Is God material or spirit? He lives in our hearts, he loves creating. He operates though physical things. He saves our souls. Why do we have bodies at all? Does Jesus still have the body he ascended with? Will our souls live in a spiritual place forever or will we have resurrection bodies in a new earth?
This brief and startling Psalm, the second in a series of six used at Passover, gets to the main game: the exodus. And sent my mind off into lots of thoughts like these.
Israel was god’s nation, always foreigners in Egypt. It says they became his sanctuary when they left. Became his dwelling place.
They build a temple, a physical sanctuary, but perhaps the thing is that God just transformed the religious practices they already had by living in the people as a nation. We no longer have the practice, their temple is gone and we have many many different new ways to be religious across the world. But we do still have his presence.
I won’t have time to go on in this vein, but the psalm talks about the reaction of nature. The seas and rivers fled at the presence of God. This literally happened at the start and end of the exodus, the red sea and the Jordan.
The water shows respect, fear even, but the hills and mountains show delight, skipping around like sheep. (Mountains do look woolly in the distance).
Why flee, waters, why skip mountains? the Psalmist asks. Then recalls the miracle that involved them both, during the journey: of springs of water coming from rock.
God’s playing with the material world. The creator saying he is the master of reality, it need not be how it is, it’s how he wants it to be. A bit like the old Aboriginal stories of the creator jumping around and shaping the landscape.
And these responses of creation are in service of his rescue, the dangerous water becomes dry land, and the rock becomes life giving sustenance. Creation becomes part of god’s salvation voice.
It is described as trembling, but the commentators say not just in fear, there is a connotation of birth contractions. Creation birthing god’s people.
The meeting of their physical needs of safety and bodily nourishment is the promise of spiritual connection to the maker. Love and safety eternal.
It’s perfect poetry how, with very few and delightfully surprising words, it opens up and out into so much meaning.
The Anglican chant of it stuck with me from childhood as a choirboy, the image of the jumping mountains and coming out of the strange lands stuck in my young mind. You don’t have to know what it is about to know what it is about.
I subsequently learned that musicologists believe this tune is a strong indication of what the original psalm may have sounded like sung. It’s very ancient, seems to have crossed cultures from middle east to west, and corresponds to early notation markings found on dead sea scroll texts.