“For great is your love, reaching to the heavens;
your faithfulness reaches to the skies.” Psalm 57:10
Those of us who are Christians have a hard time not thinking of heaven as someplace up. Jesus Christ “ascended,” after all. Jacob saw a vision of a ladder descending, and Elijah boarded a chariot that left this earthly station for all points upward, right?
This upward proclivity of ours results, at least in part I suppose, from some ancient Platonism in early Christian thought, the idea that this world is somehow less than sweet, that we’ve got to leave it behind like our old natures before we can "ascend" to something, well, heavenly.
There is, or so people tell me, nothing above us for miles and miles (nothing is overstatement, of course, since all sorts of planets and stars and whole solar systems are up there, so many that astronomers have never located a dead end).
I have theologian friends who claim that the new heavens and the new earth really mean that “heaven” will be here, on earth. What Richard Middleton argues in a new book titled, simply A New Heaven and A New Earth, is that our eternal future is not in some home away from home, but right here down the block as fully embodied as we ever were--more so, in fact. We'll be here on this "new" earth, which will be itself a fully redeemed creation.
The argument, radical as it may seem, is that we won't ascend anywhere. Instead, we'll just be here. Just no more hog lots. (I'm being glib. The argument is serious.)
Everything on the terra firma will be garden-like—a la Garden of Eden. We won’t be one big choir; instead, we’ll employ ourselves as we do now, maybe, only there’ll be no back aches or seat belts. (Go ahead and create your own list.)
I don’t think David is being metaphorical here, although he is using his official poetic license. I think he’s talking about the sky, not angelic heaven. The Old Testament patriarchs (the literature on the matriarchs is scanty) weren’t obsessed with heaven, as we are. Last week I saw a pick-up with a license that said, simply “TNKHVN,” and I understood at least something about why they call those special order tags “vanity” plates.
I don’t think David is talking about heaven, per se; he’s settled on the greatest expanse of infinity his finiteness can locate—the skies. Saturday morning I went out with the camera, the first clear Saturday in a month, only to find the skies crystalline. A cold wind had swept away dust and fog, and the sky was tin foil-bright and shiny.
Just as we need sin to make stories, camera bugs out here on the Plains need clouds to create art when the skies are as expansive as they are here. But then David is not toting a digital in Psalm 57. He’s just praising the Lord, and what I’m thinking is that this sky—not a particularly good subject for photography—but this sky, the one where there is absolutely and blindingly nothing, is the one he’s seeing or imagining, the sun not a disk but a huge burning smudge of colorless luminescence.
That kind of sky goes on forever—and now I’m making metaphors. That kind of sky is seemingly as limitless as he wants us to imagine.
But then, the literal subject matter of this line is not the sky but God’s love, which David says, like Saturday’s skies, simply can’t be contained. In his ecstatic praise, he reaches for the only comparison he can imagine, and there’s just nothing else anywhere under the sun as endless than a perfect crystalline sky.
Sadly, even the sky—the limitless sky—is no match. The heavens, even when they appear to stretch out forever, can’t compare with God’s love. Nope. Like all of us when we have no words, David is doing the very best he can.
Someday we’ll all have new vocabularies. I’m not sure where we’ll be, but we will have the words to make sense of what is now so immensely far beyond us.