Great Texts of the Bible
A Sun and a Shield
The Lord God is a sun and a shield.—Psalm 84:11.
An ancient legend tells that Abraham, in his untaught devoutness and yearning reverence. took the sun for his God until he observed the setting of its beams in the west. In the absence of authentic revelation, it is no more strange that reflective and reverential minds should exclaim, in the presence of a world of light, “The sun is our God,” than that the Heaven-instructed Hebrew singer, dwelling in the light of God’s countenance, should declare, “The Lord God is a sun”; for a more fitting material symbol of God than the sun it would be difficult to find, whether we consider the vastness of it, the glory of it, or the beneficence of it. Hidden by its very glory! So far off, yet finding out our distant world and bathing it in its genial warmth, breathing about it a new hope! So mighty, yet so gentle! Stooping not only to the lowest and least forms of life, but ministering to its hidden and shapeless beginnings.
Could there be a more felicitous and apposite representation of Him of whom an Apostle wrote: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all”? As the sun opens the gates of day, floods the world with light, gives it without stint to palace or cottage, to peasant and prince, and enables us to discern a thousand pleasing objects, so God shines into our lives and gives us power to see a thousand moral glories. The secret of seeing is not in us. God is the great revealer. We are the organs favoured with the holy visions. We can see only what He is pleased to show us. But He is not slow to reveal Himself to our understanding, nor is the light inadequate. No nook or corner of our being need go unirradiated. If we open the life to God as we open the eye to the sun, we shall no longer be children of the darkness. “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Nowhere else in the Old Testament is Jehovah directly called a sun, though the ideas conveyed by the metaphor are frequent. Cp. Psalm 27:1; Isaiah 10:17; Isaiah 60:19-20; Malachi 4:2. Perhaps the prevalence of sun-worship in the East led to the avoidance of so natural and significant a metaphor. Even here the oldest Versions either had a different reading or shrank from a literal rendering. The LXX and Theodotion have: “For the Lord God loveth mercy and truth.” The Targ. paraphrases: “For the Lord God is like a high wall and a strong shield,” reading shemesh (=sun), but taking it in the sense of “battlement” (R.V. “pinnacles”), which it has in Isaiah 54:12. The Syr. gives: “Our sustainer and our helper.” Only the later Greek Versions render the Massoretic text literally.1 [Note: A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 509.]
In his Hibbert Lectures on the Religion of the Babylonians Professor Sayce quotes a hymn to Samas the Sun-god, beginning:
O Sun-god, king of heaven and earth, director of things above and below,
O Sun-god, thou that clothest the dead with life, delivered by thy hands,
Judge unbribed, director of mankind,
Supreme is the mercy of him who is the lord over difficulty,
Bidding the child and offspring come forth, light of the world,
Creator of all thy universe, the Sun-god art thou.
Another time Napoleon breaks out [in conversation with Gourgaud]: “Were I obliged to have a religion, I would worship the sun—the source of all life—the real God of the earth.”2 [Note: Lord Rosebery, Napoleon: The Last Phase, 171.]
I heard a Saint cry to the Sun—“Be dim.
Why shouldst thou rule on high with boastful ray,
Till fools adore thee as the God of Day,
Robbing thy Master’s honour due to Him?”
But the sun-spirit, thro’ each radiant limb
Translucent as a living ember coal,
Glowed. At the anger of the seraph soul
His golden orb trembled from boss to rim.
Then made he answer as a dove that sings,
“God’s glory is my glory, and my praise
Only His praising. They, who kneel to me,
See thro’ the waving of my orient wings
A choir of stars with voices like the sea,
Singing hosanna in the heavenly ways.”3 [Note: Lord De Tabley.]
