In the shadow of your wings…


Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash

One of the liturgies I regularly use features the imagery of the ‘shadow of God’s wings’.

I don’t know if you’ve ever thought of God as having wings, but it’s not an uncommon reference in the Old Testament.  Perhaps the writers envisaged God as looking like an angel, which do have wings in popular imagination, or possibly one of those winged lion statues like one sees in museums.  Of course, it’s all anthropomorphism anyway since God may not have a visible presence at all, or can self-manifest in whatever way He wills.

Reference to God’s wings is usually linked to protection, such as a bird sheltering its chicks under its wings (Psalm 91:4, Matthew 23:37), or to God carrying his children as if on wings (Exodus 19:4, Deuteronomy 32:11).  But most of the verses refer to the shadow of the wings, as if snuggling close to God for safety in time of danger.  Four of these references occur in Psalms of David, with a fifth using the closely-linked concept shelter:

Ps 17:8 – hide me in the shadow of Your wings

Ps 36:7 – And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Your wings

Ps 57:1 – in the shadow of Your wings I will take refuge until destruction passes by.

Ps 61:4 – let me take refuge in the shelter of Your wings

Ps 63:7 – For You have been my help, and in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy.

It will benefit us to study the Hebrew word translated as wings.  It is ‘kanaph’, which can literally mean wings, with particular reference to the covering or protection they afford rather than flight.  The word can also be translated end, as in ‘the ends of the earth’ (Job 37:3) or corners, as in ‘the four corners of the earth’ (Isaiah 11:12).  It is this sense of corners that is of interest to us, as it is also used in this sense Numbers 15:38 – “they shall make for themselves tassels on the corners of their garments.”

This word is still used in this sense in modern Hebrew to describe the corners of the shawl (‘Tallith’), which men wear when they prayer, to which the knotted tassels connect.  This may explain why a sick woman pushed her way through a crowd simply to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak in the hope of being healed (Matthew 9:20-22).  She knew the Hebrew scripture which says “The Sun of righteousness will arise with healing in his wings” (Malachi 4:2) and understood the alternative translation which she applied to Jesus.

Given this connection, we are quite justified in translating the verses above as “in the shadow of your corners – perhaps an allusion to a small child running to its father for protection and hugging his leg.  As the father protectively puts his arm round his child, the corner of his cloak covers the child, creating a shadow like a tent for the child to shelter safely in.

Perhaps the Bible writers didn’t imagine God as having wings at all.  Perhaps they imagined God as a strong father protecting his children.

“In the shadow of your cloak, I will sing your praises, O Lord”