Poetry of the Sun

Editor’s Note: This week, in celebration and preparation for Easter, the Talon will be featuring stories about people and works of art and music inspired by the Bible.

Beginning with God’s own “handiwork.”

We hope you enjoy them and are encouraged to find inspiration from Scripture in whatever you are endeavoring to do for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:23).

By Daniel Ray, Editor-in-Chief

The sun. We depend on it for life. Without it, we don’t see. We don’t breathe. We don’t eat.

We don’t live.

Its luminescence is far too brilliant to gaze upon directly, but it is yet the light by which illumines the entirety of our surroundings. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “We believe the sun is in the sky at midday in summer not because we can clearly see the sun (in fact, we cannot) but because we can see everything else.”

It’s the glorious, life-giving light all around us of which we often fail to consider.

It’s indeed a hallmark of our fallen condition that we take for granted something as terrifyingly powerful and awe-inspiringly magnificent as the sun.

But we do.

From the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) camera 3.  Solar "eruption" of April 2.

From the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) camera 3. Solar “eruption” of April 2.

Consider. Just recently, on the morning of April 2nd, while most of us were sipping our coffee and lazily thumbing through our smart phones, an explosion of unimaginable magnitude and incomprehensible size burst forth from the sun’s surface, sending highly charged particles and pillars of gas and fire thousands of times larger than the earth, as well as other various and sundry solar detritus, into the cosmos at incredible speeds.

Some of that debris (borne along by a winds so powerful, it makes the vortex of an EF-5 tornado seem like the breath of a sleeping infant) eventually glances off the earth’s magnetic field and, “Viola!” a dazzling, variegated effulgence that reverberates to the very core of our humanity is born aloft.

The Northern Lights – one of the most stunningly beautiful arrays of light and color ever beheld in the heavens.



The Northern Lights

The same solar particles which rub against the earth’s magnetic shield and fill us with illuminating awe and wonder, however, are also known to wreak havoc on our modern technologies, sometimes knocking out satellite communications, radio signals and shutting down entire power grids as they did in parts of Canada in 1989.

Astronomers believe one such massive solar eruption occurred in 1859. The Northern Lights could be seen all over the globe and were believed to be responsible for a series of fires created by the highly charged solar particles being borne along by telegraph wires. Scientists who study solar flares and their global impact suggest that if such a solar storm hit us today, the consequences could be devastating, creating damages to our electrical infrastructures which could take up to a decade or more to repair.

The sun could leave us in the dark. Literally.

Aside from its stunningly unfathomable power, the sun is also amazingly gentle (at least at a distance of 93 million miles!). As Milton writes in Paradise Lost,

“By his magnetic beam, that gently warms
The universe, and to each inward part
With gentle penetration, though unseen,
Shoots invisible virtue, even to the deep:
So wondrously was set his station bright.”

Powerful enough to incinerate our planet a million times over and yet gentle enough to grace the fur of a napping cat with just the right amount of warmth.

For centuries, man believed the earth to be the center of the known universe, the sun being only one of the seven “planets” which rotated around the earth in its own glass sphere.

That all changed when a rather esoteric contemporary of Martin Luther reluctantly suggested the sun to be the fixed center of everything, around which the earth actually moved.

A moving earth around a stationary sun was quite a radical concept to folks in the early 16th century, so much so that Nicholas Copernicus feared publishing his heliocentric theories during his lifetime, not for fear of religious persecution (there is sufficient evidence to support the notion that Copernicus had significant ecclesiastical endorsement of his theories), but simply because he knew he couldn’t prove it and feared intellectual ridicule from his contemporaries.

There’s been perhaps too much emphasis on what scholars have called the “Copernican Revolution.”  Copernicus was no political incendiary or disgruntled peasant seeking to overthrow the social or scientific conventions of his day. His life and works are a series of disparate meanderings through various intellectual and ecclesiastical undertakings; accomplishments which by no means would signify any future greatness. By all accounts, Copernicus didn’t even take astronomy that seriously. He made very few of his own observations of the heavens and much of his work relies on the information he gleaned from ancient astronomers such as Ptolemy. His own tools for measuring the angle of stars were crude. Galileo and his telescope wouldn’t be along for almost another century. It’s an ironic twist of fate that to such an unremarkable man a “revolution” could be ascribed, especially one pertaining to the universe.

