Tsel: SHADOW of Death; Life in the Shade

Shadow: tsel (Masculine Noun) (Strong’s 6738)

Shadow of Death/Death-Shadow: tsal-mawet (Masculine Noun) (Strong’s 6757)

Root: צֵל

Sounds like: tzel

Shadow is a bi-product of light and dark, making it a prominent theme in the Tanakh. Most often it is used to describe YHWH’s protection. Shade protects us from heat and shadow hides us from danger.

Shade from Heat

Isaiah 25:4-5

For You [YHWH] have been a refuge for the poor, a stronghold for the needy in distress, a refuge from the storm, a shade [tsel] from the heat.

For the breath of the ruthless is like rain against a wall, like heat in a dry land. You subdue the uproar of foreigners.

As the shade [b’tsel] of a cloud cools the heat of the day, so the song of the ruthless is silenced.

One of the most telling stories about shade comes from the Book of Jonah. The reluctant prophet, Jonah, is sent to Ninevah to warn of the impending destruction of the Assyrian town if they don’t repent. He doesn’t try very hard, because, quite honestly he hopes for their destruction. They Assyrians have been anything but kind to the Hebrew people. :

Jonah 4:5-6

Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then YHWH God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade [tsel] for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.

So Jonah sat under the plant and happily waited for the destruction of the Assyrians in Ninevah, but it did not happen. The Assyrians repented and God listened, had compassion on them, and saved them from destruction. This was not what Jonah signed up for. He wanted the Assyrians destroyed. To add insult to injury, the plant died, and Jonah became even more miserable. He hated the Assyrians, his shady plant was dead, and then God questioned Jonah:

Jonah 4:9-11

Then God asked Jonah, “Have you any right to be angry about the plant?”

“I do,” he replied. “I am angry enough to die!”

But YHWH said, “You cared about the plant, which you neither tended nor made grow. It sprang up in a night and perished in a night. So should I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well?”

Much to the dismay of Jonah, YHWH took the shade away from Jonah, and gave shade and protection to the Gentile nation of the Assyrians. Jonah wanted them dead, not forgiven! And he most certainly did not want them protected!

But Jonah didn’t create the Assyrians, God did. Only God can give life and truly take it away. YHWH gives the protection of His shadow to all who seek it!

Under YHWH’s Shadow

This image of God’s shadow as protection or shelter was a common theme throughout the Tanakh:

Psalm 91:1-2

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow [b’tsel] of the Almighty.

I will say to YHWH, “You are my refuge and fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

According to Scripture YHWH’s shadow was not just a temporary shelter, it was complete and everlasting protection:

Psalm 121:5-8

YHWH is your keeper;

YHWH is the shade [tseel’ka] at your right hand.

The sun will not strike you by day nor the moon by night.

YHWH will guard you from all evil; He will preserve your soul.

YHWH will watch over your coming and going, both now and forevermore.


In a few instances (Psalms 17, 36, 57, 63), God’s protection was poetically described using the phrase, shadow of your wings:

Psalm 57:1-3

For the choirmaster. To the tune of “Do Not Destroy.” A Miktam of David, when he fled from Saul into the cave.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy, for in You my soul takes refuge.

In the shadow of Your wings [u’v’tsel] I will take shelter  until the danger has passed.

I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills His purpose for me.

He reaches down from heaven and saves me;  He rebukes those who trample me. Selah!

God sends forth His loving devotion and His truth.

Don’t be in the shadow of anything else

God wanted us to trust in Him alone. Seeking the shelter of other gods, of worldly comforts, of money, or drugs, self-reliance or government would only lead to disgrace.

Isaiah 30:1-3

Woe to the rebellious children, declares YHWH, to those who carry out a plan, but not Mine, who form an alliance, but against My will, heaping up sin upon sin.

They set out to go down to Egypt without asking My advice, to seek shelter under Pharaoh’s protection and take refuge in the shadow [b’tsel] of Egypt.

But Pharaoh’s protection will become your shame, and the refuge of Egypt’s shadow [b’tsel] your disgrace.

Under the shade and protection of God and His plan for our Salvation, we could have life and live it to the fullest. We could be under God’s good Shadow, or we could be in the dark under the Shadow of Death.

Shadow of Death

The Hebrew word tsal’mawet, literally translated in English as Shadow-Death (usually rendered as shadow of death), is found 18 times in the Old Testament. It is most frequently found in Job (10x), but also in Psalms (4x), Jeremiah (2x), Isaiah (1x) and Amos (1x).