God is a Sun
1. The sun is the centre of power in the system where it stands. There is nothing that can hold out against it. All planets are obliged to own their allegiance to it. They march to its music. They cannot wander or get out of the path which its power prescribes for them. The sun is the governor of the planetary kingdom—central, uncontradicted, unwasting, unexhausted and inexhaustible, steadfast, going forth for ever and for ever. So there is a sublime centre in that higher creation, in conscious human life. In the realm of intelligence, in the realm of righteousness or morality, in the great superior realm of mind, there is a central power. Amidst all the apparent detonations and explosions and miscarriages of minor human life upon this sphere there is, nevertheless, a great central influence that is holding mankind to their career, to their general orbit. The government of God in its extensiveness, in its patient perseverance, in its power universal, could not be more fitly represented than by this symbolization of the sun itself. The universality of God—“omnipresence,” as it is called—is a thing somewhat difficult to be understood, as all things that reach toward or are born of the infinite are to finite intelligence; nevertheless, the outreaching of the sun is everywhere. Both of the poles recognize its presence. The equator never abandons the light and warmth of the sun. Wherever the earth and all its luminaries may travel, and wherever the satellites of the sun may go, there is its power. There is no thunder, no utterance in it. It is silent, but it is there.
Fénelon had many friends affectionately attached to him, in Versailles, Paris, and other parts of France; but in his banishment he saw them but very seldom. Many of them were persons of eminent piety. “Let us all dwell,” he says in one of his letters, “in our only Centre, where we continually meet, and are all one and the same thing. We are very near, though we see not one another; whereas others, who even live in the same house, yet live at a great distance. God reunites all, and brings together the remotest points of distance in the hearts that are united to Him. I am for nothing but unity; that unity which binds all the parts to the centre. That which is not in unity is in separation; and separation implies a plurality of interests, self in each too much fondled. When self is destroyed, the soul reunites in God; those who are united in God are not far from each other. This is the consolation which I have in your absence, and which enables me to bear this affliction patiently, however long it may continue.”1 [Note: T. C. Upham, Life of Madame Guyon, 455.]
2. Another idea is suggested by the sun. Many of us have been oppressed by the thought of a distant God; we sometimes have thought of Him as far away, as having His throne in the remote heaven of heavens. But if the sun can have its being ninety million miles away, and yet can fall with such power as to heat a continent, and with such exquisite nicety as to make the rosebud redden, why should it seem a thing incredible to us that the Creator who fashioned that glorious lamp should dwell apart immeasurably far, yet touch and turn and bless and save humanity? He takes up the isles as a very little thing—the nations before Him are as nothing. Yet He knows the way that I take; He understands my thought; He will not quench the smoking flax nor break the bruised reed. Powerful, yet very far away; thoughtful and tender, though hidden in the distance.
God is the God of all, and yet He is my God. At the same moment He pervades heaven and earth, takes charge of the sustenance, progress, and growing happiness of the unbounded creation, and He is present with me, as intent upon my character, actions, wants, trials, joys, and hopes, as if I were the sole object of His love.2 [Note: W. E. Channing.]
3. God is a sun: that is infinity of blessing. No man among us can conceive the measure of the light and heat of the sun. They are beyond conception great. Light and heat have been continually streaming forth throughout many ages, yet all that has come forth of it is far less than that which still remains. For all practical purposes the light and heat of the sun are infinite; and certainly in God all blessedness is absolutely infinite. There is no measuring it. We are lost. We can only say, “Oh, the depths of the love and goodness of God!” In being heirs of God we possess all in all. There is no bound to our blessedness in God. Further, if God be called a sun, it is to let us know that we have obtained an immutability of blessedness, for He is “the Father of lights with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” God is not love to-day and hate to-morrow; He saith, “I am God, I change not.” There are said to be spots in the sun which diminish the light and heat which we receive; but there are no such spots in God; He shines on with the boundless fulness of His infinite love toward His people in Christ Jesus. “This God is our God for ever and ever.” If we were to live as long as Methuselah, we should find His love and power and wisdom to be the same, and we might confidently count upon being blessed thereby. What treasures of mercy do we possess in being able to say, “O God, thou art my God”! We have the source of mercy, the infinity of mercy, and the immutability of mercy to be our own.
