King David certainly had a way with words — not just in the eloquence and poetry of many of the psalms he composed, but also in the way he could pack so much meaning into even a short expression. “The Lord God is a sun and shield” (Psalm 84:11) is a wonderful example of this.
Today, it’s easy to read over those two words sun and shield and see them only as a reference to the sun as a great light and a shield as an antiquated symbol of protection. But in David’s day those two words were infused with a much broader range of meaning.
In the ancient Near East, the sun was a symbol of light, sustenance, and life itself. The ancients understood that without the sun, there would be no crops and no life. The sun also symbolized the concept of 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 justice today, the sun often symbolized justice in the biblical world because of its association with light and righteousness. In fact, in many cultures the sun god was also the god of justice. We see this association in biblical verses such as “He will make your righteousness go out as the light, and your justice as the noon day sun” (Psalm 37:6, WEB).
In David’s time, the sun was also associated with majesty and strength. When the king wrote that the sun was like “a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course” (19:5), 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 relative to the symbolism of the sun.
The shield, in a similar way, primarily connoted protection and refuge. It is often used alongside the image of God as a “rock” in verses like “my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation” (2 Samuel 22:3). In this sense, the shield symbolized help in any difficulty: “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me” (Psalm 28:7). But the shield not only signified protection, rescue, and help, but also could symbolize kingship (84:9), as well as monarchical power and kingly treasures — and even the words of God (Proverbs 30:5).
So if we look closely, we find that 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 words sun and shield that David used to describe God in Psalm 84:11. Most of these symbolic meanings would have been clear to the psalmist’s original readers.
Not all the Bible’s descriptions of God are phrased in symbolic language. But the more we look at and meditate on what the Scriptures say about God, the more we too can see of Him. It can richly repay us to think about those descriptions — even when they are only one or two words.