Map & Compass, Star & Cross: Navigating through the Bible

“Midway on the journey of our life
I found myself lost in a dark wood.”  (Dante)

Can you relate to these words?
The well-marked path through the forest of youth
has petered out, blocked by bogs and brambles and fallen trees.

You blunder on, hoping to rejoin the trail.
Cutty grass scars your legs.
Supple jack grabs at your pack.
Bush lawyer wins the case for custody of your hat.
After many denials and countless appeals you are forced to confess: you are lost.

Do you know someone who’s experienced that in the outdoors?
Disoriented and directionless.
Have you been there in your life?

If that’s us, if we’ve lost our way, what should we do?
Let’s check the Bible of kiwi tramping technique,
the NZ Mountain Safety Council’s Bushcraft Manual (first edition 1968).

As soon as they realise their predicament, it says,
lost or stranded trampers should “Stop, Stay Calm and Plan”.
Keep warm and have a drink.
Then get out map and compass.

My Compass on Bible on MapFirst Directions

My first tramping compass was shaped like a pocket watch.
The needle took a few seconds to stop swinging.
The phosphorescent north tip glowed in the dark.
The hinge on the metal case broke long ago.

I now carry an orienteering compass with a stable pointer.
The dial rotates on a transparent rectangle base
with 1:25000 and 1:50000 scales to measure map distances.
It’s a little scratched from a decade of jostling whistle, Maglite, knife and snacks in my bum bag.
The label reads Silva “Type 7NL”, made in Sweden.

At its South Pole, my first compass said “Japan”.
But it was their neighbours
who discovered the earth’s magnetism.

In the first centuries B.C., the Chinese dangled a lodestone on a string
to find lucky building sites by feng shui.
By 1100 A.D. they made magnetised needles.
Around 1300, Italians perfected the compass for navigation.[1]

Too late for literal “compass” directions in ancient Israel.
But I navigated through a Bible dictionary
and found columns of verses for North, South, West & East.[2]

For a recent devotion in the Auckland Baptist Tramping Club,
I raced through key compass points of Scripture.
Today we’ll plot a course from Genesis to Revelation.

Our route begins at the first cardinal point in the Bible, when
God planted a garden in the east.  (Genesis 2:8)

Had Adam and Eve followed God’s directions, the compass might not been needed.
But they chose to strike out on their own and bush-bash away from God’s clear path.
They were driven out of the garden.
The way back was barred by an angel’s flaming sword.

And so began the history of our exile east of Eden (Genesis 4:16).

Do you ever feel unsettled or uprooted?
As if you didn’t quite belong?
Homesick for a country where you’ve never been?

Scripture’s first compass directions confirm this hunch.
Like disoriented trampers,
We’ve gone off the track of God’s purpose.
We are refugees without a home.
Like early sailors with no navigational aids,
we are “all at sea”.

But don’t give up the journey yet!
Things get more hopeful
When we first meet all four cardinal points.

Abraham left his country and his kin.
He trekked to the land of Canaan, and there God said.

“Look around, to the north and south, to the east and west.
All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.”  Genesis 13:14-15

Now the compass highlights God’s plan and his promise.
Yes, we are east of Eden and lost at sea.
But we are still on God’s good earth,
and can hope in God’s good future.

God tells Abraham,

“Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”  Genesis 13:17

Tramp through the hills and dales, the ridges and ravines.
Survey the scale of God’s promise.
Fix the coordinates of the covenant in your memory.
Because before your descendants till these fields,
They will have to wait.

400 years.
In Egypt.
As slaves.

The compass wasn’t invented then.
But I guess at night they looked up from their campsites by the Nile.
They saw the stars wheeling from east to west –
The constellations that seafarers used for navigation. (Job 9:9, 38:31-2, Amos 5:8)
And they remembered God’s encompassing promise:

From north to south, east to west,
I will give you all this land.

Mapping the Land

Many compass directions in Scripture name the winds.[3]
In Greek, the north wind is borras, giving us the Aurora Borealis in the Arctic.

