Feeling small

It wasn’t the usual family vacation. My wife and I had decided to take the kids out to the desert to see the stars. If you’ve never had that experience, do it. It’s not enough to stand in your backyard and look up, as impressive as that sometimes might be. You have to get away from the haze of city lights (even your neighbor’s porch light will ruin it) for the sky to blacken enough to really capture the spectacle.

We stayed in a hotel. Just before dusk, we drove out to Joshua Tree National Park and parked in a deserted area. It was a cool, clear evening as the sky gradually darkened to pitch black. Little by little, the stars began to peek out, until the whole vault of heaven was brilliant with points of light.

I don’t remember ever having seen the Milky Way so clearly, a shining swath of stars stretching above and beyond me from horizon to horizon. Intellectually, I realized that I was looking at the galaxy edgewise; the galaxy was a plate and I was lying on my side somewhere upon it. Suddenly, I felt small and off balance. I actually started to lean to one side, as if I suddenly discovering that I had spent my whole life walking through the universe sideways and needed to right myself.

Is this what the psalmists saw, when they looked to the heavens at night?

. . .

We’ve spent some time in Psalm 104, a poem that marvels at God’s creation. Psalm 8 is also a creation psalm, the first in the Psalter. It begins with these words:

Lord, our Lord, how majestic
    is your name throughout the earth!
    You made your glory higher than heaven!
When I look up at your skies,
    at what your fingers made—
    the moon and the stars
    that you set firmly in place—
        what are human beings
            that you think about them;
        what are human beings
            that you pay attention to them?
(vss. 1, 3-4, CEB)

The psalmist, it seems, marvels at the night sky and its vastness — then wonders how the God who created such a universe would bother with “human beings.” The phrase, in Hebrew, is ben adam, the “sons of man/Adam.” While the phrase can have the generic meaning of “human beings,” we should remember that the name “Adam” itself signals the first human’s humble origins: “the LORD God formed the human (adam) from the topsoil (adamah) of the fertile land” (Gen 2:7). Similarly, the English words “human” and “humble” share a common origin with the word “humus.”

No, not hummus; biblically, we have more in common with a compost pile than a bowl of ground garbanzos.

You may have noticed that I left out verse 2 above: “From the mouths of nursing babies you have laid a strong foundation because of your foes, in order to stop vengeful enemies.” That’s because even the most seasoned of biblical scholars have a hard time agreeing on what this means. Do babies praise? (Well, if rocks can cry out — Luke 19:40 — why not? Just don’t ask me how rocks do this.) If they do, how does their praise stop the enemies of God? And so on.

But I suspect that the main image here is smallness: the psalmist is celebrating the counterintuitive way in which God empowers the powerless and strengthens the weak. The enemies of God may seem to dominate the landscape, but their power is nothing against even the babbling of infants when God enters the fray.

This is the beginning of a praise-filled response to the question of suffering raised by Psalms 3 through 7. Suffering makes us feel small. But as we’ll see next week, the answer isn’t to make ourselves bigger. It’s to make God bigger, to recognize and celebrate his majesty.

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