By Elton HiggsHave you ever put your fingers in front of a projector to create the shadow image of a rabbit or some other object? This old trick illustrates the three elements necessary to create a shadow: a source of light, an object that interrupts the projection of light, and a screen or background substance on which the shadow can be cast. The biggest shadow show for human beings is an eclipse, as when the shadow of the moon blocks out our view of the main body of the sun, or the earth comes between the sun and the moon and we have an eclipse of the moon. In the eclipse of the sun, we are in the shadow being cast by the moon, whereas in an eclipse of the moon, we see the shadow of the earth cast on the moon. However, we never see a shadow cast by the sun, because there is no source of light greater than the sun, nor a “screen” on which its shadow could be cast.
Perhaps theoretically the conditions might exist that enable the sun to cast a shadow, but from our perspective it does not and cannot.
What is true of the sun relatively speaking is applied to God absolutely in the book of James:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
(James 1:17, ESV)
James’s use of the imagery of light and shadow here is quite instructive. One might say that God, like the sun, casts no shadow, for He is Absolute Light, just as He is Absolute Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, beyond Whom and outside of Whom there is no reality. The conditions that create shadows in our physical world are in constant flux, for either the source of light or the objects that interrupt it are moving. Shadows are ephemeral, visual experiences that have only brief existence and cannot be captured or preserved. Even photographs of shadows are preserving only secondary images of a fleeting phenomenon.
Shadows in biblical poetry are used to reflect the briefness and transitory nature of human life, especially in light of the eternality of God. (All biblical quotations are from the ESV.)
Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding. (II Kings 20:11)
Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Surely a man goes about as a shadow! (Ps. 39:5b-6a)
My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass. (Ps. 102:11)
Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow. But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations. (Ps. 144:1)
Beyond the use of shadow to depict the brevity of life is the representation of death as transition to a land of shadow and darkness, as depicted by Job:
Are not my days few?
Then cease, and leave me alone,
before I go—and I shall not return—
to the land of darkness and deep shadow,
the land of gloom like thick darkness,
like deep shadow without any order,
where light is as thick darkness.
And of course, there are the references to the shadow of death, represented most familiarly in Ps. 23:4.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
Here, however, there is also a positive element connected with shadow, for God is not only immune to shadows Himself, He gives comfort to those who are vulnerable to its threats.
This picturing of shadow as a symbol of God’s protection is seen repeatedly in the Psalms:
Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
Thus the God Who casts no shadow has ultimate control of it, and can turn even the “shadow of death” into Good News. Ps. 107 depicts those who “sat in darkness and in the shadow of death” and were in physical and spiritual prison. They “cried out to the Lord in their trouble,” and in response “He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death” (Ps. 107: 10, 13, 14). In the same vein, Matthew quotes from Isaiah in regard to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned” (Matt. 4:16).
The ultimate good and perfect gift of the Father of Lights Who casts no shadow will be the creation of the New Jerusalem, where “night will be no more” and there will be no need of “lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light . . . “ (Rev.22:5). Into this eternal City of Light will be called all who in the midst of this dark world of shadows have walked in God’s light (I John 1:5-7). “’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished,” if one can radically re-apply the words of Hamlet.
Addendum to this Musing
Shadows lengthen, deepen, merge.
Darkness is all, and I am there.
No thought of shadows when
The sun is full, for then
They merely accent the brightness.
When all is shadow, love may thrive,
Though hope be dim; when all is bright,
Shallow bliss holds sway.
Even the Arctic is both night and day.
Darkness gives more to defining light
Than light to the understanding of dark.
I will see the shadow grow,
And dwell in it even, to know
That light is its own verity,
And darkness but an island in its midst.
–Elton D. Higgs