Expositor's Bible Commentary
When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language;Psalm 114:1-8It is possible that in this psalm Israel, restored from Babylon, is looking back to the earlier Exodus, and shrilling with the great thought that that old past lives again in the present. Such a historical parallel would minister courage and hope. But the eyes of psalmists were ever turning to the great days when a nation was born, and there are no data in this psalm which connect it with a special period, except certain peculiarities in the form of the words "turns" and "fountain" in Psalm 114:8, both of which have a vowel appended (i in the former, o in the latter word), which is probably an archaism, used by a late poet for ornament’s sake. The same peculiarity is found in Psalm 113:5-9, where it occurs five times.
A familiar theme is treated here with singular force and lyric fervour. The singer does not heap details together but grasps one great thought. To him there are but two outstanding characteristics of the Exodus: one, its place and purpose as the beginning of Israel’s prerogative, and another, its apocalypse of the Majesty of Jehovah, the Ruler of Nature in its mightiest forms. These he hymns, and then leaves them to make their own impression. He has no word of "moral," no application, counsel, warning, or encouragement to give. Whoso will can draw these. Enough for him to lift his soaring song, and to check it into silence in the midst of its full music. He would be a consummate artist, if he were not something much better. The limpid clearness, the eloquent brevity of the psalm are not more obvious than its masterly structure. Its four pairs of verses, each laden with one thought, the dramatic vividness of the sudden questions in the third pair, the skilful suppression of the Divine name till the close, where it is pealed out in full tones of triumph, make this little psalm a gem.
In Psalm 114:1-2 the slighting glance at the land left by the ransomed people is striking. The Egyptians are to this singer "a stammering people," talking a language which sounded to him barely articulate. The word carries a similar contempt to that in the Greek "barbarian," which imitates the unmeaning babble of a foreign tongue. To such insignificance in the psalmist’s mind had the once dreaded oppressors sunk! The great fact about the Exodus was that it was the birthday of the Nation, the beginning of its entrance on its high prerogatives. If the consecration of Judah as "His sanctuary" took place when Israel went forth from Egypt, there can be no reference to the later erection of the material sanctuary in Jerusalem, and the names of Judah and Israel must both apply to the people, not to the land, which it would be an anachronism to introduce here. That deliverance from Egypt was in order to God’s dwelling in Israel, and thereby sanctifying or setting it apart to Himself, "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Dwelling in the midst of them, He wrought wonders for them, as the psalm goes on to hymn; but this is the grand foundation fact, that Israel was brought out of bondage to be God’s temple and kingdom. The higher deliverance of which that Exodus is a foreshadowing is, in like manner, intended to effect a still more wonderful and intimate indwelling of God, in His Church. Redeemed humanity is meant to be God’s temple and realm.
The historical substratum for Psalm 114:3-4, is the twin miracles of drying up the Red Sea and the Jordan, which began and closed the Exodus, and the "quaking" of Sinai at the Theophany accompanying the giving of the Law. These physical facts are imaginatively conceived as the effects of panic produced by some dread vision; and the psalmist heightens his representation by leaving unnamed the sight which dried the sea, and shook the steadfast granite cliffs. In the third pair of verses he changes his point of view from that of narrator to that of a wondering spectator, and asks what terrible thing, unseen by him, strikes such awe? All is silent now, and the wonders long since past. The sea rolls its waters again over the place where Pharaoh’s host lie. Jordan rushes down its steep valley as of old, the savage peaks of Sinai know no tremors; -but these momentary wonders proclaimed an eternal truth.
So the psalmist answers his own question, and goes beyond it in summoning the whole earth to tremble, as sea, river, and mountain had done, for the same Vision before which they had shrunk is present to all Nature. Now the psalmist can peal forth the Name of Him, the sight of whom wrought these wonders. It is "the Lord," the Sovereign Ruler, whose omnipotence and plastic power over all creatures were shown when His touch made rock and flint forget their solidity and become fluid, even as His will made the waves solid as a wall, and His presence shook Sinai. He is still Lord of Nature. And, more blessed still, the Lord of Nature is the God of Jacob. Both these names were magnified in the two miracles (which, like those named in Psalm 114:3, are a pair) of giving drink to the thirsty pilgrims. With that thought of omnipotence blended with gracious care, the singer ceases. He has said enough to breed faith and hearten courage, and he drops his harp without a formal close. The effect is all the greater, though some critics prosaically insist that the text is defective and put a row or two of asterisks at the end of Psalm 114:8, "since it is not discernible what purpose the representation [i.e., the whole psalm] is to serve" (Graetz)!