The universe is big.
I don’t know how often, if at all, you have occasion to reflect on the sheer scale of the universe we inhabit – although when I say ‘inhabit’ it is only true in the sense that we sit crowded into one tiny corner of it. We can only travel in our minds’ eyes across the beams of light that reach us from the distant suns hovering some 14 billion light years away – meaning that what we are seeing is somehow the light from events that occurred some 14 billion years ago. We cannot see beyond this, simply because there has been enough time for light to travel that far. Even the light from our own local sun takes 8.3 minutes to reach us, 149.6 million km away. The sun is gradually increasing in temperature, such that another billion years will see it evaporate all the water on earth, and life will cease, if we haven’t managed to do that ourselves already.
The sun is itself of course only one of between 200 and 400 billion stars in the galaxy we rather cutely call the Milky Way. The possibility is that there are at least 10 billion planets that are, like earth, in a habitable zone, or as it is sometimes called, the ‘Goldilocks’ zone where things are ‘just right’.
So far we have discovered just one.
How did the universe get so big? The current thinking is that the power unleashed by the Big Bang, some 13 or 14 billion years ago was sufficient to expand a concentration of matter as tiny as an atom into the scale of a galaxy in an instant, and has been driving an expansion ever since.
As the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the late Douglas Adams put it:
Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.
How are we to exegete this vast text? At the very least, we ought to be awestruck. We are awed by the dimensions and age of medieval Cathedral, just a few hundred metres long and a few hundred years old. We are awed by the feeling of size and permanence that a landscape can give us. And yet these are as nothing in comparison to the universe itself. And against the immensity of the universe, all the concerns and anxieties of human life seem quite trivial. Our fretting about where to park our cars seems no more significant than our worry about how to treat our cancers. Our perspective is so limited, our time so brief, our bodies so puny: what do they matter?
Though it is done with the comic’s touch, it is a deeply disturbing and discomforting view of the way things are for humans. The universe, even though it is extraordinarily beautiful, is actually a remorseless, unforgiving, unyielding place. Its greatest confidence trick, its biggest lie, is that it convinces you and me that it was made with us in mind. A moment’s contemplation of the depths of space and the forbidding span of time must surely rid us of the egotistical notion that we human beings are at the centre of things, and that what happens to me is of any consequence whatsoever. You might as well laugh.
Something similar is going on in the book of Job – similar, but crucially, not at all the same. We are familiar with the story of Job: brought to the brink of death by loss of his family and possessions, he is urged to consider what the causes of his personal disaster are. The impeccable theological logic of his so-called friends is woefully inadequate. Job’s only resolve is to not accuse God – and so it goes. At the height of the story, after chapter upon chapter of silence, God speaks to Job ‘out of the whirlwind’. And what does God say to Job? Does he give him a solution? Does he explain what is going on?
No –if anything, it can be said that he taunts Job. His speech is the delivery of word which designed to silence. It is the playing of the ultimate trump card: where were you, Job, when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined the earth’s measurements – surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
Or who laid its cornerstone
When the morning stars sang together
And all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
Is this not the same move that Douglas Adams makes – and with a little sarcasm to boot? A ruthless blow to the human ego? Well, yes: yes it is. We haven’t got the capacity to answer these profound questions – we simply haven’t earned the right to challenge the creator. Did we pop off down to IKEA and assemble the earth from a flat pack with an Allen key? Did we knit together the canopy of the sky? Did we turn on the taps and create the mighty sea?
The questions come from God one after the other like a rain of blows on a fallen boxer.
Have you commanded the morning since your days begane,
And caused the dawn to know its place
So that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth
And the wicked be shaken out of it?
Answer: no, no, no and again no. There can be no answer to the creator. If we are dwarfed by the creation then how much more are we dwarfed by him? It is, by the way, one of the great blessings of modern science that it has shown us the true scale of the picture. That the universe is far, far larger and far, far older than we ever imagined can only increase the awe with which regard the one who made it. His eternal qualities and his divine nature shine forth from every star. The heavens declare the glory of God – and we moderns have the privilege of seeing just how extraordinary that glory is and how far it reaches.
But what are we?
It does seem as if Job is being completely flattened by this speech – crushed underfoot like an ant. But then as it unfolds, we realize something more is going on. For a start: instead of the terrifying and lonely quiet of the vast universe, Job hears, and we hear, a voice breaking the silence. We hear the voice of reality itself; the voice of the creator himself – the words of the creator of the rolling spheres, the potentate of time.
And though, in fact, the voice of God puts Job and the rest of us very much in our place, the very fact that there is a voice at all is extraordinary. That the creature is addressed; that the puny, suffering, vulnerable, short-lived creature is addressed by the eternal being who made all things is the moment at which we gain a flicker of hope. Even as this word is delivered as a judgement upon human arrogance, it is a word of tender grace and mercy towards our kind.
And the speech, as we take a closer look at it – there is no more beautiful passage in all of scripture – is not nearly as threatening as it first seems. It is actually playful and tender, as God lovingly and even humorously describes the animals in all their wildness: the mountain goats giving birth who knows where, the wild ass who won’t be tamed, the ostrich who foolishly lays her eggs on the ground where someone may step on them but who runs like the wind, the snorting warhorse, the flight of the eagle and the hawk.
These words are humbling, but they are not crushing. They give us a perspective of scale, a bit of necessary self-understanding; but they are not designed to make us despair. On the contrary: we learn here that the Creator of all things, who made all things according to his Wisdom, does come towards us human beings and speak to them. He does not remain concealed somewhere in the darkness of space, standing behind some supernova or lurking in some black hole. He is not playing some game of hide and seek with us, as if we could simply deduce his existence from the way things are. God is speaking to us. He is addressing himself to us. And that word at once rightly de-centres us but immediately elevates us: for we are the creatures to whom God the creator in his wisdom speaks. We aren’t who we think we are, for sure: we are not anything in the scheme of things, taken on our own. But the voice of the creator is spoken to us, for our benefit, in our hearing.
Why us? Even the Psalmist doesn’t really know: what is man that you are mindful of him, the Son of Man that you care for him? Yet you made him a little lower than the angels… It’s mysterious – a hidden counsel of God. But we are addressed by him, even to the extent that God himself becomes one of us, and not any other sort of creature. Let us not try to explain why should be so. But let us believe it to be so. In Christ, the wisdom of God from before the world began, the word that made worlds, is graciously and mercifully spoken to us. The only question is: will we hear it?