Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 11: Psalms, Part IV, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
This psalm contains a short account of that deliverance by which God, in bringing his people out of Egypt: and conducting them to the promised inheritance, gave a proof of his power and grace which ought to be held in everlasting remembrance. The design of that wonderful deliverance was, that the seed of Abraham might yield themselves wholly to God, who, receiving them by a gracious act of adoption, purposed that they should be to him a holy and peculiar people. 355
1. When Israel went out from Egypt, and the house of Jacob from a barbarous people; 356 2. Judah was for his 357 holiness, Israel for his dominions. 3. The sea saw, and fled: 358 Jordan was turned backward. 4. The mountains leaped like rams, and the hills as the lambs of the flock.
1 When Israel went out from Egypt That exodus being a remarkable pledge and symbol of God’s love for the children of Abraham, it is not surprising that it should be so frequently called to remembrance. In the beginning of the psalm, the prophet informs us that the people whom God purchased at so great a price are no more their own. The opinion of certain expositors, that at that time the tribe of Judah was consecrated to the service of God, according to what is said in Ex 19:6, and 1Pe 2:9, appears to me foreign to the prophet’s design. All doubt about the matter is removed by what is immediately subjoined, God’s taking Israel under his rule, which is simply a repetition of the same sentiment in other words. Judah being the most powerful and numerous of all the tribes, and occupying the chief place among them, here takes the precedency of the rest of the people. At the same time, it is very evident that the honor which is in a peculiar manner ascribed to them, belongs equally to the whole body of the people. 359 When God is said to be sanctified, it must be understood that the prophet is speaking after the manner of men, because, in himself, God is incapable of increase or diminution. Judah is called his holiness, 360 and Israel his dominion, 361 because his holy majesty, which hitherto had been little known, secured the veneration of all who had witnessed the displays of his incredible power. In delivering his people, God erected a kingdom for himself and procured respect for his sacred name; if then they do not constantly reflect upon such a remarkable instance of his kindness, their insensibility is totally inexcusable.
3 The sea saw, and fled He does not enumerate in succession all the miracles which were wrought at that time, but briefly alludes to the sea, which, though a lifeless and senseless element, is yet struck with terror at the power of God. Jordan did the same, and the very mountains shook. It is in a poetical strain that the Psalmist describes the receding of the sea and of the Jordan. The description, however, does not exceed the facts of the case. The sea, in rendering such obedience to its Creator, sanctified his name; and Jordan, by its submission, put honor upon his power; and the mountains, by their quaking, proclaimed how they were overawed at the presence of his dreadful majesty. By these examples it is not meant to celebrate God’s power more than the fatherly care and desire which he manifests for the preservation of the Church; and, accordingly, Israel is very properly distinguished from the sea, the Jordan, and the mountains — there being a very marked difference between the chosen people and the insensate elements.
5. What ailed thee, O see! that thou fleddest? and thou, Jordan, that thou turnedst back? 6. The mountains, that ye did leap like rams; and ye hills, like lambs of the flock? 7. At the presence of the Lord, tremble, thou earth, 362 at the presence of the God of Jacob; 8. Who turned the rock into pools of water, 363 and the mighty rock into a fountain of waters. 364
5 What ailed thee, O sea! The prophet interrogates the sea, Jordan, and the mountains, in a familiar and poetical strain, as lately he ascribed to them a sense and reverence for God’s power. And, by these similitudes, he very sharply reproves the insensibility of those persons, who do not employ the intelligence which God has given them in the contemplation of his works. The appearance which he tells us the sea assumed, is more than sufficient to condemn their blindness. It could not be dried up, the river Jordan could not roll back its waters, had not God, by his invisible agency, constrained them to render obedience to his command. The words are indeed directed to the sea, the Jordan, and the mountains, but they are more immediately addressed to us, that every one of us, on self-reflection, may carefully and attentively weigh this matter. And, therefore, as often as we meet with these words, let each of us reiterate the sentiment, — “Such a change cannot be attributed to nature, and to subordinate causes, but the hand of God is manifest here.” The figure drawn from the lambs and rams would appear to be inferior to the magnitude of the subject. But it was the prophet’s intention to express in the homeliest way the incredible manner in which God, on these occasions, displayed his power. The stability of the earth being, as it were, founded on the mountains, what connection can they have with rams and lambs, that they should be agitated, skipping hither and thither? In speaking in this homely style, he does not mean to detract from the greatness of the miracle, but more forcibly to engrave these extraordinary tokens of God’s power on the illiterate.
