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Psalm 114

Joyful invitation to faith

The Jews who returned from exile were disgraced and marginalized in their own land, much like the church today. This psalm reminds them of who their God is and, wonderfully, it does so with playfulness, not anger.

Praise Yahveh![1]
1 When Israel came out of Egypt—
when Jacob’s family escaped
from a people babbling in a strange tongue—
2 Judah became his sanctuary
and Israel his domain.

3 The sea saw it and bolted
the Jordan River turned tail and ran.
4 The mountains jumped like rams
and the hills skipped like lambs.

5 What was wrong with you, sea
that you bolted?
And you, Jordan
that you ran away?
6 Why, mountains
did you jump like rams
and you hills, skip like lambs?

7 Tremble, Earth
before Yahveh!
Tremble before the God of Jacob!
8 He turned solid rock
into a pool of water
hard rock into a gushing spring.

Israel’s pagan overlords didn’t make life easy for the Jews who returned from exile. This psalm uses the exodus, Israel’s signature story, to address that challenge. And it does so with playful pugnacity, by ridiculing the sea and river, etc., and then challenging the whole earth to submit to the omnipotent God who cares for his people.

Something about Israel’s departure from Egypt terrified the waters and made the earth quake. But instead of saying what it was, the psalmist taunts the natural formations, leaving them mute before her taunts. She also brings us on stage for, by voicing her words, we join her taunting and relish the resultant silence.

Only when the psalmist commands Earth to tremble, are we told what overwhelmed nature in the exodus. But since these were Israel’s best-known stories, her readers knew the secret all along, the psalm’s dramatic irony making her jibes all the more lively and powerful.

The psalm’s images of Yahveh’s controlling water evoke the region’s creation myths, in which Ba’al subdued the chaotic waters to permit the ordering of creation. These images underscore Earth’s need to submit to Yahveh absolutely. And the fact that the psalm ends with God’s tender care for his people tells us he’s just as compassionate as he is powerful.

Lord, you defeated all the powers of darkness dehumanizing and mocking your people in Egypt. And, Jesus, you defeated evil itself in your death-and-resurrection exodus. When I feel powerless, against the evil around me, help me believe you have absolute agency and you live in me. Amen.

In your free moments today, meditate on these words:

Tremble, Earth, before Yahveh!
Tremble before the God of Jacob!


[1] This assumes that Ps. 114 originally began with “Praise Yahveh,” which a scribe mistakenly moved to the end of Ps. 113. Without this, Ps. 114 is the only one of the Hallel (Praise) Psalms that doesn’t explicitly either praise God, while Ps. 113 is the only one that both begins and ends with “Praise Yahveh.” Also, the pronoun “his” in Ps. 114:2 seems to demand either “God” or “Yahveh” as its antecedent, which “Praise Yahveh” would have originally supplied.

Why Yahveh?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and occasionally transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Modern translations, likewise, either translate or transliterate it. While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it is more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. I’ve chosen to transliterate it to root it more firmly in the biblical story as the name—meaning the “self-existent One”—that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. This name set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it in order better to hallow it. In transliterating it, I follow the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard. He advocated transliterating it as Yahveh—pronounced yah·vay—arguing that following the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish than Yahweh.
May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Robert Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.