Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage
“Seek Him who made the Seven Stars and Orion” (Amos 5:8).
Amos of Tekoa plowed the earth and threshed the grain with a new threshing-machine. To take from it its bitterness, before it fully ripened, he scarred the sycamore tree with an iron comb, then gathered its fruit. Like his father, he herded sheep and worked the fields, but it would be wrong to think of him as a mere rustic. Living, as he did, along a major thoroughfare in that part of the world, where men from many nations passed through, he was wise in the ways of the world and cosmopolitan with a global world view—knowing and being known by Philistines, Syrians, Phoenicians, Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, and Israelites.
Moses was a prince of Egypt, a sheep-herder, and a law-giver; Daniel, a prince, statesman, and prophet; Isaiah, a courtier, poet, and prophet; David, a harpist, poet, shepherd, warrior, and king; Amos, the author of my text, a farmer, herdsman, communicator, and prophet. Nearly all his parallelisms are pastoral, his prophecy full of the odor of new-mown hay, the rattle of locusts, the rumble of carts with sheaves, and the roar of wild beasts attempting to devour the shepherd’s flock.
The herdsman or shepherd watched the herds or flocks by day. By night he stayed in a “brush arbor,” a makeshift dwelling created out of shrub bushes, undergrowth, and small trees. Through the loosely-woven roof he could see the stars all night long, and was more familiar with them than we who have solid roofs and hardly ever bother to scan the night sky. But at seasons of the year when the herds were especially vulnerable, the herdsman, like the shepherds of the Nativity story or the cowboys of the American West, would stay out in the open field all through the darkness, his only shelter the curtain of the night, heaven, with the stellar embroideries and silvered tassels of lunar light.
What a life of solitude, alone with the herd! Poor man! At twelve o’clock at night, hark to the wolf’s bark, the lion’s roar, the bear’s growl, the owl’s te-whit-te-whos, and the serpent’s hiss, as he unwittingly steps too near while moving through the thickets! So Amos, like other herdsmen, naturally acquired the habit of studying the map of the heavens spread out before him. He noticed some stars advancing and others receding. He associated their dawn and setting with certain seasons of the year. Blessed with a poetic nature, he read night by night, month by month, and year by year, the poetry of the structured and rhythmic constellations.
Seated on the ground, or lying on his back under the open scroll of the midnight heavens, Amos especially observed two rosettes of stars—the Pleiades (Seven Stars) and Orion (cf Job 9:9). The former group, as it rises about the first of May, he associated with spring; the latter, as it comes to the meridian in January, with winter. The Pleiades (Seven Stars) connected with all sweetness and joy; Orion, the herald of the tempest.
The ancients were more apt to study the physiognomy [features] and juxtaposition of the heavenly bodies, because they thought they had a special influence on the earth; and perhaps they were right. If the moon every few hours lifts and lowers the tides of the Atlantic Ocean, and if last year’s solar storms, by all scientific admission, affect the earth, why shouldn’t the stars have proportionate effect?
Perhaps it is not altogether superstitious to think that movements and activities of the heavenly bodies are connected with certain earthly events. Were not the lights of the heaven—the sun, moon, and stars—given “for signs” (Genesis 1:14)? Did not a meteor run on evangelistic errand on the first Christmas night and designate the rough cradle of our Lord (Matthew 2:2)? Did not the stars in their courses fight against Sisera (Judges 5:20)? Was it merely coincidental that before the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70) the moon was eclipsed for twelve consecutive nights? Did it merely happen that a new star, probably a supernova, appeared in constellation Cassiopeia, and then disappeared before King Charles IX of France (1550-1574), who was responsible for St Bartholomew massacre, died? Was it without significance that in the days of the Roman Emperor Justinian (c 482–565) war and famine were preceded by the dimness of the sun, which for nearly a year gave no more light than the moon, though there was no cloud to obscure it? Did not Jesus prophesy that before His second advent, there would be “signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars” (Luke 21:25)?
No wonder that Amos of the text, having heard these two anthems of the stars, put down the stout rough staff of the herdsman, took into his tough tawny hand the pen of a prophet, and advised the recreant [unfaithful, backslidden] people of his time to return to God, saying: “Seek Him who made the Seven Stars and Orion … the Lord is His name.” This command, which Amos gave 785 years before Christ (BC), is just as appropriate for us today (AD 1885).
