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Guest Column-Broken hearts and numbered stars

June 2004 | by Roger Ellsworth

Christians know what it is to have a passage of Scripture ‘leap off the page’. This often happens with a portion that we have read many times before. When it occurs it is as if we were seeing the words for the first time.

This was my experience some time ago with these words from Psalm 147:2-4:

The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
He gathers together the outcasts of Israel.
He heals the brokenhearted
And binds up their wounds.
He counts the number of stars;
He calls them all by name.

Most of the psalms were written by David. Here we have one written by an anonymous author much later in Israel’s history – when the people of God were in captivity in Babylon.

We can be assured that there were lots of broken hearts among the Israelites during those long years of captivity. Their beautiful city of Jerusalem lay in ruins, as did their glorious temple. Their homes had been demolished and they themselves were far from home in a foreign land.

The captives must certainly have found one question pounding constantly in their heads: Does God care?

Heart trouble

This psalmist wrote to triumphantly answer that question. He assured his readers that God would gather them, ‘the outcasts of Israel’ (v. 2), and bring them home. In doing so, he would heal their broken hearts.

We know about broken hearts. We know what it is to be sorrowful and dismayed. J. C. Ryle rightly says, ‘Heart trouble is the commonest thing in the world’.

We know what it is to wonder if God cares. So this is a psalm for us as well. We can glean from it three mighty consolations.

Thinking about stars

First, God is great enough to deal with our broken hearts.

The unusual nature of the psalmist’s treatment for the broken hearts of his people is what caused these verses to leap off my page. We can call it ‘the therapy of the stars’.

Immediately after saying that God heals the broken-hearted, he assures his hearers that God also numbers the stars.

Think about those stars. How many are there? They are innumerable. If we could harness a beam of light and ride it, we would be travelling 186,000 miles per second. That means we could go around the middle of the earth seven times each second.

The earth is just a tiny speck in our own galaxy. If we could ride our beam for 6,000 years, we would be only one-tenth of the way across this galaxy. Some say there are billions of such galaxies!

The fact that God has all the stars numbered led the psalmist to this conclusion: ‘Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding is infinite’ (v. 5).

Is such a God sufficient for you? To put it another way, is he sufficient for your broken heart? The answer, of course, is that he is completely sufficient.

Called by name

That brings us to a second consolation yielded by this psalm – God takes an interest in our broken hearts.

Some of us may respond to God numbering the stars by saying, ‘This doesn’t help at all. It only makes me feel insignificant – that God knows nothing at all about my broken heart. It only makes me feel lost in the vastness of the universe’.

If we respond in this way, it is because we have not yet received the full treatment offered by the psalmist. He also tells us that the Lord calls all the stars ‘by name’ (v. 4).

Think of it. Countless numbers of stars, and God knows each one of them individually. If that is the case, why should we doubt for a moment that God knows all about us? David says to God, ‘Put my tears into your bottle’ (Psalm 56:8).

For God to put David’s tears in a bottle, he would have to know that David was broken-hearted and be near enough to catch them! The God of the distant stars stands very close to his people!

Christ’s cross

But wonderful as it is, ‘the therapy of the stars’ must finally give way to another. Do we ponder God naming the individual stars, only to find ourselves still wondering if he knows about us and cares for us?

For the answer we must look to the cross of Christ. Christians have been healed through that cross of the greatest broken-heartedness of all – guilt before a holy God.

If through that cross God heals his people of the worst kind of broken-heartedness, we should never allow ourselves to think that he is unconcerned about our lesser afflictions.

God’s purpose

A final consolation comes from this psalm: God has a purpose in allowing our hearts to be broken.

We would like the psalmist to tell us that God prevents the broken heart – and, yes, the God who is great enough to count and name the stars could certainly do that. But the psalmist does not say that God prevents broken hearts but rather that he heals them.

This leaves us with a piercing question: ‘Why does God allow his people to have broken hearts?’ Because he has his purposes which we cannot fully understand in this life. When his people are finally gathered to their true home in heaven, all will become clear.

Safely home, we will be able to look back on every instance of broken-hearted-ness and triumphantly say with Joseph of old: ‘God meant it for good’ (Genesis 50:20).

And by the way, there will be no broken-heartedness in heaven!

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