“I’m not a scientist. Oh, how I wish I were! I simply don’t have the brain for it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t try to understand science. The one area of science that has long fascinated me is astronomy.
The sheer magnitude of the universe has always captivated my attention and fueled my imagination. This fixation on the heavens and all they contain was stimulated greatly by the creation of the Hubble Telescope.
What you are about to read is no abstraction that bears no influence on your life. It is far more than mere statistics that account for the size of the universe. I can say that with confidence because of what the psalmist wrote:
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us. (Ps. 103:10–12)
As you’ve seen from the subtitle of this book, our focus is on not only the dozen things God has done with our sin, but also three things He never will do. Two of them are mentioned here.
God does not and never will deal with us according to our sins. God does not and never will repay us according to our iniquities. We’ll address both of these wonderful truths later on. But here, I want us to focus on the removal of our transgressions from us as far as the east is the from west.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t say something about the intervening sentence. David rejoices in the fact that God’s steadfast love toward those who fear Him can be measured only by the height of the heavens above the earth. David was not an astronomer. He had no grasp of the unimaginable magnitude of the height to which he refers. But we do today.
A good illustration to help us fathom the unfathomable is the light-year. A light-year is how far light travels in 1 calendar year. If you have a big calculator, you can figure it out for yourself. Multiply 186,000 times 60, and you have a light-minute. Multiply that figure by 60, and you have a light-hour.
Multiply that figure by 24, and you have a light-day, and that by 365, and you have a light-year. So, if light moves at 186,000 miles per second, it can travel 6 trillion miles (6,000,000,000,000) in a 365-day period. That’s the equivalent of about 12,000,000 round trips to the moon.
Let’s assume we are speeding in our jet airplane at 500 miles per hour on a trip to the moon. If we traveled nonstop, 24 hours a day, it would take us just shy of 3 weeks to arrive at our destination. If we wanted to visit our sun, a mere 93 million miles from Earth, it would take us a bit more than 21 years to get there.
And if we wanted to reach Pluto, the (dwarf) planet farthest away in our solar system, our nonstop trip would last slightly longer than 900 years! Of course, we’d all be dead by then, but I trust you get the point.
Now, try to get your mind around this: The Hubble Telescope has given us breathtaking pictures of a galaxy some 13 billion light-years from Earth. Yes, 13 billion light-years! Remember, a light-year is 6,000,000,000,000 (6 trillion) miles. That would put this galaxy at 78,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles from Earth!
In case you were wondering, we count from million, to billion, to trillion, to quadrillion, to quintillion, to sextillion. So, this galaxy is 78 sextillion miles from earth.
I can barely handle driving for more than 3 or 4 hours at 65 miles per hour before I need to stop and do something, either eat at McDonald’s or, well, you know. The thought of traveling at 500 miles per hour nonstop, literally 60 minutes of every hour, 24 hours in every day, 7 days in every week, 52 weeks in every year, with not a moment’s pause or delay, for—are you prepared for this?—20,000,000,000,000,000 years.
That’s 20 quadrillion years! And that would get us just to the farthest point that our best telescopes have yet been able to detect. This would be the mere fringe of what lies beyond.
Pause for a moment and let this sink in.
Are you beginning to get a feel for what it means to know that God’s love for you, that love that took unimaginable steps to remove the guilt of your sin, is greater than the distance between the heavens and the earth? Take as much time as you need.
If there is a clear sky tonight, go outside and gaze into the expanse above. Pick a star, any star. It seems fairly close. Want to visit? Surely it couldn’t take that long to get there. It almost seems you can extend your hand and touch it.
Well, not quite.
The nearest star to us is a system of three called Alpha Centauri. The closest of those is Proxima Centauri, a mere 4.3 light-years from Earth.
If we were bored with Pluto and wanted to extend our journey, speeding along nonstop, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, we would land on the closest star to Earth in a mere 6 million years! That’s 500 miles per hour for 6,000,000 years.
Beginning to get the picture? It’s a very small illustration of how high the heavens are above the earth.
Let’s speed up our travel a bit. Suppose our airplane was fast enough to go from Earth to the sun in only 1 hour. That’s traveling at 93 million miles per hour. Imagine what that would do to the radar gun of your local police department!
Traveling nonstop at 93 million miles per hour, it would still take us over 78 years to reach 61 Cygni, a star in the constellation Cygnus (the Swan), roughly 10.9 light-years from Earth.
If you aren’t satisfied with visiting a single star, perhaps you’d like to take a look at the next galaxy in our cosmic neighborhood. The Andromeda Galaxy is a giant spiral, almost a twin of our own Milky Way galaxy. Astronomers have determined that there’s probably a black hole at its center 1 million times the mass of our sun.
