May you sleep in the shelter of the shadow of God’s wings,
May you wake in the light of his love
For a little more than a year I’ve been praying this blessing over my kids just before they drift off to sleep. I turn out the lights, sit on the edge of the bed, lay my hand on their heads and speak these words.
This prayer has been like an anchor in our nighttime routine.
I needed a blessing that was simple and meaningful, a prayer that would roll off my tongue when I barely had the mental energy to put two words together. This isn’t a script, so lots of nights I change it up and add other pressing thoughts, words of praise, confession, intercession or blessing. But when I’m too spent to compose my thoughts (often these days), this is the blessing that now comes to mind when the sun goes down.
Last night as I was praying with my daughter, this blessing took on a new dimension. As I whispered the words in the charcoal dark, “May you sleep in the shelter of the shadow of His wings,” my thoughts were with a friend an ocean away.
This friend—the sort of friend that is like a beloved brother, the sort of friend that is family—had lost consciousness about a week and a half ago after a heart attack from which he has yet to awaken. There in the dark, I prayed the refuge of the Lord’s presence for him. I prayed for him to wake in the light of love.
Sheltered Beneath God’s Wings
The Psalmist was particularly fond of the image of hiding beneath God’s wings. In the Psalms the metaphor of God’s sheltering wings is rich with associations, alluding to God’s mercy, faithfulness, protection, favor and love (see Psalm 36, 91 and 57).
David draws on the comfort of the image of God’s wings when he’s running scared, terrified that King Saul is about to cut his life short. That’s the context for Psalm 57, where God’s wings of refuge are integrally tied to the experience of his loving mercy:
“Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.”
In Psalm 63:7, the shadow of God’s wings is more than a place to hide; it becomes a place of joyful song:
“Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings.”
For David the image of God’s wings evoked a powerful sense of safety in the midst of danger, exile and uncertainty. God’s wings were his safe haven.
Kids don’t grasp abstract concepts well, but they get images. The picture of God as a bird protectively sheltering those who turn to Him for refuge has always been evocative to me. It’s an image I want my kids to envision as they drift off to sleep. It’s an image I want them to internalize.
Images not only make spiritual truth accessible to children; even after we’re older and wiser, imagery is still essential for grasping spiritual truth. We never outgrow the metaphors scripture provides for God’s interaction with us.
When it comes to talking about God, we are bound to embrace metaphor because in attempting to express anything about a being who transcends our material existence we are necessarily constrained by the language which is proper to our own world and experience. The language and imagery of earth is the only resource we have to talk about the spiritual truth.
“Belief in God,” says the brilliant G.B. Caird, “depends to a small extent on rational argument, and to a large extent on our ability to frame images to capture, commemorate and convey our experiences of transcendence.”
C.S. Lewis, who was a linguist before an apologist, goes even further, observing that if we were invited to restate our belief in a form free from metaphor and symbol, we would be unable to do so.“We can make our language (about God) duller,” Lewis quips, “we cannot make it less metaphorical. We can make the pictures more prosaic; we cannot be less pictorial.”
The Intimacy of Home with God
There are other metaphors David uses to talk about God’s protection—he imagines God as shield, as rock, as warrior. These images evoke strength and power, but not the safety of home. The metaphor of finding refuge under God’s wings is about more than safety; it is about intimacy. It speaks to nearness. It speaks to tenderness. It is about being home next to God.
I want my kids to experience this degree of closeness to their Maker. I want my friend who is unconscious to feel that nearness. And I want my friend’s wife who has been watching and waiting with him to know that gentle tenderness. The presence of God is the most profound blessing I can fathom.
God as Refuge and Rescue
David was not the first biblical author to be inspired by the metaphor of God as a hovering bird. In Deuteronomy 32, a poetic passage describing God’s rescue of his people from slavery in Egypt, God is compared to an eagle:
In a desert land he found him,
in a barren and howling waste.
He shielded him and cared for him;
he guarded him as the apple of his eye,
like an eagle that stirs up its nest
and hovers over its young,
that spreads its wings to catch them
and carries them aloft.
This passage begs to be seen. It prompts us to imagine God as an eagle hovering protectively over his children, guarding them from predators and then swooping down to catch them when they fall out of the nest. God lifts us up and coasts with us on the currents of the wind.
The image of soaring on God’s wings in Deuteronomy has a different quality than the image in the Psalms of huddling beneath God’s wings. Some days I need to hide and some days I need to be lifted up. And some days, I need to experience both—refuge and rescue.
Right now when I think of my friend and his wife, who has been by his side day in and day out, I pray they find shelter beneath God’s wings. I pray they will be caught and lifted up and cradled through the currents of emotion that rush over and around them.
“May you wake in the light of His love.”
This prayer doesn’t end with sleeping; it anticipates waking. Every dusk should be followed by a dawn. Night should pass into morning.
When I think of the dawn, I associate it with the love of God expressed most fully in the coming of Jesus. In his first letter, John articulates the connection between light and love so beautifully, saying:
God is light, and in him is no darkness at all…
the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.
The phone rings. I pause, stop typing, look up at my husband. I can hear his voice waver, the strain of emotion suppressed.
Now there are plane tickets to be purchased, plans to be made, bags to pack. There will be tears.
But there will also be joy, because our friend who loved as generously as it’s possible to love, woke up to meet the One who is the source and origin of love itself.
He has been caught, lifted, loved into the light.