Ask Father: June 2019

Why do many prayers mention being in the “shadow of God’s wings”? God has no wings, He is God. – George from Wisconsin

Dear George,

The best questions come with their own answers attached. It is true that God is… well, God, and therefore transcends everything we can imagine. The Triune God does not have wings—true. Unfortunately for us mere humans we must think through sensible things, and therefore metaphor is required for us to describe the Divine nature and God’s activity in governing His creation. Artistry must employ things that are, at one time, both accessible to us and point to the inaccessible. Pseudo-Dionysius gives a beautiful description of this process: “We now grasp these things in the best way we can, and as they come to us, wrapped in the sacred veils of that love toward humanity with which scripture and hierarchical traditions (i.e. liturgy) cover the truths of the mind with things derived from the realm of the senses.” Scripture, with the written word, and Liturgy, with its various symbols, are veils trying to give a glimpse—in a human way—to a Divine reality. The Council of Trent also acknowledged this reality in its 22nd session: “Such is the nature of man, that, without external helps, he cannot be easily upraised to the meditation of divine things.”

If one wanted to deny the use of physical images applied to God, why stop at wings? God does not have ears, nose, hands or even feet and yet the psalmist cries, “Incline thy ear unto me” (Psalm 16:6), upon Noah offering a smoky sacrifice “the Lord smelled a sweet savor” (Genesis 8:21), a reflecting Isaiah says, “You [God] are our potter, we are all the work of Your hand” (Isaiah 64:8), and when the first parents sinned they hid themselves from God because “they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in paradise” (Genesis 3:8). In truth, if one wanted to deny images applied to God (a truly gross iconoclasm) one would be left with very little… actually nothing. The Triune God transcends the physical world and our imagination remains grounded in it—only metaphor can form a bridge between the two until the end of our earthly sojourn when we will see God “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

The above answer should suffice as a reply to the unspoken question underlying your own answer, “God has no wings, He is God.” But what of your first question? What are God’s wings?

The contemporary American imagination has been formed through the popular song On Eagles’ Wings (based on Psalm 90), which uses Exodus 19:4 and Deuteronomy 32:11 to define the metaphor “I have carried you upon the wings of eagles.” In other places eagle wings are also used as an image for swiftness and endurance (Isaiah 40:31), but these citations portray a different image than our expression; they describe having wings or riding upon them, whereas we are trying to understand what is meant by being “underneath His wings,” and again our expression doesn’t really identify the wing type. St. Augustine shies away from eagles’ wings and chooses a more domestic image: “The hen defends her chickens beneath her wings; how much more shalt thou be safe beneath the wings of God,” clearly using Christ’s metaphor recorded in Matthew 23:37 (Luke 13:34-35) as his inspiration.

I offer another possible interpretation which in fact is not a metaphor, but a specific location and an architectural feature. The phrase “shadow of thy wings” and its twin “covert[1] of thy wings” are only used in the Book of Psalms, respectively Psalms 16:8, 52:2, 90:4 and 35:8, 60:5, 62:8.

Within the context of most of these psalms an actual location for the psalmist’s prayer comes to light. Psalm 35 refers to the “plenty of thy [God’s] house” (v.9). Psalm 16 refers to appearing in God’s “sight and glory” (v.15). Psalm 56 refers to God’s “glory” being lifted up (vs.6 and 12). Psalm 60, “in thy tabernacle I shall dwell forever” (v.5). Psalm 90 refers to having confidence under God’s wings which “overshadow” from above and later refers to angels providing protection overhead (v.11). Finally, Psalm 62 ties many of these terms together: “in the sanctuary have I
come before thee, to see thy power and thy glory” (v.3).

I would suggest that the wings are those of angels, specifically the cherubim which adorned the ark, or the cherubim built later by Solomon which overshadowed the entire Holy of Holies. Solomon “set the cherubim in the midst of the inner temple and the cherubim stretched forth their wings” (3 Kings 6:27) and “the priests brought in the ark of the covenant of the Lord into its place, into the oracle of the temple, into the Holy of Holies, under the wings of the cherubim” (3 Kings 8:6). To be under His wings is to reside inside the inner sanctum of the temple. It was the closest one could be to God on earth in the Old Testament; the nearest parallel in the new covenant would be the faithful at the communion rail, devoutly kneeling in the true substantial presence of the Lord. May we always remain under His wings. +

Answered by:
Fr. Dominic Savoie, Assistant Pastor, FSSP Sacramento

  1. covered in the sense of sheltered or veiled (i.e. secret).

June 15, 2019