High above the Kansas prairie, the hawk soars. Effortlessly, he rides the currents of the wind. Wings outstretched, he swoops and veers, then hovers, nearly motionless. What a majestic sight! The beauty of the hawk’sflight takes my breath away.
Seen from below, deep within the prairie grasses, the sight is quite different. Here, unseen by human eyes, lives an assortment of small creatures. These small animals do not notice the beauty of the hawk’s flight, for the mice and other mammals that dwell here can easily become the hawk’s lunch. They do not even look up to see the flight of the hawk. They see only the shadow of its wings as it soars far overhead. But the shadow of the wings is enough to inspire terror. When noticing just the shadow of the wings, the mice and other creatures scurry for shelter, for they know the speed, strength and power of the hawk.
In the Bible the imagery of God’s wings helps us to glimpse the nature of God. In Ruth 2:12 (NKJ), we read how Ruth, a young widow in a strange land, is promised refuge: “The Lord repay your work, and a full reward be given you by the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.” The image of the mother bird holding out her wings to her young is vivid. In the same way the mother bird shelters and protects her young, God provided shelter and protection for Ruth. The psalmist uses the image of a mother bird protecting her young, too. “I will abide in Your tabernacle forever; I will trust in the shelter of Your wings” (Psalm 61:4 NKJ). This protection of God’s is promised to His people: “He shall cover you with His feathers, And under His wings you shall take refuge” (Psalm 91:4 NKJ). To people who spend time outdoors observing nature, this image of the protection of the wings is understandable and comforting. Through this imagery, we can more fully understand the love God has for us.
The image of God’s sheltering wings appears repeatedly in the Bible. So, too, does the image of the shadow of his wings. In the natural world, the wings provide shelter and comfort, but what about the shadow of the wings? In nature the shadow of the wings inspires fear, not comfort. Imagine a bird of prey, like the hawk, soaring in the blue sky, seeking prey. Imagine its prey seeking refuge, not under its wings, but from its talons. The shadow of its wings is a reason to fear.
Are we to fear the shadow of God’s wings? In numerous places, the Bible commands us to fear the Lord: “O fear the Lord, you His saints” (Psalm 34:9 NKJ), “Come and hear, all you who fear God” (Psalm 66:16 NKJ), and “Fear God and keep His commandments, /For this is the whole duty of man (Ecclesiastes 12:13 NKJ), to name a few. This puzzles me, because the two images seem contradictory: how can we be sheltered under His wings, yet fear Him? Shouldn’t we gratefully anticipate His presence, rather than fearing Him as the animals fear the coming of the hawk?
When in doubt about words, I look in the dictionary. The stumbling block of my understanding is in the definition of the word fear. As expected, one definition of the verb fear is this: “to be afraid of” (Webster’s New World Dictionary). To my surprise, the second definition of fear is quite different: “to feel reverence or awe for.” Now these seemingly contradictory images make perfect sense. When we are commanded to “fear God” (I Peter 2:17 NKJ), we are being told to revere God or express awe for Him. Thus, finding shelter under God’s wings and asking Him to “hide me under the shadow of [His] wings” (Psalm 17:8 NKJ) make perfect sense. Yes, God wants us to fear Him, but not in the way that small animals fear the shadow of the hawk’s wing. Now when I look into the sky and see the beauty and majesty of the hawk, I can fear, or have reverence and awe, for God’s majestic creation. When the shadow of the hawk’s wings passes over me as he rides the wind across the prairie, I fear the creator of such a beautiful and powerful animal and, at the same time, find refuge and joy in the shadow of His wings.
Oh God, your power and majesty truly inspire reverence and awe. Help me abide under the shadow of your wing.
Psalm 36:7 “How priceless is your unfailing love! Both high and low among men find refuge in the shadow of your wings.”