The LORD alone stretches out the heavens.
He made the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the constellations of the south;
He does great things past finding out,
marvelous things beyond reckoning (Job 9:8-10).
Due to the light pollution common in our cities today, we urbanites really don’t have any idea what we’re missing when it comes to the night sky. Up until about a hundred years ago, the night sky was illuminated by billions of points of light; it’s a breathtaking display many moderns have never experienced.
My first and only real glimpse of the magnificent Milky Way was nearly twenty years ago. I was visiting a priest friend 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). We decided to take an evening walk. Only an occasional street lamp lit the ground. As we got farther away from the town, about half a mile, I looked up and could scarcely believe my eyes.
“What is that?” I asked, “Are those clouds coming in?”
“What do you mean?” asked my friend, “There are no clouds.”
“What is all that then?” I asked, gesturing upward with my arm.
He smiled and replied, “Those are stars. That’s the Milky Way.”
On the one hand I astounded by the sight, but at the same time I felt a tinge of anger that I’d been deprived of such a view all my life. Is that 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, where I live in Washington, D.C. I can count the stars. But the true night sky is astonishing in the number of stars it contains.
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 in the greater Washington area, I pray that it happens on a cloudless night. If it does, I will ask my neighbors to join me outside and behold the gift above.
As Job beheld the stars and expressed his marvel, we moderns may think we know what he saw. But I have come to discover that most of us city dwellers really have little idea. The sky the ancients saw each night (and some in rural areas see even today) is more glorious than most of us could ever imagine: the stars in unbelievable numbers forever singing as they shine, “The hand that made us is divine.”
Here are some pictures of the stars, set to an old Al Bowlly song:
The second half of the high-definition video below 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, which displays nicely even on fairly large screens.