THE GOD OF ORDER
In the first place, Amos saw, as we must see, that the God who made the Pleiades and Orion must be the God of order. It was not so much a star here and a star there that impressed the inspired herdsman, but seven in one group, and seven in the other group. He saw that night after night and season after season and decade after decade they had kept step of light, each one in its own place, a sisterhood never clashing and never contesting precedence. From the time Hesiod called the Pleiades the “seven daughters of Atlas” and Virgil wrote in his Æneid of “Stormy Orion” until now, they have observed the order established for their coming and going; order written not in manuscript that may be pigeon-holed, but with the hand of the Almighty on the dome of the sky, so that all nations may read it. Order. Persistent order. Sublime order. Omnipotent order.
What a sedative to you and me, to whom communities and nations sometimes seem going pell-mell, and world ruled by some fiend at haphazard, and in all directions maladministration! The God who keeps seven worlds in right circuit for six thousand years can certainly keep all the affairs of individuals, nations, and continents in adjustment. We had not better fret much, for the poet’s argument of the text was right. If God can take care of the seven worlds of the Pleiades and the four chief worlds of Orion, He can take care of the world we inhabit.
So I feel much as my father felt one day when we were going to the country mill to get a grist ground, and I, a boy of seven years, sat in the back part of the wagon. Our yoke of oxen ran away with us and along a labyrinthine road through the woods, so that I thought every moment we would be dashed to pieces. I made a terrible outcry of fright, and my father turned to me with a face perfectly calm, and said: “DeWitt, what are you crying about? I guess we can ride as fast as the oxen can run.” And, my hearers, why should we be affrighted and lose our equilibrium in the swift movement of worldly events, especially when we are assured that it is not a yoke of unbroken steers drawing us on, but that order and wise government are in the yoke?
In your occupation, your mission, your sphere, do the best you can, and then trust to God; and if things are all mixed and disquieting, and your brain is hot and your heart sick, get someone to go out with you into the starlight and point out to you the Pleiades. Or, better than that, get into some observatory, and through the telescope see farther than Amos with the naked eye could—namely, 200 stars in the Pleiades; and in what is called the sword of Orion, a nebula computed to be 2.2 trillion times larger than the sun. Oh, be at peace with the God who made all that and controls all that—the wheel of the constellations turning in the wheel of galaxies for thousands of years without breaking a cog, slipping a band, or snapping an axle! For your placidity [calm] and comfort through the Lord Jesus Christ I charge you, “Seek Him who made the Seven Stars and Orion … the Lord is His name.”
THE GOD OF LIGHT
Again, Amos saw, as we must see, that the God who made these two groups was the God of light. Amos saw that God was not satisfied with making one star, or two or three stars, but He made seven; and having finished that group of worlds, made another group—group after group. To the Pleiades, He added Orion. It seems that God likes light so well that He kept making it. Only one Being in the universe knows the statistics of solar, lunar, stellar, meteoric creations, and that is the Creator Himself. And they have all been lovingly christened, each one a name as distinct as the names of your children. “He tells the number of the stars; He calls them all by their names” (Psalm 147:4). The seven Pleiades had names given to them: Alcyone, Merope, Celæno, Electra, Sterope, Taygete, and Maia.
But think of the billions and trillions of daughters of starry light that God called by name as they swept by Him with beaming brow and lustrous robe! So fond is God of light—natural light, moral light, spiritual light. Again and again is light harnessed for symbols—Christ, “the bright and morning star” (Revelation 22:16); evangelization, “the dayspring from on high” (Luke 1:78); the redemption of nations, “Sun of Righteousness rising with healing in His wings” (Malachi 4:2). O men and women, with so many sorrows and sins and perplexities, if you want light of comfort, light of pardon, light of goodness, in earnest, pray through Christ. “Seek Him who made the Seven Stars and Orion.”
THE IMMUTABLE GOD
Again, Amos saw, as we must see, that the God who made these two archipelagoes of stars must be an unchanging God. There had been no change in the stellar appearance in this herdsman’s lifetime; and his father, a shepherd, reported to him that there had been no change in his lifetime. And these two clusters hang over the celestial arbor now as they did the first night that they shone on the Edenic bowers, the same as when the Egyptians built the pyramids from the top of which to watch them, the same as when the Chaldeans calculated the eclipses, the same as when Elihu, according to the Book of Job, went out to study the aurora borealis, the same under Ptolemaic system and Copernican system, the same from Calisthenes to Pythagoras, and from Pythagoras to Herschel. Surely, a changeless God must have fashioned the Pleiades and Orion! Oh, what an anodyne [sedative, medicine, remedy] amid the ups and downs of life, and the flux and reflux of the tides of prosperity, to know that we have a changeless God, “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
Xerxes garlanded and knighted the steersman of his boat in the morning, and hanged him in the evening of the same day. Fifty thousand people stood around the columns of the national Capitol [Capitol Hill], shouting themselves hoarse at the Presidential inaugural (1881), and in four months so great were the antipathies that a ruffian’s pistol in Washington depot [assassination of President James A Garfield] expressed the sentiment of a great multitude.
