The Rabbi in my local Messianic congregation recently gave a series of teachings on the Lord’s “secret place” of safety where His people abide and dwell (Ps. 91). It has been excellent food for thought, and I thought it would be interesting to study one of the Hebrew words that the Rabbi didn’t focus on.
He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge; His truth shall be your shield and buckler. (Ps. 91:4)
The word I want to look at is “wings,” from the Hebrew kanap (H3671). I knew from my Pentecost study on Ruth that this word could also mean the edge of a garment, but I hadn’t spent much time with it before.
Meaning of Kanap
By the way … can anyone recommend a good Hebrew dictionary? I’m not entirely happy with Baker and Carpenter’s The Complete WordStudy Dictionary of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, that’s the one I have, so it’ll have to do for now. Here’s what they have to say about kanap.
A common noun for a wing, the skirt or corner of a garment. It has the basic sense of the outer edges, corners, or extremities of something … The idiom to spread (one’s) wings over means to take to wife … God is often noted as providing a shadow of protection for His people under His wings.
The book of Ruth provides examples of both the idiomatic sense, to marry, and the use of kanap in reference to God’s protection. Boaz tells Ruth,
The Lord repay your work, and a full reward be given you by the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge. (Ruth 2:12)
Later, Ruth asks Boaz to be her redeemer by saying,
I am Ruth, your maidservant. Take your maidservant under your wing, for you are a close relative.(Ruth 3:9)
Use of this word to describe God’s involvement with His people covers pretty much all of history, from Deuteronomy 32:11 which describes God leading Jacob as an eagle who spreads her wings over her young, to a prophecy in Malachi which reads,
But to you who fear My name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings; and you shall go out and grow fat like stall-fed calves.(Mal. 4:2)
The Psalms show that this kind of active protection and help (Ex. 19:4) is available to all God’s peple who pray to Him and abide in Him.
How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings. (Ps. 36:7)
It’s a beautiful cycle: God’s loving kindness inspires trust, trust makes us stay close to God and abide under His wings, where He gives more proof of His mercy and love, which in turn makes us trust Him even more.
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me! For my soul trusts in You; and in the shadow of Your wings I will make my refuge, until these calamities have passed by. (Ps. 57:1)
Trust in God is never misplaced. When He wraps His covering of protection around us, we can be assured of abundant help.
Because You have been my help, therefore in the shadow of Your wings I will rejoice. (Ps. 63:7)
We see this analogy continuing in the New Testament as well. Remember this Hebrew word can mean the edge of a garment as well as wings? In the gospels, simply touching the edge of Christ’s garment in a spirit of faith was enough to heal physical ailments (Matt. 9:20-22).
Wherever He entered, into villages, cities, or the country, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged Him that they might just touch the hem of His garment. And as many as touched Him were made well. (Mark 6:56)
Under His Wings
There’s also a far more sobering New Testament continuation of this analogy with wings. It follows one of Jesus’ confrontations with the scribes and Pharisees.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! (Matt. 23:37)
Both “wanted” and “willing” in this verse are translated from the Greek word thelo (G2309). It “indicates not only willing something, but also pressing on to action. … Thelo, therefore, means to will as the equivalent to purpose, to be decided upon seeing one’s desire to its execution” (Zodhiates). Christ isn’t saying a ho-hum, “oh, it would have been nice to gather you, but you didn’t like that idea.” This word is much more focused. It shows Christ reaching out with a longing and an intention to help His people, and it shows them purposing in their hearts to actively reject Him. No wonder He wept over Jerusalem in Luke 19:41. This was not at all the relationship God wanted with His people.
In Ezekiel 16, we find a narrative where God is speaking to Jerusalem to reproach her for her unfaithfulness. It begins with a reminder that she was unwanted and despised until He took pity on her (verses 1-7).
“When I passed by you again and looked upon you, indeed your time was the time of love; so I spread My wing over you and covered your nakedness. Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine,” says the Lord God. (Ezk 16:8)
God took notice of Jerusalem, and made a marriage covenant with her, covering her with the boarders of His garment and protecting her in the shadow of His wings. And then she chose to reject Him.
Your fame went out among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through My splendor which I had bestowed on you,” says the Lord God. “But you trusted in your own beauty, played the harlot because of your fame, and poured out your harlotry on everyone passing by who would have it.” (Ezk 16:14-15)
The sobering truth is that we can also reject God’s covering protection. We can push Him away, batting aside the wings stretched out to shelter us, and run the opposite direction. I can partly understand a hesitancy to step into a close relationship with God. He wants to know us more intimately than anyone else ever can, and that can be intimidating. But to leave Him after tasting of the good fruits of being in a relationship with God boggles my mind right now. And yet that’s exactly what Israel did again and again.
Paul says the stories of Israel’s disobedience were “written for our admonition” (1 Cor. 10:11). If we need to be admonished by their example, then that must mean there’s a chance that we might do the same things they did. We need to be warned against rejecting God, and on guard against straying away from Him. Going back to Psalm 91 and reading the first few verses, it reminds us of the necessity for dwelling and abiding in close relationship with God. Only when we actively choose to walk into His outstretched arms can we take part in the wondrous relationship He offers us.
He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in Him I will trust.” Surely He shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the perilous pestilence. He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge; His truth shall be your shield and buckler. (Ps. 91:1-4)