“When I look at the stars, I see someone else.” (Switchfoot)
When David looked up in the Near Eastern night sky 3,000 years ago, what he saw almost took his breath away. And in an attempt to express the wonder that flooded him as he contemplated his minuteness in view of such vastness, and God’s design in it all, he did something uniquely human: he transposed his awe into art.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3–4)
The “heavens,” that mysterious realm of marvelous lights, have astonished mankind from our earliest days. When we look at the heavens today, our understanding of what we see, due to advances in science and technology, far exceeds David’s understanding. David only had a hint of how minute he was in relation to the heavens. Our fuel for awe is astronomically greater. We know more, but do we marvel more?
Silent Sermons of the Stars
The starlit sky is speaking. In Psalm 19, which C.S. Lewis considered “one of the greatest lyrics in the world” (Reflections on the Psalms), David again wrote,
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:1–4)
If the heavens are the work of God’s “hands,” and if they are declaring the glory of God, what are these silent preachers telling us? To listen closely, I have leaned on David Blatner’s book, Spectrums: Our Mind-Boggling Universe from Infinitesimal to Infinity to help capture the wonder of what we too often take for granted.
All That We (Do Not) Know
When David surveyed the sky, part of what he saw belonged to our solar system (sun, moon, and a couple “stars” that were really planets), part belonged to our Milky Way galaxy, and part were distant stars and (probably) other faraway galaxies. David would have barely had a clue how massive and distant these heavenly bodies were.
To give us some perspective, Blatner writes, “if our solar system . . . were the size of a grain of salt, the Milky Way galaxy would be about the length of a football field.” That “milky” stripe we can see on a clear, dark night is a dense collection of stars in one of the Milky Way’s spiral arms — and it’s about 1,000 light-years thick! And what these starry arms (and we with them) are spiraling around is a supermassive black hole, called Sagittarius A, located about 27,000 light-years from us. Scientists estimate that our galaxy is about 100,000 light-years wide.
Looking at the sky with the naked eye, as David did, we can see a few thousand stars at most. But, “look through the telescope, do the math, and you’ll find there are somewhere between 200 and 400 billion stars in the Milky Way.” That’s a lot of stars! But our neighboring galaxy Andromeda appears to contain a trillion or more stars.
And that’s not even a chip on the tip of the cosmic iceberg. A recent estimate of the total number of galaxies in the universe is 150 to 200 billion, but the Hubble Telescope is indicating that the real number might be ten times that amount. And when it comes to the total number of stars, we really don’t know. One estimate is around 1 septillion (that’s a “1” followed by 24 zeros). And all this inhabits a universe that has an estimated radius of about 46 billion light-years.
All this information doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what we as a species collectively now know. And scientists say that what we now know barely scratches the surface of what we don’t yet know.
What Are the Heavens Declaring?
So, if these heavens declare the glory of God, what are they declaring?
Having spent hours pouring over scientific expositions of the silent sermons of the starry hosts, I first want to put my hand over my mouth. I want to say with Job that far too often “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3). I fear trivializing what is ineffably profound.
These glory heralds don’t have three points and an application. They join all who in the presence of God cry “Glory!” (Psalm 29:9); they join all who in the presence of God cry, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Revelation 4:8). And it seems to me that worshipful prayer is the only appropriate response.
Praying Through the Heavens
Lord God Almighty, when I look to your heavens, I join the choir in ascribing to you absolute glory. And I echo David in saying, “What is man, who occupies this pale blue dot, a dust mote in the vast heavens, that you are mindful of him? And who am I, a man so often consumed with the tiny microcosm of my own concerns, to speak of you who speaks this whole cosmos into being? Indeed, ‘there is none like you’” (Psalm 86:8).
When I look to your heavens, I hear them declare that there is none like you possessing such wisdom. For you, Lord, “by understanding . . . established the heavens” (Proverbs 3:19), “determin[ing] the number of the stars [and giving] to all of them their names” (Psalm 147:4), and conferring upon each one unique aspects of your glory (1 Corinthians 15:41). And they declare that your wisdom is infinitely greater than ours: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). In view of such wisdom, I repent of all my foolish leaning on my own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).
When I look to your heavens, I hear them declare that there is none like you who possesses such power. For “by the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (Psalm 33:6). For it is you alone “who brings out [this] host by number, calling them all by name; by the greatness of [your] might and because [you are] strong in power, not one is missing” (Isaiah 40:26). Yes, “yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. . . and you are exalted as head above all” (1 Chronicles 29:11). In view of such omnipotence, I repent of all my foolish trust in the strength of man (Psalm 118:8).
When I look to your heavens, I hear them declare your sheer immensity, since even “the highest heaven cannot contain you” (1 Kings 8:27). And they declare your incomparable creativity, since “the universe was created by [your] word, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Hebrews 11:3). And they declare your supreme authority, since “all things were made through [you], and without [you] was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). And they declare your sovereignty (Psalm 115:3), your righteousness (Psalm 50:6), your faithfulness (Genesis 15:5–6), and your steadfast love (Psalm 136:9). In view of such glory, I repent of my foolish, selfish pride and bow my knee and confess with my tongue that Jesus Christ, the Word through whom the cosmos was created (John 1:3) and the Word made flesh (John 1:14), “is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10–11).
More Valuable Than Galaxies
When David looked up at the heavens, he did not know what we now know: the unfathomable extent and scope of the universe. And when he asked, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4), he did not know what we now know: the unfathomable extent and scope of God’s care for us in sending the incarnate Jesus “to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
The heavens will not tell us that Jesus came or why. Only Scripture’s special revelation tells us that. But the heavens do declare in a silent shout, literally around the whole world, glorious things about our Creator’s and Savior’s “eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20).
All that is involved in creation and all that is involved in redemption is nothing less than fearful and wonderful. The deeper we look into these things, the more fearful and wonderful it all becomes. A child can take joy in the sun, the moon, the stars, and the empty tomb. And scholars will never plumb the full depths of such glorious things.
But children and scholars alike can take comfort in this: the God who remembers the names of a sextillion stars, and knows all sextillion molecules in a drop of water, knows and remembers us.
God does not measure value or significance in size, but in his creative design. The cross reminds us that he is mindful of us in ways that galaxies will never know. Of how much more value are you than they?