What does 'feet like a deer' mean in the Bible (Psalm 18; Habakkuk 3:19)?
Habakkuk 3:19 states, "GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer's; he makes me tread on my high places." This line is the closing line of a prayer that is meant to be sung with musical accompaniment that Habakkuk composed in response to the dialogue he had with the Lord. Habakkuk had brought before God the complaints of the righteous people of Judah who questioned the justice of God using the wicked Babylonians to bring judgment upon God's own people. It seemed inconceivable that the Babylonian empire should succeed and grow despite their evil ways. However, God responded to Habakkuk that the Babylonians would also one day face judgment for their sinful behavior. In this way, Habakkuk's cynicism was turned into faith and he responded with a prayer of praise and trust.
His closing line, however, is not original to Habakkuk, but rather is a quotation from a psalm of David years earlier as recorded in 2 Samuel 22 (specifically verse 34) and Psalm 18 (verse 33). David had been unjustly pursued by King Saul who harbored murderous intentions. The Bible records that David penned these words "on the day when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul" (Psalm 18:1).
To understand what it means to have "feet like a deer," it helps to understand a few things about the deer with which the authors would have been familiar. Deer in Israel are about the size of mountain goats and act in similar ways. Their compact torsos, long slender legs, and cloven hoofs enable them to balance on tiny outcroppings on rock-faced mountains. Their powerful jumps and graceful balance allow them to scale steep mountains in only seconds. The beauty and agility of Israeli deer is recorded in Proverbs 5:19 when a wife is compared to "a lovely deer, a graceful doe."
When these psalms were written, the authors had been in danger. David had been hunted by murderous King Saul, and Habakkuk and his people were facing the onslaught of the conquering Babylonians. However, both authors found God to be a just God who rescues His people in His perfect timing. They believed God would provide the ability to stand sure-footed like a deer and that He would place them on high places away from danger out of the reach of their enemies like the deer stands on rocky cliffs out of the reach of its predators. These men understood their need for God's protection and recognized Him as their only hope. Habakkuk called God "the God of my salvation" (Habakkuk 3:18) while David acknowledged God as "my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold" (Psalm 18:2). They knew only God could rescue them from their enemies and they trusted Him to make their feet like the deer's and make them tread on high places away from danger.
We, too, can trust in this good and protective God to provide rescue and safety for us as well. While physical protection on this earth is not promised, the Bible reminds us that our ultimate enemies are sin and death (Romans 5:21). God sent His son, Jesus, to live a sinless life and provide the ultimate sacrifice to set us free from these enemies (Romans 8:2). So God has indeed, already provided a way for us to stand sure-footed and out of danger like the deer in Israel.
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