But thanks be to Copernicus for the mere suggestion of heliocentrism. It forever altered our understanding of the heavens and the earth and our place within the vastness of the cosmos. It’s safe to say Copernicus had no idea what his sun-centered suggestions would eventually yield.

After five centuries of exploring our solar system with the most advanced technologies available, modern cosmology now knows, as does the rest of the world, what Copernicus could only reluctantly surmise.

The sun stands central to our little neighborhood of planets.

A symbol and a testament to the glory of God.

Incidentally, the word cosmology comes from two Greek words – cosmos and logos. These words are actually used in the opening of John’s Gospel, speaking of Jesus creating the world. Cosmos means “world” and “logos” means “word” or “logic”. The Logos – the Word incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ – made the cosmos – the world.

But as John 1:10 attests, even though the cosmos was made by the Logos, modern materialistic cosmology, while so intently focused on the light of stars, galaxies and nebulae, does not know or acknowledge the true Light of the cosmos itself, Word made flesh. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him.”

The “heavens” in the post-Copernican modern world, however, have lost their meaning. For materialistic astronomers and cosmologists it’s all just empty “space”, void of any particular meaning.

Yet despite the impersonal theories of the universe which attempt to efface man’s uniqueness in the cosmos and his Creator, God’s glory is still being daily declared and proclaimed above and all around us. It is the “glory of God” which the “heavens declare” according to Psalm 19. Anyone who has ever seen a star or the light of the sun has seen something of God’s invisible attributes (Romans 1:20). In fact, the structure of the poetry in Psalm 19 reflects a rather heliocentric/Christocentric view of the solar system.

The poetry of the universe.

Verse 1 of Psalm 19 works this way. Consider each of the letters below as an individual idea, arranged in this pattern. Each idea is repeated for emphasis.

A                    B                    C                    C                    B                    A

What stands central to the structure is the center of the text, indicated by the two letter C’s. So in Hebrew, the main point isn’t the last one, it’s the one in the middle.

The central “C” idea in the Hebrew of Psalm 19:1 cannot be seen in the English translations. In Hebrew it would be read this way –

“the glory of God – the work of his hands”. 

In other words, a true English rendering of the Hebrew of Psalm 19 reads like this –

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the work of His hands proclaim the skies.”

A – “The heavens”
B – “declare”
C – “the glory of God”
C – “the work of His hands”
B – “proclaim”
A – “the skies”

The central theological concept of this structure is then that “the glory of God” is thus synonymous with “the work of His hands” the two middle concepts – both together representing the same idea – represented by the C’s. Think of it like the solar system, with the sun at the center and the planets revolving around it.

As the Psalm continues, the sun is given prominence in verses 4c-6, being likened to a “bridegroom” and a “strong man”, “warrior” or “champion”.

This is significant, as the Lord Jesus is likewise likened to the “sun” (Malachi 4:2) and a “bridegroom” (Matthew 25:1-3), and as Hebrews 1:3 describes, “He is the radiance of the glory of God” who indeed “upholds the universe by the word of His power.”

The centrality of the Son, the radiance of God’s glory, around whom and in whom we live and move and have our being. May the Lord be pleased to give each of us our own spiritual Copernican Revolution. May we begin once more to see the centrality of the Lord Jesus in our own lives.

We are not the center of the universe.

The centerpiece of Psalm 19:1 is the glory of God as evidenced in creation – in this particular case, the heavens (Romans 1:20), God’s “handiwork.”

Without Christ, however, such workmanship is deified (Romans 1:20ff). For the unregenerate, the sun isn’t a creation of God, but a god in and of itself. Whether it is the god of the pagans, or, for the materialist, an awe-inspiring, massive, self-sustaining super-nuclear furnace, the sun, by itself, seems to arrest and captivate the more unempirical aspects of our humanity. But without Christ opening our minds to understand the Scriptures, man persists in his darkened pagan or atheistic paradigms, ascribing godlike characteristics to the created order.

