We all know from experience that how we start each day is important. Indeed, how we start any enterprise is crucial- hence the need for a sound understanding of the basic Gospel before we're baptized. We so often meet the phrase "rose early in the morning" in the Hebrew Bible. Strong defines the Hebrew shawkam translated "rose early" as essentially meaning "to incline the shoulder to a burden... literally to load up on the back of man" (1). In this we see an evident connection with the Lord's thought about taking up the cross daily, for that surely implies we are to take it up each morning (Lk. 9:23). Men and women had arisen each morning for 4000 years and inclined their shoulders to the burden of the day, loaded themselves with it onto their back. And the Lord now took humanity further, in redefining that "load", that burden, as His cross. Practically, does this not mean that we are to reflect as we come to consciousness each morning that we are to load ourselves with His cross? This thought need not necessarily lead to an image of having to burden ourselves with an impossible, awful weight. For again in allusion to this idea of loading oneself up each morning, the Lord spoke of how His burden is light! Here perhaps is one of the finest paradoxes of the spiritual life- that His cross, the life of self-sacrifice and self-giving unto the very end, is indeed heavy and demanding... yet in another sense it is "light", far lighter than the burdens of legalism which Pharisaic religion bound [and binds] upon people.
And so maybe we should all make a conscious effort to think of the idea of daily carrying the Lord's cross, each time we awake. In those moments of regaining consciousness, Job realized that God "visits" us every morning, He 'seeks' us then (Job 7:18,21). Through his sufferings, Job came [as we all do in such times] to a very deep understanding of the essence of God- and I think this understanding of God's morning 'visiting' and 'seeking' of us each morning is indeed valuable. May God not 'find' us simply too busy and stressed and rushing around each morning that we have no thought for Him. Perceiving this, David made a promise to God which we could all copy: "My voice shall you hear in the morning, O Lord; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto you, and will look up" (Ps. 5:3). Are we rolling out of bed, irritated by the alarm clock and then dashing to the bathroom and thence to the kitchen and thence to the day's work... with no thought for God? The language of 'directing' or 'gathering' our prayer together, looking up to God... all speaks of a conscious attempt at thought control and marshalling of our thoughts towards our Father. The Psalms give further insight into the disciplined nature of David's prayer-life: "Evening and morning and at noon will I pray" (Ps. 55:17); "I will sing aloud of thy mercy in the morning" (Ps. 59:16); "in the morning shall my prayer come before you" (Ps. 88:13); "to praise your mercy in the morning, and your faithfulness every night" (Ps. 92:2); "before the dawning of the morning, I hope in your word" (Ps. 119:147). This kind of self-discipline is the utter essence of practical Christianity. It is through this that we will realize every morning that God is our "arm", our strength, for the coming day (Is. 33:2); and God's mercies are only renewed every morning in that the righteous man thinks afresh about them every morning (Lam. 3:23)- for God's mercy itself is around the clock! Likewise the comment in Zeph. 3:5 that God's judgments are revealed every morning only becomes true in that the believer meditates upon God's word each morning.
And in return, as it were, David expected to be caused to hear God's lovingkindness every morning, and to be taught the way he should take- all because he would every morning 'lift up his soul unto God' (Ps. 143:8). All this was the pattern of daily life for the Lord Himself, who was noted for rising up early and praying (Mk. 1:35). Is. 50:4 prophesies of the Lord Jesus that morning by morning, God awoke His ear "to learn as a disciple". That last phrase is surely to signal the intended similarities between the Lord's path of growth, and that of all disciples. The next two verses go on to predict that because of this morning-by-morning teaching process, "I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; I hid not my face from shame and spitting" (Is. 50:5,6). Thus again we come to the cross, the life of cross carrying, as the end result of our morning reflections. It was from His own experience that the Lord could bid us take up our cross- His cross- each morning. The unbelieving world is repeatedly characterized as walking in a crooked path (Lk. 3:5; Acts 2:40; Phil. 2:15 and often in Proverbs). Quietly starting every day right is part of our walking in a straight path, following the way of the cherubim; and by walking in that straight daily path we will not have opportunity to stumble (Heb. 12:13).
With the advent of electric lighting and now the internet, more and more people find themselves claiming to be "night owls" by nature- sleeping late and getting up late. But that's not the kind of lifestyle which there was in Biblical times, nor am I convinced it's physically or spiritually healthy, nor is it really natural. How often do we get up late and have a good conscience about it? How often do we get up later than we planned, and find ourselves madly rushing to start the day, and never quite get our spiritual grip as we should? Some of the most spiritually minded folk I know are those who get up early and begin each day with prayer, Bible reading and meditation. I suspect that these things are far more effective done before the day starts than after midnight. For the "after midnight" approach often leads to getting up late and starting a day with no or little spiritual basis; and the life lived that day reflects that. At the very least, I ask you to think about these things in your life... for it's how we live out our days in this life which is the essence of how we will eternally be. 'Rising up early' was a characteristic of Abraham, who's set up as a pattern for us all. Moses and Joshua are also frequently described in this way. There's another Hebrew term (qum) for getting up in the morning, which seems to just literally mean to rise up. And- significantly, I feel- this is the term applied to unbelieving men when they are described as getting up and doing something. The idea of shawkam, getting up early and picking up the day's burden, is mostly a feature of the records of righteous men and women.