What is the glory of the sun? Is it its power, its energy, or is it not the way in which it finds out things one by one and gives itself away to them? I have watched the sun rising amidst the mountains, crowning them with gold and robing them with purple, until they stood like lords-in-waiting arrayed for the coming of their king, and it has seemed in keeping with the sun’s greatness. But little by little it rose higher, and now it covered the fir trees with glory, and now it lit up the moss of the rock. Still higher rose the sun, and then it reached the meadows, and every tiny grass blade caught its warmth and energy, and every flower had its golden cup filled to the brim. And lower still it went down, to the seeds that were buried in darkness, and whispered to them of hope, and put new strength into them. Think if I could tell the tiny flower how far off the sun is, how many myriads of miles away, how great it is, how splendid in its majesty. “Surely,” the flower would say, “it can never stoop to me, or find me out, or care for me, or minister to my want!” Ah, but it does; it gives itself to the flower with such tenderness and thoroughness as if there were not another in the round world. Surely this is the glory of our God. We think of Him in the greatness of His power. We sing of Him, “Who is like unto thee … glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” But is not this His glory, that He comes to us away by ourselves, one by one, and gives Himself to us separately, stooping to the lowest, reaching to the farthest off, finding out the most hidden? The sun is not going to put to shame the ingenuity of our Father’s love.1 [Note: M. G. Pearse, The God of our Pleasures, 56.]
Behold the sun, that seemed but now
Beginning to decline below
The globe whereon we tread;
And he, whom yet we look upon
With comfort and delight,
Will quite depart from hence anon,
And leave us to the night.
Thus time, unheeded, steals away
The life which nature gave;
Thus are our bodies every day
Declining to the grave;
Thus from us all our pleasures fly
Whereon we set our heart;
And when the night of death draws nigh
Thus will they all depart.
Lord! though the sun forsake our sight,
And mortal hopes are vain,
Let still Thine everlasting light
Within our souls remain;
And in the nights of our distress
Vouchsafe those rays divine,
Which from the Sun of Righteousness
For ever brightly shine!1 [Note: George Wither.]
4. Without a favourable medium and a suitable object, the sunlight can do little. All the sunlight of all time cannot illumine a man who is blind. The suns of all the seasons can avail nothing for the dead. There must be the faculty to receive the light and to respond to it. The sun cannot give life, it can only develop it. It cannot transform the nature. But He who is the Light of the World is also the Lord and Giver of life. See Him by whom grace and truth come to us. See Him as He bends over the couch of the dead maiden, and, taking her by the hand, says, “Maiden, arise.” See Him as He lays those fingers on the blind man’s eyes and says, “Be opened.” In Him the blessed grace of forgiveness is ours. His coming is in relation to our sins—His very name is Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins. “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” He gives to us a new nature whose instinct it is to know God and to serve Him. He will give grace. And we have to receive that grace, and avail ourselves of it. The golden sun shall in vain pour its beauty where the plough has not turned the furrow and the seed-corn has not been flung. Man’s work is to avail himself of the sun and to adapt himself to its times and seasons. And even so it is with God’s grace. It cannot avail him anything who does not receive it and respond to it. “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.”
Richard Jefferies is closely akin to Wordsworth in his overpowering consciousness of the life in nature. This consciousness is the strongest force in him, so that at times he is almost submerged by it, and he loses the sense of outward things. In this condition of trance the sense of time vanishes; there is, he asserts, no such thing, no past, or future, only now, which is eternity. In The Story of my Heart, a rhapsody of mystic experience and aspiration, he describes in detail several such moments of exaltation or trance. He seems to be peculiarly sensitive to sunshine. As the moon typifies to Keats the eternal essence in all things, so to Jefferies the sun seems to be the physical expression or symbol of the central Force of the world, and it is through gazing on sunlight that he most often enters into the trance state.1 [Note: C. F. E. Spurgeon, Mysticism in English Literature, 68.]
Francis Thompson in his “Orient Ode” seems to worship the Sun, but it is because he finds Christ in that symbol:
Lo, of thy Magians I the least
Haste with my gold, my incenses and myrrhs,
To thy desired epiphany, from the spiced
Regions and odorous of Song’s traded East.
Thou, for the life of all that live
The victim daily born and sacrificed;
To whom the pinion of this longing verse
Beats but with fire which first thyself did give,
To thee, O Sun—or is’t, perchance, to Christ?2 [Note: E. Meynell, The Life of Francis Thompson (1913), 210.]
