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When God brought Israel out of Egypt, making Judah his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion (and when he ultimately made Jesus his sanctuary and his dominion), we read that creation was incapable of remaining silent:

[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? (Psalm 114:3-6)

Creation responds in two opposite ways: (1) the seas and the Jordan respond in terror, and (2) the mountains respond in joy.

Most directly, the references in these verses to the sea and to the Jordan refer to the stories of when Moses led Israel across the parted Red Sea (Exodus 14), and when Joshua led Israel across the dried up Jordan (Joshua 3). In the former story, Israel escaped the pursuing Egyptian army, and God destroyed that army as they tried to follow Israel through. In the latter, Joshua marched Israel toward claiming their inheritance in the promised land.

But this is no mere magic trick–the psalmist sees much deeper significance in what has happened here.

Rivers and seas in the Bible often symbolize chaos and rebellion against God’s reign. Water is unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unforgiving. Even today, with 3000 years of better technology, we can do almost nothing to stem the destructive floods moving down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. It is not insignificant, then, that God causes the sea to flee and the Jordan to turn back:

God is the only figure in the Bible capable of countering the hostile force of rebellious rivers, whose onslaught he repulses with divine weapons (Hab 3:8-15) that send the waters retreating in fright (Ps 114:3-5). (“River,” in The New Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, ed. Leland Ryken, et. al. [Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1998], 731.)

Not only God’s power (his dominion), but his holiness (his sanctuary) are on display here as he routs the forces of evil.

The mountains and hills, however, tell a different story in their response to God’s salvation. Biblically speaking, mountains and hills represent a wide range of values. One the one hand, it was at Mount Sinai that God took Israel to be his people, and it was on Mount Zion that God established his temple. But on the other hand, it was on every hill and high place that Israel prostituted themselves in pagan worship, even offering their own children as sacrifices to demons.

At the most basic, mountains symbolize immensity, strength, and greatness–whether for good or for evil:

In addition to their remoteness and ruggedness, hills and mountains are large and impressive. Their inaccessibility makes them unknown and gives them an aura of mystery. Their visible immensity makes them the benchmark for enormity. (“Mountain,” in The New Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 573.)

In Psalm 114, the size and power are not meant to suggest rebellion against their creator. Rather, an incredible irony is at work here. These huge, impressive, enormous, immense mountains actually skip like rams, and the great hills like lambs. The word for “skipping” here is a picture of dancing (eg., Ecc. 3:4), or of children playing (Piel, Job 21:11). This is giddy joy, and not even the greatest mountains are able to resist taking part in the celebration.

The divided response of creation is symbolic of the divided response of humanity. Some people will resist the awesome salvation of the Holy One of Israel all the way to the end, when they are chased away into eternal terror. Others, though, will be overjoyed at the salvation that God has worked for his people–so overcome that, unconcerned about being “respectable,” they might dance, leap, play, or even giggle.

But keep in mind that Psalm 114 was written about Jesus. Was not he the one who so thoroughly conquered the raging seas that he could calm them with a word, or walk across them in the fiercest winds? Was not he the one for whom the mountains quaked in anguish as they witnessed him give up his last breath on the cross, but skipped with joy to open up his tomb on the third day. Did not Mount Olivet leap so greatly that it split when he ascended victoriously to his Father?

Why does the sea flee? Why does Jordan turn back? Why do the mountains skip like rams, and the hills like lambs?

Because Jesus Christ has come, he has died, he rose again, and now he has ascended to the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

God is the only figure in the Bible capable of countering the hostile force of rebellious rivers, whose onslaught he repulses with divine weapons (Hab 3:8-15) that send the waters retreating in fright (Ps 114:3-5).

Post Series on Psalm 114:

  1. Jesus Christ, the Sanctuary and Dominion of God (Psalm 114:1-2)
  2. Creation’s Response to the Salvation of Jesus Christ (Psalm 114:3-6)
  3. The Repentance Demanded by Jesus Christ (Psalm 114:7-8)

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