Our early morning thoughts are fair indicators of how we really are with God. Interestingly, Israel are criticized for their early morning attitudes- in the mornings they fantasized after their neighbours' wives (Jer. 5:8; Hos. 7:6), got up and wanted to get drunk again (Is. 5:11), had unjust thoughts about others (Jer. 21:12; Mic. 2:1). That's quite some emphasis- God was so unhappy with what His people thought about in the mornings. And Zeph. 3:7 is perhaps the most challenging of all- God condemned His people because they rose each morning and cast off all their opportunities (Heb.), despite Him every morning [potentially] revealing His word to them (Zeph. 3:5). They allowed themselves to be simply too busy to see all that God potentially enabled for them every single day. And what about us? God has prepared huge potential achievement for each of us- but we tend to fritter our days away in busyness and poor planning and lack of a self-disciplined life.
Several times God speaks of His rising up early in the morning through the ministry of the prophets, every single day since Israel left Egypt (2 Chron. 36:15; Jer. 7:13,25). The figure is stressed- God Himself rose up early every day to teach and appeal to His people (Jer. 32:33). Alarm clocks have changed our appreciation of this. Have you ever had to make yourself wake up before dawn, without an alarm clock? You can only do it by having a deep internal, subconscious awareness that you must get up early. You don't sleep well, you keep waking up and wondering if it's time to get up. So to make oneself rise up early was easily understood as a figure expressing great mental effort. And God did this every day for centuries... This figure of rising up early is surely the basis for the Lord's parable in Mt. 20:1- where God is likened to a man going out early in the morning to hire labourers. It is through the ministry of His word that God does this- each morning that word calls us to labour for Him in His vineyard. Israel didn't notice the huge effort God puts into His word- that every day He rose early and taught them. We can also misunderstand Biblical inspiration to mean that God effortlessly inspired "the original autographs" long ago, and moved on; but actually the whole process is an ongoing and incredible outgiving of God's energy in appealing to us. And... in our mismanaged, weakly disciplined lives, is it so that we don't even make time to read His word daily? If Job could value God's word more than His regular daily food... then for us too, regular contact with His word should be part of the atmosphere of life within which we live.
It's not only how we start our days that's important. The Mosaic law required sacrifices to be offered every morning and evening- at the start and end of the working day (2). And there was the warning not to let the offering of other sacrifices tempt the people to think that the "continual burnt offering" was therefore not to be taken seriously on those days (Num. 28:10 etc.). I find a powerful lesson for myself here. The regular, purposeful beginning and ending of each day with devotion to the Lord is something which nothing else should ever displace. I was recently working with a group of fine brothers and sisters trying to plaster and paint a house against a deadline. We worked day and night quite literally- and afterwards confessed to each other that in those days, our prayer and Bible reading had taken a major slip. Of course at the time, we all told ourselves that we were about the Lord's work... which we were. But my point is that the "continual burnt offering" of devotional 'quiet time' with the Lord, prayer and Bible reading, really must not slip. I challenge us to start each day with some "quiet time", to make Him our arm every morning, to strive the harder for a more disciplined life- with the dynamic in it all being the transfixing experience of knowing Jesus as our finest friend, inspiring brother, matchless Saviour, Son of God.
(1) Hence there is a word play in Gen. 21:14, where the word shawkam occurs twice. Abraham "rose up early" (shawkam) in the morning, took bread, water and Hagar's child, and "laid [them] on her shoulder" (shawkam). I understand from this that Abraham really fellowshipped with the suffering laid upon Hagar; he did it with a very sad heart, feeling for Hagar to the point of realistic empathy.
(2) Probably many readers have wondered why the Hebrew day begins at sunset and ends in the morning. I'd be interested in others' comments on this. The answer presumably goes back to the timing of creation- implying God started work on day one in the darkness, and the evening and the morning became the first day (Gen. 1:5)- and the sequence thus continued. God's creative activity begins with all of us in the darkness, and creatively works to bring us through to the light. Interestingly, ehad, translated "first" in Gen. 1:5, can imply 'unified'. The two periods- day and night- become united into one "day". The light and the dark, the created and the not yet created, the achieved and not yet achieved, are somehow united in God's understanding of our 'days'.