slumbered, at least a few Levites ministered before their God, who “…will neither slumber nor sleep.” (Psalm 121:4)

As noted, shift work is hard on the body as it disrupts normal sleeping patterns. Police officers, fire fighters, first responders, doctors, nurses and utility technicians (to name only a few callings) must often suffer these overnight hours as part of their jobs. Unfortunately, neither crime nor flames nor injury nor disease nor outages are strictly daytime occurrences. These public servants make a sacrifice for their communities, sometimes at the expense of their health. God’s temple servants who tended to his house by night doubtless were often tempted by blissful unconsciousness.

As were Jesus’ disciples at Gethsemane:

Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners.”

That these disciples yielded to fatigue did not significantly change anything (though one wonders if fervent prayer might have warded off their subsequent cowardice). The hour had still come and Jesus headed off to his appointment at the Cross. God’s purposes are achieved with a staff of intrepid, night-owl priests at the temple, or just one great High Priest, suffering as the once-for-all sacrifice to save sinful men.

We do not need to stay awake all night to do his will. Remember, nevertheless, that the apostle warns against living our lives fast asleep:

“…for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” (1 Thessalonians 5:2)

Pleasant dreams.

John Gregory is a Ruling Elder since 2015.