From Learning to Love the Psalms
Let us look at a psalm as an illustration of how attractive and spiritually powerful the Psalter is. Psalm 114 was especially loved by the French Huguenots and helps us to reflect on what they treasured in the psalms and to whet our appetite for more. The French Huguenots sang this psalm often and gladly (even though the Genevan tune to which it was set strikes our contemporary ears as very strange and difficult). It was also a psalm that was important to God’s people in Old Testament times for it was part of the “Egyptian Hallel,” Psalms 113–118, which was sung by the Jews at the Passover season.
It is a psalm so brief and simple that it may not initially impress the reader. The psalm simply remembers Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, the house of bondage. Is it really special in any way? The great Old Testament scholar Franz Delitzsch thought so, declaring it to be “as majestic as it is charming.” Psalm 114 in particular exalts God as our deliverer, a truth that is especially important to Christians who are facing persecution.
The Power of God
Psalm 114 begins by celebrating the power of God to save his people. We see God’s power over the nations: “When Israel went out from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah became his sanctuary, Israel his dominion,” (vv.1-2). God rescued his own people after hundreds of years of slavery from one of the world’s most powerful nations. Even today, when we survey the ruins of Egypt’s ancient glory, we marvel at the accomplishments of such a civilization. Think how much more little Israel must have marveled, having seen that civilization at the height of its achievement – seeing those “ruins” in their complete and functioning character, knowing nothing else to compare with such architectural grandeur.
After hundreds of years in Egypt, Israel still felt like strangers there. Egyptians were “a people of strange language.” We may be surprised that the Israelites resisted assimilation so successfully, but they retained their distinct ethnicity, language, and religion. The Egyptians may have claimed that their glory came from their gods, but such claims did not impress the people of the living God. In another song of the Egyptian Hallel, the Israelites sang of the Egyptian gods (and of all the world’s gods): “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them,” (Psalm 115:4-8). Israel’s experience proved to them that the Egyptian gods were powerless in the face of the true and living God.
How did French Protestants come so to identify with the sentiments of this psalm? They were not of a different ethnic group or a different language from their Roman Catholic countrymen who persecuted them. Because of their newfound religious convictions, however, they did come to feel like foreigners in their own country. In their new faith, they were “God’s elect, strangers in the world,” (1 Peter 1:1), and “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations,” (James 1:1). They were a new creation and did not fit simply into this world any longer. Rather, they were “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” called to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called them out of darkness into his marvelous light,” (1 Peter 2:9). By faith in Christ, they had received a whole new identity.
Psalm 114 calls us as Christians of the twenty-first century to ask ourselves about our identity. Are we at home in this world, or do we feel in some sense that we are foreigners even in our native land? Do we have a profound sense that the saving power of God has rescued us from a life of bondage and slavery in which the world as a whole still lives?
In this psalm, the power of God is manifest not only in his control of the nations, but also in his control of nature. We read that “the sea looked and fled,” (v. 3). We see God’s power in his parting the Red Sea so that his people would be saved from the power of Pharaoh’s army. God led his people out of Egypt: “Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters,” (Psalm 77:19). By the mighty power of God, Israel went “through the sea on dry ground,” (Exodus 14:16).
We also read that the “Jordan turned back,” (Psalm 114:3). Here, the psalm reminds us of Israel’s entrance into the Land of Promise. Once again, God’s power over nature opened a way that seemed impossible. God not only rescued his people from slavery. He also provided a land flowing with milk and honey for them.
God’s power also affected the mountains: “The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs,” (v. 4). This verse may seem more difficult to place. Yet, it must in the first place refer to Israel’s meeting with God at Mount Sinai. That meeting is most often represented as terrifying: “Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly,” (Exodus 19:18). But the terror of Sinai is for sinners who meet with a holy God. In Psalm 114, the mountains are presented as joyful, delighted in the coming of God. The hills celebrate the goodness of God in coming to rescue and make a covenant with his people.
