I don’t believe any little boy could emerge from the 1970s and 80s without being a certified stargazer. Star Wars, Battlestar Gallactica, Star Blazers, and Buck Rogers filled our collective childhood imaginations with speeding spaceships and epic interstellar battles, tapping into our innate desire for galactic gallantry and space swashbucklery. Even today, on clear nights outside, I still find myself wondering and wandering about the heavens, posing on my porch like that iconic Star Wars image of Luke Skywalker gazing wistfully at the twin setting suns of Tatooine.
So when I came across a recent Hubble image published by NASA and reported by QZ.com, I couldn’t help but be drawn to it as if caught in some Death Star tractor beam—being transported back in time to galaxies far away and childhood adventures rapidly fading into memory.
The remarkable picture of the Andromeda galaxy—at some 1.5 billion pixels—is hailed as the most detailed space image ever and provides a partial glimpse into the vastness of one of the Milky Way’s nearest neighbors. Incredibly, as you zoom in on the picture, the 100 million visible stars become clustered and dense as sand, perhaps giving new meaning to God’s promises to Abraham in Genesis 15. And this is just one of billions of galaxies!
Admittedly, the immediate and human reaction to such immensity is an overwhelming feeling of “smallness.” As the QZ article states, “The vastness of space is so expansive, so inconceivable, that frankly, it makes humanity’s lot in the universe seem pretty tiny and pointless.” Similarly, secularist author and scientist Carl Sagan once wrote, “As long as there have been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”
However, for Christians, our perception and vision of the vastness is, well, different. For me, the best text in the Bible through which to filter such feelings is Psalm 8.
What I love about this psalm of David is its perspective. David doesn’t just leave the created world to one’s imagination, but he interprets it and gives it meaning and purpose. We are also able to trace out some of David’s own thought patterns—some 3000 years after the fact.
Reading the Psalm, we note first that David too was struck by the “big” of creation and the “small” of humanity. No doubt, when David looked up at the thousands of visible stars from the Palestinian countryside, he had to marvel at the wonder of the universe. Indeed, how could David not note the stark contrast between the vast star-filled heavens and a ruddy, shepherd boy turned king?
In Psalm 8, he asks the rhetorical question, “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?” (vv. 3-4). The two terms used for “man” (not adam, but enosh) here denote weakness and frailty and mortality. David knew his relative significance.
Then an amazing thing happens. As David goes to his knees, in prostrate humility before God, he begins meditating on the Word of God.
And here is the key to the entire text and the entire dilemma of our “smallness” in light of creation: David interprets general revelation (creation) through the lens of special revelation (Scripture).
First, in verse 4, David remembered about how the God who creates is also the God who “remembered” (or “was mindful of” in the ESV) His people.
God had “remembered” the Israelites while they were in bondage in Egypt. God had “remembered” the promises to the Patriarchs. God had “remembered” His commitment to His covenant.
Then David began to meditate on how God “visited” (or “cared for” in the ESV) His people.
This term comes straight out of the Exodus account. And any Hebrew reader would immediately think of how God had delivered His people out of slavery.
So David is thinking, “Here is a God so much more sovereign than us, so much more transcendent and holy, so much more ‘other,’ and yet He is a God who has condescended to know us and love us and involve Himself in our lives in a salvific manner.”
Then at this point in the Psalm, David’s mind drifts back to the beginning of the biblical story—to creation itself.
He writes, “Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings, and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”
The reference here in Psalm 8 is clearly to Genesis 1:26-31. David thinks, “Not only has God saved us, He has given us a role to play. He has created us with a special dignity and crucial role to play in His creation.” In both Genesis 1 and in Psalm 8, the Bible describes humans as being made by God Himself with special nobility and having a special status (as imagebearers).
The imageness talked about in both passages has to do with rule and rank. God gave us to be His vice-regents in creation. His princes and princesses, if you will. God gave humanity the needed qualities to govern creation on His behalf as if He were physically present. In this regard the Israelites’ view of status was starkly different compared to that of their ancient Near Eastern neighbors, who reserved the status of “image of divinity” for kings/priests. The Bible democratizes “imageness.”
Finally, all of these thoughts lead David back to his initial thought—“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
One thing even a casual reader will notice about this psalm is its clear structure. It begins and ends with the same idea—a Hebrew poetic technique called “inclusio,” but what I will call “bookends.” And if you begin and end with the same theme, it should tell you all you need to know about the theme of the middle.
What then is the theme of this psalm? What is David wanting us to see in all of this psalm and in all of his musing? What reaction should God’s people have in the face of the vastness of creation? Praising the majestic name of God in creation.
In other words, God does not do these things (visitation, remembrance, bestowal of imageness) for us so that we might be praised. We do not experience the unexpected grace of God for our own glory. He does it so that He might be glorified.
So, as you gaze up at the heavens tonight, or as you look at these Hubble images, think of His creation of trillions of stars. Also think of God’s visitation of you, His remembrance of you, His giving you the status of imagebearer. But ultimately may your passions be engaged to praise Him who displayed His splendor in the heavens.
A native of Austell, Ga., Bryan Cribb came to Anderson University following a five-year tenure at Brewton-Parker College in Mt. Vernon, Ga. Dr. Cribb holds a BA in political science and a BS in mathematics from Furman University in Greenville, S.C. After being called into the ministry, he received his master of divinity in biblical and theological studies and his doctor of philosophy from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. His primary emphasis in PhD work was Old Testament theology, with minor areas of study in New Testament theology and Old Testament languages.
Dr. Cribb is married to Elizabeth, and they have three sons—Daniel Luther, Josiah John, and Nathanael Bryan. Elizabeth is an RN and a stay-at-home mom, who also holds a master of divinity degree from Southern Seminary.