A Word for Today: Shield, Protection (Heb. Magen)


One of the important features of heraldry is the graphic design of individual or family coats of arms, usually displayed on some form of shield. This decorative imagery goes back to at least medieval times when soldiers were identified in battle by the markings that were painted on their shields. Therefore, the shield became an important feature in battle, not simply to protect soldiers from the thrust of an enemy’s attack, but also to ensure that in the melee, they could easily identify which side soldiers were fighting on. This sense of protection and identity is germane to the use of the Hebrew noun magen, which is the most frequent word used in the Old Testament for the common type of shield deployed by soldiers. The term ‘buckler’ is also used in some translations as an alternative rendering of the noun magen. The magen was a small, circular shield used in close combat, as contrasted with the larger shield known as a ‘tsinnah’ which protected the whole body from assault. This larger shield was often used on attacks of city walls, but it was far less manoeuvrable than the magen, hence, in the case of Goliath, he needed assistance in carrying his shield (tsinnah), 1 Sam. 17. 7. The smaller shield was sometimes carried by archers, as, for example, Asa’s valiant men, 2 Chr. 14. 8.

Shields were made of a variety of materials including wood, leather, and metal. Leather shields had to be oiled regularly to prevent them from deteriorating. In part of David’s dirge in 2 Samuel chapter 1 verse 21, he reflects upon the death of Saul by reference to the fact that his shield would never again be rubbed with oil. Contrast this with the scene in Isaiah chapter 21 verse 5 where the normal activities of God’s people, such as eating and drinking, are disrupted by invaders, hence the exhortation to oil or grease their shields to parry the attack. Other instances where the noun magen is used literally of a defensive weapon of war is found in the Song of Deborah in Judges chapter 5 verse 8 where Israel is rebuked for its sin of idolatry, reflected in its military complacency. True to his penchant for fine things, Solomon created shields made out of gold, 1 Kgs. 10. 17, which were highly prized as spoils of war, cp. 2 Sam. 8. 7, where his father David took the gold shields carried by Hadadezer’s retinue, and brought them to Jerusalem.

But it is the metaphorical use of the noun magen that is most pronounced in the Old Testament, especially as it focuses on God Himself. In a remarkable passage in Genesis chapter 15, which Paul later uses by way of precedent against an imaginary critic in Romans chapter 4, God speaks to Abram through a vision, with the opening line, ‘Fear not Abram, I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward’. Here God confirms to Abram that the promises that He would subsequently make to him were firmly grounded and secured in His protective power, cp. Ps. 84. 11. As Ryken, et al, write, ‘This shield like protection is evidence of His faithfulness and enables His people to be confident, not afraid’, 1 cp. Ps. 91. 1-5. This sense of God being the Protector and Saviour of His people, especially from their enemies, is represented extensively in the book of Psalms. In Psalm 3, the psalmist feels vulnerable to attack from his surrounding enemies. God, though, surrounds and protects him as a shield, v. 3. Similarly, in Psalm 28, which is a psalm of individual lament, the psalmist outlines the case for God to destroy his enemies, but then adds a paean of praise, which includes a reference to God being his strength and his shield or shelter, v. 7a, cp. 2 Sam. 22. 3, 31; Prov. 30. 5. There are numerous other references of this kind in the Psalms, e.g., Ps. 5. 12; 18. 35; 59. 11. Brown states that the shield establishes a zone of safety and security, a fitting image for God’s protective activity.2 The shield is also used in an offensive mode, as in Psalm 35 verse 2, where God is exhorted by the psalmist to stand up and support His servant through taking hold of shield and buckler and spear. Overarching this metaphor is the related issue of finding a safe resting place under the aegis of God’s shield, see Ps. 119. 114.

In the Septuagint (LXX) the word shield is normally translated by the Greek word aspis, which denoted a small round metal shield used for close combat, roughly corresponding to magen. Elsewhere, however, the LXX uses the Greek word thyreos to describe a long rectangular wooden Greek shield, which could be used as a barricade, or almost a portable wall during an attack, Ps. 34. 2 (LXX); 45. 10 (LXX).3 Paul’s figurative use of this Greek word is confined to Ephesians chapter 6 verse 16 where he compares faith to a shield that believers must take up in order to hold their ground, and thereby extinguish the incendiary attacks of Satan, cp. Ps. 120. 4. As Simpson states, ‘Supplied with this inviolable aegis the host of the redeemed possess the secret which overcomes the world (1 John 5. 4)’.<4 In his first epistle, Peter uses similar language when he refers to believers ‘who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time’, 1 Pet. 1. 5 NIV. His use of the present particle stresses that believers are continually being shielded or guarded by God’s power through the application of faith.

The English hymnist Edith Gilling Cherry, who suffered from polio from infancy and walked with the aid of crutches for most of her very short life, expressed this very sentiment throughout her most famous hymn, ‘We rest on Thee our shield and our defender!’ A line from this hymn was used by the writer Elisabeth Elliott as a title for her book Through Gates of Splendour, which records the lives of five American missionaries who were martyred for Christ by Auca Indians in the Ecuadorian jungle in 1956. Just as these men stepped out in faith believing that God was truly their shield and their defender, may we be similarly challenged to present the gospel to those who are in native darkness. Let us be courageous, irrespective of the strength of the enemy, and, like Hezekiah, assert that ‘with us is the Lord our God to help us, and to fight our battles’, 2 Chr. 32. 8.

For further reading/study


  • Archaeological Study Bible – An Illustrated Walk through Biblical History and Culture.


  • William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms – A Theology of Metaphor.



Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, pg. 785.


Seeing the Psalms – A Theology of Metaphor, pg. 200.


The Romans called this shield the scutum (Latin), which they used very effectively in their complex battle formation known as the testudo where shields were packed tightly together to act as a screen against enemy missiles.


The Epistle to the Ephesians, pg. 149.


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