When Israel went out from Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
2 Judah became his sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.
3 The sea looked and fled;
Jordan turned back.
4 The mountains skipped like rams,
the hills like lambs.
5 What ails you, O sea, that you flee?
O Jordan, that you turn back?
6 O mountains, that you skip like rams?
O hills, like lambs?
7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 who turns the rock into a pool of water,
the flint into a spring of water. (Psalm 114)
The book of Psalms, as songs, poetry, and prayers, encapsulate all of the Christian life – the range of emotions, experiences, joys, etc. Calvin says that the Psalter is the anatomy of the soul. The Psalms address the total man – the whole man. And in so doing, the Psalms not only address the total man, but also every man – every woman, boy, and girl. The Psalms address the all of a man and all of men. So this means that the Psalms are not just for the adults, but also for the children. But it’s not like there is a section of Psalms that are for the kids and a section of Psalms that are for the adults, like we make our modern music; but rather, every single Psalm is for every adult and every child. This means that Psalm singing is not something we graduate into when we mature and grow to a certain age. Psalm singing is for children. The Psalms were made for children to sing. I think those of us with children have all found out in different ways in our lives that our children can often learn and handle more than we initially think that they can. So if you sing the Psalms in your home, you will find, likely in short order, that your children will be singing right along and asking to sing this Psalm and that Psalm.
One of the features of the Psalter that we find in many of the Psalms that make the Psalms memorable, particularly for children, is the poetic imagery of seas, clouds, and mountains, and animals, and such. Psalm 114 stands out with such imagery that sticks in our brains. We are given the image of mountains skipping like rams and hills skipping like lambs. We also see the sea fleeing and the rock turning into a pool of water. Those are images that stick in memories a little stickier. Kind of like how I have always remembered the Psalm that says God owns the cattle on a thousand hills. There is something about this imagery that God has given us that sticks in our memories. And this is particularly so for our children. These images are one way that God has given little minds to learn big truths.
As we consider the images before us today in the 114th Psalm, I want to set before you the overarching theme of this Psalm before we begin to walk through it. Psalm 114 is a Psalm of judgement and redemption. It is most often true that when you see judgment’s on the earth you will also see redemption. And when you see redemption, you will find it most often happens through a judgment. Obviously a big theme of this Psalm is the exodus out of Egypt. In the exodus we see that Egypt is judged with severe judgments from God, but it is through those judgments that the House of Jacob is saved and redeemed. This of course typifies the way of our salvation in Christ, that at the cross, the wrath of God was poured out on Jesus Christ who bore our sins on our behalf, and it is through that severity, that we are forgiven our sins, and redeemed. So this is a Psalm of judgment and redemption.
In this Psalm we are reminded of the mighty presence of God that rescued and set apart a people for Himself. We are reminded of a God who worked in history to do so, with the remembrance of real historical events – Israel coming out of Egypt, God parting the waters, and then parting them again at the Jordan. We are reminded of God causing water to flow from the rock in the wilderness to provide for his people – which it is interesting that Israel passed through water twice, and had water from a rock twice, both mentioned in this Psalm. But this remembrance of real historical events – real historical judgments and redemptions, teaches us that history is the Lord’s, and that what He is doing in history is redemptive and righteously self-exultant. This Psalm exults the majesty of the Lord, commanding all the earth to tremble before Him. It shows His great judgments and redemptions in history as God’s righteous self proclaiming majesty and power. What God did in Israel is a microcosm of what God is doing in history – judging and redeeming to exalt His name. The God of Jacob, is the God that owns history. It is His. It belongs to Him. He is accomplishing His purposes in it. History exists for the glory of Jesus Christ, and no other. Not Satan, not you, and not me. Until we begin with this: that history belongs to the Lord, then we have not begun to understand history.