The westerly in Israel blows across the Mediterranean.
That’s why Jesus said, when a cloud rises in the west, you know it will rain (Luke 12:54)
From Mt Carmel on the coast, Elijah’s servant looked across the sea.
He saw a smudge on the horizon.
Soon after, it poured. (1 Kings 18:44-45)

By contrast, the east wind blows hot and dry from the desert.
It withered Jonah’s shady bush (Jonah 4:8).
It shatters ships at sea and drove Paul’s ship ashore (Psalm 48:7, Acts 27:14).

It was an easterly, after that long 400 years in Egypt, which swept in the plague of locusts.
Soon after, it blustered all night until the Red Sea became a road.

The Israelites navigated across and on through the desert
not with map and compass or GPS,
but by God’s pillar of flame and fog.
3500 years before my tramping club named its bulletin “Fire and Cloud”.

At Mount Sinai, there were many compass directions:
Blueprints for the Tabernacle,
Marching orders for the tribes.

40 years later, God ordered Moses to march in a new direction:

“You have made your way around this hill country long enough; now turn north.”  Deuteronomy 2:3

At the boundary of the Promised Land
Moses climbed Mount Pisgah.
Like Abraham, he looked west and north and south and east (Deuteronomy 3:27, 34:1).

A true mountaineer’s death:
Not fading in a grey rest home,
but gazing with vigour from a windswept summit.

On our journey so far, the compass has been a sign of God’s promise.
Pointing to a broad vision for the future.

Now in the book of Joshua,
God sharpens his pencil to fill in the details.

The Israelites – in the King James version – compass Jericho 7 times.  (Joshua 6:3)
Cities fall like dominos.
Then Joshua sends out surveyors (Joshua 18:8).
They record the Bible’s longest set of directions,
And the only use of the word “map” in some translations.

They trace out the borders for each tribe.
They fix the position of cities and villages.
Connect the dots between stones and springs,
Run boundaries along valleys and streams.

Take the north end of Benjamin’s territory:

On the north side their boundary began at the Jordan, passed the northern slope of Jericho and headed west into the hill country, coming out at the wilderness of Beth Aven. From there it crossed to the south slope of Luz (that is, Bethel) …  Joshua 18:12-13

Now the compass shows that God’s promise is fulfilled.
We have a cartography of Israel.
A map of God’s faithfulness to his people and his Word.

They had come in from the desert.
Sailed into port.
They were home.

Compass in desert sand

Photo Credit: ecatoncheires

The Four Winds

40 years hiking through the wilderness.
Their Swannies and sweaters didn’t unravel.
The dubbin of God’s grace kept their boots from cracking.
The ointment of his care kept their feet from blistering.  (Deuteronomy 8:4)

The problem was,
They’d tramped through the muck of the idolatrous nations,
and they failed to wash the mud off their soles.

Israel deviated from God’s directions.
They plotted a course by other gods.

In the well watered land,
Their compass grew rusty.
Its needle began to stick.

“They mapped out crooked roads, and no one who follows them knows a moment’s peace.”  Isaiah 59:8, NLT

As the people lost their bearings,
their prophets brought warnings:

Re-orient your lives and walk in God’s way,
Or the compass will point to a darker destination.

The east wind will wither your crops.
A hurricane of armies will sweep in from the north.[4]
To north and south and west and east, you’ll be driven from the land.

Have you come to a track junction and asked which way to go?
Here is the most chilling junction in Israel’s history.
God said to the prophet Ezekiel:

Make a map and trace two routes on it for the sword of Babylon’s king to follow. Put a signpost on the road where it forks into two — one road going to Rabbah, and the other to fortified Jerusalem.

The king of Babylon now stands at the fork, uncertain whether to attack Jerusalem or Rabbah. He calls his magicians to look for omens. They cast lots by shaking arrows from the quiver. They inspect the livers of animal sacrifices. The omen in his right hand says, ‘Jerusalem!’  Ezekiel 21:19-22, NLT

They say women find map reading mysterious, but here is serious navigational magic.

The poles of the compass had shown God’s promised plans,
then his faithful fulfilment.
Now they revealed his devastating discipline.

