By G.B. Howell Jr.
What makes a miracle a miracle? Many people never give thought to the question; they just assume they will know a miracle if they ever see one. So how do we define a miracle?
One of my college religion professors defined a miracle as an occurrence in which God performs a work that is contrary to nature—in a way that brings Him glory.
Waves crash against the shore. Is that a miracle? No, it happens every day. Extraordinary to watch and hear? Yes, absolutely. Babies are conceived and born. Extraordinary? Yes. Miracle? No, science can explain every aspect of the process.
Sometimes, though, God works in a way that is contrary to what naturally happens. Abraham and Sarah were about 100 and 90 years old when their son Isaac was born. Miracle? Absolutely! An ax head floated. Miracle? Yes.
Water became wine. Blind eyes saw—after being rubbed with spit and mud. The deaf could hear. The lame walked. The dead were raised to life. Miracle. Miracle. Miracle.
In a few days, the sun will disappear for about three minutes. A part of the world will become dark during the day. Is this a miracle? Absolutely not; it’s totally expected and predictable. People have known for decades that this is going to happen. Why?
Well, we sing the answer in a classic hymn: “Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above, Join with all nature in manifold witness, To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.” Indeed the sun, moon, and stars move in their courses in a totally predictable pattern. God made it this way.
Has there ever been a time, though, that God did work miraculously by altering the courses of the sun, moon, and stars? Absolutely! Let’s look at four examples from Scripture.
Since childhood, many have heard that “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho.” After the Jordan River parted and the Israelites crossed on dry land, Jericho was the first city they encountered. They marched around the city once a day for six days. On the seventh day, they circled the city seven times.
Completing the last trek, priests sounded the trumpets, the people shouted, and the “walls came a-tumblin’ down.” Was that a miracle? Absolutely! Is that the last miracle for Joshua? Not at all.
Afterward, the Israelites (finally) defeated the city of Ai. Their next battle was against a coalition of five kings, one of whom ruled Jerusalem. The kings waged war against Joshua and the Israelites at a place called Gibeon.
During the battle, Joshua prayed to God and made this request, “‘Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.’ And the sun stood still and the moon stopped. … So the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed its setting almost a full day.”
Then almost as an aside, the writer says, “There has been no day like it before or since, when the LORD listened to a man, because the LORD fought for Israel” (Joshua 10:12-14). No day like it before or since? Well, I guess not!
Scientists have scoffed at the story. Some have attempted to explain it away as being an exaggeration or fable.
But making the sun stand still was no big deal for God, especially in light of the long list of miracles He had performed for His people since they left Egypt, including most recently drying up a river and causing city walls to collapse when people shouted.
The amazing thing is that we still talk about the walls collapsing. But the earth ceasing to rotate for a day—that’s the greater miracle in my mind.
The next story is not as well known. Hezekiah, Judah’s 13th king, became terminally ill. He prayed God would remember him, and he wept. As evidence He had heard Hezekiah’s prayer, God performed the miraculous (2 Kings 20:9-11; Isaiah 38:1-8).
Isaiah explained how God was going to verify that Hezekiah would be healed and that he would live an additional 15 years. It was the time of day that shadows should have been going down the steps of the palace of Hezekiah’s father, Ahaz. But God was about to perform a miracle.
Speaking through Isaiah, God said, “‘I am going to make the sun’s shadow that goes down on the stairway of Ahaz go back by ten steps.’ So the sun’s shadow went back the ten steps it had descended” (Isaiah 38:8).
Is that a miracle? Absolutely. All of our lives we have watched shadows shorten and lengthen in the most predictable of patterns. Never once have I seen one, though, that went in the opposite direction! For Hezekiah God was working contrary to nature and in a way that brought Him glory.
Our minds easily picture Christmas cards with wise men traveling by camels as they follow a star in the midnight sky. The reality behind this event in Matthew 2:1-12 is amazing, though. Setting the stage centuries earlier, God had worked supernaturally to prepare for the trek of the wise men.
