God clothed in metaphor
The scriptural God is a metaphorical God, not in the sense that he is not “literally” God, but in the sense that God frequently reveals himself to us in Scripture by means of metaphors. The scriptural God is a God who clothes himself in metaphors.
Often these metaphors are taken from human examples. The Lord presents himself to us in Scripture “as a man” (Deut 8:5): “as a father who carries his son” (Deut 1:31), as a “strong man” who fights on behalf of his people (Ps 78:65-66), and as a “shepherd” who cares for his flock (Ps 23:1). Scripture also draws examples from other creatures to communicate something of God’s transcendent majesty and goodness. The Lord is “like an eagle” (Deut 32:11). The Lord is our “rock” (Ps 18:2). The Lord promises to be for us “a place of broad rivers and streams” (Isa 33:21).
In each instance, God is able to reveal himself to creatures by means of creatures because creatures are themselves “theomorphic” (Herman Bavinck). That is to say, creatures by nature reflect something of the glory and goodness of the God who made them (Rom 1:20). As Basil of Caesarea affirms, creation, in its various parts and as a whole, is a schoolroom, designed by the divine teacher to lead us by the hand to God the Creator.
The metaphors with which God clothes himself in Scripture are therefore more than mere ornament. When God reveals himself to us by means of imagery drawn from creatures, God reveals something about himself that would otherwise be more difficult to understand and appreciate without the aid of such imagery. Divine metaphors are expressions of God’s revelatory largess, signs of his willingness to be more fully known, loved, and enjoyed by the creatures he made for fellowship with himself.
Psalm 84:11 offers a particularly illuminating divine metaphor that merits our attention. According to this verse, “The Lord God is a sun.” What does this description teach us about God?
The Lord is a sun
In identifying the Lord as a “sun,” Psalm 84:11 does not intend to identify the Lord as a sphere of burning gas. Here we are dealing with metaphorical not literal predication. Nevertheless, in identifying the Lord as a sun, Psalm 84:11 helps us see something about the Lord that would be harder to understand, harder to appreciate without this metaphor. In order to appreciate how metaphorical predication works, we must learn to think analogically.
Psalm 84 assumes that there is similarity between the sun’s relation to heaven and earth and God’s relation to all things visible and invisible. Psalm 84 knows that there is dissimilarity between these relations as well, as is the case in all analogies. But it is the similarity that is instructive for the present discussion. What, then, does the sun-world relation teach us about the God-world relation?
As the divinely appointed “ruler” of the day (Gen 1:16), the sun stands in a position of “firstness” (Kenneth Schmitz) relative to heaven and earth. The sun is the first light in the realm of heaven and earth over which it rules.
In its position of firstness, the sun is the primary source of light for all creatures under heaven. According to Psalm 19:6, “there is nothing hidden from its heat.” Moreover, in its position of firstness, the sun is itself light. Genesis 1:16 describes the sun as the “greater light” (relative to the moon), appointed to rule the day. Furthermore, in its position of firstness, the sun is in itself light. Unlike the moon, the “lesser light” that rules the night (Gen 1:16), the sun does not shine by means of an external source of light. What a fountain is to water (Ps 36:8-9), the sun is to light. The sun is a self-generating, intrinsically luminous source of light.
The sun’s “firstness” in the order of creaturely lights consists in its being the primary source of light in heaven and earth, in its being itself light, and in its being in itself light. Before addressing what this metaphor teaches us about God, we must note one further aspect of scriptural uses of the light metaphor. Scripture often associates light with various goods. Scripture associates light with intellectual goods, as in Psalm 33:9. Scripture also associates light with goods such as favor and honor, as in Psalm 84:11. When Scripture clothes God with the metaphor of light, this association is often in view.
What, then, does the metaphorical predication, “the Lord God is a sun” (Ps 84:11), teach us about God? Given the sun’s “theomorphic” status as a reflection of its Creator (James 1:17), and given the common biblical association between light and good, the answer seems to be something like the following: As the sun is the first light presiding over the realm of heaven and earth, so God is the first good presiding over the realm of goods.
As the one who enjoys the position of “firstness” in the order of goods, not only is God “the Father of lights,” the source from whom “every good gift and every perfect gift” proceeds (James 1:17). Not only is God himself good (Ps 100:5; 1 John 1:5), apart from whom we have no good (Ps 16:2). God is also in and of himself good. As God has life in himself (John 5:26), so God is good in himself, something that can be said of God alone (Mark 10:18).
Conclusion: as God is, so God does
Psalm 84:11 identifies God as a “sun,” clothing him with the metaphor of light, in order to identify God as the source of all good, as one who is himself good, and as one who is in himself good, the first good in the order of goodness.
This understanding of Psalm 84:11 fits well with the rest of the verse. What Psalm 84:11 teaches us about God’s identity grounds what Psalm 84:11 teaches us about God’s action. The one who is the first good in the order of goods may be trusted in every circumstance to do good: “the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Ps 84:11; see also Ps 119:68). Indeed, as James 1:17 confirms, we may expect nothing but good from God the sovereign good because, unlike all created lights, the Father of lights is one “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
This is something of what it means to say: “The Lord God is a sun” (Ps 84:11). This is also something of why it may be said: How happy are they who put their trust in him (Ps 84:12).