I have always wanted to fly. But I lack the wings.
I envy the birds and bees and butterflies that take no thought for gravity. That fundamental force that grounds me is no obstacle for them. With delightful freedom they soar and dip and glide in spite of it.
I look up and marvel at the twin miracle that sits upon their backs. How can it be — those delicate pairs of feather and fiber and filament that lift skyward and defy the earth below. It must be God’s doing.
We all wish to fly, to bridge the distance between here and heaven. But had we wings.
Perhaps God will give us some.
Lord of Flight
Fancies of flight have captured human imagination from time immemorial. It’s no wonder that the imagery of flight finds profound use in God’s Word. The Creator of the wonderful wing is the Lord of flight. He calls us to fly with Him.
The day Israel found herself at the foot of Mount Sinai, Yahweh reminded that newly redeemed host how bondage miraculously gave way to freedom. He described it like this: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself” (Exodus 19:4).
Forty years later the Lord would take up the metaphor again, offering an intimate picture of His tireless dedication to Israel, like a protective mother bird:
For the Lord’s portion is His people; Jacob is the place of His inheritance. . . . As an eagle stirs up its nest, hovers over its young, spreading out its wings, taking them up, carrying them on its wings, so the Lord alone led him . . . (Deuteronomy 32:9, 11, 12a).
Prophets old and new go further, extending the flight metaphor to God’s people directly:
But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:31).
The dragon . . . persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male Child. But the woman was given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness to her place, where she is nourished for a time and times and half a time, from the presence of the serpent (Revelation 12:13, 14).
God not only carries us on His wings but also promises wings of their own to the patient and the persecuted. But what are these wings, this flight? Spiritually speaking, what do these wings of flight represent?
The contexts of these passages provide important clues. Divinely initiated deliverance and direction, strength and security are bestowed upon people in bondage, in trouble, in distress, in need. These blessed wings — our flight — are a rich and colorful way of expressing the means and experience of God’s salvation. In the Spirit, in our songs of salvation, we fly already and will fly further still.
Mercy and Truth
When I think of the wings of God and the flight of salvation, I can’t help but ponder a particular pair of God’s attributes. Like wings, they are twins, often found together side by side. In Scripture they are the essential, fundamental disposition of God toward His people. They are His wings — and ours, if we accept them.
This lofty pair of biblical words is mercy and truth.
When two items are set side by side, we are tempted to compare and contrast, elevate one over the other, and treat them as either/or. When it comes to wings, that will not do. We cannot say that one wing is half as good as two. One wing will not get the job done at all. When it comes to flying, you need left and right. Both are indispensable, or we never get off the ground. We flap in circles.
The same goes for mercy and truth — two words that go together. David sings that very idea: “Mercy and truth have met together” (Psalm 85:10a). That these two words are complementary, a sort of divine couple, is subtly reinforced by the fact that in Hebrew the first is a masculine noun, while the second is feminine. But the best evidence they are meant for each other is in the gospel, where the two are intimately present again in the incarnation of the divine Word:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:14, 17).
Consider this choice of words. Of all divine characteristics the Son of God would embody, God’s “grace and truth” are chosen as supremely representative of His person, the very qualities that are celebrated together again and again when Israel turns to God in praise and petition.
The “grace and truth” in John 1 and the Greek New Testament correspond to the Hebrew words hesed and emet in the Old Testament. In the old King James Bible (and NKJV) these are most often translated “mercy and truth” (see Psalm 100:5).
Hesed is a robust word that no single English word quite captures, as seen in the many English words used for it: mercy, love, kindness, and goodness are the most common. Hesed is the very essence of eternal God and encapsulates Yahweh’s passionate covenant love for His people. His merciful, gracious love cannot be beaten or broken. It’s an abiding and relentless love that seeks to save, restore, and bless His creation.
Its counterpart, the other divine wing, is emet, usually translated “truth” or “faithfulness.” Emet is not first about propositional truth — truth as opposed to error, though that is an important part of it. It is first about truth in the relational sense, as in a husband who is true or faithful to his wife. Emet speaks of Yahweh’s steadfast covenant faithfulness toward His people. God is true in His very person; therefore, His promises and commands are reliable and right.
Jointly, “mercy and truth” gather together all that Israel has come to know as most important about the God who has called and named her as His own. God is merciful. God is truthful. This is what Israel has learned. Therefore, God is to be trusted. God is to be obeyed. Most of all, because God is in no way cruel or capricious, He can be loved. Israel has learned to love God by God’s own love.
If ever there were divine wings, it is these two: hesed and emet, mercy and truth. By these, God Most High flies and we fly with Him. And something to this very effect is found in Israel’s songs of faith, beginning all the way back with Father Abraham (Genesis 24:27) and again at Mount Sinai with God’s self-disclosure to Moses (Exodus 34:6). In these seminal passages we learn that mercy and truth are who God is and what God does.
But it is in the insightful poetry of David that divine mercy and truth take on the winged language of flight. The metaphoric language of Psalms 36 and 57, for instance, sings this anthem of God’s mercy and truth inhabiting heaven even as David trusts under the shadow of His wings:
Your mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens; Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the great mountains; Your judgments are a great deep; O Lord, You preserve man and beast. How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings (36:5-7).
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
. . . . God shall send forth His mercy and His truth. . . . I will praise You, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing to You among the nations. For Your mercy reaches unto the heavens, and Your truth unto the cloud (57:1, 3b, 9, 10).
When David reflects on God’s mercy and truth, His loving-kindness and faithfulness, when he praises the Most High who delivers us and directs us by these, he paints a dramatic picture of flight, of the wings of God and His sending mercy and truth to the rescue from on high. They soar from the clouds, above the confines of earth and the limits of man, to redeem those about to be swallowed by destruction and despair.
These and other texts from Israel’s Scriptures reach beyond historical experience and capture a longing that anticipates the ultimate work of God’s mercy and truth, which would be embodied in, and revealed through, the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. Many writers of old leaned forward toward this fulfillment:
He has remembered His mercy and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God (Psalm 98:3).
In mercy and truth atonement is provided for iniquity
. . . (Proverbs 16:6).
You will give truth to Jacob and mercy to Abraham, which You have sworn to our fathers from days of old (Micah 7:20).
Is there a better way to describe the salvation wrought in Jesus Christ? The Only Begotten, full of grace and truth, has declared the God of Abraham and Moses and David. He descended for us that we might ascend with Him. He came low that we might fly. Now as His disciples, we are lifted and led, delivered and directed. We trust His grace and obey His truth — the only response left to us in the face of this great flight.
And so it is by Jesus’ merciful grace and faithful truth that the Lord of the birds and bees and butterflies frees us from the miry pit of sin and death that sucks us downward, and with outstretched wings He lifts us up that we might fly free, heavenward, far above our reach or right. Jesus is coming back soon, and on that day, we will be caught up to meet Him. On that day, we who have flown in faith will fly indeed.
May we know these wings firsthand. Through the word of the gospel, may we find that hope laid up for us in heaven and come to know “the grace of God in truth” (Colossians 1:3-6). Looks like we don’t lack the wings after all.BA