By Paul Edmon
One of the most spectacular astronomical events observable with the naked eye is a solar eclipse.
The midday twilight that causes the birds to stop singing and the stars to shine through the darkened sky …
The splendor of the corona as the sun is fully hidden from view …
The bursting forth of a thousand dawns through the lunar mountains …
All of this natural beauty is part of the elegant celestial dance which the Lord orchestrates, showing forth His power and inspiring humanity with the timeless beauty of nature.
The beauty of the eclipse is just the beginning, for as King David says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Solar eclipses confess the existence and work of God as one of many examples of fine tuning. The moon, though 400 times smaller than the sun, is situated in an orbit around the Earth that makes its angular size (its apparent size on the sky) the same as the sun. If the moon were further out, as happens when it is at apogee, we would only have annular eclipses. If the moon were closer it would block out the corona of the sun. During the totality of a solar eclipse, however, the moon is nearly perfectly situated such that we can see the normally invisible corona that serves as the foundation of the solar wind.
Thus eclipses allow us to discover things we would not normally have been able to. After all, eclipses helped the ancient Babylonians learn about celestial mechanics and discover the Saros cycle. The Saros cycle in turn allowed the Greeks to build handheld devices like the Antikythera mechanism which could predict the next eclipse. In the 19th century great expeditions were undertaken to observe eclipses in order to learn more about the sun’s corona. Perhaps most stunning was the confirmation of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity when Sir Arthur Eddington used one of these eclipse expeditions to observe the bending of starlight by the sun’s gravity. That the Lord made the earth, the moon, and the sun to syzygy periodically and has given them roughly the same size on the sky enables great discoveries like these.
The great bodies of the heavens are also “for signs and for seasons, and for days and years” (Genesis 1:14b). Eclipses have a unique place in this as we can use them to precisely date ancient events. For instance, we know that the Battle of Halys occurred on May 28, 585 BC, because a total solar eclipse occurred during the battle and caused the fighting to stop. From the precise date of this battle we can date other events in the ancient world.
The Holy Spirit also uses eclipses in prophecy. The prophet Joel says, “The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Joel 2:31). St. Peter cites this prophecy of Joel as being fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. Fifty-two days prior to Pentecost “the sun’s light failed” (Luke 23:45a) for three hours while Christ suffered on the cross. This was no natural eclipse, since, due to the Passover, we know that the moon was full. Rather, this is a miraculous sign that attended the crucifixion of the Lord of Light and fulfilled the prophecy of Joel.
Jesus also prophecies regarding the end times:
And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (Luke 21:25-28).
So as you watch the Great American Eclipse on August 21, AD 2017, wonder in awe at the majesty of this celestial event. Ponder the great workmanship the Lord has set in the heavens. Reflect on the sufferings and death of Jesus on the cross for your sins. Then rejoice that in Christ we no longer have to fear as the pagans did that the eclipse would signal the end of the world. We know that the loss of the sun is temporary and only a shadow of the great and last day. Then the sun will be extinguished forever and the true Son will come in all His glory to take His elect to a new heavens and earth, where His Light will never fail.
For more information on eclipses, how to safely view the eclipse and when the eclipse will happen in your area, check out parts one and two of SyfyWire’s “The Great American Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017.”
Dr. Paul Edmon has his Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of Minnesota and works as liaison between Research Computing and the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University. He is also on the Board of Regents for Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and attends First Lutheran Church in Boston. The views expressed here are his own.