Evening Prayer on the 23rd day of the month sees Psalm 114 leading the Psalms Appointed for that Office. It’s a short psalm, which is always helpful for those who are new to praying the psalms, and it explores the theme of hope in a curious way.
It begins and ends with pairs of verses that address something that God has done:
1 When Israel came out of Egypt,
and the house of Jacob from among a people of foreign tongue,
2 Judah was God’s sanctuary,
and Israel his dominion.
7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 Who turned the hard rock into a pool of water,
and the flint stone into a springing well.
These book-ends frame this Psalm as a celebration of deliverance. It looks back to the time of the exodus from Egypt, and proclaims the goodness of God. He provided water in the desert! Israel was his people, his dominion, and also his sanctuary – that is, his Temple, the place where God lived. The presence and power of God among his own people is always a great comfort, and especially in times of trouble.
I should note, also, that although Israel and Judah ended up becoming separate kingdoms, they were often spoken of together, poetically and prophetically, as forming a single whole. Thus when verse 2 mentions both Judah and Israel, we’re probably meant to interpret that as being two aspects of the same thing, rather than two separate entities with separate descriptions.
The middle of the psalm is very big on imagery, and may be a bit distracting for someone unused to Hebrew poetry.
3 The sea beheld it and fled;
Jordan was driven back.
4 The mountains skipped like rams,
and the little hills like young sheep.
5 What ailed you, O sea, that you fled?
O Jordan, that you were driven back?
6 You mountains, that you skipped like rams,
and you little hills like young sheep?
Verses 3 & 5 are references to the crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan River and the beginning and the end of the 40-year wilderness wanderings of the Israelites. Verses 4 & 6 are not historical events, as such, as they are theophanic language. A theophany is an visual appearance or “showing” of God. The ultimate theophany is the person of Jesus Christ transfigured in the shining glory of God. In the Old Testament history, though, God’s face was ever seen, only his “glory” could be seen – kind of like a halo in nature, or the after-effect of his presence. The shaking of mountains, the brewing of storms, the casting of lightning bolts, all are used to describe a glorious presence of God, a theophany. Sometimes it’s historical and sometimes it’s poetic, the history inspiring the continued poetic use.
Thus these verses in Psalm 114 highlight the reality of God’s presence among his people during that time. They look at the signs of his presence in nature, both corporeal and poetical, and simply bask in the glory of this reality. The rhetorical questions of verses 5 & 6 are fulfilled in verse 7, quoted above, where the psalmist calls upon the entire planet to tremble at the presence of God.
Because, you know, God is omnipresent. There is nowhere hidden from or removed from him. And thus the psalmist rejoices. And thus all God’s people ever since rejoice.
I write this in March 2020, in the early days of a state- and nation-wide health crisis, wherein the general public is urged to stay at home, and public gatherings above 10 (or 25) persons are not to be held. For many Christians, it will be a shock to be separated from their churches for a long period of time. Meditation upon, and reminders of, the presence of God in all places will be particularly helpful comforts as we adjust our lifestyles, however temporarily. The same God who parted the sea and the river, and provided drinking water in a dry place for hundreds, even thousands, of tired wanderers, is dwelling within you who have been baptized into Christ.