For my weekly quiet time this week, I studied Psalm 114. In this post, I’ll use as my focal-point vv 1-4, which say (in the King James Version):
“(1.)When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language; (2.) Judah was his sanctuary, [and] Israel his dominion. (3.) The sea saw [it], and fled: Jordan was driven back. (4.) The mountains skipped like rams, [and] the little hills like lambs.”
Here are two items:
1. Why does v 2 say that Judah was God’s sanctuary? The argument of a number of historical-critical scholars is that v 2 is simply acknowledging that Jerusalem is where God’s sanctuary (the Temple) is, and Jerusalem is in Judah. This Psalm, therefore, is dated by a number of scholars to some time when the sanctuary was in Jerusalem.
Some disagree with that, however. John MacArthur, for example, says that Judah was God’s sanctuary right after the Exodus, for God dwelt with Israel in the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21-22; 14:19). That makes a degree of sense, for the verse right before Psalm 114:2 mentions the Exodus, so I can understand why one would conclude that Judah being God’s sanctuary has something to do with her departure from Egypt. But why does v 2 say that Judah was God’s sanctuary, rather than saying that God dwelt in the midst of all of Israel? Why single out Judah? Charles Spurgeon says it’s because Judah was the most prominent tribe: Judah led the other tribes in the march through the wilderness (Numbers 2:3, 9). Moreover, it should be noted that Judah was the most populous tribe in terms of the number of men at and above the age of 20, according to the census figures in Numbers 1 and 26 (though, in Numbers 26, Joseph has the most men at and above age 20, if one combines the figures for Ephraim and Manasseh).
But Psalm 114 could have still been written when Jerusalem was the site of God’s sanctuary. For that matter, the prominence of Judah in the Book of Numbers could be due to the composition of parts of Numbers occurring during a time when Judah was prominent, or, if these parts are exilic, when Judah was believed to have been prominent in Israel’s past, and there was a hope that Jerusalem would become prominent again. (And, of course, Jerusalem was again prominent in Israel’s post-exilic period.) There is a scholarly argument that Judah was not always a prominent tribe, if it even existed in ancient Israel’s early days, for Judah is not mentioned in the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, although the Song refers to other tribes. According to some scholars, the Song of Deborah is one of the oldest writings in the Hebrew Bible, so, if it does not mention Judah, perhaps it was because there was no Judah in Israel’s earlier days. If I recall correctly, Baruch Halpern in David’s Secret Demons argues that David himself created the tribe of Judah!
2. V 4 says that the mountains and the little hills skipped. Did this occur at the parting of the sea and the Jordan, since those are mentioned in the preceding verse? Many Jewish sources do not think so, for they maintain that v 4 is talking about the shaking of the mount and little hills when God revealed the Torah to Israel at Mount Sinai, or Mount Horeb. Exodus 19:18 says, after all, the the whole mount shook (yet the Septuagint says instead that the people were amazed). But would v 4 be referring to the Sinai revelation, when the preceding verse is about the parting of the sea or the Jordan? Perhaps. It’s not as if Psalm 114 mentions everything in chronological order. Psalm 114 lists the Exodus, the parting of the sea, the parting of the Jordan, and, in v 8, God bringing water out of the rock. Psalm 114 mentions the parting of the Jordan before it mentions God bringing water out of the rock, even though God brought water out of the rock when Israel was still in the wilderness, long before Israel crossed the Jordan! Psalm 114 could simply be mentioning a bunch of details concerning God’s activity in Israel’s history, without placing them in strict chronological order. (I still think, though, that Judah being God’s sanctuary in v 2 has something to do with the Exodus, which is in v 1.)
Another view, however, is that the mountains and the hills skipping is simply poetic embellishment, not something that was necessarily believed to have happened in history. II Samuel 22, after all, mentions natural upheavals in a poetic account of David’s experiences, but we do not see those upheavals in the narrative part of the story of David (see here and here).
One more point: While some might say that nature is trembling before God in Psalm 114 out of fear, Erhard Gerstenberger proposes that it is dancing with joy because of what God is doing! Some of the Hebrew words in Psalm 114 are used for dancing elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (I Chronicles 15:29; Ecclesiastes 3:4).