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Psalm 114: Miracles Attending Israel’s Journey
Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
When Isr’el, freed from Pharaoh’s hand,
Left the proud tyrant and his land,
The tribes with cheerful homage own
Their king; and Judah was his throne.
Across the deep their journey lay;
The deep divides to make them way.
Jordan beheld their march, and led,
With backward current, to his head.
The mountains shook like frighted sheep,
Like lambs the little hillocks leap;
Not Sinai on her base could stand,
Conscious of sov’reign pow’r at hand.
What pow’r could make the deep divide?
Make Jordan backward roll his tide?
Why did ye leap, ye little hills?
And whence the fright that Sinai feels?
Let ev’ry mountain, ev’ry flood,
Retire and know th’ approaching God,
The King of Isr’el: see him here!
Tremble, thou earth, adore and fear.
He thunders, and all nature mourns;
The rock to standing pools he turns,
Flints spring with fountains at his word,
And fires and seas confess the Lord.

Isaac Watts was born in 1674 and died in 1748. From early childhood, he was both devout and a poet. As the story goes, the young Watts was caught looking up during prayers in church, instead of bowing his head and closing his eyes like everyone else. When asked why, he responded in rhyme: “A little mouse for want of stairs / ran up a rope to say its prayers.” I don’t know if that is a true story, but I think it shows a mix of devotion and playfulness which is also evident in Psalm 114 and in Watts’ metric version of it.
The psalms are the prayer-book of the Bible. They are also the hymn-book of the Bible, and the poetry-book of the Bible. Watts was a nonconformist minister, meaning he rejected the Church of England, and had strong Calvinist roots. For Calvinists, music and poetry were suspect. All singing must be sacred singing, and the only acceptable songs were the songs of the Bible—the Psalms. Metric versions of the psalms were of great importance, because they helped bring the Scriptures to the illiterate, and music and beauty to worship.
Psalm 114 retells the story of the flight of the Israelites through the Red Sea, but many of the familiar elements of the Exodus story—Moses and his staff, Pharaoh and his chariots and charioteers—do not appear. Instead, in some really charming imagery, the psalm shows all of nature responding to God’s presence at the Red Sea—the waters retreating in awe, the Jordan river reversing course. The mountains are sheep and the hills lambs, shaking and leaping in wonder at the presence of God.
In translating the Psalms into English meter, Watts was more than a versifier. He was a poet. His care with, and delight in language comes through. In the first two stanzas, Watts moves back and forth between past tense and present tense. “When Isr’el… Left the proud tyrant and his land, / The tribes with cheerful homage own / Their king; and Judah was his throne.” We move from past, to present, to past. The second stanza does the same thing: “Across the deep their journey lay; / The deep divides to make them way. / Jordan beheld their march.” Past tense, present tense, past tense. What feels like a straightforward narrative really isn’t: this story seems to be trying to burst from history into the present.
And that is exactly what happens in the second part of the poem. We hear a series of questions: why did the water divide? What made the mountains quake and the hills leap? The answer is not in the past: “Let ev’ry mountain, ev’ry flood, / Retire and know th’approaching God, / The King of Isr’el: see him here! / Tremble, thou earth, adore and fear.” Watts and invites the readers, or singers, to recognize God’s presence in the present: “see him here,” see him now.
Watts’ metric versions of the psalms made him the most widely-read poet of the 18th century, both in England and in America. Watts acknowledged that he took great delight in writing verse—perhaps too much delight: “I confess my self to have been too often tempted away from the more Spiritual Designs I propos'd, by some gay and flowry Expressions that gratify'd the Fancy; the bright Images too often prevail'd above the Fire of Divine Affection; and the Light exceeded the Heat.” But Watts helped start a quiet revolution by publishing not just metric versions of psalms, but his own original compositions, and he opened the way for many other writers to do the same. He showed how the poetry of the Bible, and original poetry, could live side-by-side in our worship.
Whether we realize it or not, we know Watts’ work well. Many of his hymns and psalm settings are classics: “When I survey the wondrous cross,” “I sing the mighty power of God,” “My shepherd will supply my need,” “O God our help in ages past,” and “Joy to the World.” Today, thanks to poets like Watts, and so many others down through the centuries, poetry both old and new has a place at the heart of Christian worship.




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Seattle, Washington  98104
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