From the Egyptian’s Ra to the Greek and Roman sun-god Apollo, to the late Dr. Carl Sagan’s elegiacally prosaic, but somewhat rather atheistic, cosmology, man has always seemed to tacitly understand that there existed something rather extraordinary and otherworldly about the nature and composition of the blinding, unapproachable luminary of noonday as well as the rest of the universe we inhabit.

It was the genius of C.S. Lewis, however, who took the best of what medieval astronomy and the pagan mythologies had to offer and utilized them in his Chronicles of Narnia to allegorically point to Christ, much in the same way the Apostle Paul did in Acts 17, “baptizing” a poetic verse about Zeus as an apologetic defense of the Christian faith to the Athenians. Lewis too, wanted to reinvigorate the heavens once more with meaning. Not that he ascribed to the scientific beliefs of the medievals regarding the cosmos, but rather desired that the heavens should once more be interpreted as showing forth God’s glory. Lewis had a keen interest in looking at the stars and owned his own telescope.

In a letter to Edward Allen from April 3, 1952, Lewis reveals a bit of his lifelong fascination with the heavens.

“I’m all with you about Orion. It’s nice to live in the Northern Hemisphere because the winter stars are much better than the summer ones and of course one sees more of them with the nights are longest. The whole combination of Sirius – Orion – Aldebaran – Pleiades is magnificent. I wonder what constellation our Sun forms part of as seen from the planets (if any) of Sirius?”

Lewis Scholar Michael Ward writes that Lewis possessed tremendous “skill in blending romance, medieval astrology, literary and Biblical allusion” within the Narnian stories. Nowhere is this more evidenced than in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where, Ward believes, Lewis employed all the medieval and mythical elements of the sun as allegorical suppositions all pointing to the glory of God in Christ.

The ship the Dawn Treader, for example, virtually betrays the solar imagery from the start, as the entire voyage of Caspian and his crew is an eastward one, toward the “rose-colored dawn” of the Homeric sunrise, toward Aslan’s country. On board the ship is the noble and chivalrous mouse Reepicheep who wishes to “sink his nose to the sunrise” at the end of the voyage, forever enjoying the bliss of Aslan’s Paradisal country.

The image of a mouse being drawn into the sun, Ward suggests, bespeaks of the mythical legends of the sun god Apollo as Apollo Smintheus, “Apollo the Mouse-catcher.” For Lewis, Reepicheep being taken in by the sun is an allegory for the Christian life, as believers are being continuously drawn toward Christ (John 12:32). In a book of only 189 pages, references to the sun appear some sixty different times, each of them subtly – and not-so-subtly – alluding to the Lord Jesus. As Lewis himself wrote in a 1961 letter, “The whole Narnian story is about Christ.”

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, like the sun itself, symbolically reflects the light of Christ. Jesus’ light is everywhere and yet never directly seen. Dawn Treader, like all the rest of the Narnian tales,is what Lewis called a “suppositional allegory” – answers to his own thoughts about what Christ would be like in another world. Through these tales, Lewis does a masterfully brilliant job of illuminating the Lord Jesus in our own world. It’s a story in which “sun of righteousness” (Mal. 4:3) shines forth; where the “light of the world” (John 9:5), the “Lamb who is the lamp” (Revelation 21:23) brilliantly gives light to all and yet remains enigmatically concealed “in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).

Considering Milton’s portrayal of the flaming orbed hearth of our galactic neighborhood once more, it is worth considering how it may have influenced Lewis’ portrayal of Christ in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. For Lewis’ Milton’s “sun” is God’s Son gently wielding His “influence” upon our lives, at times, almost imperceptibly.

“By his magnetic beam, that gently warms
The universe, and to each inward part
With gentle penetration, though unseen,
Shoots invisible virtue, even to the deep:
So wondrously was set his station bright.”

By God’s amazing grace, His children are shot through and warmed by the Son’s “invisible virtue, even to the deep.” It is the Son who “gently warms/The universe, and to each inward part.”

The heavens do indeed declare the glory of God. The sun is His handiwork, the light at which we cannot gaze directly, but yet also the light by which we see everything else. Its power is incomprehensibly awe-inspiring, at times at odds with our own devices, and yet gentle and gracious enough to penetrate and warm our souls.

As Christians, like Lewis himself, and the heavens above, let us not be afraid to proclaim the glory of God.

“And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” Daniel 12:3