The Magnificence of God in a Mote of Dust (Psalm 8:3–4)

Part 1: The Lord displays his magnificence by elevating the insignificant. (v 1)

Part 2: The Lord strengthens the weak to subdue his adversaries. (v 2)

The Lord honours mortal man to shame his immortal enemies. (Part 1, vv 3–4)

Now, let’s get back to the rest of the psalm. We’ve set the stage, so to speak. On the one hand, we know that this psalm is about how the Lord demonstrates his magnificence. On the other hand, we’ve learned that the Lord strengthens the weak to subdue his adversaries. So we’ve got these two brush strokes that are meeting together. And here’s the picture David is going to paint with them: The Lord honours mortal man to shame his immortal enemies. Let’s see how he does it.

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?
(Psalm 8:3–4)

David is looking up at the night sky and feeling a sense of wonder. Now for someone like me living in the Vancouver area, it’s kind of hard to have this sort of experience, because the stars are always hiding behind a cheerful blanket of clouds. And even on a clear night, the light pollution from the city drowns out the light from the stars. But if you leave the Lower Mainland and travel into the B.C. Interior, you’ll see a spectacular view of the night sky. So many stars! The Milky Way will stretch across the sky in a mesmerizing band. And the full moon is so vivid and bright that it’s almost painful to stare at. David grew up tending sheep in the countryside of Israel. He spent many nights under the moon and stars. He knew them like the back of his hand. And they provoked mystery and wonder in him.

Now, unlike David, we know what the stars are. We know that they are gigantic spheres of plasma, huge nuclear furnaces on a fantastic scale. But the more we learn, the more wonderful the heavens seem, and the more we know how true these words are. “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?”

Let me see if I can give you just the tiniest peek at the scope of the cosmos that the Lord has created. We’ll have a little astronomy lesson here. What I’m going to do is describe to you what a scale model of just our solar system would be like. Let’s imagine that I’m holding in my hand an acorn squash. It’s about 5 inches in diameter. This acorn squash is a great candidate to stand in for our Sun: it’s round, it’s yellow, and it’s delicious with butter and brown sugar.

Now, in our scale model, where the sun is a 5-inch squash, how large do you suppose our own planet, the Earth, is? And how far away from the Sun would it be? Well, I’ve brought along the Earth in my pocket. The Earth is a mustard seed. It’s about 1 mm in diameter. That’s how big the Earth is compared to the Sun. And in our scale model, the Earth would actually be 45 feet away from the Sun.

Let’s do another planet. How about Jupiter? Jupiter is huge, right? Well, sort of. Jupiter is a small grape, just over 1 cm in diameter. It’s a lot bigger than the Earth, but still nowhere near the size of the Sun. Do you know how far away our Jupiter grape would be? About 230 feet from our squash Sun. And there are still more planets at a much greater distance from the Sun than Jupiter!

So that’s how spread out our solar system family is. But what about the nearest star? Well, here’s the nearest star—a small strawberry. This strawberry is Proxima Centauri. It’s a red dwarf star that is really small and dim. You can’t even see it without a really good telescope. It lies about 3.7 light years from us. So in our scale model, Proxima Centauri would be located in Montreal. (Remember that I’m standing near Vancouver!) And that is our next-door neighbour. Beyond that, the distances become completely unfathomable.

What is man, a mere atom on this mustard seed, that the Lord is mindful of him? The human race seems unimportant to the universe.

Pale Blue DotThis picture is a photograph taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 probe as it raced toward the edge of our solar system. It’s really hard to see, but in the middle of that yellow sunbeam there is floating a tiny dot. That dot is the Earth. It’s so tiny, so insignificant. This photo inspired a book from the agnostic astronomer Carl Sagan. In his book, Pale Blue Dot, Sagan pulled no punches when it came to humanity’s place in the universe. I’d heard of this famous quote from the book before, but I’d never read it in its entirety until a few years ago. And it was painful to read. I didn’t sleep well that night after I read it. Here’s what Sagan has to say as he considers this photograph:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

Now, Carl Sagan’s response to these observations was to say that this shows how we as human beings need to be kinder to one another and to take care of our planet. But that’s a weak call to action, isn’t it? If the Earth is nothing more than “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” then why would it be of any significance if we are kind to one another or if our planet survives or not? Do you care about the survival of the specks of dust floating around your house? Does it really matter whether or not we or our planet survive?

There really are only two honest responses to Sagan’s observations. The first honest response is despair. In the “vast cosmic arena,” the human species is of no significance other than transitory specks on a mote of dust. Even if we were to travel from our planet, our eventual extinction is inevitable as the universe itself spreads apart and decays. Everything will come to ruin—friends and families, dreams and delusions, businesses, kingdoms, empires, worlds. They will all be erased from existence as though they had never been there in the first place. Even if there is a God, the sheer enormity of the universe demonstrates that he is far too big to spare a single thought to our pathetic little planet. So any optimism, any sense of hope, any can-do attitude is simply a delusion. Despair is the only honest emotion you can feel. And the blacker your despair, the better.

