Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This psalm is among the most artistic in the whole collection. Though ending so abruptly as to suggest-that it may be a fragment (the LXX., Syriac, Arabic versions, and some MSS. capriciously join it to the following psalm) it is in form perfect. The versification is regular, and the stanzas as complete and finished as in a modern hymn, consisting each of four lines, and presenting each a perfect example of synthetic parallelism. (See Introduction, § 5.) But a higher art displays itself here. The reserve with which the Divine name is withheld, till everything is prepared for its utterance, and the vivid manner in which each feature of the rapid scene is flashed upon us by a single word so that a whole history is accurately presented in a few graphic touches, achieve a dramatic and a lyric triumph of the most remarkable kind. Besides the historic interest of the psalm as part of the Hallel, and of the hymn sung with Christ before His passion, it has a new interest from Dante, who makes it the passage song of. the spirits into Purgatory:—
“Upon the storm stood the celestial pilot;
Beatitude seemed written in his face,
And more than a hundred spirits sat within.
‘In Exitu Israel de Egypto’
They chanted all together in one voice.
With whatso in that psalm is after written.”—
Purg. 45 (LONGFELLOW).
When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language;(1) When Israel went out.—LXX., in “the Exodus of Israel.”
A people of strange language.—LXX., rightly, “a barbarous people.” Since the Hebrew word, like the Greek, implies a certain scorn or ridicule, which ancient races generally had for those speaking another language. To this day the Russians call the Germans “dumb.”
Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion.(2) Judah was.—Better, became. The feminine verb shows that the country is intended, and not the tribe, and the parallelism directs us to think not of the territory of the tribe of Judah alone, but of the whole country. Notice the art with which the name of God is reserved, and the simple pronoun, His, used. (Comp. Exodus 19:6.)
The sea saw it, and fled: Jordan was driven back.(3) Fled.—The Authorised Version weakens the effect by rendering “it was driven back.” (See Joshua 3:16.) The scene presented is of the “descending stream” (the words employed seem to have a special reference to that peculiar and most significant name of the “Jordan”) not parted asunder, as we generally fancy, but, as the psalm expresses it, “turned backwards” (Stanley, Jewish Church, i. 229).
The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs.(4) Skipped.—The Hebrew word thus rendered is translated “dance” in Ecclesiastes 3:4. (See Psalm 18:7.) Exodus 19:18 was no doubt in the poet’s thought, but the leaping of the hills formed part of every theophany.
Tremble, thou earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob;(7) Tremble.—Literally, be in travail. This answer to his question is introduced with consummate art. Well may the mountains tremble, when it is the Lord of all the earth, the God of Jacob, who is present. Notice that till now the mention of the Divine power which wrought the deliverance was kept in suspense.