The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. (Psalm 121:5-6)
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Psalm 63:1)
I’ve never actually lived in a sandy desert (though I’ve visited one) but I often feel like I live in an asphalt one. When you live in a city with lots of concrete and relatively few trees, you begin to relate more to the biblical psalmists who spoke of the wilderness in such graphic terms.
When it’s really hot, like it’s been this week, it can be hard to feel like moving. Taking actual physical steps, especially after you’ve been walking awhile, requires effort. You become aware that you’re moving bulk (yourself) through air. Unlike actual deserts, which usually experience dry heat, summer heat in our parts contains humidity – and that brings its own discomfort. The moist dampness of the air makes it feel like you’re pushing through water. The sweat rolls down your back, neck, and face, and the back of your throat begins to sting.
All you can think about is getting home and getting a cool drink of water. You try to trick your mind into thinking about something else – the number of steps to the end of the sidewalk, the flowers on the side of the road, the person you wanted to remember in prayer, the scene in the story you’re writing – so you don’t spend all your mental energy picturing condensation on the outside of a cold glass.
This morning I was having a walk like that and my mind kept straying to my need for shade. I was walking home on a street only recently built in our town. At the moment, it’s surrounded by lots full of broken rubble. No trees, no buildings of any sort, nothing that cast a shadow. Block after block was just concrete sidewalk, hardy flowering weeds, the sun glaring into my eyes. I felt huge relief as I turned at last onto the main street of town and stepped into the shade of an old vine-covered building whose roof awnings cast a comforting dark shadow.
“The Lord is your shade at your right hand.” Oh, the beauty and blessedness of that cool shadow! This is who God is! He’s deep, cooling, calming relief from the smiting of the sun, from the weariness of the long and exhausting walk. God is our shade.
Of course, the psalmist isn’t content to give us just one metaphor for God, and sometimes the images overlap in their meaning and power. It’s no wonder David sometimes called God his rock – not just because a rock is strong and provides shelter and a place to lean and hide behind when pursued by enemies, but because a large enough rock, in a sandy desert, could cast some shade in a gaspingly hot desert with few trees. Like my vine-covered building here in town, a rock in the desert is a welcome sight.
The Psalms also give us similes that help us understand our own gasping need for God. “My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” As hot as my walk got this morning, I knew that I was just a few minutes away from the cool oasis of my apartment. A place where the shades were down and I could turn on a fan. A place where I could rest and drink a cool drink of water. But what if I were miles from such comforts? What if such comforts didn’t exist where I was? What if I lived in “a dry and weary land where there is no water”?
The psalmist tells us that our longing for God, our desperation for him, should be like that. We should be as desperate for him, as aware of our need for him, as someone gasping with heat and thirst in a parched land. But here’s the good news…the psalmist also reminds us that God is our shade. When he travels with us, as he surely does, he’s like a hovering bird who shelters us under his own wings (verse 7 in that same Psalm 63 says “for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy”).
And here’s the even better news: God is both the one who makes streams in the desert (Isaiah, and so many other places in the Scriptures) and is himself the living water (Jesus!). Living water – not just a well of water, which is wonderful enough when we’re parched -- but flowing, lively, gushing, unexpected water. Water that springs up inside us.
I think one of the tricks of the enemy is to get us to think, when we’re exhausted and wearied by the changes and chances of our lives, that we live in place where there is no water. We know what it feels like when our flesh is truly fainting. Our desert hearts pound and our parched wilderness throats sting and our gritty eyes smart with the glare of the world. No rocks in sight. No trees. Maybe not even one vine-covered building. We lose our bearings. We lose our perspective. We lose our hope. We can even lose, if we’re not careful, our grip on the realities of things outside of the immediate facts of our aches and sweat and tears.
The reality is that he is our shade.
The reality is that he is our living water.
The reality is that, even if there’s no rock or building in sight, he travels with us and can cover us with his wings.
We live in a world that can sometimes feel as barren as a desert. You may be living in circumstances that feel like the worst kind of parched place – a sandy desert or an urban concrete one, or something else entirely. But remember the reality: you live in a land where there is shade and water. God himself is your shade, your water. If there are no other shadows in sight, he will keep you under his wings. Long for him and seek for him. You will find him, and he will give you rest.