The world sits in its chariot and drives tandem, and the horse ahead is Huzza, and the horse behind is Anathema. Lord Cobham, in King James’ time, was applauded, and had $35,000 a year, but was afterward execrated, and lived on scraps stolen from the royal kitchen. Alexander the Great after death remained unburied for thirty days, because no one would do the honor of shoveling him under. The Duke of Wellington refused to have his iron fence mended, because it had been broken by an infuriated populace in some hour of political excitement, and he left it in ruins that men might learn what a fickle thing is human favor.
“But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting to them that fear Him, and His righteousness to the children’s children; to such as keep His covenant, and to those who remember His commandments to do them” (Psalm 103:17, 18). This moment “seek Him who made the Seven Stars and Orion.”
THE GOD OF LOVE
Again, Amos saw, as we must see, that the God who made these two beacons of the Oriental night sky must be a God of love and kindly warning. The Pleiades rising in mid-sky said to all the herdsmen, shepherds, and husbandmen: “Come out and enjoy the mild weather, and cultivate your gardens and fields.” Orion, coming in winter, warned them to prepare for tempest. All navigation was regulated by these two constellations. The one said to shipmaster and crew: “Hoist sail for the sea, and gather merchandise from other lands.” But Orion was the storm-signal, and said: “Reef sail, make things snug, or put into harbor, for the hurricanes are getting their wings out.” As the Pleiades were the sweet evangels of the spring, Orion was the warning prophet of the winter.
Oh, now I get the best view of God I ever had! There are two kinds of sermons I never want to preach—the one that presents God so kind, so indulgent, so lenient, so imbecile that men may do what they will against Him, fracture His every law, and put the cry of their impertinence and rebellion under His throne; and while they are spitting in His face and stabbing at His heart, He takes them up in His arms and kisses their infuriated brow and cheek, saying, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven” (cf Matthew 19:14). The other kind of sermon I never want to preach is the one that represents God as all fire, torture, and thundercloud, and with red-hot pitchfork tossing the human race into paroxysms [fits] of infinite agony. The sermon that I am now preaching believes in a God of loving, kindly warning, the God of spring and winter, the God of the Pleiades and Orion.
You must remember that winter is as important as spring. Let one winter pass without frost to kill vegetation, ice to bind the rivers, and snow to enrich our fields, and you will have to enlarge your hospitals and your cemeteries. “A green Christmas makes a fat graveyard,” was the old proverb. Storms to purify the air. Thermometer at 10°F to tone up the system. December and January just as important as May and June. I tell you we need the storms of life as much as we do the sunshine. There are more men ruined by prosperity than by adversity. If we had our own way in life, before this we would have been impersonations of selfishness, worldliness, and disgusting sin, and puffed up until we would have been like Julius Cæsar, who was made by sycophants to believe that he was divine and that the freckles on his face were as the stars of the firmament.
One of the swiftest transatlantic voyages made last summer by the Etruria was because she had a stormy wind abaft, chasing her from New York to Liverpool. But to those going in the opposite direction the storm was a buffeting and a hinderance. It is a bad thing to have a storm ahead, pushing us back; but if we be God’s children and aiming toward heaven, the storms of life will only chase us the sooner into the harbor. The monsoons, typhoons, mistrals, and siroccos of the land and sea are not unchained maniacs let loose on the earth, but are winds under divine supervision! The God of the Seven Stars is also the God of Orion!
Out of Dante’s suffering came the sublime Divina Commedia. Out of John Milton’s blindness, Paradise Lost. Out of miserable infidel attack, the Bridgewater Treatise in favor of Christianity. Out of David’s exile, songs of consolation. Out of the sufferings of Christ, the possibility of the world’s redemption. And out of your bereavement, your persecution, your poverties, and your misfortunes may yet come an eternal heaven.
Oh, what a mercy it is that in the text and all up and down the Bible God induces us to look out toward other worlds! Bible astronomy in Genesis, in Joshua, in Job, in the Psalms, in the prophets, major and minor, in John’s Apocalypse, practically saying, “Worlds! worlds! worlds! Get ready for them!” We have a nice little world here that we stick to, as though losing that we lose all. We are afraid of falling off this little raft of a world. We are afraid that some meteoric iconoclast will some night smash it, and we want everything to revolve around it, and are disappointed when we find that it revolves around the sun instead of the sun revolving around it. What a fuss we make about this little bit of a world, its existence only a short time between two spasms, the paroxysm by which it was hurled from chaos into order, and the paroxysm of its demolition.