The book of Job focused on this theme the most. The shadow of death was a dark and lonely place, and a place of chaos, without order:

Job 10:18-22

“Why then did You bring me from the womb?

Oh, that I had died, and no eye had seen me!

If only I had never come to be, but had been carried from the womb to the grave.

Are my days not few?

Withdraw from me, that I may have a little comfort,

before I go—never to return—

to a land of darkness and the shadow of death [w’tsal’mawet],

 to a land as dark as darkness itself, as the shadow of death [tsal’mawet],

without any order,  and where even the light is like darkness.”

These ideas of dark and light, and disorder, tie in significantly with the sun, moon, and stars as tools of order, controlled in perfect symmetry by YHWH.

Jeremiah 31:33-36

Thus says YHWH, who gives sun for light by day and orders moon and stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—YHWH of Hosts is His name:

“Only if this fixed order departed from My presence, declares YHWHwould Israel’s descendants ever cease to be a nation before Me.”

Sun, moon and stars, tools of order, are key life preservers on the planet. When sunlight is blocked completely, life can rarely survive. The shadow of death is the perfect metaphor to describe the lack of good living, the inability to flourish, and the weight of depression. The most well-known reference to the shadow of death is found in Psalm 23:

Psalm 23

A Psalm of David.

YHWH is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.

He restores my soul.

He guides me in the paths of righteousness for the sake of His name.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death [tsal’mawet],

I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of YHWH forever.

How do you survive when the weight of the world is on your shoulders? We must rely on YHWH to save us. We need a Saviour, otherwise our only walk on this planet is in the shadow of death. YHWH promised to bring those who cried out for help out of death’s shadow:

Psalm 107:10-16

Some sat in darkness and death-shadow [w’tsal’mawet]prisoners in misery and chains, because they rebelled against the words of God and despised the counsel of the Most High.

He humbled their hearts with hard labor; they stumbled, and there was no one to help.

Then they cried out to YHWH in their trouble; He saved them from their distress.

He brought them out of darkness and death-shadow [w’tsal’mawet]and broke away their chains.

Let them give thanks to YHWH for His loving devotion and His wonders to the sons of men. For He has broken down the gates of bronze and cut through the bars of iron.

Not only ded YHWH save those who cried out to Him, He also had the power to take the shadow of death and turn it into light:

Amos 5:8

He [YHWH] made the Pleiades and Orion, and He turns the shadow of death into morning, and He makes the day as dark as night. He calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out on the face of the earth. YHWH is His name!

Job also noted YHWH’s power of converting the shadow of death into light. He described YHWH revealing, or casting spot-lights onto, darkness:

Job 12:22

He [YHWH] reveals deep things out of darkness, and brings to light the shadow of death [tsal’mawet].

Shadows and the Messiah

The Messiah was the main, and constant, thread woven into the Tanakh. There were great expectations, from early on in the Bible, for a Messiah who would save the Hebrew people. The people, most certainly, created an image in their mind of what the Messiah would do for them. In Lamentations it is noted that they thought they could blend in with the nations, under the Messiah’s shadow. They wanted to be saved from the Babylonian destruction, but that did not happen.

Lamentations 4:20

YHWH’s anointed [mashiach], the breath of our life, was captured in their pits.

We had said of him, Under his shadow [b-tsilloh] we will live among the nations.”

In a poetic turn of events YHWH took the dark shadows of the world and cast a light upon them. You couldn’t have shadow, without light behind it. And, when light moved and shone upon the shadow, the shadow disappeared. You see, Yeshua wasn’t meant to be shade for us, He was meant to be the light that annihilated the shadow of death.

Isaiah 9:2… 9:6

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;

those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death [tsal’mawet],

a light has shined upon them

…For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,

and the government will be upon His shoulders.

And He will be called

Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, sang a beautiful song to his infant son, and described Yeshua the Messiah as the Dawn who would shine on those who lived in the shadow of death:

Luke 1:76-79

And you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give to His people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the Dawn will visit us from on highto shine on those who live in darkness and in the shadow of deathto guide our feet into the path of peace.

Yeshua, himself, was very clear on His role as the light:

John 8:12

Once again, Jesus spoke to the people and said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will never walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.”

YHWH is our refuge, our protector, and we can hide in the shadow of His wings, but with Yeshua, the Light of the World, we are no longer prisoners under the shadow of death, but rather we are free to live on the path of peace, shining like the sun!

Next week: Sing!

6 thoughts on “Tsel: SHADOW of Death; Life in the Shade”

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