Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Can You Count the Stars?

Praise for the Lord #78

Words: Johann Hey, 1837; translated Elmer L. Jorgenson, 1921
Music: STERNENZAHL, German folk tune, c. 1550

By the time he wrote this text, Johann Wilhelm Hey (1789-1854) was court preacher in Gotha, one of the capitals of the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the royal family of which included the future Prince Albert who was at that time courting the young queen Victoria.(Cyberhymnal, "Hey") Other than two volumes of sermons, Hey's known writings are almost entirely for children, including two volumes of fables. (Wikipedia, "Hey")

"Weißt du, wie viel Stern­lein ste­hen" first appeared in the second volume, published in 1837) in a section titled "einen ernsthaften Anhang" (which translates more or less as "an appendix of serious [poems]). This appendix also introduced the popular Christmas carol "Alle Jahre weider" ("Every year the Christ-Child comes").(Block, 16) "Weißt du, wie viel Stern­lein ste­hen" is still a popular children's song in its original language. There were many to choose from, but the video to the right seemed to have the maximum level of cuteness! You can sample Hey's fables in English translation rendered by H. W. Dulcken, with the original illustrations by Otto Speckter.

The original German text has been published in several translations, listed in the Cyberhymnal article on Hey, so Jorgenson was not unusual in making his own translation for his classic hymnal, Great Songs of the Church. Elmer Leon Jorgenson (1886-1968) was a child of Danish immigrants, and probably knew German as a second or third language. For more on him, see the article at Scott Harp's, and Forrest McCann's article on the history of Great Songs of the Church.

Stanza 1:
Can you count the stars of evening
That are shining in the sky?
Can you count the clouds that daily
Over all the world go by?
God the Lord, who doth not slumber
Keepeth all the boundless number:
But He careth more for thee,
But He careth more for thee.

The first stanza translates (fairly) literally as:

Do you know how many little stars are
In the blue heavens?
Do you know how many clouds go
far and wide across the world?
God the Lord has counted them,
So that not even one is missed by Him
From the whole great number,
From the whole great number.

When God wanted Abraham to think of a big number, He said, "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them."(Genesis 15:5) A guess at the number of stars in the universe, based on the number believed to be in our own galaxy, and the number of galaxies believed to exist based on current conceptions of the size of the universe, is 100 sextillion (100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000), a number several times the size of the U.S. national debt. Of course, if you consider all of the qualifiers involved, based on the fact that we don't really know what might be out there beyond the range of our telescopes. But Psalm 147:4 says, "He determines the number of the stars; He gives to all of them their names."

As for the clouds, Job asked, "Who can number the clouds by wisdom?"(38:37) It would seem to be more possible than counting stars, but immediately we are confronted by two questions: When does water vapor become a cloud? How do you count such a constantly changing phenomenon? Consider this statement from two NASA researchers:
Clouds are a major source of uncertainty in scientists' efforts to understand and predict climate change. The problem lies in large part with the fact that the relationships between cloud properties and atmospheric conditions, while well understood in the microphysical scale of a cloud droplet, are not well known in the large scale of a cloud system.(Tselioudis and Jacover)
I don't quote that to poke fun at the scientists. I appreciate the value of their research to better understand our weather, and I confess that I have often secretly wished I had become a research meteorologist. Weather is an endlessly fascinating subject. But isn't it amusing that millenia after Job spoke, we still have to admit that this subject is just too big for us to grasp? But God knows the ever-changing number of the clouds, down to each drop of vapor that plays its part in a global system.

We could stop here and marvel at the wisdom of God, and take a valuable lesson in humility. But Jorgenson's translation and adaptation of the text introduces a theme that recurs at the end of each stanza: Yes, God knows this world on a macro scale beyond our comprehension, but He is far more concerned with you as an individual. And if His knowledge of the natural world is so far beyond our comprehension, is it not even more certain that He knows our simple needs?

In Johann Hey's original text, this idea is introduced at the very end, but Jorgenson reinforces it at the close of each stanza. It is the answer to David's question in Psalm 8:4, "What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You care for him?" Yes, even though God does know the number of the stars and of the clouds, and has the (literally) universal perspective such knowledge implies, He cares for you as an individual. In fact, you are infinitely more important to Him, as proven by His actions.(John 3:16)

Stanza 2:
Can you count the birds that warble
In the sunshine all the day?
Can you count the little fishes
That in sparkling waters play?
God the Lord their number knoweth,
For each one His care He showeth:
Shall He not remember thee?
Shall He not remember thee?