5. The heat and light of the sun come to this world through the surrounding atmosphere. Without the envelope of closely clinging air that engirdles this globe like some diaphanous garment, the heat of the sun and all the light of it would fall ineffectually on the earth. When we climb a mountain we get nearer the sun; would one not naturally think that it ought to get hotter there? As a matter of fact it gets colder as we rise till we reach the peaks that are robed with perpetual snow. The reason is that we are piercing through that air which wraps and enwraps this little earth of ours. It is the atmosphere that mediates the sun, that catches and stores and distributes the heat. Were there no air, but only empty space, then the greenest valley would be like Mont Blanc, and the tropics would be icebound in a perpetual winter, though the sun in itself were as fiery-hot as ever.
May we not make use of this mystery of nature to illuminate a kindred mystery of grace? It is one of the ways of God to grant His blessings through an intermediary. You say that the sun is the source of heat and light; why then should anything be intruded between earth and sun? One can only answer, So the Creator works—without that mediating element all is lost. You say that God is the source of love and blessing; why should anything intervene betwixt God and man? One can only answer that it is the way of heaven to grant its richest blessing through a mediator. How often men and women have said, “I do not feel any need of Christ or Calvary. I believe in God, I reverence and worship God; but the sacrifice and the atonement just confuse me. They appear to be outside of me altogether; I cannot make them real to my heart.” But through every sphere of God’s activity runs the great principle of mediation. The presence of Christ is like the air, making available for our need the love of God. Remove the atmosphere, and the sun will still shine in heaven. Take away Jesus, and God will still be love. Banish the air, and the sun will not lose its heat. Banish the Christ, and God will not lose His power. But with the air gone, the glory of the sun will never so fall as to bless our little world, and with Jesus banished, the mercy and love of God may stream on other realms but not on ours. Christ is the mediator of the better covenant. He stands—the vital breath—’twixt God and us. Through Him the sunshine of heaven’s love can reach us, and in the rays of that sunshine we are blessed.
What was said with truth of Bishop Fraser of Manchester was, in a less direct and practical way, true of Stanley: “He was daily bringing down light from Heaven into the life of other people.” No one could long come in contact with Stanley without feeling that he was walking in the light, and without being affected by its radiation. It was this background that gave dignity to his simplicity of character, that preserved the spiritual elements of his nature from materialism, that gilded his social intercourse with a tenderness, an unobtrusiveness, a sincerity, an evenness of temper, and a consideration for others, that permeated, purified, and strengthened the society in which he moved.1 [Note: R. E. Prothero, Life of Dean Stanley, ii. 23.]
God is a Shield
To the Psalmist God was not only a Sun radiating forth good but also a Shield protecting from evil—the source not only of life and joy but also of security. As the Sun, God may be considered as dwelling in inaccessible light; whilst as a Shield He may be regarded as so protecting His people that they cannot be approached. Life may be looked upon as a battle-field, on which we have protection from God, if we are on His side; for the battle is His. By the figure of a shield, this verse is connected with Psalm 84:9 : “Behold, O God our shield, and look upon the face of thine anointed.”
The ancient warrior bore strapped on his arm a shield of brass or of wood covered with leather, armed with which he rushed into battle and turned death aside. In modern warfare the shield is quite unserviceable; it hangs with bows and arrows in the museum of ancient armour. But, as Parker says,” No word ever becomes obsolete which has once deeply touched the heart of humanity. The shield will always be a weapon of spiritual warfare; God will never cease to be a shield to all them that trust in Him.” The believer’s defence is complete; before and behind, on the right hand and on the left, he is beset by the protective power of God. This was a favourite thought of Luther’s, whose famous spiritual battle-song opens with the words:
A safe stronghold our God is still,
A trusty shield and weapon.
“What will you do,” Luther was asked, “if the Duke, your protector, should no longer harbour you?” “I will take my shelter,” he answered, “under the broad shield of Almighty God.” Modern nations, with their immense armies and fleets, are apt to forget how insecure they are without that Divine protection. Foolish are they if they “put their trust in reeking tube and iron shard.” He who spread His shield over Abraham and his little Hebrew army must equally be the “Lord of the far-flung battle line.” He is the ultimate safeguard of all national greatness, and no weapon formed against Him shall prosper.1 [Note: J. Strachan, Hebrew Ideals, i. 74.]