The Egyptians are not a fairytale empire. They were once, long ago, one of the greatest and most powerful empires that has ever been on this earth. Their accomplishments are vast, and some beyond our understanding. Indeed they had the power of false gods and demons at their disposal. And the Hebrew people, at the time of their exodus, though they were great in number, were slaves with a slave mentality. The ruling days of Joseph were long forgotten. But when God decided to bring His people up out of Egypt, He judged Egypt with such severity that they never recovered to their former glory. They were raised up that God’s majesty might be displayed as a lesson to the waters and the mountains to tremble at the appearance of God’s people with whom He dwelt. And the waters and mountains are a lesson to us.
After handling the most powerful empire on earth, the Holy Spirit turns to boasting in God’s victory over the greatest forces of creation. What is the world’s strongest man to the strength of the sea? What is man to the majestic heights of the mountains? Yet these forces of power and majesty turn into men with sinking hearts when they see the judgment of God upon the land. It is right that they turn like rams and lambs to run at the sight of God’s judgment, for the mountains and seas have more sense and awareness than the most intelligent Egyptian in rebellion to the God of all. Egypt did not tremble when they ought to have. The waters and the mountains did.
I love the way the Psalm lays itself out. Verse 3 and 4 tell us about the sea looking and fleeing and the mountains skipping like rams. Then verse 5 and 6 ask the waters and the mountains, what ails you, that you flee and run and skip like rams? The answer to that of course is the presence of the God of Jacob as we see in verse 7. This Psalm is actually a catechism question great for the liturgy of the church. Question: What ails you O sea that you flee? Answer: The presence of the God of Jacob.
Now these images are in one sense hilarious. Imagine a great and mighty body of water looking at a bunch of little people and fleeing. Of course the Red Sea parted in two, for Israel to walk through on dry ground. And then later when Israel crossed the Jordan River, it didn’t part in the same way, but if you read that passage you see that the flow of the river stopped and just built up a great wall of water upstream a ways, which would have been quite the sight to behold. That’s why it says here that the Jordan turned back – the waters reversed course essentially. That’s quite the image – you can’t reverse flow of a river. Yet God did. But the more hilarious image is the mountains skipping like rams, and hills like lambs. Mountains are typically not very agile.
We consider mountains to be immovable. Yet as Charles Spurgeon said, “Nothing is immovable but God Himself: the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed, but the covenant of His grace abideth fast forever and ever.”
If the mountains and rivers tremble before the Lord, how much more should we? Have you ever stood at the base of a mountain? Have you ever looked out over the ocean or have been on the edge of a rushing and powerful river? We are nothing. We are quite small, weak, and powerless before them. Yet, they are nothing before the might of the Lord.
Charles Spurgeon again, “Not only do mountains move, but rocks yield rivers when the God of Israel wills that it should be so.”
Now as we consider this passage we understand there is a reference to the exodus crossing, the water flowing from the rocks, and the Jordan crossing. But what about the mountains skipping like rams? Where was that? All things would seem to indicate that this Psalm is a reference to the time of the exodus, going up to the time of the beginning of the conquest with the crossing of the Jordan. So where in the time period do we see mountains skipping like rams? Mount Sinai. When God came down to Mt. Sinai, the mountain trembled and shook. This is what is says in Exodus 19, “On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.”
The Bible talks, not only in propositions, but also in images such as these. So anytime we see images in our Bible, we should have bells going off alerting us to other passages with similar imagery that we know, and seek to find if there may be a connection. Many times, there will be.
Psalm 114 is not only a historical account of God’s majesty displayed in the House of Jacob in the wilderness years. It is a Psalm about Jesus Christ. After all it was Jesus who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, and afterward destroyed those who did not believe, as Jude tells us. When we sing Psalm 114 we should not only be thinking about God’s majesty in history in Israel, but we should be thinking about the majesty of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The trembling mountains at Sinai when the law was given to Moses, was but a prelude to the trembling and shaking that would happen at another mountain. When Jesus was crucified, the earth trembled, and the hills skipped like lambs. Matthew 27:51-54, “Now from the sixth hour[f] there was darkness over all the land[g] until the ninth hour.[h] 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. 51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son[i] of God!””
