Minutes With Messiah Logo

A Watch in the Night

by Tim O'Hearn

8:00 a.m to Noon: First Watch
Noon to 4:00 p.m.: Second Watch
4:00 to 6:00 p.m.: First Dog Watch
6:00 to 8:00 p.m.: Second Dog Watch
8:00 p.m. to Midnight: Night Watch
Midnight to 4:00 a.m.: Midwatch
4:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m.: Morning Watch

That is how it is in the U.S. Navy. Other military services may have some variations on that, but they all have a schedule of watches. Security, after all, is paramount. Always has been; always will be. It is true today, and it was true under the Roman army, and even the Jewish army.

Almost nobody enjoys standing watch. You are stuck in one place (usually) for up to four hours, and hope your replacement isn’t late. Daytime watches are a little better. At least there is some action, with people coming and going. Night watches are worse, because it is a lot of standing around, with an occasional drunk to worry about. With the morning watch, at least you know that the sun will come up and people will be coming to work. The worst, in most people’s mind, is the midwatch. You may be able to get a little sleep first, but then you are awake and starving for four hours, only to get a couple of hours sleep afterward. And nothing happens. Absolutely, boringly, nothing.

We know that watches in the military are ancient, because the Bible tells us so. The Egyptian army was pursuing Israel through the surprisingly-divided Red Sea.

And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, And took off their chariot wheels. (Ex 14:24-25)

Saul attacked the Amonites beginning in the morning watch. (1 Sam 11:11) I said nothing happens in the midwatch. That is not necessarily true. Gideon knew how boring the midwatch could be, and took advantage.

So Gideon, and the hundred men that were with him, came unto the outside of the camp in the beginning of the middle watch; and they had but newly set the watch: and they blew the trumpets, and brake the pitchers that were in their hands. (Judg 7:19)

Not only did Gideon take advantage of the midwatch; he attacked at the start of the watch. That is the most confusing time of all. That is one midwatch I would not want to have been standing. (Not that I ever cared for any of them.)

Nobody looks forward to the midwatch. Well, almost nobody. Consider two psalms. “My mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips:When I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night watches.” (Ps 63:5-6) “Mine eyes anticipate the night watches, that I might meditate in thy word.” (Ps 119:148) The night watches are indeed a good time to study the word of God, especially if you are a night person. Just because nothing else happens during the night watches, nothing will happen to interfere with a close and diligent study of the scriptures.

The Bible does not just talk about the watches as a fact. One psalmist, at least, treated them metaphorically. “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.” (Ps 90:4) The person who is standing a midwatch will find this passage hard to understand. There is nothing in the world that seems longer than a midwatch. Not even watching the movie “The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.” During the midwatch, even relativity seems to stop. And yet Moses says that to God a thousand years is as short as the midwatch. God is so far outside of time that he doesn’t even notice the four hours that time stops entirely. That is even a comfort, because we can trust that God knows what he is doing. Because he is outside of time, he knows our future. He knows how things will work out. He even knows that, in the grand scheme of things, even the midwatch is nothing.