7 At the presence of the Lord Having aroused the senses of men by interrogations, he now furnishes a reply, which many understand to be a personification of the earth; because they take י, yod, to be the affix of the verb חולי, chuli; and they represent the earth as saying, It is my duty to tremble at the presence of the Lord. This fanciful interpretation is untenable; for the term, earth, is immediately subjoined. Others, with more propriety, considering the י, yod, in this, as in many other passages, to be redundant, adopt this interpretation: It is reasonable and becoming that the earth should tremble in the presence of the Lord. Again, the term חולי, chuli, is by many rendered in the imperative mood; which interpretation I readily adopt, as it is most probable that the prophet again makes an appeal to the earth, that the hearts of men may be the more sensibly moved. The meaning is the same, — It must be that the earth quake at the presence of her King. And this view receives confirmation from the term אדון, adon, being used, which signifies a lord or a master. He then immediately introduces the name of the God of Jacob, for the purpose of banishing from men all notions of false gods. Their minds being prone to deceit, they are always in great danger of allowing idols to usurp the place of the true God. Another miracle is mentioned, in which God, after the passage of the people through the Red Sea, gave an additional splendid manifestation of his power in the wilderness. The glory of God, as he informs us, did not appear for one day only, on the departure of the people; it constantly shone in his other works, as when a stream suddenly issued out of the dry rock, Ex 17:6. Waters may be found trickling out from among rocks and stony places, but to make them flow out of a dry rock, was unquestionably above the ordinary course of nature, or miraculous. I have no intention of entering into any ingenious discussion, how the stone was converted into water; all that the prophet means amounts simply to this, that water flowed in places formerly dry and hard. How absurd, then, is it for the sophists to pretend that a transubstantiation takes place in every case in which the Scripture affirms that a change has been produced? The substance of the stone was not converted into water, but God miraculously created the water, which gushed out of the dry rock.
“The exodus of Israel from Egypt, with some of its most remarkable accompanying and consequent miracles, are, in this brief psalm, commemorated in the boldest style of poetry, with personifications, indeed, of inanimate nature of the utmost daring and sublimity, in ‘thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.’” — Drake’s Harp of Judah.
The word לעז, loez, which Calvin renders, a barbarous people, is translated, in our English Bible, “a people of strange language.” His version is supported by many authorities. The word is frequently found, in the sense he attaches to it, in Rabbinical works, and is so understood here by the Chaldee paraphrast, who has ברבראי, and by the LXX., who have βαρβάρου. The root of these terms, as well as the Latin word for barbarous, is probably the Hebrew בר, out, or without, redoubled; and so it signifies, to a Jew, any man of another nation. According to Parkhurst, the word, instead of signifying a barbarous or foreign language or pronunciation, seems rather to refer to the violence of the Egyptians towards the Israelites, or the barbarity of their behavior, which, he observes, was more to the Psalmist’s purpose than the barbarity of their language, even supposing the reality of the latter in the time of Moses. — See his Lexicon on לעז. Horsley reads, “a tyrannical people.”
“There is a peculiar beauty in the conduct of this psalm, in that the author utterly conceals the presence of God in the beginning of it, and rather lets a possessive pronoun (i.e. His) go without a substantive, than he will so much as mention any thing of Divinity there; because, if God had appeared before, there could be no wonder why the mountains should leap, and the sea retire; therefore, that this convulsion of nature may be brought in with due surprise, his name is not mentioned till afterwards, and then, with a very agreeable turn of thought, God is introduced at once with all majesty ” — Spectator, volume 6, No. 461. If, however, the last two words of the preceding psalm, הללו-יה, Halelu-yah, Praise ye Jehovah, are the title to this psalm, the antecedent to his is supplied.
In the Hebrew there is no pronoun after saw; nor is any inserted in the Septuagint and Arabic versions, or in the Chaldee. In our English Bible, it is inserted, and him in the Syriac version; but the sentence is certainly much more sublime without any such supplement.
“Judah represents here the whole people of Israel, as Joseph does, in Ps 81:6. The reason assigned by Kimchi for this use of יהודה here is, that at the time of the departure from Egypt, Judah was considered the head or chief of the tribes; see Ge 49:8-10. This, however, is mere conjecture. If it be necessary to assign reasons for the distinction here conferred on this tribe, I should mention as one:, that the ark was kept in the region occupied by the descendants of Judah, and, as another, that from him the Messiah was to spring.” — Phillips.
God’s holiness being often taken for the keeping his promise sacred or inviolate, as in Ps 102:9, when, reference being made to the immutability of his covenant, it is added, “holy [as in another respect, reverend] is his name;” some, as Hammond and Cresswell, suppose that the meaning here is, that God’s dealings towards Judah — the people of the Jews, were a demonstration of his faithfulness in performing his promise made to Abraham long before.
Hammond reads, “And Israel his power,” by which he understands that Israel was an instance of his power; that God, in his acting for Israel, declared his omnipotence most signally.
Street reads, “The earth was in pain.” “All the ancient versions,” says he, “have the preterperfect here. The Targum alone agrees with the present reading, if, indeed, that be an imperative mood. For I do not see why חולי may not be a participle passive with an yod added to it, as ההפכי may be a participle active with the same addition.”
Hammond reads, “into a lake of water.” “The מים אגם,” he observes, “is best rendered a lake of water, to note the abundance of it; accordingly, the Chaldee renders it לאריתה, into a river: and so the Psalmist expressly describes the ‘gushing out of the waters from the rock,’ that ‘they ran in dry places like a river,’ Ps 105:41.”
“The divine poet represents the very substance of the rock as being converted into water, not literally, but poetically — that is ornamenting his sketch of the wondrous power displayed on this occasion.” — Walford.