When God acts in redemptive historical ways, the earth moves and changes shape. For the House of Jacob the waters moved, the mountains moved, and Christ came for the nations, the sun changed to darkness, God’s dwelling in the temple left, the rocks split, and the earth quaked so much that it gave up it’s dead. When God judges and/or redeems, the earth changes shape.
Not only was it at the death of Christ, but at His resurrection did the earth tremble before the Lord. Matthew 28:1-7, “Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he[a] lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.””
The death of the Son of God was a catastrophic event. Christ died and went down into the depths of the earth. He went down into Sheol. While there He declared His victory to those wicked and rebellious spirits that were kept in chains. When He rose on the morning of the third day, Jesus Christ once again shook up the elements of the earth, coming out of death, unlocking it with keys, a catastrophic event changing the shape of the earth.
Not only do the mountains make way and tremble at the judgments and redemptions of the Lord Jesus, but they also willingly bring forth water at His command. The rock that was turned to a pool of water was Christ, 1 Corinthians 10:4 tells us. For Christ is a fountain of living waters to his people. This is what Jesus preached – John 4, John 7, “if anyone thirsts, let Him come to me and drink, and everyone who believes in me, as the Scripture says, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” Jesus draws water out of rocks, whether it’s in the wilderness, or in our hearts.
Spiritually (Conversion Allegory)
To say that God turns rocks into water is to say that He brings the dead to life.
As we consider the mighty waters that fled out of the way of God’s people as He marched through with them, and then immediately swallowed up the Egyptians in death, we remember our own smallness and dependence on the presence and hand of God. The mighty waters that would swallow us up in an instant, were it not for Christ, are a reminder of our own mortality and death. Below the seas, it leads down to Sheol. The sea is a graveyard. It is filled with bones. God’s people were led out of death. They walked right through it.
“The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back. What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O, Jordan, that you turn back?” It is almost a self-exultant boast over death that God gives, is it not? This boasting in victory over death reminds us of another instance, made more clear. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, quoting from Isaiah,
“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
Greater still than the waters of the Red Sea and of the Jordan, we are led by Christ through the waters of the grave. Death turns to flee when we enter into death united with Christ. The presence of God is with us and the gravestones begin to skip like lambs.
Herein we find an allegory of conversion. The heart of sinful man is so dead and cold, that demanding it to love God and obey Christ is as impossible as telling water to come out of a rock. And yet that is exactly what Christ is in the business of doing. When Christ wants to save a man for Himself he strikes his stony heart with the Word of the Gospel and out flows a spring of living water, while the waters of death are held back and reversed in their course. The immovable mountains of sin that once held dominion in a man, get to skipping and fleeing like little lambs at the sight of the thundering of the law and the sound of the earth shaking, dead raising gospel.
But friends, do not be foolish. If your heart refuses to tremble at the presence of Christ amongst His people. If your sin is comfortably hanging out in your heart, amongst the body of Christ week after week. Then there is more sense in a rock than in you. You are no better than the Egyptians who ran straight into their grave, heeding not the warning shots of judgment after judgment, sign after sign. Your sin will blind you and sink you, and lead you straight down to hell. Friend, even if you say in your heart, “Well I have heard the demands of God preached, and I know God’s law is strong, and I tremble at it’s severity,” that is not the trembling that will save you. There are many who tremble before Sinai, yet that is the only place they tremble. They are so shook that the scurry out to do everything they can to keep the law, every jot, and minutiae, they live tidy and neat lives, and have a justification and excuse for any and every accusation that could be made against them, as to why they have actually kept the letter of the law! That person is going to hell. Unless they find their way to another hill. Unless they tremble before Christ and Him crucified. Unless they see their righteousness and tedious living as filthy rags, as unacceptable before the God who thunders at Sinai! You must tremble at Calvary, all the way to your knees, in repentance, in faith, in reception of Jesus your Savior-King. Being moved by Sinai without being moved by Calvary is to be moved from one part of hell to another. But if the shaking of the earth at the death of Christ, and the shaking of the earth, when Christ came out of the earth is what shakes you to live and shakes away your sin, and that is where you stay, then you will live again. You will be saved. You will be saved if you tremble at the lightning and thunder of Sinai and cry out for Jesus Christ to have mercy upon you.
