Earlier this week, in a conversation with some of my students, I was reminded of an experience I wrote about last year. During a short family vacation to Palm Springs, we spent an evening in Joshua Tree National Park, gazing up into a beautiful night sky. Alone in the desert, away from the obscuring haze of city lights, we could see the Milky Way stretching majestically from horizon to horizon. The sky was so clear that one could even see the blurry form of the Orion Nebula without a telescope. The spectacle made me marvel again at the splendor of the universe and the God who created it, prompting memories of standing in front my house at night as a boy, looking up and pondering infinity.
I imagine that experience to be as old as humanity itself. When God wanted to show Abraham the vastness of his covenant promise, he took him outside on a clear desert night and had him gaze up into the heavens at the countless stars. Constellations are affirmed as the work of God’s hands. And how often did the psalmists look to the stars for inspiration?
But as I listened to my students reminisce about their awe-inspiring experiences of the night sky, another and stranger thought crept into memory: a story I read long ago, a classic science fiction tale by Isaac Asimov entitled Nightfall (written in 1941). The story is about a planet on which it is never night, for at least one of the its six suns always remains in the sky. The people are vaguely aware of their own fear of the dark, and mysterious legends tell of times past when night fell and madness followed.
As the story progresses, of course, the legends are revealed to be true. By a rare but predictable chain of astronomical events, first one and then another sun disappears from view until only a single red disk is left. And gradually, to the people’s horror, that light too is snuffed out by an eclipse. Mass hysteria ensues. Whole cities are set ablaze to make light.
But not merely to dispel the dark, as some had anticipated. On a planet where it is always day, no one could imagine a night sky full of stars, and the people went mad with terror. They burned civilization to the ground to drown out the frightful, glaring light of the heavens.
A bizarre but haunting story. In sideways fashion, it reminds me that there is a fine line between the awe-filled and the awful, between faithful reverence and cowering before a holy God. On the one hand, the majesty of the night sky can point us to a gracious Creator who deserves praise:
Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens. …When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. …Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Ps 8:1,3-5,9, NIV)
On the other hand, the prophet Amos suggests that the one who made the stars is not only Creator but Judge:
Doom to you who turn justice into poison, and throw righteousness to the ground! The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night; who summons the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth—this one’s name is the Lord—who causes destruction to flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress. (Amos 5:7-9, CEB)
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, Job acknowledges that God “made the Bear and Orion, Pleiades and the southern constellations” as evidence of the “great and unsearchable things, wonders beyond number” done by an irresistibly powerful God (Job 9:9-10, NIV). And yet, God later reproves Job for his arrogance in questioning God’s justice:
Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. …Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades? Can you loosen Orion’s belt? Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs? Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth? (Job 38:2-3,31-33, NIV)
Job is no longer the prosecutor putting God on the witness stand to give account. God reverses the roles; Job finds himself in the humbling position of being questioned by the Lord of heaven and earth, sky and sea. Not surprisingly, he repents completely of his presumption (Job 42:1-6).
I’d like to get back out to the desert sometime soon, to enjoy what I hope will be a clear sky and an expansive view, to bathe again in wonder. But this time, perhaps, I’ll experience the awe not only of the immensity of the galaxy, but the stunning grace and compassion of a Holy Creator who is more than mindful of me and all his sin-stained creatures.