This Tuesday, the sun will hang in the sky over the Northern Hemisphere for what is colloquially known as the “longest day of the year.” In reality, the sun’s position will be no different than usual, but our perception of it will be different owing to the earth’s tilt on its axis as it orbits the sun.
Where I live in the mid-Atlantic, we’ll enjoy over fourteen hours of sunlight, but for those at the farthest reaches north—in places like Svalbard, Norway—the sun will simply never set. (Folks in the Southern Hemisphere will enjoy the same phenomenon six months later when the seasons change.)
Traditionally, the summer solstice has been a time of celebration, bonfires, and revelry—inspiring stories like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and even the placement of architectural wonders like Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza.
For many pagan cultures, midsummer was a time of ritual and sacrifice as humans worshiped the sun as the source of life. But there’s a difference between worshiping the sun and worshiping by the sun. And surprisingly, at least to our modern sensibilities, Scripture invites us to the latter.
Psalm 19—the psalm that tells us that “the heavens declare the glory of God”—calls attention to the sun’s orbit as it traces a path across the sky. The author likens it to an athlete running around a racetrack:
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth. (v. 6)
For the psalmist, the arc of the sun’s orbit (the same orbit that makes the summer solstice both possible and predictable) reveals something of God’s character. Elsewhere, the Scripture alludes to the role of the sun’s orbit in delineating “signs and seasons” (Gen. 1:14–19, NKJV)—while the consistent passage of the seasons tells of the faithfulness of God himself. As the Lord promises Noah after the flood,
As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease. (Gen. 8:22)
Finding theological truth in natural phenomena may feel odd to modern readers—and perhaps it might even smack of paganism—but this hermeneutic falls squarely within the tradition of natural theology or general revelation.
The natural world is one of the primary ways God has revealed himself to humanity since the beginning of time. And so, while we’re more accustomed to knowing God through holy texts and prophetic utterances, saints throughout history have found him through his creation.
In the early 13th-century hymn “Canticle of the Sun” (based on Psalm 104), Saint Francis of Assisi worships God via the greatness of the sun:
Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor,
and all blessing.
To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
But general revelation also carries a kind of warning, reminding us of where we stand in relationship to our Creator. As much as we might minimize our helplessness or try to escape the uncomfortable truth of our dependence, the natural world has a way of snapping us back to reality.
When Job’s friends chide him for blaming God for his suffering, Job reminds them that even animals know their well-being rests in the hands of the Creator. “Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:7–10).
We simply cannot escape the testimony of creation: We are dependent creatures whose only hope is in our Creator.
As we approach the summer solstice, our earth circling around a blazing mass of glory, I can’t help but think about how fragile our life on this planet is. Just the right tilt of the axis, just the right distance, just the right length of orbit—all sustained by the One who first set it in motion and maintains it in a continual act of creation.
In light of all this, I understand why people have worshiped the sun. I understand how easy it would be to see the sun itself as your source of life, to realize how dependent we are on its rays and respond accordingly. But our dependence is only half the story. The natural world—the sun specifically—also reveals the goodness and grace of the God on which we depend.
Returning to Psalm 19, David suggests that God’s glory is like the sun’s heat: “nothing is deprived of its warmth” (v. 6). God’s presence pervades every nook and cranny of the earth. It “goes out into all the earth … to the ends of the world” (v. 4).
But even as God generously reveals himself as the source of our lives, he also shows himself to be generous—and this grace changes us.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus appeals to the sun’s orbit to teach a new ethic of the kingdom of heaven. As children of our Father, he says, we must love not only our neighbors but also our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. And we must do this because this is what our Father does.
Our Father “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). He doesn’t differentiate between those who deserve the warming rays of the sun and those who don’t; he extends the grace of life to all—even to those who resist or hate him.
When we feel the glow of the sun on our faces, when we feast under its lengthening rays, we remember that our lives are sustained by its warmth in very real and practical ways. The energy that shines from heaven allows plants to grow and sustains all those who call this earth home. That light falls on everyone—regardless of whether we love and worship the Creator or not—and it is the same light that instructs us in his ways.
When self-reliance and ingratitude tempt us to forget the source of life (Jer. 5:24), we pray that God’s kindness will, like the sun, continue to shine on us and lead us to repentance. We pray that we will be open to what this light teaches us and that we will be made more like our Father in heaven—a Father so rich and so kind that the rays of his love permeate the whole earth, so that nothing can be hidden from them.
Hannah Anderson is the author of Turning of Days, All That’s Good, and Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul.
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