They who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength. They will mount up with wings like Eagles. They will walk and not grow weary. They will run and not faint.
Those birds were not holding themselves up. It was the wind and draft beneath their wings that provided strong support and kept them in the air. When I read this I think about God holding us up with his righteous right hand as He has promised to do.
The words for spirit and wind in the Bible are often the same word. As I watched the birds riding the wind, I was impressed with the thought that God wants us to allow His Spirit to lead and guide us where he wants us to go in the same way those birds follow the wind. Humming birds and small hard flapping birds don't fly very high, but other birds regularly soar up to 10,000 feet. In fact, the wind can carry these birds up above a raging storm so that they can navigate safely past it. Stop and meditate on that for a moment and think of how God guides us through the storms of life. Entire flocks have been recorded as high as 29,000 feet and a vulture was once encountered by a commercial airplane at an altitude of 37,000 feet.
I mention vultures for a reason. The noble eagle is a helpful picture for our American minds and rightly depicts the majesty intended by the author. Even the ancient Romans used it as a symbol. But the word translated as Eagle in this text is the Hebrew word Nesher, which also refers to the Griffon Vulture. In appearance, it has some similarity to an eagle, but to the Hebrew mind, this was the king of all birds, with a wingspan of up to 8 feet. These noble birds were revered in Israel. There are a number of qualities about these birds that bring out the magnitude of depth and meaning of this verse.
Lost in translation is the idea of a bird molting. The bird gets old, ragged and nearly dead looking and in no species is this more dramatic than in the Griffon Vulture. After the bird sheds its old feathers, they are replaced with fresh, vibrant, new plumage and it looks to have renewed its youth. I believe it may be the Griffon Vulture that gave rise to the myth of the Phoenix which dies, burns up into ashes and then rises from the ashes renewed. The early commentator Jerome wrote almost as if he believed Phoenixes were real. He certainly understood the symbolism. This passage relates to Isaiah 61:3 which tells us that God will comfort those who mourn and give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit. The head covering and garments being mentioned by Isaiah represent the renewal and refreshing of salvation and priestly garments that are worn by God's representatives. The Griffin Vulture has a white head consisting of downy. It can look dramatically bald, ashen and sickly when molting, but will have a bright, white head covering when it is finished, like the clean, white linen God clothes his people with which represents being forgiven, restored and put into a right relationship with Him. Those who wait on Jesus, or put our hope and trust in Him, will be rescued, comforted, strengthened and upheld in God's hands.
Last Spring, we took a family vacation to Disney World. During our day at Animal Kingdom, while my niece and nephew waited in line for pictures and autographs with Rafiki , I watched a presentation from a zookeeper holding a vulture. Vultures feed on carrion. They keep our environment clean and healthy and they have a remarkable constitution. She explained that vultures have the incredible ability to ingest a wide variety of diseases such as botulism and other bacteria or viruses and not be harmed. The diseases are neutralized in their bodies. It made me think of Jesus, who took death in His body, in our place, but couldn't be held by it. He defeated death. And it makes me think of us. One day, if the Lord hasn't come back yet, we will all face death. But it can't affect us. Like this bird that conquers death in its body, we will rise again and have eternal life.
The eggs of the Griffon Vulture have a longer incubation period than most birds and both father and mother spend a lengthy amount of time caring for their offspring. I have read that this vulture will guard its eggs to the point it would even die protecting them. Perhaps it was this fact that led to the idea of a Phoenix dying and coming back to life as a baby. Maybe someone saw a body combust, who knows? I would imagine they can get looking pretty awful by the time their young are ready to leave the nest. The ancient world was intrigued by this bird. It's dramatic rejuvenation and willingness to sacrifice for it's offspring provide an important object lesson. Jesus died and then rose again, glorified, to give new life to us, his offspring. We will also rise again and receive glorified bodies in heaven. But even now, on this earth, we are blessed. In the same way that a vulture receives new feathers, Isaiah uses clothes to describe what God does for us in the here and now:
He has clothed me with garments of salvation and wrapped me in a robe of righteousness, as a groom wears a priestly headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10)
The symbolism of a bird receiving new feathers, being refreshed, restored and renewed is a picture of the way that Jesus works in the hearts and lives of anyone who places their trust and hope in Him. Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, He will bring us out of despair and restore us to be all that He meant for us to be. We can journey through this world with wisdom and a birds-eye perspective that comes from a higher purpose found in Christ. In the same way the birds are guided by the currents of the wind, He will lead us through His Spirit. While we wait for His coming, He will hold us up like the wind upholds the birds.