“In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun” Psalm 19
What happens every morning the sun shines is so much a part of our lives that we probably rarely see it—or hear it, if we listen to David in Psalm 19. Dawn isn’t like clockwork; it is clockwork. It’s ritual. It’s perhaps the original “given,” just as steady as death and taxes, as we all like to say.
Dawn is so close to us—and so big—that it begs to be a comparison, a metaphor, a means by which we really talk about something else. In fact, celestial bodies and phenomena may well be more appreciated as the stuff of metaphor than they are for their physical reality. “The sky’s the limit,” we tell each other. Or, how about this?—“that rum cake was heavenly.” In what likely ranks as the most inappropriate use of heavenly bodies as metaphor, we call Hollywood celebrities “stars.”
Henry David Thoreau, that 19th century iconoclast, couldn’t help it himself. The very last line of his wonderful Walden ends with the dawn as metaphor. “Only that day dawns to which we are awake,” he says. “There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”
For a transcendentalist like Thoreau, dawn was a reminder of our opportunities to grow. For a Christian, dawn will always likely suggest the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Really, for those who believe in any god, dawn begs us to consider, for just a moment, our insignificance in the face of the infinite.
On the other hand, to the Sioux who once lived in my neighborhood, the sun wasn’t a metaphor at all. The sun was god, specifically Wi, chief of the family of gods that merged into the essence of Native deity, Wakan Tanka. Sometimes they danced to solicit Wi’s favor—the Sun Dance, an opportunity to communicate directly. No part of me is Native, but when I stand out here alone some mornings, I at least begin to understand.
A friend of mine says he will never forget the moment when rural electricity came to the county. He was a child, he says, and he remembers so well because the current flowed first in the early evening. Once there was darkness; suddenly, there was light. It was the closest thing he’d ever seen to a miracle.
In a world of candles and lamps and bonfires, it’s not hard to see why so many primitive people worshipped the sun. Without artificial light we’d all be forced to both watch and honor the sky more than we do.
But it’s interesting that David neither worships the sun—and the sky itself—nor makes it into a metaphor. When he says in verse four that the sky is the sun’s tabernacle, he’s suggesting monarchy, not deity. The sky is the royal palace for the richest of kings, the sun, who is new every morning. But not once does he get down on his knees and worship. His is a wholly different attitude.
The heavens declare the glory of God, David asserts boldly. They witness to him. Look out there, he says, and you know God.
That he didn’t worship the sun is really something of a wonder, since so many primitive people have, all around the world. But then he was, as we say, inspired, wasn’t he? David—and God’s people, Israel—knew what to make of the sun because they knew, really, who had made so much of them.