Named and known

File:Messenger of Milky Way.jpg


Psalm 147

4 He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.

What did the ancients think they were seeing when they looked up into the night sky? I marveled at the vast canopy of the night sky a few years ago, standing in awe when camping at ten thousand feet at Great Basin National Park. Yet, wondrous as was the night sky, my eyes saw what I knew: these are bright shining suns, some new, some old, some red, some blue, some galaxies of stars – all massive fires of primal matter.

But what did the ancients see?

They know there are creatures of the sea, and creatures of the earth – so these must be creatures of the air. And if creatures of the air, they must be made of light. These are the spirit-beings who meddle on earth – some in service of God, some not.

God’s place in the pantheon of heaven is revealed by this simple phrase: “he gives to all of them their names.” Who has the right to name? Only the one who called the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night’, who called the expanse ‘sky’ and the dry land ‘earth’, the one who fashioned all and reigns over all.

Is it just metaphor when the poet of Job says that at the creation the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” Is it only imagery when Deborah sings her song of victory and declares that: The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera? And in 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul says that heavenly bodies are different from terrestrial ones, he is not referring to planetary bodies, but creatures with bodies of fire. He doesn’t mean they have different degrees of luminosity when he says they have different degrees in glory; he is speaking of the ranks of angels.

For the ancient world, the sky is filled with these embodied spirit-beings even as the earth and seas with mortal beings. Officially, Israel refutes that notion. The creation story in Genesis 1 refuses to use the words ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ since they are the names of deities and simply refers to them as greater and lesser lights. The stars are mentioned as if an afterthought. But this is, by no means, the only reference in scripture. There are others that speak of these stars as gods or “sons of God” or blessed or malevolent forces.

So what does it mean to our psalmist and his hearers when he says God gives them their names? Is God simply naming objects in the sky – Betelgeuse, Sirius and Alpha Centauri – or is he naming living things?

For us, the stars are just stars – not gods, not angels, not powers working weal and woe upon our lives. But we do know that there are spiritual forces at work in the world, ideas and ideologies that govern our lives, working for good and for ill.

4 He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.

All these powers and realities that shape and govern human existence, from the lies and deceits that are taken for truth in politics and economics, to the ugly terrors of racism and tribal violence, God names them, knows them, and has ultimate authority over them.

There is something reassuring in such affirmations. The racism and rage that show up in Ferguson, the hate and fear and hardness of heart that burns a man to death, the injustices that are named just, the greed that is blessed as righteous, the violence done in a home or elevator because “You just make me so mad, baby” – and the violence that is accepted as if it were love. God has named it, identified it, exposed it.

Maybe the psalmist doesn’t mean all this when he sings. Maybe he has in mind only that God knows the angels by name. Maybe he sees the stars as he sees the mountains and trees, cattle and creatures: just part of a creation born in the heart and will of God. But even this has its power: Everything is named. Everything is known. No secrets are hid. And no power surpasses God’s own.

It’s a message worth remembering when deceit and hate seem to rule the day, when tragedy befalls, when war rises, when all manner of human suffering persists. They are all named and known. And God yet reigns – he who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds,” “he who lifts up the downtrodden [and] casts the wicked to the ground,” he who bids us follow where he has led the way.

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Image: By Q-lieb-in (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


One thought on “Named and known

  1. Pingback: One more thing about naming the stars | Watching for the morning

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