It started as a simple hike. Good boots, a canteen of water, a map and compass; what could go wrong. (Yes, before there was GPS people found their way by looking at a piece of paper.) He walked out of the hills and into the dry landscape. But somehow he got lost. All the landmarks looked the same; after all, when the only landmarks you have are low bushes you have difficulty distinguishing one from another. What do you do: third creosote to the left, then second mesquite to the north? At first it was just an annoyance. The hills were behind him; he could always turn around and go back. Soon, though, behind and in front, hills and desert were just words with no meaning. It was not yet noon, but the sun was highóand hot. Not a cloud in the sky. In fact, it was getting harder to know where sky ended and earth began. Preserve your water; only a sip at a time. I donít know where I am; does anybody know where I am? That sun. Always that sun. Oh, what I would do for just a little cloud over the sun. That mesquite bush; it is big enough to offer me a little shade. Please, any shade?
This may have been a hiker in the American Southwest. But it may have been, except for the types of vegetation, a wanderer in the Judean desert. When the sun is high and hot, any shadow is a relief. Maybe that is why David spoke of protective shadows.
Picture now the young David, tending sheep. You donít tend sheep in the city. You donít tend sheep where there is a lot of noise. He is out in the hills or the desert. (Yes, you can have grass in a desert.) While tending sheep, David has time to explore his surroundings. He has to know the threats. After all, he had to kill a lion and a bear, and you donít do that if you arenít being watchful. As he observes, he sees a nest. On the nest is a mother bird, pinions outspread. She is protecting her nestlings. From the heat, from threats. The nestlings are safe when mother spreads her wings over them. So David starts writing a song.
My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips: When I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night watches. Because thou hast been my help, therefore in the shadow of thy wings will I rejoice. (Ps 63:5-7)
Years later, David has been in the service of King Saul. But Saul grew jealous and is now chasing David with murderous intent. David has to hide in his beloved wilderness. He chose the caves at Adullam, probably southwest of Jerusalem, as his refuge. While there, he remembered the birds, and he wrote another song.
Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me: for my soul trusteth in thee: yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast. I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth all things for me. He shall send from heaven, and save me from the reproach of him that would swallow me up. (Ps 57:1-3)
Shadows can mean many things. David saw nestlings in the shadow of their motherís wings, and he saw refuge. In the desert of trial and hardship, we can find shade. It is under Godís wings. There we will be cool and safe.