Read THE HEAVENLY BODIES: CHAPTER VIII of The Astronomy of the Bible, free online book, by E. Walter Maunder, on


The stars and the heaven, whose host they are, were used by the Hebrew writers to express the superlatives of number, of height, and of expanse. To an observer, watching the heavens at any particular time and place, not more than some two thousand stars are separately visible to the unassisted sight. But it was evident to the Hebrew, as it is to any one to-day, that the stars separately visible do not by any means make up their whole number. On clear nights the whole vault of heaven seems covered with a tapestry or curtain the pattern of which is formed of patches of various intensities of light, and sprinkled upon this patterned curtain are the brighter stars that may be separately seen. The most striking feature in the pattern is the Milky Way, and it may be easily discerned that its texture is made up of innumerable minute points of light, a granulation, of which some of the grains are set more closely together, forming the more brilliant patches, and some more loosely, giving the darker shades. The mind easily conceives that the minute points of light whose aggregations make up the varying pattern of the Milky Way, though too small to be individually seen, are also stars, differing perhaps from the stars of the Pleiades or the Bears only in their greater distance or smaller size. It was of all these that the Lord said to Abram

“Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and He said unto him, So shall thy seed be.”

The first catalogue of the stars of which we have record was that of Hipparchus in 129 B.C. It contained 1,025 stars, and Ptolemy brought this catalogue up to date in the Almagest of 137 A.D. Tycho Brahe in 1602 made a catalogue of 777 stars, and Kepler republished this in 1627, and increased the number to 1,005. These were before the invention of the telescope, and consequently contained only naked-eye stars. Since astronomers have been able to sound the heavens more deeply, catalogues have increased in size and number. Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, made one of 3,310 stars; from the observations of Bradley, the third, a yet more famous catalogue has been compiled. In our own day more than three hundred thousand stars have been catalogued in the Bonn Durchmusterung; and the great International Photographic Chart of the Heavens will probably show not less than fifty millions of stars, and in this it has limited itself to stars exceeding the fourteenth magnitude in brightness, thus leaving out of its pages many millions of stars that are visible through our more powerful telescopes.

So when Abraham, Moses, Job or Jeremiah speaks of the host of heaven that cannot be numbered, it does not mean simply that these men had but small powers of numeration. To us, who can count beyond that which we can conceive, as to the Psalmist, it is a sign of infinite power, wisdom and knowledge that “He telleth the number of the stars; He calleth them all by their names.”

Isaiah describes the Lord as “He that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, . . . that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in.” And many others of the prophets use the same simile of a curtain which we have seen to be so appropriate to the appearance of the starry sky. Nowhere, however, have we any indication whether or not they considered the stars were all set on this curtain, that is to say were all at the same distance from us. We now know that they are not equidistant from us, but this we largely base on the fact that the stars are of very different orders of brightness, and we judge that, on an average, the fainter a star appears, the further is it distant from us. To the Hebrews, as to us, it was evident that the stars differ in magnitude, and the writer of the Epistle to the Corinthians expressed this when he wrote

“There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory.”

The ancient Greek astronomers divided the stars according to their brightness into six classes, or six “magnitudes,” to use the modern technical term. The average star of any particular magnitude gives about two and a half times as much light as the average star of the next magnitude. More exactly, the average first magnitude star gives one hundred times the light of the average star of the sixth magnitude.

In a few instances we have been able to measure, in the very roughest degree, the distances of stars; not a hundred stars have their parallaxes known, and these have all been measured in the course of the last century. And so far away are these stars, even the nearest of them, that we do not express their distance from us in millions of miles; we express it in the time that their light takes in travelling from them to us. Now it takes light only one second to traverse 186,300 miles, and yet it requires four and a third years for the light from the nearest star to reach us. This is a star of the first magnitude, Alpha in the constellation of the Centaur. The next nearest star is a faint one of between the seventh and eighth magnitudes, and its light takes seven years to come. From a sixth magnitude star in the constellation of the Swan, the light requires eight years; and from Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens, light requires eight and a half years. These four stars are the nearest to us; from no other star, that we know of, does light take less than ten years to travel; from the majority of those whose distance we have succeeded in measuring, the light takes at least twenty years.

To get some conception of what a “light-year” means, let us remember that light could travel right round the earth at its equator seven times in the space of a single second, and that there are 31,556,925 seconds in a year. Light then could girdle the earth a thousand million times whilst it comes from Alpha Centauri. Or we may put it another way. The distance from Alpha Centauri exceeds the equator of the earth by as much as this exceeds an inch and a half; or by as much as the distance from London to Manchester exceeds the hundredth of an inch.

Of all the rest of the innumerable stars, as far as actual measurement is concerned, for us, as for the Hebrews, they might all actually lie on the texture of a curtain, at practically the same distance from us.

We have measured the distances of but a very few stars; the rest as every one of them was for the Hebrew are at a greater distance than any effort of ours can reach, be our telescopes ever so great and powerful, our measuring instruments ever so precise and delicate. For them, as for us, the heaven of stars is “for height,” for a height which is beyond measure and therefore the only fitting image for the immensity of God.

So Zophar the Naamathite said

“Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?
It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do?”

and Eliphaz the Temanite reiterated still more strongly

“Is not God in the height of heaven?
And behold the height of the stars, how high they are.”

God Himself is represented as using the expanse of heaven as a measure of the greatness of his fidelity and mercy. The prophet Jeremiah writes

“Thus saith the Lord; if Heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, saith the Lord.”

As if he were using the figure of a great cross, whose height was that of the heavens, whose arms stretched from east to west, David testifies of the same mercy and forgiveness:

“For as the heaven is high above the earth,
So great is His mercy toward them that fear Him.
As far as the east is from the west,
So far hath He removed our transgressions from us.”