Introduction: My Journey with the Psalms
The Psalms have been perhaps my most consistent and steadfast partner throughout my Christian walk. For the past half-decade or so, since my earliest days as a Christian, I have made it a practice to read the Psalms daily and programmatically: twice a day—morning and evening–and through the whole book in a month. Of course, my consistency with this has waxed and waned, and it has never been perfect. Yet, that has never been the point. Rather, the point is that the Psalms have been spiritual nourishment for me, and every time I spend time with them God’s grace and power and love become present and begin to scintillate.
This said, I like to work my way through a book on the Psalms every once in a while in order to deepen and broaden my devotional appreciation. The first I ever read—a while back by now—was a work by N. T. Wright called The Case for the Psalms. It is a short, very accessible, and unique book. In it Wright characterizes the Psalms as poems that transform the reader/pray-er/singer; they reorient the imagination around what God was ultimately up to in Jesus Christ. In other words, they point to the Messiah and his work. As Wright beautifully puts it, “They are God’s gifts to us so that we can be shaped as his gifts to the world.”1 Later I would read another book called The Psalter Reclaimed by Gordon Wenham. It is a wonderful little book comprised of a series of lectures reworked into essays. It is somewhat more academic (and therefore perhaps less interesting to the lay-reader) than Wright’s book, but not overly-technical. Especially interesting is his essay incorporating speech-act theory into an understanding of what exactly is happening when the Psalms are individually or corporately sung and prayed.
Currently I am reading a work by Erich Zenger, whom I originally discovered through Wenham. I have a two volume set of four of his works on the Psalms called Psalmen: Auslegungen. (Yes, that is German.) Right now I am working through the first book of volume I, entitled Mit meinem Gott überspringe ich Mauern.2 Zenger is certainly much more academic than the others, though he does not write in an overly-technical manner. Though he often makes use of historical, redaction, and at times form criticism, I find his use of these methodologies to be constructive and insightful rather than overly deconstructive and pallid. In other words, they vivify his interpretations of the Psalms rather than flatten and discolor them.
For the most part I find his interpretations enlightening and invigorating. So far I have sensed a bit of influence from liberation theology (though not overly so; a healthy degree of it) and perhaps a Rahner-esque inclusivism; though, this is not pervasive. (furthermore, it is difficult to pick up on these subtleties in a language that is not my primary language.) The man has a real passion for the Psalms, and he has a wonderful ability to open up an individual Psalm and place the reader in awe and wonder before the God whom it extols.
Despite the long introduction, my real interest here is to spend some time with Psalm 114, Zenger’s analysis of which I have just finished reading. This Psalm, like much of the Old Testament, is concise and multi-faceted: several Old Testament themes poetically fold in on themselves throughout its few verses. Further, the entire story and hope of the entire Old Testament runs straight through this Psalm, pointing off into the murky and dark distance with a prominent question-mark, asking what it will look like when this Exodus God acts yet once again. For its original readers, this question had an open and mysterious, unanswerable answer. For us, it has of course been answered beyond all reckoning and expectation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Introduction to Psalm 114
To get us going, here is the text of the Psalm. For now, we will mostly be paying attention to the first two verses, but it is worthwhile to familiarize oneself with it in its entirety.
Psalm 114 (NRSV)
1 When Israel went out from Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
2 Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.
3 The sea looked and fled;
Jordan turned back.
4 The mountains skipped like rams,
the hills like lambs.
5 Why is it, O sea, that you flee?
O Jordan, that you turn back?
6 O mountains, that you skip like rams?
O hills, like lambs?
7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 who turns the rock into a pool of water,
the flint into a spring of water.
In terms of the Psalm as a whole, first to be noticed is the structural division into four stanzas, each consisting of two verses. This should be apparent in well typographed Bibles. Second, one should also notice the chiastic structure of the poem (A B B’ A’), that is the inner two stanzas correspond to one another, while the outer two stanzas (here less obviously) correspond to one another, forming a frame around the poem. (These latter are primarily linked by the key phrases “house of Jacob” (v. 1) and “God of Jacob” (v. 7). The chiastic structure opens a channel between the first and final stanzas that is ordinarily unavailable to a merely linear flow of thought. As such (and as will become apparent), the fourth stanza depicts more or less “the depth dimension and the further outworking of the Exodus celebrated in the first stanza.”3
Observations on vv. 1-2
Now we will focus on only the first two verses (the first stanza) of the Psalm. As just mentioned, this first stanza relates and extols the exodus of Israel out of Egypt. Zenger makes what I see as three main points about the Psalms characterization of the Exodus. First, the verb “went out” carries multiple levels of signification in the theology of the Old Testament.4 Zenger enumerates four connotations: 1. Israel’s leaving-behind of its existence in Egypt; 2. delivery from physical need and danger, 3. embarking on a new “adventure” or state of existence; and 4. going out to war. These four meanings should be kept in the back of one’s mind in reading this Psalm and should be allowed to add vibrancy to the poem.