The second stanza, in my literal translation:

Do you know how many little gnats play
In the hot sunshine?
How many little fish, also, cool themselves
in the dark streams of water?
God the Lord called them all by name,
So that they all came to life,
That they should now be so happy.
That they should now be so happy.

Besides the change from the somewhat unappealing image of swarms of gnats, Jorgenson also refocuses our view of God's relationship to His creation. Hey's text points out, again, the overwhelming transcendence of God as Creator, but Jorgenson looks to the individual care God has for His creatures. Jorgenson is likely referencing the words of Jesus, who used this example more than once:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?(Matthew 6:25-26)

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.(Matthew 10:29-31)
It is an argument from the lesser to the greater; if God notices the fall of a sparrow, will He not notice the troubles of His child?

Stanza 3:
Can you count the many children
In their little beds at night?
Who without a thought of sorrow
Rise again at morning light?
God the Lord, who dwells in heaven
Loving care to each has given:
He has not forgotten thee,
He has not forgotten thee.

I translate the German text literally as:

Do you know how many children, early
Rise up from their little beds,
So that they without sorrow and trouble
Are happy throughout the course of the day?
God in heaven has, in all of them,
His joy, his delight;
He knows* you also and holds you dear,
He knows you also and holds you dear.

*Unlike "weiße" at the beginning of each stanza, which means to be aware of in a factual sense, this is "kenne" (related to our old word "ken"?), and means to understand something thoroughly, or to know someone personally.

I cannot sing this without a pang of sadness, because sadly, many little children have more than their share of sorrow. Too many little children wake up to hunger, homelessness, abuse, and war. But I have to believe that God has not forgotten them, and that He certainly has not forgotten their abusers. And may God's people do all we can to be God's instruments of peace and healing, to alleviate their suffering.

But this was not the point Hey, or Jorgenson, wanted to bring up. Little children have an ability to live in the here and now, without worrying about tomorrow. Even those who are suffering greatly often have the ability to put aside past and future, to enjoy the moment. Think about the things that give small children joy--give a child a cat or dog, adopted from the animal shelter at virtually no cost, and she will be as overjoyed as if it were a rare diamond. More overjoyed, actually.

Consider the equality with which small children view the world--they do not care about social class, race, or other distinctions until they are (sadly) taught to do so. I vividly remember my grade-school daughter's encounter with a "subway worker" while we were on vacation in Washington, D.C. She had dropped her notebook on the way out of the station, and we had started back to find it, but a man walking behind us had picked it up and brought it to her. She loudly announced, "Daddy, the subway worker found it for me!" The "subway worker" was actually a very amused one-star general in the U.S. Air Force, but to her eyes, all uniforms were more or less the same and he was just a nice man who helped a stranger.

Jesus commanded us to become like children, and though we find it easy enough to be "childish," we need to continue to strive for that "childlike" quality. "And calling to Him a child, He put him in the midst of them and said, 'Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.'"(Matthew 18:2-3) What in particular was it about children? "Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."(Matthew 18:4) Only then can we embrace our Father's love to the fullest, and rest in assurance that He is taking care of us.

About the music:

This is a great example of the beauty and simplicity of folk tunes. It covers a range of only six notes (DO, RE, MI, FA, SOL, LA). The four phrases are cast in the common "song-form," aaba; repetition, departure, and return are sketched out in this very simple structure. Additionally, the b phrase (e.g. "God the Lord who does not slumber / Keepeth all the boundless number") is constructed of the repetition of a single subphrase. On a more minute level, the subphrase breaks into two smaller units that are the same pitch and rhythm pattern, just sequenced up a step in the scale (e.g "God the Lord who" and "doth not slumber"). An extreme economy of material makes this easy to sing and easy to memorize, while giving it a sense of coherence and logic.

Incidentally, the constant "short-short-long-long" rhythm of this tune is similar to that of the Ländler, the Austrian-Swiss-Bavarian "country cousin" of the waltz. Americans know it best from The Sound of Music!


"Johann Wilhelm Hey." Cyberhymnal.

"Wilhelm Hey (Dichter)." Wikipedia (German).

Block, Detlev. Mit dem Sternenhimmel die Schöpfung verstehen: ein Arbeitsbuch für Gemeinden. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009.

"The Estimated Number of Stars in the Universe Just Tripled." 80 Beats blog at Discover magazine web site. 1 December 2010.

Tselioudis, George, and Evan Jacover. "Clouds in midlatitude storms." National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Goddard Institute for Space Studies. August 1997.

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