Psalm 114

Memorial Day—it’s a time of flags, food, and festivities that conveniently marks an early start to summer, but the “official” reason Americans celebrate this holiday is to honor the multitudes of men and women who gave everything they had to defend us from our enemies.  That’s a legacy worthy to be celebrated.

But for the Christian, Memorial Day might also serve to remind us of an even greater Protector—one who gave his only begotten Son to deliver us from the bondage of sin and death.  “Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation.  Our God is a God of salvation, and to GOD, the Lord, belong deliverances from death,” proclaims Psalm 68:19, 20.  Unlike the all-too-mortal soldiers of our country, however, our Lord lives and reigns!  His glorious majesty shines as brightly now as it ever has, and it will continue world without end.  Such an amazing truth inspires the writer of Psalm 114 to declare:

When Israel went out from Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
Judah became his sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.
The sea looked and fled;
Jordan turned back.
The mountains skipped like rams,
the hills like lambs.
What ails you, O sea, that you flee?
O Jordan, that you turn back?
O mountains, that you skip like rams?
O hills, like lambs?
Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the God of Jacob,
who turns the rock into a pool of water,
the flint into a spring of water.

–Psalm 114 (ESV)

Psalm 114, a song of praise, commemoration, and thanksgiving, poetically proclaims the works of God on behalf of his people the Israelites.  On one hand is set the almighty power of the LORD (v. 7), yet on the other is his watchful care over Israel (v. 8).  Why should the sovereign Creator of the earth turn his sights on an insignificant Middle Eastern tribe?  In Deuteronomy 10:14, 15, Moses explains to the Israelites, “Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.”  What a legacy to remember!

225, “When Israel out of Egypt Went”

Psalm 114 isn’t shortchanged in the Psalter Hymnal.  For the most part, the single setting of this song is Scripturally accurate and very serviceable.  One possible drawback to the text is that it tends to simplify the poetic language of the psalm—for instance, “The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs” in v. 3 is altered to “The lofty mountains and the hills/With trembling awe our God discerned.”  Also, as is common with 1912 Psalter versifications, specific references to Israel and Judah are usually replaced with more general terms like “his people.”  Whether or not these characteristics of number 225 are significant enough to merit revision—that’s for you to consider.

The tune, VON HIMMEL HOCH, is one of the older selections in our Psalter Hymnal.  Though our hymnbook credits the source to the Geistliche Lieder of 1539, this tune is actually attributed to Martin Luther.  (Interestingly, it’s easy to hear vestiges of “A Mighty Fortress” in the last two lines of VON HIMMEL HOCH.)  I’m not sure I agree with the editorial decision to place fermatas at the end of every line (wouldn’t it be better at the half-way mark only?), but otherwise, it’s hard to find fault with a solid tune like this.  Although it may seem unhelpfully vague, the comment that VON HIMMEL HOCH should be played “in moderate time” is actually a useful reminder; with chorales, it is surprisingly easy to play either too fast or too slow.  I know this firsthand, since I’ve done it myself many times during congregational singing.  For instrumental and choral purposes, on the other hand, the Psalter Hymnal Handbook suggests using one of J. S. Bach’s intricate harmonizations from his Christmas Oratorio.

When Israel out of Egypt went,
From people of a speech unknown,
The Lord among his people dwelt,
And there he set his royal throne.

It’s wise for a nation to commemorate the heroic acts of selfless soldiers in protecting its citizens.  But as members of a greater heavenly kingdom, we have an even more significant obligation.  This Memorial Day, let’s give some thought to the message of Psalm 114.  And let’s not fail to remember the mighty deeds of God our Savior, “who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.”  Praise his Name!

–MRK

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