I am glad that so many texts call us to look off to other worlds, many of them larger and grander and more resplendent. “Look there,” says Job, “at Mazaroth and Arcturus and his sons!” (cf Job 38:32). “Look there,” says John, “at the moon under Christ’s feet!” (cf Revelation 21:23). “Look there,” says Joshua, “at the sun standing still above Gibeon!” (cf Joshua 10:12). “Look there,” says Moses, “at the sparkling firmament!” (cf Genesis 1:14-18). “Look there,” says Amos, the herdsman, “at the Seven Stars and Orion”!
Don’t let us be so sad about those who shove off from this world under Christ’s pilotage. Don’t let us be so agitated about our own going off this little barge or sloop or canal-boat of a world to get on some “Great Eastern” of the heavens. Don’t let us persist in wanting to stay in this barn, this shed, this outhouse of a world, when all the King’s palaces already occupied by many of our best friends are swinging wide open their gates to let us in.
When I read “In my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2), I do not know but that each world is a room, and as many rooms as there are worlds, stellar stairs, stellar galleries, stellar hallways, stellar windows, stellar domes. How our departed friends must pity us shut up in these cramped apartments, tired if we walk fifteen miles, when they some morning, by one stroke of wing, can make circuit of the whole stellar system and be back in time for matins [morning prayers]! Perhaps yonder twinkling constellation is the residence of the martyrs; that group of twelve luminaries, the celestial home of the apostles. Perhaps that steep of light is the dwelling-place of angels cherubic, seraphic, archangelic. A mansion with as many rooms as worlds, and all their windows illuminated for festivity.
Oh, how this widens and lifts and stimulates our expectation! How little it makes the present, and how stupendous it makes the future! How it consoles us about our pious dead, that instead of being boxed up and under the ground have the range of as many rooms as there are worlds, and welcome everywhere, for it is the Father’s house, in which there are many mansions! O Lord God of the Seven Stars and Orion, how can I endure the transport, the ecstasy, of such a vision! I must obey my text and seek Him. I will seek Him. I seek Him now, for I call to mind that it is not the material universe that is most valuable, but the spiritual, and that each of us has a soul worth more than all the worlds that the inspired herdsman saw from his booth on the hills of Tekoa.
I had studied it before, but the Cologne Cathedral, Germany, never impressed me as it did this summer. It is admittedly the grandest Gothic structure in the world, its foundation laid in AD 1248, only two or three years ago completed. More than 600 years in building. All Europe taxed for its construction. Its chapel of the Magi with precious stones enough to purchase a kingdom. Its chapel of St Agnes with masterpieces of painting. Its spire springing 511 feet into the heavens. Its stained glass the chorus of all rich colors. Statues encircling the pillars and encircling all. Statues above statues, until sculpture can do no more, but faints and falls back against carved stalls and down on pavements over which the kings and queens of the earth have walked to confession. Nave, aisles, transept, and portals combining the splendors of sunrise. Interlaced, interfoliated, intercolumned grandeur. As I stood outside, looking at the double range of flying buttresses and the forest of pinnacles, higher and higher and higher, until I almost reeled from dizziness, I exclaimed; “Great doxology in stone! Frozen prayer of many nations!”
But while standing there, I saw a poor man enter and put down his pack and kneel beside his burden on the hard floor of that cathedral. And tears of deep emotion came into my eyes, as I said to myself: “There is a soul worth more than all the material surroundings. That man will live after the last pinnacle has fallen, and not one stone of all that cathedral glory shall remain uncrumbled. He is now a Lazarus in rags, poverty, and weariness, but immortal, and a son of the Lord God Almighty. The prayer he now offers, though amid many superstitions, I believe God will hear. And among the apostles whose sculptured forms stand in the surrounding niches he will, at last, be lifted into the presence of that Christ whose sufferings are represented by the crucifix before which he bows; and be raised in due time out of all his poverties into the glorious home built for him and built for us by ‘Him who made the Seven Stars and Orion.’”
“Without doubt the mightiest thought the mind can entertain is the thought of God.”
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Pleiades
*Adapted from “The Pleiades and Orion,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], New Tabernacle Sermons Vol I (New York: George Munro, 1886). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.