Of course, no one can go on living like that, which just goes to show that deep down, nobody really buys into the idea that, as Sagan put it, “the cosmos is all there is, all there was, and all there ever will be.” Deep down, they can’t believe it. And we as Christians have an honest alternative. It’s found here in Psalm 8.

To be continued…

The Magnificence of God in a Mote of Dust (Psalm 8:2)

Part 1: The Lord displays his magnificence by elevating the insignificant. (v 1)

The Lord strengthens the weak to subdue his adversaries. (v 2)

Let’s help colour in this majesty, this magnificence. If we think of this psalm as a painting, we’ve already examined the frame; now let’s look at how the artist uses colours, lines, and shapes so that we see and feel and understand the magnificence of the Lord in the same way he does.

So the general shape of this psalm is that David looks at the night sky in v 3 and concludes that mankind is insignificant in comparison to that sort of glory. And then in vv 5–8 he argues that despite this truth, the Lord has placed man in a position of dominion over the created order.

So here’s the question I had when I began to study this psalm: what do we do with v 2? “Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger.” It sounds really beautiful. But it seems really out of place. I mean, if you chopped this verse right out of your Bible, Psalm 8 would flow a lot more smoothly. In v 1, David tells the Lord, “You have set your glory above the heavens.” And then in v 3, he looks at the heavens and describes their glory. But v 2 is kind of like an uninvited guest at a party who sticks his face into a conversation you’re having and starts blathering on about his vacation in Florida or something else no one cares about.

So what is v 2 doing here? Well, it seems to be setting the stage for the rest of the psalm. If you’ve ever been to a high school play—and hopefully I’m not dredging up any bad memories—then you know the importance of “setting the stage,” of putting out the right props. If before a scene takes place, the stagehands place a bed, a dresser, and a lamp on stage, you wouldn’t expect the scene to take place in a nuclear submarine. You’d expect it to take place in someone’s bedroom. And that’s what v 2 is doing. It’s setting the stage. It’s getting you into the right frame of mind, giving you the right context, to understand the rest of what David has to say. Here’s the big idea in v 2: The Lord strengthens the weak to subdue his adversaries.

Now, let’s stop and consider this for a moment. David refers to “the enemy and the avenger” as “your foes”—that is, the Lord’s foes. So we learn here that the Lord has enemies. His enemies are both human and demonic. And he subdues these adversaries by taking small, weak, and helpless things like babies and infants, and giving them words of strength.

Well, that’s kind of weird. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense without a specific example. What’s great is that we have an example of this sort of thing taking place in the gospel of Matthew. In fact, this psalm is fulfilled as little children are shouting praises to Jesus, the Messiah, in Matthew 21:12–16. Here’s the story: Jesus has just entered the city of Jerusalem and makes his way to the Jewish temple. And beginning in v 12, we read:

…Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”

And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?”

So basically, the religious leaders are upset that Jesus has barged into their temple and driven out all the profitable enterprise that was taking place. And they are galled to hear these children shouting “hosanna to the Son of David!”—as though this carpenter from the hick town of Nazareth were really the Messiah, God’s anointed king from the line of David! The chief priests and the scribes want these kids to shut up. But Jesus throws Psalm 8:2 in their faces. What he’s saying is that the praise of these children has been given to them by the Lord God. They’re praising Jesus for what he’s doing. And their proper act of praise and worship in the temple clashes with the corruption of the religious leadership. It exposes their hypocrisy. The religious leaders are humiliated by the strong words of praise of these children.

That is how the Lord subdues his adversaries. He humiliates them by strengthening the weak with powerful words of praise. As they praise him, they show that they have on their side one who is stronger.

Now, I want to pause for a moment because this is a very encouraging thought. I don’t know about you, but most of the time for me other people’s opinion of my faith is very intimidating. I know that most people think that what I believe is foolish or arrogant and isn’t worth taking seriously. But the fact is that even Jesus’ enemies thought the same thing of him. Even the mighty words of praise from the mouths of children didn’t convince them. Rather, it was before the one true Judge, before the Lord God Almighty, that Jesus stood vindicated. So do not be afraid to tell the truth. Don’t avoid talking about Jesus and what he has done for you. Be loving and gracious, but be crystal clear about what you believe. Your words have strength that you do not know and that your enemies may not understand. The Lord uses strong words from weak people to subdue his adversaries.

To be continued…

The Magnificence of God in a Mote of Dust (Psalm 8:1)

National Geographic Aug 1990 Portraits of Our Celestial FamilyI spent hours as a child poring over the August 1990 issue of National Geographic. This was the magazine that featured the final discoveries of Voyager 2, the intrepid space probe on a grand tour of the outer planets of our solar system. I’ve loved to learn about outer space ever since.

And I’m not the first to look up at the night sky in wonder.

