It has been quite a while since I last wrote about this psalm. Now it’s about time to take a further look and see what the middle two stanzas making up the center of the poem are all about. First, however, a quick recap of the first stanza.
Looking Backward: Psalm 114:1-2
When Judah went out from Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of a strange language
Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.
In a nutshell this stanza retells the story of the Exodus and establishes the God of Israel as the Exodus-God. That is, he has revealed himself in this world as the one who leads people out of chaos and oppression into abundant life with him. The Exodus then is Yhwh’s act of self-revelation in which he reveals his character and quality. This revelation is unique not least in that “while the gods of the nations had images, statues, and temples as means of revelation, the God of Israel reveals himself in the Exodus of his people.”1
Further, the Exodus was not only the locus of Yhwh’s self-revelation, it is also the center of his continued salvific work. Through the Exodus Israel is made God’s “sanctuary” and “dominion.”2 They become the center of Yhwh’s salvation to the rest of the world. Thus, Israel is not an end in itself, but it is the means by which Yhwh will continue to deliver the needy and poor and cast down the oppressor.
Now for the next two stanzas:
Looking Forward: Psalm 114:3-6
The sea looked and fled;
Jordan turned back.
The mountains skipped like rams,
the hills like lambs.
Why is it, O sea, that you flee?
O Jordan, that you turn back?
O mountains, that you skip like rams?
O hills, like lambs?
The parallelism of these two stanzas is immediately obvious. Less obvious is what these lines are actually meant to signify. The poetic, mythical imagery seems far removed from the historical, political Exodus-event of the prior stanza.
Upon closer investigation, however, the sea (Red Sea) and Jordan are closely related to the Exodus. They bookend the period of time between Egypt and Canaan. Interestingly, these features of the environment are said to autonomously make way for Yhwh, who is not explicitly mentioned here but whose presence is implied, as he leads his people out of Egypt to Canaan.
Zenger notes that not only this psalm relates the events at the Red Sea and Jordan River in the Biblical canon, but also Joshua 4:23-24: “For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and so that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” This not only gives credence to our interpretation of the psalm, but it also promotes a reading of Exodus-Wandering-Conquest as a unified (though variegated) work of Yhwh.
At the glorious sight of the Exodus-God, who leads the Israelite slaves out of their awful and deathly subjugation to the tyranny of Pharaoh, the waters flee. The world indeed behaves in strange ways when Yhwh is at work.
Likely, the references to mountains and hills indicate a yet further layer to the journey from Egypt to Canaan—from slavery to freedom. This would be the intervening wandering between the happenings at the Red Sea and the Jordan River. At the sight of Yhwh’s glory and might as he triumphantly leads his people through the wilderness—just after having crushed their oppressive captors along with their divine ruler—the mountains and hills fearfully and reverently make way for this warrior king. Yhwh is the one who judges with righteousness and justice, who defends the cause of the poor, who delivers the needy, and who crushes the oppressor.3 Creation has only just witnessed this strange One at work and acknowledges him as he passes by.
Zenger notes three dimensions to this imagery that I think are worth paying attention to: 1. It testifies to the originary event of Israel which is historical and political, implicitly acknowledging the narrative of the Pentateuch which is Exodus-Wandering-Conquest. 2. It ties in with Second Exodus themes, the end of Judah’s exile in Babylon and return home attested to not least in Isaiah 40-55.4 3. It testifies to the primordial battle against chaos and death.5 Often in the Old Testament the sea and its creatures symbolize the death-generative, chaos-creating forces of the world. The waters fleeing from Yhwh says more than that the creation responded strangely to the presence of its Creator, but it also symbolizes Yhwh’s conquering of death and evil, historically actualized in Pharaoh himself!6
The third stanza, vv. 5-6, closely parallels the second. However, there are vital differences. The landscape is here directly interrogated, and the time frame is no longer past but present. Zenger aptly comments that this stanza is then the direct address of the psalm’s pray-ers.7 This brings the redemptive, freeing, and life-giving work of Yhwh into the present. It was not merely a one-time event—but Yhwh continues to work his Exodus power! The direct address of the psalm calls us as readers to inquire into the glory and power of Yhwh as he creates life and destroys chaos.
Reflections on the Gospel of Mark
Near the end of the second gospel, Jesus and his disciples join together to celebrate the Passover. This evening would mark the beginning of the day of Jesus’ crucifixion.8 As the Passover celebration comes to a close, Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples sung “the hymn” before setting out for the Mount of Olives.9 This hymn that they sang was likely the Hallel, consisting in a verbatim recitation of psalms 113-118, which Jews have sung on special holidays, including the Passover, since ancient times.10 Mark tells us that immediately after reciting the Hallel Jesus foreshadows and encapsulates his crucifixion in a speech to his disciples. Where he was to go, no other could follow. His own disciples would desert him, leaving him entirely alone and forsaken on the cross. (Though, even here we see a glimmer off the glory of Jesus’ resurrection in v. 28.)
Here is the passage in full:
When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written,
‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’
But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.11
The Hallel was singularly conceived to praise Yhwh. It cannot be by coincidence that in the hinge between Jesus’ celebration of the Passover and his betrayal and crucifixion that Mark emphasizes the Hallel. The Passover celebrates Yhwh’s act of power and deliverance in the Exodus. Jesus’ crucifixion and celebration is a yet greater Exodus—one in which the entire cosmos participates. In between we are pointed to a song of praise to Yhwh.
Psalm 114 sits squarely within the Hallel. Imagining the disciples singing it with Jesus brings these two stanzas above into greater relief. The past tense of the second stanza recalls the magnificence of the first Exodus, which the disciples remember in song. As they enter the third stanza, one can imagine them turning to interrogate the waters and mountains in the present tense. What had once happened in the past was yet again occuring: in the past they had skipped and fled at the sight of Yhwh passing by, leading his people from slavery to freedom. Now they skip and flee once again at the glory and magnificence of Yhwh on his way to the cross, leading the cosmos itself from slavery to freedom.
1 Erich Zenger, Mit meinem Gott überspringe ich Mauern, vol. 1, Psalmen: Auslegungen (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 2011), 130.
2 According to the NRSV.
3 This language comes from Ps 72:2, 4.
4 A particular interest of mine. Hopefully, more on this in later posts.
5 See Ezek 29-31, esp. 29:3-7, where Pharaoh is likened to a great dragon (crocodile?) who sits in the Nile.
6 Erich Zenger, Mit meinem Gott überspringe ich Mauern, vol. 1, Psalmen: Auslegungen (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 2011), 132-137.
7 Ibid., 138.
8 The Hebrews, unlike us, measured days from evening to evening.
9 Mark 14:26.
10 “Hallel” (הלל) means “praise.” Pss 145-150 can be known by the same name, and Ps. 136 is sometimes called the “Great Hallel.”
11 Mk 14:26-31.