The people were scattered to the four winds.  (eg Zechariah 2:6, 6:5)
The chart of God’s promise was shredded.
The nation of Israel was wiped off the map.

Compass of Compassion

Unlike today, early European maps often put east at the top.
That’s why we “orient” ourselves.

The Israelites also faced east – in Hebrew meaning red.
For the red cliffs of Edom to the east.
And the red of the rising sun.

Their back was to the west – the Hebrew word for sea.
North and south also mean left and right.

In Greek, east and west come from “rising” and “setting”.
“From east to west” is often translated “from the rising to the setting of the sun.”

Does this remind you of any verses, or an old song?

From the rising of the sun
to the going down of the same,
the name of the Lord shall be praised.
Psalm 113:3 (also Malachi 1:11)

And when he tried to escape God by sailing west across the sea,
Jonah found the truth of King David’s song:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
Psalm 139: 7-10

The Israelites were displaced peoples,
dragged and driven from their homeland.
But God was still there.
He was not lost.

He gave the prophets a new compass
with a new set of bearings.
He blazed a new trail to guide his people home.

Set up road signs;
put up guideposts…
return to your towns.
Jeremiah 31:21

Every family shall be reunited,
every broken heart bound up.
When the directions of scattering become the poles of a new promise.

Do not be afraid, for I am with you;
I will bring your children from the east
and gather you from the west.
I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’
and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’

Isaiah 43:5-6 (also Psalm 107:2-3)

Centuries later, Jesus confirmed these coordinates:

People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.  Luke 13:29

The Good Shepherd will not leave his sheep
snared in supple jack or struggling through scree.
He will carry all his lambs back home.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
Psalms 103:11-12

This might be my favourite directional verse. Turn your compass vertical and you’ve got it.

Now south points to the earth below, and north to the heavens above.
So unreachably high is God’s love.

Climb Mount Everest and gaze to the horizons in the east and west.
That’s how far away God takes our stumbling and our sin.

Take another look at your vertical compass.
What can you see?
The lines of a cross.
Where God’s love came down from heaven to earth.
Where his arms welcomed the world from east to west.
Where his forgiveness banished our sin.

The poles of the upright compass recall this prayer of Paul:

I pray that you may have power …
to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.
Ephesians 2:17-19

The dial of directions on a compass is called a rose.
Don’t you think a compass rose looks a little like a crown of thorns?

First compass rose, Catalan Atlas 1375

First known compass rose, Catalan Atlas 1375

Training Pointers

When the sun is shining and we’re swinging along a wide easy track.
Our compass may sink to the bottom of our pack
and our Bible gather dust under the bed.
They’ll be there, we think, if we need them some day.

But if we keep our compass to hand and keep an eye on our bearing,
If we pay attention to our life direction
and read the maps we’ve been given,
We’re less likely to slowly drift off course.

To cite my Bushcraft Manual again:

A compass is useful only if you know how to use it.  Regular practice is the best way to increase your ability and confidence so that you are less likely to make a mistake when under pressure.

When night falls, blacking out our vision in pain.
When the wind blows the snow into a whiteout of confusion.
It’s not a good time to find you can’t find your compass.
Or to argue which end of the needle points north.

I’m mindful that sermons should have a striking personal story.
So perhaps it’s time to relate how I lost my tramping party in Fiordland.
Eating nothing for eight days except a raw moa egg,
fighting off giant tuataras and tarantulas,
I made it through a maze of moose tracks, following that slim bar of magnetised metal.
I was saved by my trusty compass!

Alas, I’ve never had such thrills: my tramping has been too tame.

But I have found it’s good to study the map and compass of Scripture
When I’ve got light and leisure to read.
So when the lights go out,
when life leaves me dazed and disoriented,
God’s directions are in my heart and the words I need to hear come to mind.

When boarding a 767 to fly into the unknown, and feeling pretty anxious,
I’ve been grateful to know God’s promise to my royal namesake:

Though I take the wings of the dawn and settle far across the sea, (Psalm 139:9)
I’ll never be away from God’s encompassing presence.
I will always be found at the latitude and longitude of his love.

