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The psalmist and the solar eclipse

Like many others, Dr. William P. Brown experienced something holy on Monday

by Dr. William P. Brown | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Jordon Conner via Unsplash

Seeing the “diamond ring” is the holy grail of amateur astronomers: that moment in a total solar eclipse when the edge of the sun’s corona bursts forth with a sparkling burst of light at one point while the rest of the rim is illuminated like a ring. I had no chance of seeing that where I was, located many miles away from the path of totality. All I saw was a solar “croissant.” But I did consider the experience holy.

Whether you were privileged to be in the path or not, millions of Mexicans, Americans, and Canadians were looking up with their protective eyewear to witness something awfully special: a cosmic convergence of the sun and moon that elicited great awe, a moment that took us briefly outside of ourselves in breathless excitement to consider larger cosmic forces at work, such as gravity and motion, the stuff of celestial mechanics.  It was a moment lasting a little over four minutes that would last a lifetime in memory.

Such moments invite a sense of awe of science, with its power to predict such events, let alone explain them, as well as appreciative wonder for ancient stories, such as the one from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, a story that can be traced back to a survivor of the Trail of Tears. At every eclipse, Fvni Lusa, a hungry black squirrel, tries to devour the sun but is always thwarted by the Choctaw people by banging pots and pans. The sun’s survival from being swallowed up meant another year of agricultural success.

The Bible, too, has some fascinating things to say about the sun, but sadly no explanation is given for a solar eclipse. Still, one can imagine. Take Psalm 19, which likens the sun to a “bridegroom” setting forth from “his wedding canopy” to begin the diurnal journey from east to west (v. 5). Such metaphorical language might suggest that if the sun and the moon were to ever cross paths, it would mark a moment of cosmic consummation. Now that would give new meaning to the “diamond ring!”

As social media posts poured in, often quoted was a passage from Psalm 8, and appropriately so.

“When I gaze at your heavens, the works of your fingers —

the moon and the stars that you have established —

What are human beings that you call them to mind,

mortals that you care for them?” vv. 4-5 (my trans.)

An experience of cosmic wonder, whether from viewing an eclipse or simply the stars on an especially clear night, elicits the kind of awe that causes one to ponder one’s place in the cosmos. Who am I amid the vastness of the universe? For the psalmist, the question of human identity is cast theologically: why would the creator of the cosmos care about tiny humanity? The stunning paradox is that God does care about humanity on this “pale blue dot” of a planet (to quote Carl Sagan). The psalmist pushes the paradox further to celebrate humanity being “crowned … with glory and honor” and set above all other creatures on the planet to exercise “dominion.”

And yet, as the psalmist also notes, human beings are by no means equivalent to God in their limited sovereignty. We humans are “made just shy of the divine” (my translation of v. 5), from a verb that literally means “cause to lack” or “deprive.”  We are “deprived” of the divine — downsized, one might say — and yet we are crowned with God’s glory, every one of us. Such a paradox!

Dr. William Brown is shown teaching his Dialogue, Dissonance & Debate class at the 2023 Presbyterian Association of Musicians’ Worship & Music Conference. (Photo by Rich Copley)

What if we let these moments of cosmic awe compel us to lead more paradoxical lives, particularly in the face of the mounting climate crisis? On the one hand, human beings are invested with the power to destroy or heal this planet (“dominion”). And it must be admitted that we are well on the track toward destruction in view of the most recent scientific data, which confirm that carbon and methane gases released into the atmosphere remain at an all-time high with no signs of abating, despite all the promises made from governments and industries.

On the other hand, we are creatures cared for by the Creator, who is superlatively glorious, supremely sovereign (vv. 1, 9). Humanity’s “glory” is a derived glory, no more, no less. Beholding the vastness of God’s handiwork instills a healthy dose of humility, the kind of humility that comes from knowing that God’s mindfulness of humanity is fundamentally undeserved. God attends to us out of the mystery of divine love, and so also the world. The psalmist is in awe of such paradox. Humanity is both tiny and big.  Humanity’s “glory” comes down to the fact that humanity is loved, gratuitously so, by God. And that is the psalmist’s greatest source of awe.

As the eclipse has renewed a sense of cosmic awe, an awe shared by both the scientist and the psalmist, so may we be renewed in the call to preserve the “works of [God’s] fingers” on this planet. God can take care of the cosmos quite well, populated as it is by at least a trillion galaxies, each containing billions upon billions of planetary systems. But God has given humanity the gift and responsibility to take care of this planet. May our care of it be the defining mark of humanity’s glory.

Dr. William P. Brown is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. Reach him at

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