Conquering the Nations
The timeline of the Psalm begins with the exodus and brings us up to the beginning of the conquest. This is a Psalm of conquest. It is a Psalm for the redeemed Church of God to sing when marching upon enemies. It is a Psalm for the New Testament Church to sing when marching to battle, for we are in an era that corresponds to the era of the conquest. We live now in a time that the Church of Jesus Christ marches forward with her great commission orders to conquer the nations by baptizing and discipling them, teaching them to obey all that Christ has taught us. This is the era of Christ’s conquest, of His dominion. It is the era of the sword, not of flesh, but of Spirit – the Sword of the Spirit that is the Gospel Word of God, that cuts to the heart, conquering sinners, converting the soul.
Hear Hebrews 12:18-29, “For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly[a] of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. 25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.”
God likes to shake things up, so that what cannot be shaken may remain – His Kingdom. “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.
How many sinners today do not tremble before the Lord, or at the sight of His church? Unfortunately evangelicalism has, by and large, given the world reasons not to tremble. Many evangelicals themselves do not tremble before the Lord. Evangelicalism is not marching forth to conquer and slay. But may the Church of Jesus Christ rise from her slumber, and take up her call to arms and march forth to slay once again! There are giants and dragons in the land to be driven out. There are mountains to be moved and oceans to be parted.
As this Psalm remembers the work of the Lord, it does so with a tenor of victory, with an attitude similar to what the Apostle Paul would later describe as “boasting in the cross.” As inspired Holy Writ, the Holy Spirit boasts here in the work of God. Egypt was one of the greatest and mightiest empires in that day when Israel came out of it, and yet the Lord of Hosts so handedly brought his people out and triumphed over them that Egypt is described in Psalm 114 as nothing more than a people of strange language. Their might, power, and gods are not remembered for anything. Their former world glory is remembered now as nothing more than strange babbling. Such becomes all nations who would oppose the God who speaks. In the era of this mission of conquest, babbling words are stopped and turned to praise as the gospel proceeds to every tongue. As a redeemed people came out of babbling Egypt, likewise, out of babbling pagan darkness comes a redeemed people with gospel words of power as a Sword, with Psalms on their lips, singing with the great assembly of saints, with prayers, as incense to God. This is how God works. Out of Egypt, comes the House of Jacob. Out of pagan lands, comes the redeemed multitude of God’s elect. Out of great sin, comes great redemption. Out of death, comes life.
As we go forth with Christ in this world, it is the day of conquering. It is the day of announcing His victory. It is the day that those who speak a strange language can be given tongues of fire to speak the gospel. Whatever demonic creatures are hiding out in the trees and rocks will turn to run like little lambs when the pronouncing of the gospel of the Kingdom comes and says, “Christ reigns here!”
May the earth both tremble and rejoice at the presence of the God of Jacob, who is our God. He has won, and now His dominion is over all the earth, as there is no longer Jew or Gentile, but all are one in Christ Jesus. There are no longer land ties to certain acreage, but wherever the feet of God’s people tread, there it is His. As Israel conquered after passing through the water of the Jordan; so the Church is victorious as she passes through the nations, with the presence of God with her.
So let us remember the work of God that He has done through our fathers. This is not Jewish history. This is our history – Christian history. Jacob was a Christian because God loved him, and he believed the promise. It is the same reason we are Christians today. This almighty God has loved us, and so we believe. We learn of His love and faithfulness, and remember His power and might, by singing songs of remembrance, songs of ancient Christian history, songs for today, like Psalm 114.