God loves us in such a multi-faceted way that He uses many different metaphors to help us understand. The metaphor I’ll be delving into today is a surprising one to me: the picture of God, specifically Jesus, as a mother hen. This is from Matthew 23:37 when Jesus laments, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.”
I don’t know too much about hens, to tell you the truth, so I had to do a little research. I knew already that in today’s lingo a “mother hen” is a very protective sort of person, even to the point of being overprotective, perhaps causing the one being fussed over to be a little annoyed. This modern term does not apply to Jesus, as His perfect protection could never cause annoyance, so I decided to learn a little about real mother hens. I even read a website about the social life of chickens, a life I did not know they had. I found that the protection a mother hen gives her chicks would not be unwanted.
After most hens have laid their eggs, it can be hard to get them to leave their eggs, even to eat or drink, although they usually will leave once a day for those purposes only. Most of the time, the hen stays on her eggs with her wings spread a little to keep them warm for 21 days. “She will make muttering, growling sounds if disturbed, and may even peck or otherwise try to defend her nest” (feathersite.com).
Even before a chick hatches out of its egg, the hen begins to communicate with the embryo, the name for an unhatched chick. “If the embryo begins to give a distress call, the hen vocalizes or moves on the nest and the embryo becomes silent or begins to emit pleasure calls” (extension.org). Scientists have found that the hen can hear the responses of her unborn chick to her calls. “Based on that communication, she turns the eggs at different rates” (hobbyfarms.com), depending on their rate of development. I don’t mean to take this metaphor too far, but I can’t help but think of God speaking in Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”
Although hens are small and relatively weak, after the chicks have hatched a mother hen will take on a much more powerful animal, such as a dog, pushing her chicks behind her all the while if she thinks that animal will harm her chicks. She cares more for their safety than her own safety. Research has shown that when a hen’s chicks are in distress, her body will react. I liked a quote from Plutarch on this subject: “What of the hens whom we observe each day at home, with what care and assiduity they govern and guard their chicks? Some let down their wings for the chicks to come under; others arch their backs for them to climb upon; there is no part of their bodies with which they do not wish to cherish their chicks if they can, nor do they do this without a joy and alacrity which they seem to exhibit by the sound of their voices” (upc-online.org).
This protective love is one way that God loves us. He cares for us to the point of putting our safety before His own, which He demonstrated by dying on the cross for us. He defends us. “He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). As Jesus implies in Matthew 23:37, He longs to give us this care and protection. Knowing this, why wouldn’t we run under His wings for protection from anything bothering us?
The New Testament isn’t the first place we find God being described as a mother bird, although the Old Testament has a more regal picture. Many places in the Old Testament compare God to an eagle. Psalm 91:4 is a good example: “He will cover you with His pinions, And under His wings you may seek refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark.” Deuteronomy 32:10-11 describes it this way: “He found him in a desert land, And in the howling waste of a wilderness; He encircled him, He cared for him, He guarded him as the pupil of His eye. Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, That hovers over its young, He spread His wings and caught them, He carried them on His pinions.”
I also had to do some research about eagles raising their young, and when I did so, I discovered that “during incubation, 98% of the time one parent remains on the nest; not only to keep the eggs warm but to protect them” from predators. If the eagle parents do not do this, the eaglets inside the eggs will most likely die. Once the eaglets have hatched, eagles shred pieces of meat for them to eat, gently and persistently persuading them to eat. I was especially impressed by the fact that eagle parents will “move about with their talons balled into fists to avoid accidentally skewering their offspring” (baldeagleinfo.com).
This last fact reminds me of another metaphor, conceived by C.S. Lewis, that of God as a powerful Lion. When he plays with Susan and Lucy after he is resurrected in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he keeps his paws beautifully velveted so his claws won’t hurt them. Both give the image of immense power restrained in order to protect. I find this to be amazing. The God of all power and might keeps His talons pulled in so that we will be protected from His strength! We know this just from stories like the one of John in Revelation falling like a dead man when he sees Jesus in His glory. In order for John to function, Jesus touches him and enables him to handle it somehow. He protects him from it. How much more would He be willing to protect us from real harm?
One aspect of His love is a protective, mother-bird type of love. After learning more about this part of His love, I want to sing along with the psalmist: “How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Your wings” (Psalm 36:7).