Someone asked me recently, "What is this Night Watch?"
Simply put, it is nighttime, but there are different ways of understanding night.
The ancient Hebrews, like the Greeks and Romans, divided the day and night into segments - shifts if you will - for determining who would be on guard and serve as sentinel or watchman for the protection of the community. Some say the proper Jewish division originally was for three watches: first watch 6 p.m.-10 p.m., (Lamentations 2:19); middle watch 10-3, (Judges 7:19); and morning watch 3-6 a.m., (Exodus 14:24).
One of the results of Roman domination of the region was that these designations changed to correspond to the Roman order of four watches.
The first watch of night corresponds to 6 p.m. - 9 p.m. (Even); 9 - 12 midnight (Midnight); then 12 - 3, and fourth watch or morning watch 3 - 6 a.m.
The key thought to me in the past and the present is that somebody's watching. That's what the night watch is all about. People were most vulnerable to attack at night and depended on one another to stand vigilantly, watchful for anything that was out of order. So it is with each of us. We have our neighborhood lampposts with names like Silent Sentinel purporting to offer security and peace of mind. Sophisticated alarm systems line our windows and doors and send signals via fiber optic cable to command stations and calling centers linked to the local police and fire departments. So the simple night watch system has developed into various industries as we have responded to the same bundle of anxieties 'fear of the dark' brings in our day.
But it is not just darkness itself that is fearful anymore. Darkness is not limited to nighttime hours; rather, darkness is that place where people can be alternatively alone....fearful.....confused.....tumultuous of spirit....unable to rest well.....conflicted..... in danger. The 'dark night of the soul' has become shorthand for a state of intense personal turmoil and suffering. And so it gives comfort when one is in that place to know that we have the companionship of the One who never slumbers nor sleeps. God still keeps watch all through the night. (This was my favorite lullaby for my children, "...sleep my child and peace attend thee, all through the night...") The Holy One of Israel continues to speak, "Do not fear" through the ages.
“Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown! When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior... you are precious to me. You are honored, and I love you. Do not be afraid, for I am with you." Isaiah 43:1-5
If you find yourself in the dark, take heart. When you awaken in the night, know first that you are not alone. If you need insight into a problem you are facing, or seek discernment, or just need to be refreshed in your spirit, take these things up with the Lord at night. There are no business hours posted with God. Let your 'heart instruct you in the night seasons' as referenced in the psalm, as much as during intentional prayer during the day. Meditate on God in the night watch if you lie awake. For me, this opens an entire segment of the day that had lain out of bounds previously, as though God were off duty if I were asleep.
Delight yourself in the Lord in the night watch. May it enrich your day and night to contemplate the vastness of the Creator God of the universe.
New Testament references include these time periods as well: See Luke 12;38, Matthew 14:25, Mark 13:35.
Photo: NGC 6934 and NASA/ Hubble