Second, the Psalmist writes that the Israelites went out “from a people of a strange language” (v. 1b). Zenger notes that this phrase is itself a hapax legomenon, but goes on to note that there are similar themes elsewhere in the Old Testament.5 In these other texts, being surrounded by people of a strange language is related to the concepts “foreignness, hostility, and threats to one’s life.”6
Third, and perhaps most important is the new existence to which Israel is called. The story of the Exodus is not the story of self-emancipation, nor is it the story of self-transformation, nor yet is it about political and cultural self-actualization. (Though not a little historical-critical ink has been spilled deconstructing it into merely one or another of these stories.) The story of the Exodus is rather the story of the God who emancipates, who transforms, and who actualizes. In the midst of a band of slaves, the God of the Exodus has created a new reality—not merely subjectively and existentially, but objectively. The story of the Exodus, the story which the Psalmist now calls to the reader’s mind, is ultimately a self-revealing of Israel’s God.
Israel set free is now called to be the sanctuary and dominion of the One who sets them free (really, the One who sets free). This is towards the purpose of the Exodus God, such that with Israel as his sanctuary and dominion “he is now beginning to work out his salvation in this world and this history.”7 Zenger further writes, “Israel is of course not to be YHWH’s sanctuary for itself, but rather for the Gentiles. In and from his sanctuary outwards YHWH is beginning to transform the entire world.”8
Conclusion pro tem
In these first two verses the Psalmist has called to mind with incredible concision the creation narrative of Israel and the self-revelation of YHWH through His work. The import and essence of Israel’s entire founding and calling is contained within so few words, that, as in the gravitational crunch of a star gone supernova, they give off an incredible amount of heat and light.
Ultimately this stanza is a statement of the character of YHWH, the God of the Exodus. He is the one who meets the enslaved and downtrodden Israel in the depths of its despair. YHWH breaks into the Israelites’ existential misery among the people of a strange language as a bright light and fresh, powerful wind. He is the One who liberates Israel, opening up a new and life-giving possibility of existence for its people, freeing them from hunger and danger, and preparing them for battle. No other God in history has shown Himself to be so intimately concerned with the plight of a people. And yet, this is not the end of it. In Israel he has established his kingdom and his sanctuary, not only for the sake of Israel in itself (though certainly also for Israel in itself), but in order to work his saving power to the rest of the world also.
Now, on this side of the cross, it is important for us to remember that the God who revealed Himself in the face Jesus Christ is the very same God who first chose to reveal Himself in the Exodus. He is the One who stands and fights for slaves, freeing them for new life in relationship with Him, and this not only existentially and subjectively but historically and objectively. Further, He frees towards a purpose, and those whom He frees He calls and prepares to witness to His liberation.
1 N. T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013), 36.
2 By my God I can leap over a wall, from Psalm 18:29.
3 Erich Zenger, Mit meinem Gott überspringe ich Mauern, vol. 1, Psalmen: Auslegungen (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 2011), 126.
4 The Hebrew here is an infinitive phrase with יצא, and the Greek Septuagint uses a noun phrase with ἔξοδος, from which we get the English word “exodus.”
5 A hapax legomenon is a phrase or word that occurs only once in a corpus.
6 Zenger, Mit meinem Gott, 129.“Fremdartigkeit, Feindseligkeit, und Lebensbedrohung.”
7Zenger, Mit meinem Gott, 129-130. “dass er das Heil schon jetzt in dieser Welt und in dieser Geschichte zu wirken beginnt.”
8Zenger, Mit meinem Gott, 129. “Israel soll freilich nicht JHWHs Heiligtum für sich selbst sein, sondern für die Völker. In und von seinem Heiligtum Israel aus fängt JHWH an, die ganze Welt zu verwandeln.”