The sun represents 99.9% of the total mass of the entire solar system. Burning at a temperature of 15.6 million Kelvin (Not sure what a Kelvin is? Google it, it’s beyond my ability to explain.), it warms the earth from a distance of 93 million miles. I have learned from personal experience how dangerous over-exposure to the sun can be—I will likely go to the dermatologist every six months for the rest of my life, looking for signs of skin cancer. In hot, sunbaked climates, shade becomes a huge blessing. At certain times of the year, I have stood in the sun in shirtsleeves, then stepped just a few feet into shade, and put on a jacket for the cold.
Consider God. The Creator decorated the universe with billions of stars like the sun, some of them even more powerful. God placed the sun and earth in perfect relationship to one another, providing an environment that sustains life, the most precious of which is humankind. As overpowering as it is, the light of the sun pales in comparison to the glory of God.
How is it that one moment we can be experiencing the radiance of God’s presence, and in a short time be stuck in one of those confusing and desperate times when it seems we are shielded from God’s glory and grace?
Come to think of it, we spend our entire lives living in the sunlight, or in the shadows—never in both. Is it the same way in our experience with God?
The follower of Jesus finds a kindred spirit in the writer of Psalm 44. We don’t always find the direct answers that we may want from God, but we find in the ancient songs that we share many of the same questions. And, if we are not afraid to look deeply, we can find more than answers—we might just find God.
Before reading on, you may want to stop and read Psalm 44 in its entirety.
The Awesome Glory of God’s Grace (Psalm 44:1-8)
Yes, there are those times when we live full on in the glory of God's grace (44:1-8). Firmly embedded in the worldview of God’s Old Testament people, ancient Israel, was the idea that God’s favor could be observed by the presence of obvious blessings.
It was not by their sword that they won the land,
nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them.
(Psalm 44:3 NIV)
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
(Numbers 6:24-26 ESV)
Light shines on the righteous and joy on the upright in heart.
(Psalm 97:11 NIV)
In this view, the formula seems to be rather straightforward: if God is pleased with me, I will be blessed with health, abundant crops, many children, and a victorious army. Using the testimony of his ancestors (vv. 1-3) the psalmist constructed a theology of victory. (vv. 4-8)
In a similar way we, as God’s New Testament people, continue looking to the Lord, His Word, and the power of the Holy Spirit, to shine brightly on us, granting us success. The wonder of the Jesus story is that the glory of God takes on flesh. Emmanuel embodies God’s glory.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.
(John 1:14, 18 ESV)
To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
(Colossians 1:27 ESV)
But, the glory of God no longer simply shines on us, it shines in us and from us. From the glory of God flows power, transformation, and blessing
Of course, all of this is tempered with a deep understanding of grace. The psalmist understood that all the good that happened for them was a gift from the unmerited favor of God. God’s active glory is not based on our worthiness or our efforts, but on God’s love and God’s purposes.
Living full-on in the glory of God is an amazing and awesome thing. Worship experiences are emotionally intense. Financial blessings—sometimes miraculous ones—repeatedly occur. Health and healing describes our life. But it’s not always like that…
The Shadow Side of Grace (44:9-25)
There are times that we live in shaded places, where the blessings from God's grace seem few and far between, like we are shielded from God’s glory. If faithfulness produced glory/blessing, then does a setback mean that we no longer merit the glory of God? Is it my fault?
One commentator suggests this psalm is written on the heels of a devastating defeat during the faithful reigns of Jehoshaphat or Hezekiah. Coming of age in a period of relative peace and prosperity, the psalmist witnessed a dramatic change. His theology of victory was being severely tested. He had heard the stories of God’s intervention on Israel’s behalf, but he was not seeing it. He was tired of stories, he needed the reality.
Perhaps, there was a sin to blame. Have we failed God in some way and now God is correcting us? Couldn’t find anything.
If we are not to blame, perhaps God is: “Has God forgotten to pay attention?” Do you feel the disappointment? The psalmist’s faith joy in the light of God’s face has turned to doubt and despair. “Why do you hide your face?” (44:24a)
I have felt the same way, and so have you. It can feel like God is looking the other way, that the shining face of God’s favor is directed somewhere else—pouring out blessing for others while you are standing there all alone with nowhere to turn.
Here is how we really feel about God in these times…
Get up, God! Are you going to sleep all day? Wake up! Don't you care what happens to us? Why do you bury your face in the pillow? Why pretend things are just fine with us? And here we are—flat on our faces in the dirt, held down with a boot on our necks. Get up and come to our rescue. If you love us so much, Help us!
(Ps. 44:23-26 MSG)
If you are looking for an easy solution, the psalmist’s prayer leaves us with an ending that does not completely satisfy.
So, what happens? Does the glory return? Do the people finally find sin hidden deep in their hearts and find repentance? Was there a greedy man like Achan that needed to be removed from the army? Did they ever get their mojo back?
I don’t know. It’s not the end of the story, just the end of the prayer.
It’s the same for you and me, whether we are baking in the rays of God’s wonderful glory, or shivering in the shadows of struggle. Sorry. Don’t know what’s next. Not the end of the story.
But there is one thing the psalmist remained convinced of, and so can we. In the sunshine, or in the shadows…
You can count on God's love (v. 26b)
The writer, a skilled wordsmith, has been taking us on a verbal journey. The testimony (vv. 1-3) of his ancestors became his theology (vv. 4-8), truths that he believed but were secondhand to him until he was tested (vv. 9-26a) by struggle, weakness, and disappointment.
But now with the last word of his song, he delivers us to the destination: trust. In Hebrew, the term hesed describes the unshakeable, steadfast love of God for God’s people.
Elijah was a prophet of Yahweh that lived most of his life in the shadows. He lived alongside a small stream, eating what ravens provided, until the stream dried up. God directed Elijah to a poor widow, from whom he begged free accommodations, eating literally from day to day, what the Lord miraculously supplied. But Elijah learned the voice of the Lord in those shadow places.
Later, when Elijah absolutely needed to hear the voice of God, he knew what to listen for.
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
(1 Kings 19:11-13)
The Lord loves me too much to leave my trust untested or God’s voice undiscovered.
When we reach the end of this life, we might add up the time we have spent in the shadows compared with that we have basked in the radiance of the face of God’s glory. I suspect we will have been in the shadows longer than the sunlight.
If Hebrews 11 is to be believed there are a multitude of God’s people who have lived their entire lives in the shadows, but maintained unbroken faith. The radiant glory is intermittent, even rare—for now. In the shadows, one may be shielded from the “glory”, but there is no shield from God's presence and grace. The sunshine of glory is wonderful, but there is a sweetness to the shadows, the holy place, where I hear the gentle whispers of God.
Will you embrace your shadow place today? How?