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.
This 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…