When Israel came out of Egypt,
Jacob from a people of foreign tongue,
Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.
The sea looked and fled,
the Jordan turned back;
the mountains leaped like rams,
the hills like lambs.
This Psalm is the second in a series of songs (Psalms 113–118) which reflects upon and celebrates YHWH’s rescue of his people from bondage on Egypt and which are sometimes referred to as ‘Egyptian Hallel Psalms’ – ‘hallel’ meaning ‘Praise God’.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of the Exodus within the Jewish faith – God hearing the cries of the poor and liberating them from the living death of slavery and bringing them to the land that he had promised to their ancestor Abraham. The Passover meal has been celebrated by Jewish families down the millennia and is still celebrated all around the world today. The Passover also forms the backdrop to Christian celebrations of the eucharist which in turn points to how Jesus, the lamb of God, defeated the powers of sin and death that enslave us and how in him we have been become one people and have the promised land of God’s kingdom, when God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The actual events of the escape from slavery are passed over in a hurry and the focus is on how nature, waters, rivers, hills and mountains respond to the God of creation coming to save his people. The rescue of this band of insignificant slaves and associated hangers-on is of cosmic significance (Exodus 12:38).
The climatic verses of the Psalm present a challenge to the status quo. In all the changes of life and the changing of the seasons it seems sometimes that only the earth endures but the ‘seemingly stable’ twists and turns, convulses in the presence of the living God. It would be a mistake to limit these changes solely to geology. In the Bible, earth-shattering, world-moving language often speaks of very human changes in the way in which societies are organised. Walter Brueggemann comments that ‘nothing is secure when the God of liberation begins to move.’ With the God of exodus and resurrection, there is no more business as usual.
The final verse speaks of refreshment and renewal. In the parched and barren wasteland God had brought water gushing from the rock (Exodus 17:1–7, Numbers 20:1–11) and brought at least a temporary pause to the Israelites moaning and grumbling. The experience of the wilderness was not the only time of hardship for God’s people. The experience of the exile was bitter. Babylon was the new Egypt, the land of captivity. They might not have actually been slaves but they certainly weren’t free. At that desperate and dark time Isaiah encouraged the exiles that what God had done in the past he would do again, that he would rescue them and that they would flourish in a well-watered land (Isaiah 41:17–20). Like the exiles we might long for the days when the sea flees and the mountains skip but the original story, the Psalm and its reappropriation by Isaiah encourage us that what God has done once he can do again.
In the New Testament, Paul identifies the mysterious ‘rolling rock’ from which the Israelites drank as being none other than Christ himself (1 Corinthians 10:4). It is a strange image but it speaks of how the Exodus was the work of the triune God and how Christ accompanied his people as they journeyed through the wilderness and how he was there for them as a constant source of refreshment in time of need.
In John’s gospel, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that he is the source of living water and that if she drank it, that she would never thirst again. It’s a claim that Jesus repeats later on when he says ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink’ (John 4:9–15, 7:37). When Jesus gave that invitation, it was at the Feast of Tabernacles and in the Temple the choir would have just sung this very psalm. It is a stupendous claim. In Jesus we meet the God who rescues the slaves, who returns the exiles to their home and who satisfies a thirst that no other can quench.