Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. Psalm 91:1.
Here in England, shadows are not something we get very enthusiastic about. There is little enough sunshine – even in the summer – so that when the sun does show its face most folk (I for one) want to be out there, soaking up its rays, not trying to get away from it. But things are very different in the Middle East – which is, of course, where the psalmist wrote the words of today’s verse. There, where the sun is searingly hot and beats down mercilessly from a clear blue sky for most of the year, shadows are what everyone seeks and most desires. They offer relief, protection and safety.
So it was for the psalmist. But, for him, the shadow most to be desired was not that of a building or a palm tree or a cliff. No – it was the shadow of Shaddai: the shadow of the Almighty himself. The use of term Shaddai for God suggests that the psalmist had God’s omnipotence and invincibility uppermost in his mind. Someone who was big enough to take on all comers. So as I read those words, I found myself being reminded of those cartoons where some weak guy is getting beaten up by a bully until a shadow suddenly falls over them both and the bully looks up in dismay to see towering over him some formidable hulk who has come to the little guy’s aid. The shadow of the Almighty! Once you’re in the shadow you have no need to fear, for the shadow is the guarantee of the presence of the Mighty One who casts it and who can deal with anything or anyone who is oppressing you and giving you grief.
But maybe the psalmist also had a gentler image of shadows in his mind. Long ago, Boaz had said to Ruth: “May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge” (Ruth 2.12) and throughout the psalms, there are references to the shadow of God’s wings (Psalms 17:8, 36:7, 57:1, 63:7). In all climates, a mother bird will protect her chicks from extremes of weather by gathering them around her and opening her wings over them, but in the Near East it is a shadow that her wings provide – a refuge from the burning sun. So, just three verses later in this psalm, the writer says of God: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.”
Which shadow do I need today? The shadow of the mother bird, faithfully keeping me from harm, or the shadow of the strong defender coming to my aid against my enemies. Well, it is one and the same shadow – the shadow of the Almighty; and, says the psalmist, provided I “dwell in the shelter of the Most High” I will most certainly “rest” in that shadow.
What is “the shelter of the Most High”? In the psalms, it is another way of describing God’s tabernacle in the wilderness or his temple in Jerusalem. “For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.” (Psalm 27:5). Oh dear. So I need to be in church to be in God’s protective shadow, do I? No, not at all. The tent and the temple were, to the Jews, more than a structure; they were the place of God’s presence. The “shelter of the Most High” is “the shelter of God’s presence” (Psalm 31:20). So it is in his presence that I need to keep myself. “Just stick close to God,” is what the psalmist is saying; “for then you’ll always be in Shaddai’s shadow.”