A Star in the East

The compass answers two of our biggest questions.

Firstly, where are we?
It is a bipolar paradox.

We are exiles, east of Eden.
Wanderers in a land of thorns blasted by the winds.
All at sea without a compass.
We are lost.

And yet,
from north to south, we’re still on God’s good land.
From east to west, we cannot lose his presence.

No matter how deep you’ve fallen,
how far you’ve sailed or strayed,
Remember your vertical compass.

The love of Christ goes deeper,
God’s forgiveness stretches further.
Whatever we’ve done, wherever we go,
His mercy will encompass us.  (Psalm 32:10)

If you’re feeling lost,
Here’s how trampers can find their location:
Measure the compass angle to 2 points that you can see.
Mark these lines on your map.
Where they cross marks your spot.

If we take our bearings
from the mountain of God’s love and the rock of his forgiveness.
We’ll find ourselves at the intersection.
We’ll be safely home at the cross.

Once we know where we are, the question is:
where are we going?

Having surveyed every direction of Scripture
with magnetic compass in the hand,
We’ll consult the Creator’s compass in the heavens.

Mediaeval mariners called the compass their Guiding Star,
pointing them to the North Pole Star.
Down here in the Antipodes,
the Southern Cross shows the south celestial pole.

For Peter Pan, the way to Neverland was
“the second star to the right, and straight on till morning.”

And what’s the first direction in the New Testament?
Wise men from the East saw a star in the East.
That signalled the coming of Emmanuel (Matthew 2:2, 9)

As Advent begins,
let us join them and follow Jesus Christ, the bright Morning Star (Revelation 22:16).
Travelling not to Neverland, but to the eternal land.

Let us turn our backs to the west
Where the sun sets and darkness falls.
As in old churches,
let us face east – the most common direction in Scripture.

The prophet Ezekiel saw the glory of God coming from the east (Ezekiel 43:2).

On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem from the east.
One week later, he sprang to life as the sun rose in the east.

Jews believe the Messiah will enter the temple through the eastern Golden Gate. [5]
Jesus said he will return like lightning flashing from east to west (Matthew 24:7)

When he does, and we come home to the New Jerusalem,
we’ll see the Bible’s final compass points.

Unlike the entrance to Eden,
The city of God has gates to north and south and west and east,
that welcome all nations and are never closed.  (Revelation 21:13)

Until then, let us take our bearings from the compass of God’s Word.
Let us map our route by his forgiveness and love.
Let us set our sights on the constellation of the Cross,
And follow it straight on till morning.

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Robert Louis Stevenson

Compass rose star on map

Photo Credit: ecatoncheires

A Navigator’s Prayer

Lord, here I am.

I’ve hiked down many tracks
And followed many roads.
I’ve roamed with the four winds
And sailed the seven seas.

I’ve lost sight of your compass and I’ve lost myself.
I still don’t know how to go home.

So I ask you Lord, to teach me your way.
Lead me on the path of your will.
Direct my steps by the map of your Word.
By the compass of your wisdom point me straight and true to you.

Thank you that I can stray to the ends of the earth, and still you are there.
Thank you for your promise to carry me back home.
Thank you for the blood-red rose, the compass of your cross.

Help me to navigate
By your love that reaches from heaven to earth.
Your forgiveness that stretches from east to west.
Your grace that lasts from my fall to your future,
Your mercy that compasses me from pole to pole.

Give me your lantern and compass,Compass Rose Cross give me a map,
So I can find my way to the sacred mountain,
to the place of your presence.
Psalm 43:3, The Message

If this hike was helpful, you might also enjoy the tramping themes
in my sermon Psalm 48: Hobbits, Hikers & the Shining City.

[1] For more information, see the recent post
[2] For more information, see The symbolism of the four cardinal directions
[3] see The Four Winds of the Bible, and The Four Winds of the Bible (2)  by an Indian meteorologist.
[4] e.g. Isaiah 27:8, Jeremiah 1:14, 18:17, Ezekiel 17:10, 19:12
[5] See,