A Word for Today - S(h)emesh (Sun)
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Shakespeare’s tragedy Richard III opens with these famous lines, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York’. This forms part of a longer soliloquy, where the Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III), acknowledges that the misfortunes of the House of York are now over, since his brother has been crowned Edward IV. There is a play on the word ‘sun’, as Edward IV, a son of the Duke of York, is also viewed like the ‘blazing sun’, the image adopted by him on his heraldic badge. And this sort of play on words is evident when we explore the use of the Hebrew word for ‘sun’ (shemesh), which occurs more than 100 times in the Old Testament.
The word shemesh is literally used of the ‘sun’ as a created heavenly body moving within the ‘theatre of God’s glory’, Calvin, Pss 50. 1; 104. 19. It is the source of light for the earth by day, Gen. 1. 16, and when the ‘sun’ rises, human beings go out to work, but lions retire to rest, Ps. 104. 22-23! The heavens are described as a tent where the sun rests when set, but then bursts forth to expose and penetrate the darkness as it runs its dynamic course across the sky, 19. 4-5. ‘The day is its victory lap; the night is its sabbath’.1 Whybray suggests that in Psalm 19 there is a close connection between the illumination and radiance of the life-giving sun and the divine law that enlightens the eyes and illuminates the servant of God.2 Job’s response to Bildad’s first address indicates the futility of trying to contend with God without an arbiter. How could he possibly take on God who regulated the movements of the sun, and could even command it not to rise, Job. 9. 7a? Other general references to the sun, or to the ‘sunrise’ or ‘sunset’, are found in Genesis chapter 15 verse 12, where, at sunset, Abram falls into a deep sleep prior to God revealing the future to him. In Exodus chapter 16 verse 21 the importance of gathering manna in the morning is highlighted, because the later heat of the sun would melt it. To help Jonah understand His sovereign grace towards Nineveh, God uses the elements, especially the heat of the sun, to bring him into a state of weakness, Jonah 4. 8. It is shemesh that describes the sun that Joshua commands to stand still in mid-heaven, Josh. 10. 12. And it is under this same sun that the writer of Ecclesiastes takes a view on the utter futility of earthly life, Eccles. 1. 3. Living ‘under the sun’, i.e., life without revering God and observing His commandments, 12. 13, is viewed as a sheer waste of time and effort that is ultimately expressed by existential despair, 12. 8.
According to Chisholm, ‘the worship of the sun was widespread in the ancient Near East and was deeply rooted in Canaan’.3 This form of worship was, however, proscribed for Israel, because of its intrinsic link with idolatry, Deut. 4. 19; 17. 3. Nonetheless, it was still practised, even in the temple, hence Josiah’s suppression of the idolatrous priests whom successive kings of Judah had appointed to burn incense to the sun and moon and constellations and all the host of the heavens, 2 Kgs. 23. 5; cp. Ezek. 8. 16.4
The word shemesh becomes a metaphor for God Himself in Psalm 84 verse 11, suggesting that He is the source of grace and favour, cp. Ps. 27. 1. In the same way that the sun gives light and revelation, so God provides illumination and healing in His word, 19. 7. The sun is also a symbol of reliability, 72. 5, 17; 89. 36, and an apt analogy of God’s word that is always constant. It is the darkened sun (shemesh) that will form part of the prelude ‘before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes’, Joel. 2. 31 ESV. But perhaps the most unique metaphorical use of the word shemesh is in the last prophetic utterance of the Old Testament, where we find the effulgent image of the ‘sun of righteousness’ being presented to us, Mal. 4. 2a. Most scholars think that the phrase is probably a solar epithet for either God or a Christological title. Significantly, if it is Christological, which we think it is, then it is a play on the word ‘sun’, and reflects the fact that not only has God delivered all judgement to the Son, John 5. 20, but it is only through the rising of the sun (Son) that mankind can be healed spiritually, Rom. 4. 24-25. Both the sun/Son are essential to preserving/saving life, Eccles 11. 7 ESV; John 10. 10, 28.
In the Septuagint (LXX) shemesh is most commonly translated by the Greek noun for ‘sun’- helios, which is then used extensively throughout the New Testament. Just as shemesh was used literally and metaphorically so is helios as the various contexts direct. It is used of sunrise and sunset, Mark 16. 2; 1. 32. On the Mount of Transfiguration our Lord’s face shone like the sun, reflecting His intrinsic glory, Matt. 17. 2. 5 This is the glory that, like the sun, shines in its strength or power, Rev. 1. 16 – undoubtedly a text that draws down heavily on Old Testament imagery from Judges chapter 5 verse 31 and Daniel chapter 10, cp. also Rev. 10. 1. Paul goes that bit further when he refers, at his conversion, to the light from heaven that even eclipsed the sun, Acts 26. 13. It is the effect of the scorching heat from the sun that withers the flower of the grass, thus reflecting the transient nature of life, especially for those who put their trust in riches, Jas. 1. 11. One aspect of the future kingdom of God is that the righteous will shine like the sun, Matt. 13. 43. As Renn observes when reviewing the use of the word ‘sun’ as the sign of impending cosmic dissolution, ‘The Old Testament references are cast in the contexts of apocalyptic-style prophecy in relation to the final day of the Lord judgment. And in the New Testament, Jesus refers to this same phenomenon as one of the distinctive features that will herald the end of the universe prior to the final judgment’.6 Ultimately, then, the sun will no longer be required as ‘there will no longer be night’, Rev. 21. 25, but the present need for us to witness to the Son’s work remains unabated. May we be so lit up by the Son that people will turn to Him in repentance and faith to find eternal life, Matt. 5. 16; John 3. 36.
For further reading/study
Leland Ryken, James C Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III (Eds) Dictionary of Biblical Imagery - ‘Sun’, pg. 827.
William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms – A Theology of Metaphor – ‘The Sun of Righteousness: Psalm 19 and the Joy of Lex’, pp. 81-103.
1 William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms - A Theology of Metaphor, pg. 84.
2 Reading the Psalms As A Book, pg. 45.
3 Robert B. Chisholm Jr Handbook on the Prophets, pg. 240.
4 Notice also in 2 Kings chapter 23 verses 11 and 12 that even horses and chariots were dedicated to the sun. TSUMURA states that the Mesopotamian sun god Samas was called a ‘chariot-rider’,NIDOTTE, pg. 187.
5 Contrast this with Moses who simply reflected God’s glory, 2 Cor. 3. 7.
6 Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, pg. 945.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.