“Baptism” by William P. Chappel (1870s). This scene depicts a congregation gathering at a beach on Corlear’s Hook for a service of baptism. Public Domain.
Psalm 114 New Revised Standard Version
1When 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 [Dance], 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.
Psalm 114 is part of Hallel, a Jewish prayer that is recited on Jewish holidays as a sign of praise and devotion. In Matthew 26:30, the gospel mentions that Jesus and his disciples sang a psalm after the last supper. The psalm was likely the Hallel.
The psalms that comprise Hallel (chapters 113-118) praise God for bringing the Hebrew people out of Egypt and into the promised land, among other mighty acts. Today’s psalm is a wonderful example of this overall theme with a few interesting wrinkles.
The noted 18th-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder called Psalm 114, “one of the most beautiful odes in any language.” Part of its beauty lies in the psalm’s reinterpretation of two concepts: “sanctuary” and “divinity.”
Ancient near eastern Gods lived in sanctuaries and temples. Some believed that gods literally dwelled in these holy sites. Others thought that they lived in those sacred places metaphorically while actually living on top of mountains, in the heavens, seas, or underground. Regardless, these sanctuaries, temples, and shrines were physical, they could be located on a map, and they were made of stone, metal, dirt, and wood. Psalm 114 challenges this concept. God’s presence is always with God’s people, so the community is never separated from the blessings, guidance, protection, and providence of their God.
Ancient near eastern gods were also depicted as showing their power through the subjugation of the natural world. Often, gods are described as bringing mountains low, causing rivers to dry up and blotting out the sun. It feels like our psalm is moving that direction: rivers flee, and mountains tremble. But the end of the psalm turns this notion on their head. The waters and mountains are dancing in the presence of God, skipping around like baby lambs.
If the pandemic did not feel like an old hat weeks ago, it’s feeling that way today. Small protests are taking place in front of state capitol buildings across the country because people feel restless and worried about returning to work. Many of us with children are on April break this week, which means the same togetherness, but with less structure. Some folks are sick and worry about recovering while others have a sick loved one or have lost a loved one to this illness. All of us are wondering when everything will open back up and what precautions we will have to follow over the next several months. Even if we sense that the worst is possible over, there’s anxiety in not knowing what’s coming next.
It is interesting to note that Psalm 114 was written late, after Judah’s exile to Babylon. When the exiles were free to return to their homeland, many did not. For some, it was better to live in the subjugation they knew than the complete unknown. Today, Biblical scholars like Marc Zvi Brettler see this psalm as a type of travel brochure to encourage Jews living in Babylon to return to Judah and its holy city, Jerusalem. Those living in exile need not worry about being away from their houses of worship in Babylon. God is not in them. God is in the people. Instead of showing power through cycles of violence and conquest like other regional gods, the God of Israel shows power by bringing joy and dancing to the natural world.
We do well to remember that the God of our faith promises a presence in community and creation and that we are never left alone from divine blessing, protection, and care. Even in this anxious time, we are called to travel on, trusting that God goes before us and with us and behind us all along the way. There will be joy and dancing again. And gatherings with hugs too.