Tuesday, November 11, 2008

When I Consider Your Heavens

When King David penned Psalm 8, he must have flashed back to his former life as a shepherd. No doubt his night tour of duty included gazing up at the dark Judean skies, perhaps as a teenager. He had ample time to consider the splendor of the heavens as well as the clock-like regularity of events in the skies. Later in life, seasoned no doubt by the lessons he learned in leadership success as well as failure, he was able to use experiences from both his youth and his adulthood to produce a majestic exultation: “When I consider 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, the son of man that you care for him? …You crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet” (Psalm 8:3-6 NIV).

We might ask, what sort of celestial glory did David observe? Precisely the same sort of glory that is visible in our modern night skies, although now considerably muted by urban light. A trip to the country where dark skies prevail is well worth the effort. Moonless night skies will usually display a bright planet or two, slowly moving in their own orbits against the background of stars as the weeks pass. The Bible mentions Arcturus, the Pleiades, and Orion, stars or star groups still prominent. Under the very darkest viewing conditions on earth, a maximum of 2000 stars are visible to the naked eye at any one spot. These are the stars near to us in our galaxy and are but a tiny fraction of the 100 billion stars in our spiral Milky Way star system.

I’ll resist the temptation to regale you with descriptions of many other night sky delights. For now, I’ll mention just one other faintly visible object in the vicinity of the well-known star grouping Cassiopeia. Andromeda, also catalogued M-31, appears as a tiny “fuzzy patch” rather than a distinct point of light. We are actually seeing the faint, collective starlight from our nearest neighboring spiral galaxy. It contains billions of stars, just like our own home galaxy. Andromeda is 2½ million light years away. That means when we view it, we are seeing “old light.” We see what was happening there 2½ million years ago. Other objects visible through telescopes are billions of light years away!

In his Psalm 8 meditation, David asks, “What is man, that you are mindful of him?” He answers that man is “crowned with glory and honor” by the Lord. This refers to man’s dominion over God’s creation here on earth, a gift bestowed by the Creator. He made man ruler over the works of His hands: all flocks, herds, beasts of the field, birds of the air, and fish of the sea. By His love and care man is exalted to a place of glory and honor. Beholding the glory of the night sky provides but one powerful, yet humbling reminder of this fact.