Although Andromeda is closest to us it’s still a staggering 2.5 million light-years away (a mere 15 quintillion miles, or 15 followed by 18 zeros). On dark nights in the fall, it’s barely visible to the naked eye as a small misty patch of light. Some are frightened to hear that it’s moving toward us at 75 miles per second.
No need to panic or rush to build a bomb shelter. At that pace, given its distance from earth, it might reach our Milky Way in about 6 billion years! Some say it will take only 3 billion years, so perhaps you should begin working on that bomb shelter after all!
In case you’re wondering—on the assumption that your brain is still able to calculate the seemingly incalculable—our trip to Andromeda would last a paltry 4.2 trillion years (that’s 4, 200,000,000,000 years).
Here’s one more for you to ponder: Shrink the earth to the size of a grapefruit. Pause for a moment and let the scale sink in. On this basis, the moon would be a ping-pong ball about 12 feet away. The sun would be a sphere as big as a 4-story building a mile away. Pluto would be an invisible marble 37 miles away.
Now, put our entire solar system into that grapefruit. The nearest star would be over half a mile away. The Milky Way would span 12,000 miles! Now reduce the entire Milky Way to a grapefruit! The nearest galaxy to us, Andromeda, would be at a distance of 10 feet. The Virgo cluster would be a football field away.
Those calculations are the best I can do to explain how high the heavens are from the earth, all in order to illustrate how “great” God’s steadfast love is for you. Incalculable love. Immeasurable love. Indecipherable love.
King David’s point is that the distance between Earth and this distant galaxy, a mere 78 sextillion miles, is a pathetically small comparison to the likelihood that you will ever be dealt with according to your sins or repaid for your iniquities!
If you were ever inclined to pursue your transgressions so that you might place yourself beneath their condemning power, 78,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles is an infinitesimally small fraction of the distance you must travel to find them!
One of the reasons we struggle to enjoy all that God is for us in Jesus is that we live under the influence of a lie. The lie is that our lifetime of sins, which often feels incalculable, is very close at hand, nearer to us than we feared.
But David’s assurance is that God has removed our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west.” By “remove,” he means that God has taken steps to eliminate any possibility that our sins and acts of idolatry and immorality could ever be used against us to justify our condemnation.
And just how far is the east from the west?
Once again, we should remember that David is not speaking as a scientist. He’s not giving us precise mathematical or astronomical calculations.
He’s trying to describe, as best he can, the utter impossibility that the penal consequences of our sins will ever return upon us. I’m quite sure that the way I will now explain David’s language would be challenged by modern astronomers. But bear with me.
If I were to venture due east from my home in Edmond, Oklahoma, unhindered, undeterred, and in an immovable and unbending straight line, I would soon pass through the states of Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina, before crossing the Atlantic Ocean into parts unknown.
If my wife were to do the same going west, we would never again lay eyes on each other. She would travel through northern New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California before passing above the Pacific Ocean. Neither of us would ever reach the end of our journey.
Don’t think of this as two individuals traversing our globe, as if one launched out going east and the other going west, only to encircle the globe and finally bump into each other halfway around the world. David wasn’t thinking in those terms.
His point is that God takes the guilt of our sins and propels them eastward, and takes you and me personally and sends us westward, each on a perfectly straight line.
When and where will the two ever meet up? Never, of course.
And those are the chances, if you will, the odds, that you and I will ever encounter our sins or their power to condemn.
I’ve often wondered why the Spirit of God stirred the hearts of the biblical authors to make use of such extravagant and mind-bending images and illustrations. But I now think I know why.
We—or perhaps I should speak only for myself. I am a hardheaded, slow-witted doofus who lacks the capacity to believe anything so wonderful as this.
Were God to have written in the psalm that He loves us and has taken our sin away, that would, of course, have been enough for some people to fathom. When certain folk hear of the love of God, their response is something along the lines of: “Well, of course He loves me! I’m a lovable person! There’s nothing so surprising about all that.”
But for most of us, knowing ourselves as we do, it takes more than a simple affirmation of divine love for sinners to awaken us to the sheer magnitude of what God has done for us. It takes a comparison of the height of God’s love with the height of the heavens above to drive home the point.
It takes asking me to conceive of the inconceivable distance between east and west to open my eyes to this truth.
I do not easily acknowledge God’s love for me. If I were put in his place, I would never love me!
God knows this, and has thus taken these elaborate verbal steps and the use of seemingly outlandish illustrations to overcome my resistance to the reality of his love.
I hope and pray that it is beginning to sink into your soul as well.”
–Sam Storms, A Dozen Things God Did with Your Sin (And Three Things He’ll Never Do) (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022), 97-103.