Ancient Near Eastern cultures shared a fair deal of commonality. For example, many ancient Near Eastern cultures used bird imagery in their iconography. Bird imagery was sometimes used to depict war, but when such imagery was used in a protective sense—that is, a bird covering with its wings—it was always used of deity. Jonathan Rowlands observes that this is not only the case in extrabiblical cultures but also within the Bible. “Every instance of protective bird imagery in the [Old Testament] refers to YHWH’s protection of Israel.”
For example, Deuteronomy 32:11–12 compares Yahweh’s protection of his people to an eagle spreading its wings over its young. Time and again, God’s people are said to have found refuge under his wings (Ruth 2:12; Psalm 17:8–9; 36:7; 61:4; 63:7; 91:4). Psalm 57 opens with this same imagery: “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by” (v. 1).
Birds can be incredibly protective of their young. In 2001, Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the foot of her stairs in a pool of her own blood. Her husband, Michael, was suspected, arrested, tried, and convicted of murder. Prosecutors argued that he had used a fireplace poker to strike his wife on the head, resulting in the deep lacerations from which she bled to death. Later evidence suggested that Michael was, in fact, innocent of murder. Their house was located in a wooded area populated by owls. Experts suspect that Kathleen may have been walking outside too close to an owl’s nest, at which point the mother owl protectively divebombed her and struck her on the head with her claws, resulting in the lacerations that were observed in her skull.
Mother birds are fiercely protective of their young. They can also be incredibly sacrificial in this way. A farmer once related that his hens had different clucking sounds. He noticed that the mother would use one cluck to call her chicks for food and another to call them together for protection. One day, he cut out a cardboard figure of an eagle and put it on a pole. As the hen was tottering around the yard, he held the carboard cut-out at just the right angle so that the shadow fell on the mother. She immediately called out to her chicks, who scurried to gather under her wings. She remained there, prepared to take the attack from the eagle in order to protect her young. She was literally willing to die in order to protect her offspring.
As David hid from Saul inside the cave (see superscription), he found great comfort in the thought of hiding beneath God’s wings. He was confident that God could protect him. In fact, he was confident not only that God could protect him but that God was fiercely committed to doing so. He knew that God would keep him under his wings until the threat had passed.
As wonderfully comforting as this imagery must have been for David, how much more so for us. Jesus applied this same protective bird imagery to himself (Matthew 23:37–38; Luke 13:34–35). He was at the same time making an unmistakable claim to divinity (for, remember, protective bird imagery in Scripture is always used of God) and comforting his people with the thought that he was fiercely committed to their protection. Sadly, Israel was largely unwilling to find protection under Christ’s wings, and so, when the storms of destruction came by, most were carried away by the wind. But those who heeded the self-sacrificial promise of divine protection found themselves eternally safe from the ultimate storm of destruction.
Christian, take comfort today that Jesus Christ is fiercely committed to protecting his people from the storms of eternal destruction. Whatever trial you face today, remember that you can flee to him and find eternal protection under the shadow of his wings.