Sailing, Stars and the Sovereign

“Pleiades and Orion mark the beginning and end of the sailing season.” 

So writes Bob Fyall in his Christian Focus commentary on Amos 5:8. In my last post I referred to this verse and it stirred me to research a bit further and I came across this little summary by Fyall. Fyall understands this reference to Pleiades and Orion to be a way of summarising God’s providential control of the seasons.

Robert Fyall has written more about the stars in his little gem of a book ‘Now my Eyes have seen You’ (NSBT). After discussing the references to stars in the early chapters, Fyall comments on the verbs ‘binding and loosing’ in Job 38:31 (‘Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?’):

“Binding and loosing, whether in the natural and supernatural worlds, are the Creator’s prerogatives and these are illustrated by control of times and seasons. Thus the binding of the Pleiades would prevent the coming of spring, for their rising heralded the time when it was safe to begin sailing again; the loosing of Orion would presage winter with the beginning of the rainy season.

Fyall then concludes: “Two general comments can be now made on the star passages. The first is that they are marked by poetic grandeur…they encapsulate something of the awe and wonder of humans gazing up at the starry heavens, and evoke a sense of the vastness and mystery as well as the providential guiding of the universe.

“Secondly, Yahweh’s own speeches evoke the mysteries of the universe in images of haunting power.” (p 62)

Christopher Ash is a little more tentative in the meaning of ‘bind and loose’, but eventually reaches a similar conclusion: ‘The chains and cords of v 31 refer to these heavenly bodies being under constraint as they do metaphorical duty governing events on earth.’ (Job, p 387.)

I like how Francis Anderson puts it: these constellations “are all bound and fettered by God, who leads them around the sky as He pleases, a thing no man can do.” Anderson then notes that ‘the memorable phrase of AV, ‘the sweet influences of Pleiades’, must regretfully be abandoned, savouring too much of the lingering influence of mediaeval astrology on the translators.’ (Job, p 279). And so another flaw is found in the KJV.

When it comes to commentary on the book of Job, as I have noted in some of my YouTube devotionals, Christopher Ash’s book ‘Job – The Wisdom of the Cross’ is quite outstanding. One example of his insight is the way this star theme integrates the end of Job with the opening chapters.

“It was, of course, common in the ancient religions, as with modern horoscope users, to suppose that the stars influence and govern events on earth. While the Bible does not accept this, it unashamedly takes such well-known language and uses it to affirm the government of God through intermediate spiritual agencies. The stars are symbolic of the angelic spiritual beings by whose agency God governs the universe. We met them in the heavenly scenes in chapters 1,2 (‘the sons of God’) and again – in parallel with the language of stars – in 38:7. [‘when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?’] So to speak of binding, leading, or guiding the heavenly bodies is to speak poetically of governing the world.” (Job, p 387.)

And finally, here is Ash’s comment on this first speech of the Lord in Job 38:

“This first speech contains some of the most beautiful nature poetry in human literature. ‘Look around, Job; look around at a wonderful world. Look at the stars, the clouds, the waters, the land, the wild creatures, the funny ostrich, the war-horse, the eagle. Are  you God? Did  you  make these? Because if you are God, then I’ll happily resign and hand over the running of the universe to you (as happened, humorously, in the film  Bruce Almighty). But you’re not, are you? So what makes you think you could run it better than me?” (Out of the Storm, p 91).

Consider the stars and we are certainly put into our place. There is plenty more to muse upon in Scripture on the theme: the fallen Star of Isaiah 14:12, the wise men following the star to Bethlehem (Matthew 2:2), 12 star crowns (Rev 12:1) or stars falling to earth in apocalyptic literature (Mark 13:25, Revelation 6:1). But for now, I’m drawn to David’s question:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4).

The Pleiades and Orion are a reminder to us of our place in Creation. At our church last Sunday I recalled the passing of a former parishioner, John Dunbar, who died suddenly in 1992 (before my time at St Stephens). I’ve often wondered at his gravestone, but only today noticed that it surprisingly captures a deep truth in Job 38:3 – it is the Lord who governs Pleiades and Orion…and all our seasons from birth to death.

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