King David certainly had a way with words - not just in the eloquence and poetry of many of the psalms he composed, but also the way he often packs so much into even a few words about God. “The Lord God is a sun and shield” is a wonderful example of this fact.
Today, it’s easy to read over those two words “sun” and “shield” and to see them only as a reference to the sun as a great light and a shield as an antiquated symbol of protection. But in the society in which David wrote, those two words were packed with an amazing amount of meaning.
In ancient Israel, as in much of the ancient Near East, the sun was not only a symbol of light, but of sustenance and life itself. The ancients understood that without the sun there would be no crops and no life itself. The sun also symbolized many aspects related to light, such as righteousness, just as we see in the biblical statement: “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise …” (Malachi 4:2). In the same way, just as a pair of scales symbolizes fairness and thus justice for us today, in the biblical world, because of its association with light and righteousness, the sun symbolized justice.
As a result, for several of the polytheistic cultures around Israel the sun god was the god of justice. We see this association of sun and justice in biblical verses such as “He will bring forth your righteousness as a light, and your justice as the noonday sun” (Psalm 37:6 NSV) and the ironic statement in Ecclesiastes: “And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment – wickedness was there…” (Ecclesiastes 3:16).
In David’s time, there were many other associations that would have been recognized between the sun and characteristics such as majesty and strength. When David wrote that the sun was like: “…a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy” (Psalm 19:4b-5), he was referring to the majesty of a bridegroom in his splendid wedding garments and the strength of a champion runner. These were concepts that his hearers would have easily understood by means of the symbolism of the sun.
The shield, in a similar way, primarily connoted protection and refuge and is often used alongside the image of God as a “rock” as in verses such as: “my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation” (2 Sam 22: 3), and “you are a shield around me, O LORD” (Psalm 3: 3). In this sense, the shield was used as a symbol of help in any difficulty: “The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped” (Psalm 28:7 and see Psalm 115: 9-11). But the shield not only signified protection, rescue, and help, it also signified many other things. It could symbolize kingship (Psalm 84:9) as well as monarchial power and kingly treasures, and even the words of God (Proverbs 30:5).
So: light, life, sustenance, righteousness, justice, strength, majesty, power, protection, refuge, rescue, help, kingship, monarchy, the treasures of kings, the words of God, and many other things may all be symbolized in the two words “sun” and “shield” that David used in Psalm 84:11. Most of these symbol-associated meanings would have been clear to the psalmist’s original readers with only a little thought, and the more we look at and meditate on biblical verses about God, the more we, too, can see of him. Not all the Bible’s descriptions of God are phrased in symbolic language, of course, but whether symbolic or literal, it can often richly repay us to think about those descriptions – even if they are only one or two words.