1. The Lord is to us first a sun and then a shield. Remember how David puts it elsewhere: “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” Light first, salvation next. He does not save us in the dark, neither does he shield us in the dark. He gives enough sunlight to let us see the danger so that we may appreciate the defence. We are not to shut our eyes and so find safety, but we are to see the evil and hide ourselves. Ought we not to be very grateful to God that He so orders our affairs? Ours is not a blind faith, receiving an unknown salvation from evils which are unperceived; this would be a poor form of life at best. No, the favour received is valued because its necessity is perceived. The heavenly Sun lights up our souls, and makes us see our ruin and lie down in the dust of self-despair; and then it is that grace brings forth the shield which covers us, so that we are no more afraid, but rejoice in the glorious Lord as the God of our salvation.
Most people in their religious experience think of God as a shield. He stands between them and the storm. They hide beneath the shadow of His wings. It is the religion of special Providence and of Divine interposition. God shields His people from the burning heat. Religion is a protective system—a very present help in time of trouble. Some people, on the other hand, think of God as a sun. When all is bright and cloudless, then they can believe, but when it storms, then the universe seems Godless. When God is in heaven, all’s right with the world. I remember a comfortable and church-going citizen who was over-taken by a great domestic sorrow, and said of it, “It never occurred to me that such a thing could happen.” He had grown so in the habit of living in the sunshine that he was as helpless as a child in the dark.2 [Note: F. G. Peabody.]
2. Look at the text in another way. When the sun shines upon a man he is made the more conspicuous by it. Suppose a hostile army to be down in the plain, and a soldier in our ranks is sent upon some errand by his captain. He must pass along the hillside. The sun shines upon him as he tries to make his way among the rocks and trees. Had it been night he could have moved safely, but now we fear that the enemy will surely pick him off; for the sunshine has made him conspicuous. He will have need to be shielded from the many cruel eyes. Christian men are made conspicuous by the very fact of their possessing God’s grace. “Ye are the light of the world,” and a light must be seen. “A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” If God gives light, He means that light to be seen; and the more light He gives us the more conspicuous we shall be. He is our sun, and He shines upon us; we reflect His light, and so become ourselves a light; and in doing so we run necessary risks. The more brightly we shine the more will Satan and the world try to quench our light. This, then, is our comfort. The Lord God, who is a sun to us, will also be a shield to us. Did He not say to Abraham, “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward”?
By the term shield is meant that our salvation, which would otherwise be perilled by countless dangers, is in perfect safety under God’s protection. The favour of God in communicating life to us would be far from adequate to the exigencies of our condition, unless at the same time, in the midst of so many dangers, He interposed His power as a buckler to defend us.1 [Note: Calvin.]
Grove mentioned that at some period when Havana was under martial law, a man had been killed in a row in the street. Everybody ran away except an Englishman, who, having nothing to do with the murder, thought there was no occasion to do so, and was, of course, immediately arrested. Some one naturally was found to swear that he was the culprit, and he was sentenced to be shot next morning. The English Consul (Mr. Crawford), hearing what was going on, went in full uniform to the place of execution and claimed the man as a British subject. The officer in charge of the firing party showed his orders, and said he could not give him up. “Very well,” said Mr. Crawford, “at least you will not object to my shaking hands with him before he is shot?” “By no means,” was the answer. He then walked up, whipped the Union Jack out of his pocket and threw it round the man. “Now,” he said to the officer, “shoot if you dare.” The officer applied for instructions to the Governor, and the prisoner’s innocence was soon made clear.2 [Note: M. E. Grant Duff, Notes from a Diary, 1892–5, i. 126.]
Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women and Children, v. 145.
Foxell (W. J.), God’s Garden, 142.
Kirkpatrick (A. F.), The Book of Psalms (Cambridge Bible), 509.
Maclaren (A.), The Book of Psalms (Expositor’s Bible), ii. 449.
Morrison (G. H.), The Unlighted Lustre, 65.
Peabody (F. G.), Mornings in the College Chapel, ii. 127.
Pearce (J.), The Alabaster Box, 96.
Pearse (M. G.), The God of Our Pleasures, 49.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxviii. (1882), No. 1659.
Voysey (C.), Sermons, xi. (1888), No. 20.
Wiseman (N.), Children’s Sermons, 36.
Christian World Pulpit, xxiv. 332 (H. W. Beecher).