Psalm 8 (ESV)

TO THE CHOIRMASTER: ACCORDING TO THE GITTITH. A PSALM OF DAVID.

1 O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.

3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

9 O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The Lord displays his magnificence by elevating the insignificant. (v 1)

So what is this song, this psalm, about? Well, maybe your first thought is that this psalm is all about how terrific human beings are! After all, we have the Israelite poet-king, David, speaking to the Lord God about man, and he’s writing, “You have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” And then he rattles off a list of things that the Lord has placed under the authority of man. So maybe this psalm is a monument to the greatness of man! That does feel pretty good. I mean, we build entire museums devoted to explaining how awesome we are. And in the postmodern mindset of our culture, we even believe that truth is something that exists only in an individual human being. So you and I must be really hot stuff, right?

Well, no. When he wrote this psalm, David made it pretty clear what he thought was the central idea. Verse 1 reads, “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” And just in case you missed it, verse 9 reads, “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Again!

These two verses frame the entire psalm. They prevent us from misunderstanding it. They tell us that David’s message is not that human beings are awesome. It’s not that man is magnificent. David’s message is that the Lord is magnificent. And the Lord’s name, his reputation, is declared to have a royal majesty about it.

But you can’t just say that and not explain what it means. What makes the Lord so great? Well, in this psalm David is writing, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that the Lord displays his magnificence by elevating the insignificant. That’s going to be the story of this psalm in between the two frame verses. David isn’t just saying that the Lord’s name is “majestic” and then letting you and me fill in the details with our own imaginations. No, he’s going to fill this word “majestic” with meaning from vv 2–8. The Lord displays his magnificence by elevating the insignificant. That’s going to be the central idea of this psalm.

To be continued…

A commitment

After years of neglecting a once-flourishing blog, I’m gonna do an about-face and start posting regularly again. I’m committing to blogging once a week through the end of March, starting two weeks ago. Yes, this is a retroactive commitment, which is the best sort of commitment there is, because you’re already partly successful. For me, the joy of blogging regularly is the accountability it provides. It forces me to do some heavy thinking and study on the subjects I’ll write about, whether it’s the fifth chapter of Mark or the fifth planet from the Sun. It’s not fun at the time, but the discipline is worth it because of the result it brings about. I don’t usually enjoy writing, but I sure enjoy having written.

And then, after March, who knows? I kinda picked that time arbitrarily. If all goes well, I’ll keep writing and posting. I’ve got plenty of material to draw on already. I have three dozen or so sermons I’ve preached over the last couple years. I have speeches I’ve delivered in Toastmasters. Above all, I want to post my thoughts on one of the greatest crises facing the church today: whether or not we truly fear the Lord.

I’m looking forward to it!

The Best of All Worlds #1: Earth

The Best of All Worlds

We’re #1!

OK, so maybe I’m a little biased and just a touch geocentric. I’m old-fashioned that way. But I think I’m being fair when I say that Earth is the best planet in the Solar System, and it’s not even a close call.

The most famous photograph in the world: "The Blue Marble" taken on the Apollo 17 lunar mission in 1972.

The most famous photograph in the world: “The Blue Marble” taken on the Apollo 17 lunar mission in 1972.

Blue waters, swirling white clouds, rainy temperate zones, harsh deserts, snow-capped mountain peaks, deep ocean trenches. Every nook and cranny of Earth is bursting with life, from desert ecosystems to subterranean Antarctic lakes to undersea reefs to tropical rainforests. The plants and animals and single-celled organisms of our planet stabilize its temperature and its atmosphere, preventing it from turning into the ice planet Hoth and replenishing it with life-giving oxygen that is all but absent on any other planet we know.

Circling our planet is a massive Moon that generates ocean tides and stabilizes Earth’s tilt, ensuring regular seasonal cycles and ocean currents that circulate nutrients throughout the planet’s ecosystems.

We as humans have thrived on this planet, multiplying across it and finding ways to survive in just about every niche and ecosystem above sea level. Some of us have accessed a planetary information network called the Internet and voted on this very blog that Earth is the worst planet in the Solar System. This is because we are sometimes ungrateful and dumb. Every day we see and hear beauty all around us, and we take for granted the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat, neither of which we can find on any other planet in the Solar System.

Earthrise as viewed from Apollo 8 as it orbited the Moon in 1968.

Earthrise as viewed from Apollo 8 as it orbited the Moon in 1968.

In a thousand years, we could not exhaust the richness of Earth. Our planet is not merely the crown jewel of the Solar System; it is the greatest wonder of the universe.

So here’s our final ranking of all the planets in our Solar System, from worst to first:

8. Venus
7. Mercury
6. Uranus
5. Neptune
4. Mars
3. Saturn
2. Jupiter
1. Earth

Thanks for reading! Next week I will return to blogging on whatever I feel like. I’m committing to increasing my blogging rate from once a year to once a week, which is a big step up. While you wait for that, go ahead and cast your vote for the best and worst planets in the Solar System.

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