Daniel was taken into Babylonian captivity in 605 BC, during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel 2 records the king had a troubling dream and called his diviner-priests, mediums, and sorcerers to tell him the dream and its meaning.
When they could not, “the king became violently angry and gave orders to destroy all the wise men of Babylon” (Daniel 2:12). God revealed the dream and its meaning, though, to Daniel.
When Daniel told the king about his dream, he “made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and chief governor over all the wise men of Babylon” (v. 48). Did you notice a phrase in these verses—a phrase we associate with the Christmas story?
Certainly, Daniel taught the wise men the Hebrew Scriptures. Included was a 500-year-old story about Balaam who foretold of “A star [that] will come from Jacob, and a scepter [that] will arise from Israel” (Numbers 24:17).
Maybe Daniel also told them about Micah’s prophecy concerning Bethlehem, “one will come from you to be ruler over Israel for me. His origin is from antiquity, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2).
We do know that Daniel spoke about the topic of 70 weeks, a metaphorical term for 70 sabbatical years, meaning periods of 7 years, hence 490 years (Daniel 9:24). Yes, I know interpreting the math gets complicated, but trust me, it works! Amazingly, Daniel lived to be over 100 years old, into the reign of Darius I.
Through the centuries the astrologers of Babylon certainly retold the story of Daniel and repeated his teachings. So about 500 years after Daniel lived, wise men—astrologers, if you will—living in the east, likely in the region of ancient Babylon (modern Iraq), saw an unusual star and began heading toward Bethlehem, where they found Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.
The story elicits more questions than answers. How does a star seem to move? Was this an alignment of planets rather than an actual star? Was it some type of meteor (what we often call a “shooting star” today)? How did it come to rest over a house?
And the question for us—was this a miracle? Absolutely! God had worked supernaturally and He received glory. When the wise men saw the star, “they were overwhelmed with joy. Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and falling to their knees, they worshiped him” (Matthew 2:10-11).
Bearing our sin
The final episode we examine occurred at Jesus’ crucifixion. Luke describes events as Jesus hung on the cross: “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three, because the sun’s light failed” (Luke 23:44-45). The sun didn’t stop in its trek across the sky—or even go backward. Instead, its light failed!
Some have said this was an eclipse. Was it? Well, no. Experts tell us the upcoming eclipse is supposed to last less than three minutes. So this three hours of darkness could not have been an eclipse on the day of Jesus’ death. The event was beyond human explanation. Was this a miracle? Absolutely.
Through the centuries, our Father received glory because of His Son’s death. The apostle Paul said, “But as for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14).
And for centuries, Christians have sung about the cross. Isaac Watts penned, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Fanny Crosby, “Near the Cross.” And more recently, Chris Tomlin wrote: “Oh the wonderful Cross, oh the wonderful Cross, Bids me come and die and find that I may truly live.”
And more recently, Chris Tomlin wrote: “Oh the wonderful Cross, oh the wonderful Cross, Bids me come and die and find that I may truly live.”
So when we stand outside on August 21, wearing funky little glasses and peering into the sky, we will see something astonishing!
For me, this won’t be my first total eclipse of the sun. On March 7, 1970, I stood with friends and our science teachers in the Memorial Stadium in my hometown of Waycross, Georgia.
With darkened glasses and pinhole viewers, we awaited the total eclipse of the sun. (Yes, pinhole viewers made of cereal boxes, the finest of NASA-recommended viewing devices, do actually work.) The darkness lasted 3 minutes and 7 seconds.
Our teacher, Mrs. Wright, said the next eclipse to be in the southern part of the United States was slated to occur in 2017. Wow—talk about predictable!
Does that mean the eclipse shouldn’t cause us to glorify God? Absolutely not. The predictability itself is a reason to glorify our Creator.
The psalmist said, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). We have reason to glorify our Father.
NASA reports that the next total eclipse in North America is slated for April 8, 2024. Hold onto your funky glasses—you are going to need them again.
G.B. HOWELL JR. is the content editor for Biblical Illustrator.