"HE MADE THE STARS ALSO"
Before considering more of the properties of our environment which have made it uniquely suitable for life, we should take a look beyond the confines of earth and beyond the solar system. Creation's story and God's glory are written across the skies, a silent but constant and clear declaration of His eternal power and Godhead. "The heavens declare the glory of Godnight unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech and there are no words, yet their voice is heard" (Ps 19.1-3, JND).
Some clear, dark night go out again and look up. If you get away from the stray light from towns and cities you can see the myriads of stars much more clearly, set in the velvet black darkness. Look all around you from the faint horizon to the sharper zenith, from north to south or east to west, and let the beauty and grandeur of that panorama fascinate you and move your soul. Even if you can recognise only a few of the named stars or constellations, or even none of them, there is an awe-inspiring vastness and glory about it all. Like a huge billboard across the night sky it delivers a message which no one can erase, which everyone can read, proclaiming God!
If you do this, you will be doing what God commanded many others to do long ago. RememberAbraham (Gen 15.5 "Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars); Job (Job 9.7-10 "Godwhich alone spreadeth out the heavensArcturus, Orion, and Pleiades"); Eliphaz (Job 22.12 - "Behold the height of the stars, how high they are!"); David (Ps 8.3 "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained"); Isaiah (Is 40.26 "Behold who hath created these things, that bringeth out their host by number"); also the wise men from the east (Mt 2.2), and Paul and the seamen who looked in vain for the constellations to facilitate navigation through those stormy nights (Acts 27.20).
Astronomy has developed greatly like other branches of science in the last two centuries, but it is an ancient subject, as the quotes above show. Records left by Assyrian, Babylonian, Chinese, and Arabian peoples are valued today for comparison with recent observations. Measurements, predictions, and theories now dominate the subject, but the wonder of it is timeless. Consider a few of the more obvious features of the starry skies.
The Number of the Stars
God said to Abraham, "if thou be able to number them" (Gen 15.5). If you had the patience and ability, with the naked eye you could count up to about 3,000 stars in one hemisphere. That means there are around 6,000 stars visible from earth. But Galileo with his home-made telescope was able to see ten times more - up to 60,000. As telescopes improved in power and resolution the number kept increasing. It was over 600,000 in the1850s; now with the advent of radio astronomy it is literally uncountable exactly as God had said (Jer 33.22)! It is estimated that our local Milky Way Galaxy alone contains over 200 thousand million stars, and there may be over 100 million galaxies out there in space!
But why so many? To tell us of the greatness of God who created them all with His word. He made all these millions upon millions of stars as easily as making one. He can count them, and "not one faileth" (Is 40.26). They are all different - their variety proclaims God's glory. "Lo, these are parts of his ways" (Job 26.14); "His greatness is unsearchable" (Ps 145.3).
Varieties of Stars
Even as no two blades of grass, no two snowflakes, no two creatures are exactly the same, so no two stars are the same they differ from each other "in glory" (1 Cor 15.41). They have different colours, brightnesses, sizes, temperatures, speeds of rotation, and compositions. We see them in different arrangements or patterns called constellations, each star a different distance from Earth.
The nearest star is called Alpha Centauri (not seen in the northern hemisphere, it is one of the "pointers" to the Southern Cross). It is 4.3 light years distant, and is the third brightest star we can see. The brightest one is Sirius, readily seen from the UK as a greenish twinkling star quite low in the southern sky. It is 8.7 light years distant, and is actually 26 times as bright as the sun which is only 8.3 "light minutes" away, so the sun appears much brighter. There is another star called Eta Carinae which is 4 million times as bright as the sun and over 100 times more massive, but at 6,400 light years away it is not even visible to the naked eye.
The largest star known is called Rasalgethi, about 500 light years distant. Taken with its gas cloud, its diameter is over twenty times that of the whole solar system. It is a "red giant", with a blue-green companion orbiting around it. It is in the northern sky, in the fifth largest constellation called Hercules. The smallest star recognised is a white dwarf, half the size of the moon, at 100 light years distant.
For mapping purposes, astronomy now divides the sky into 88 constellations or sections. But constellations were first recognised by the ancients as groups of stars, named mostly after figures in Greek mythology. Ptolemy (AD 150) compiled a list of 48, which was later expanded as travellers observed the southern sky. We have already mentioned Orion, Hercules, and the Southern Cross. The Plough or Great Dipper is well known, directing observers to the North Pole star, Polaris, which is a yellow supergiant about 650 light years away. These are all beautiful to recognise and admire.
Some constellations grouped together make up the twelve signs of the Zodiac which are used to describe where the sun appears to be during each of the twelve months of earth's yearly orbit. These have been manipulated into a superstitious system called astrology, derived from ancient paganism, totally misleading and explicitly condemned in Scripture (e.g. Is 47.13). The proliferation of horoscopes in newspapers and magazines shows, however, that many people still follow it.
It has been said that the constellations of the Zodiac tell the story of redemption in some detail, from Virgo, the promise of the Redeemer's advent, through to Leo, His ultimate triumph.1 Some constellations such as Libra, the Scales, and Crux, the Southern Cross, may more easily illustrate truths from Scripture.2 But actually, a lot of imagination is often required to match the patterns of the stars in the constellations to their names, most of which are strange to us anyway. It is much simpler and better to take heed to the "more sure word of prophecy" (2 Pet 1.19), and to enjoy the full, final and clearest revelation of God in Christ Himself (Heb 1.1-2).
The Vastness of Space
The Milky Way to which our solar system belongs is around 100,000 light years in diameter. Sometimes you can see it stretching right across the night sky from one side to the other. With the naked eye three more galaxies can be seen: the two Clouds of Magellan and the Andromeda Galaxy apparently 2.25 million light years distant, and, because of its intrinsic brilliance, the most distant object in the universe observable by the naked eye. In addition, there are nebulae, quasars, pulsars, black holes, and the like which we cannot describe here. Astronomers believe that there may be a million million galaxies out there.
These distances and numbers are really too huge to grasp, as is the vastness of empty space. In fact, it is now admitted that the structure and dimensions of space are beyond our comprehension. More questions than answers remain, the subject is so complex.
The observations which astronomers make involve such tiny quantities that errors can be significant. Also the conclusions reached depend upon certain laws and principles which are valid on earth but, as we have seen before, may not be valid when extrapolated over such huge distances with entirely unknown conditions. Astronomy pushes science to the limit of its methodology, and confidence in its results is less than in most other sciences.
What is Man?
In the face of such vastness, such numbers of stars, the question of Psalm 8.4 arises again. Is man just an insignificant speck on a small rotating planet in one of many huge swirling galaxies? Far from it! Only man has the God-given ability to explore, to understand and to appreciate the grandeur of the universe, and from it to learn more of the glory of its Creator and worship Him. That is our real significance and purpose!
1 The Companion Bible (E W Bullinger), Appendix 12 a very detailed treatment.
2 See Stars and their Purpose, ch. 8 (W Gitt, CLV publishers, 1996 & 2000).