The Lord God took Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be” (Gen 15:5-6).
I wonder if any of us city-dwellers have any idea of the glory that Abram saw as he looked upward that night, indeed most nights.
Most of us don’t realize what we’re missing when it comes to the night sky. Up until about 100 years ago the night sky was illumined with billions of points of light; it was a breath-taking display that most of us probably haven’t experienced.
My first and only real glimpse of the magnificent Milky Way was about 20 years ago. I was visiting a priest friend (recently deceased) in rural North Dakota. It was mid-January, the very heart of winter. The sky was cloudless, the temperature was just below zero, and the humidity was very low (thus, no haze). But the wind was light so we took a nighttime walk. Only the light from an occasional house illuminated the ground. As we away from the town, only about half a mile, I looked up and couldn’t believe my eyes.
“What is that?” I asked. “Are clouds coming in?”
“What do you mean?” my friend responded. “There are no clouds.”
“Well then, what is all that?” I asked, arching my arm upward.
He smiled and replied, “Those are the stars. That’s the Milky Way.”
I was astounded, but also felt a tinge of anger that I’d been deprived of such a magnificent view all my life. So this is what the ancients saw every night! This is what inspired the psalmist to write, The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament shows forth the work of His hand … night unto night takes up the message (Ps 19:1ff).
This is what God meant when he told Abraham, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars–if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be” (Gen 15:5).
Frankly, on the East Coast of the U.S. I can count the stars. But the true night sky has an astonishing number. An old hymn says,
The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame
Their great Original proclaim …
Soon as the evening shades prevail
The moon takes up the wondrous tale …
While all the stars that round her burn
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.
What though in solemn silence all
Move round our dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound
Amid the radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”
If there is ever a widespread power outage on the East Coast, I pray that it will happen on a cloudless night with low humidity. If it does, I will ask my neighbors to join me outside and behold the gift above.
We moderns may think we know what Abram saw when he looked up, but I believe that most of us city-dwellers really have little idea of what he could see. The sky that the ancients saw every night and that some in rural regions see even today is more glorious than most of us can imagine: the stars in unbelievable numbers forever singing as they shine, the hand that made us is divine.
Here’s a video I put together featuring real photographs of the night sky, interspersed with more fanciful images. Some of the pictures depict what the night sky would look like if there without light pollution.
The second half of this next video (in high definition) shows some wonderful views of the stars in the night sky. If your monitor is a good one, you might want to maximize the view of this video; it shows nicely even on large screens.