Verses 5 and 6 of our psalm repeat the language of verses 3 and 4 but ask why the waters and the mountains have reacted as they do. The implication is that nature knows and recognizes the power of its God, but that humans often misunderstand or ignore the power of God. A contrast is implied between the reaction of insensible nature and rational man. Man, created to be the image of God and to fellowship with God, fails to see the truth, whereas nature, with no faculty for reasoning, recognizes its God. These verses remind us of Jesus’s words when the Pharisees called on him to stop his disciples from praising him. Jesus responded, “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out,” (Luke 19:40).
When Psalm 114 celebrates the saving power of God for his people, it draws our minds as Christians to the work of Christ. All of the Old Testament points to Christ and is fulfilled in Christ. Jesus’s death is called his exodus, (Luke 9:31), and at his crucifixion, God used his power over nature to point to the importance of his work on the cross. The sky turned dark in the hours that he suffered as testimony to the darkness of this moment in history. The power of God raised Jesus from the dead and made him “the ruler of kings on Earth, (Revelation 1:5). Here the power of God over the nations is displayed. In his ascension, Jesus entered the Heavenly Jerusalem to prepare a place for us in that Land of Promise. The saving work of Christ shows us the deepest meaning of Psalm 114.
As we survey the weakness of the church in our time and the indifference of so much of the world to our Christ, we may be tempted to wonder if he really is “the ruler of kings of the Earth.” But then, Israel must have often wondered in their times of difficulty and seeming unimportance in the world whether their God was really all-powerful. Psalms such as Psalm 114 reminded them – and remind us – that our God is indeed the saving God: He rescued Israel from Egypt and he has rescued us through the work of Christ. All the Earth should indeed tremble before this God.
The Presence of God
Psalm 114 next moves from celebrating the power of God to stressing the presence of God to care for his people: “Tremble, O Earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob,” (v. 7). He is present everywhere with his power, and the only appropriate response of sinners is to tremble before him. His glory causes even his redeemed and beloved people to tremble, (Hebrews 12:28-29).
God is present today as king over the whole Earth. “The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the Earth?” (Psalm 113:4-6). But his kingship has a special relationship to people. He rules his people as his “dominion,” (v. 2). He rules them as his sanctuary, (v. 2), making them holy, forming them into a holy nation: “For all the Earth is mine; you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” (Exodus 19:5-6). The Huguenots appropriated the truths of this psalm for themselves in the face of their bitter persecution and stood confidently in God’s sovereign rule.
For Christians, the presence of God with his people is known above all in Jesus Christ. He is Immanuel, God with us, (Matthew 1:23). He is the Word made flesh who dwelled among us, (John 1:14). He is our King, our High Priest, and our temple. Only in Jesus do we know the full presence of God with his people that Psalm 114 celebrates.
The Provision of God
Finally, this psalm presents the provision of God in blessing his people. Who is our God? Our God is the God “who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water,” (v. 8). The psalm here commemorates the time when Israel was encamped at Rephidim (later called Massah and Meribah; see Exodus 17). Israel had been delivered from Egypt but began to complain that the Lord would let her die of thirst in the wilderness. God told Moses to take his staff and to strike the rock. So Moses took his staff – the one with which he struck the Nile and turned it to blood, the one that he stretched over the Red Sea to divine it – and struck the rock on which God said that he would stand. From the rock flowed that water necessary to keep the people alive. God had once again provided all that his people needed to sustain them.
This part of the psalm also points to Christ. The Apostle Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 10:2-4. Referring to Israel, he writes: “All were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” Jesus was the rock in the wilderness from which water came for the people. Jesus is the water of life. As he said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water,'” (John 7:38-39). He delivers us by his power, his presence, and his provision for us in Christ.
Perhaps now, having looked at Psalm 114 with some care, we can see why the Huguenots loved this psalm. It spoke of their God in ways that helped them know him and believe in him. It reassured them in the face of their persecutors. This psalm defined for them who they were. They lived in this psalm. This is how we too should live.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What was the significance of Psalm 114 to Israel’s deliverance from Egypt? How does it exalt God and comfort Christians who are facing persecution?
- In relation to God’s being all-powerful, how does Psalm 114 remind Christians of the twenty-first century to question their identity in this world?
- How does Psalm 114 describe the presence and provision of God to care for and bless his people? How have past and present Christians experienced this presence and provision?