The Night Watch

The Night Watch

The Night Watch.

“Behold, bless the Lord, all you His servants of the Lord

Who by night stand in the house of the Lord! 

Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, and bless the Lord.

The Lord who made heaven and earth bless you out of Zion!

(Psalm 134).

Night was an important time for prayer in ancient Israel. The night watch was a time for vigilance, for worship, for seeking God’s protection. Temple priests kept the watch as they prayed, worshiped, and tended the altar fire and Temple lamps. Night was seen as a symbol of our vulnerability to dark powers, and God was seen as the one sure defense. Jewish worshipers would also come to the Temple to fervently pray at night, for the same reasons. Hence, the liturgical night watch service of prayers called the Compline. Psalm 134 is the final psalm sung or chanted or spoken during the Compline.

Early Christians continued that Jewish focus on night prayers. Jesus often spent entire nights in prayer. He intentionally encouraged believers to be vigilant during the night by having the bridegroom arrive at midnight in his famous parable (Matthew 25). Paul and Silas courageously kept the midnight watch when shackled in prison stocks (Acts 16:25). Many Christian churches to this day encourage a night watch in a prayer chapel or site of worship. Thank God there will be no night watches in heaven. There will, after all, be no night (Rev. 21:25).

Psalm 134 is the final song in the collection of psalms called the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134). These songs were sung by Jewish pilgrims as they journeyed on the road to the Temple in Jerusalem. This final psalm is the last song as they approached the hill to the Temple. It reminds the Jewish pilgrims that praise is the first duty, the first responsibility of the Jewish believer, whether priest or pilgrim. Some scholars say that the psalm is an invitation to praise God, now that they have finally arrived at their destination. Others say it is more of a command to the travelers, not to forget their main reason for being in the Temple. As Eugene Peterson said, “You’re here because God has blessed you. And now that you’re here, bless Him back!” There are others who believe that this psalm is intended for the small group of Levitical priests that served as night watchmen in the Temple. This psalm thus held up the importance of their responsibility, and it served as an encouragement to those priests who are charged with the duty to protect and care for the Temple, and worship Yahweh.

This psalm highlights the fact that Jewish prayer is a physical experience. Jews were not afraid to involve their bodies as they prayed to Yahweh. Prayer was not just an intellectual or spiritual experience. Prayer involved the whole of one’s self. Prayer was physical because gestures helped the person praying to focus on what they were doing, and they were symbolic, communicating something about the heart of the person in prayer. Jews in prayer were known to stand, lift up hands, kneel, bow down, lie prostrate, march, or even dance. In this short psalm, three physical movements are involved:

  1. Stand. Standing was favored in the early Church when in prayer or worship. According to the Orthodox priest Patrick Reardon, standing was symbolic of “dignity, attentiveness, readiness, obedience and vigilance.” In the Temple everyone stood and worshiped, whether a priest or a common worshiper. To this day, one would have a difficult time finding a chair in an Easter Orthodox church when in prayer and during the worship service. Everyone remains standing. Comfortably sitting while worshiping would be unthinkable, considered a sign of disrespect.
  2. Lift Up. Another customary prayer gesture in ancient Israel was the lifting up of hands. This tradition has carried right through to many contemporary churches. To raise one’s hands in prayer implies adoration, submission, and offering up one’s very soul to God. Throughout the psalms we are implored to lift up holy hands, raise your hands, stretch out your hands, extend the palms upward. Why be shy during prayer? Why be self-conscious? Lifting up one’s hands has been done for centuries, and there is no reason to stop now.
  3. Walk. Since this psalm is the final psalm of ascents, it was sung by pilgrims as they approached the Temple in Jerusalem. Believing Jews would come from miles around, even from far flung countries, singing as they walked toward their destination. They prayed as they walked. They walked as they prayed. Contemporary scholar A. J. Heschel walked with MLK on the Selma march, and he said he felt like his “legs were praying.” That’s the full-bodied Jewish way of prayer. Involve the body in prayer, and don’t let self-consciousness keep you from enjoying physical prayer. Don’t let shyness reduce your prayer to a merely intellectual experience.

Certainly we can keep the night watch in our homes and in our churches. Stand, lift up your hands, and pray for God’s protection and blessing during the night. Guard us sleeping, Lord, that asleep we may rest in peace.