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. (Psalm 19:1-2)
The heavens declare. The stars speak. They bear witness to the glory of God. But what do they say?
I remember looking at the stars as a kid, searching for shooting stars on warm Kansas nights and lying on my back in the grass at camp in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, pondering the immensity of the heavens and the mystery of God's love for minuscule little me.
Our gaze is naturally drawn upward. We are curious about what's up there. Beyond us. Both discoverable and undiscoverable. Our frontier longing beckons us to the telescope, to search the vast heavens. To know what we can know, but maybe moreso to know what we cannot know.
As prideful and self-confident as we are, humans are also naturally wired to be comforted when confronted with our limits. This is why we seek out experiences of the sublime, where beauty and terror intertwine: standing before the roaring waterfall; peering over the cliff in some great canyon; watching man vs. nature movies about survival like Gravity, The Revenant, All is Lost and so forth. It's why musicians are constantly finding inspiration in the planets and stars, whether it be the newly released Plantetarium (Sufjan Stevens, et al) or the gorgeous Space EPs from Sleeping at Last. It's why Terrence Malick pauses in The Tree of Life to contemplate death by showing awe-inspiring imagery of the heavens to the music of Zbigniew Preisner's “Lacrimosa."
There is something beautiful, compelling, and strangely reassuring in encounters with the ungraspable, the untamable, the immeasurable.
As Edmund Burke writes in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance makes the most striking causes affect but little... The ideas of eternity, and infinity, are among the most affecting we have."
Indeed. And what confronts us with the jolt of eternity quite like looking up at the stars and tuning our ears to the declarations of the heavens? Though many might not use religious language to name this transcendent, stargazing experience, the reality is the stars are declaring something of the greatness of God.
In his chapter on the majesty of God in the masterful Knowing God, J.I. Packer says that the first step in apprehending the greatness of God is "to realize how unlimited are his wisdom, and his presence, and his power." But then he advises readers to look at the specific glories and wonders of the world, recognizing that just as they dwarf us, so God dwarfs them.
He advises the reader to look to the stars:
The most universally awesome experience that mankind knows is to stand alone on a clear night and look at the stars. Nothing gives a greater sense of remoteness and distance; nothing makes one feel more strongly one's own littleness and insignificance. And we who live in the space age can supplement this universal experience with our scientific knowledge of the actual factors involved—millions of stars in number, billions of light years in distance. Our minds reel; our imaginations cannot grasp it; when we try to conceive of unfathomable depths of outer space, we are left mentally numb and dizzy.
But what is this to God? "Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing" (Is. 40:26). It is God who brings out the stars; it was God who first set them in space; he is their Maker and Master—they are all in his hands and subject to his will. Such are his power and his majesty. Behold your God!
And so the stars speak of God's infinite greatness and our own insignificance. Yet in our contemplation of the stars, in our posture of looking up in awe and considering the knowledge revealed "night to night," there is also intimacy. There is communion. For thus of us who have union with the Father through the work of Jesus Christ and the power of the Spirit, what the heavens declare is also love.
Like the unfathomable horizons of deep space, light years, black holes and beyond, the love the heavens declares is the sort we need strength to comprehend: "what is the breadth and length and height and depth... the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge" (Eph. 3:18-19).