Psalm 135 begins with praise to God. God is described in His role as Creator — who has power over everything. But, now, in verses 8-12, attention turns to the particular grace shown to the nation of Israel. The great God of Creation has shown particular favor on the nation of Israel.
This is part of the essential message of the Bible: God has made God’s very self known to us through a particular people — through particular events in history — and especially through Jesus Christ. Theologians sometimes refer to the scandal of particularity in the incarnation of Jesus Christ — that a particular person at a particular place and time has become the hope and salvation for all people.
Salvation begins with Israel. Once and man heard a call from God: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1 NRSV). He followed the call — and a story began to unfold that is still changing the world to this day. Down through the centuries it has unfolded — as more and more of God’s nature and will has been revealed. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” (Hebrews 1:1,2 NRSV.) The Bible records a salvation history.
And, it is to that history that our attention is now drawn.
שֶׁהִכָּה בְּכוֹרֵי מִצְרָיִם מֵאָדָם עַד־בְּהֵמָה
“He it was who struck down the firstborn of Egypt, both human beings and animals;
שָׁלַח אֹתוֹת וּמֹפְתִים בְּתוֹכֵכִי מִצְרָיִם בְּפַרְעֹה וּבְכָל־עֲבָדָיו
he sent signs and wonders into your midst, O Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants.”
This is a reference to the exodus from Egypt — and specifically to the tenth plague (Exodus 12:29). This was the last of a series of ten “signs and wonders” — the ten plagues — that came upon Egypt to convince the Pharaoh to release the people of Israel from their captivity. The exodus from Egypt was a defining moment for the nation — an event to which teachers and prophets often return to remind the people who they are — and elect nation of God redeemed by God’s hand. there is both tragedy and deliverance in these events. The plagues were tragic for Egypt but a source of freedom and new identity for the people of Israel.
The language here (so typical of the Old Testament) asserts God’s direct agency for the plagues. The NRSV brings that out well: “He it was who struck down…” The Hebrew שֶׁהִכָּה simply means: “He struck down.” “Yet, God generally works through secondary causes — so there were reasons why those particular plagues appeared at the time. The Pharaoh made a decision. The people of Egypt suffered. I found this comment in the NIV Study Bible in Exodus 7: “The first nine plagues may have been a series of miraculous intensifications of natural events taking place in less than a year, and coming at God’s bidding and timing.” No doubt the ten plagues had symbolic religious symbolism for the Egyptian people at the time. But, the death of the firstborn was the most tragic stroke of them all — an event commemorated in the Jewish Passover celebration.
The second phase is an exclamation directed to Egypt: God sent “signs and wonders” (אֹתוֹת וּמֹפְתִים) into your midst! Signs and wonders are unexpected events that point beyond themselves. Commentators on the book of Exodus often point out that the form the plagues took were specific challenges to certain specific gods that the Egyptians honored.
So, Psalm 135 reminds us that God is not only Creator but also Redeemer. God is not distant — a theoretical deity or a uninvolved, removed deist type of being. This is the God who heard the people’s cry when they were in captivity. This is the God who delivered and led them. And, they need to be reminded.
שֶׁהִכָּה גּוֹיִם רַבִּים וְהָרַג מְלָכִים עֲצוּמִים
“He struck down many nations and killed mighty kings —
לְסִיחוֹן מֶלֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִי וּלְעוֹג מֶלֶךְ הַבָּשָׁן וּלְכֹל מַמְלְכוֹת כְּנָעַן
Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan, and all the kingdoms of Canaan— “
Here is envisioned the wanderings in the wilderness and the journey toward the Promised Land. There were powerful enemies — legendary enemies — to be overcome. A band of former slaves overcame by following God. The victory is not attributed to them but to the God who led them.
וְנָתַן אַרְצָם נַחֲלָה נַחֲלָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמּוֹ
“and gave their land as a heritage, a heritage to his people Israel.”
And the goal was to bring them into the land that had been promised to them — a land where their forefathers had lived. Brueggemann and Bellinger comment: “The outcome of land entry, echoing verse 4, is that Israel receives the land of promise. This is the culmination of the entire account from creation on. Everything is for this purpose. As Israel is YHWH’s treasured possession, so is the land of promise now Israel’s great gift and treasure.” Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary).
The look back to remember what God has done in the past informs our look forward to the future. It also reminds us of who we are — based upon God’s redeeming acts on our behalf.
As the Israelites looked to the Exodus event to remember God’s deliverance and to remember who they were as a nation, so Christians look to the life and death and resurrection of Christ to get our bearings. Through Christ we come to know God as Redeemer and Savior. At the Cross we find forgiveness. At the resurrection we enter new life. “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” (Colossians 3:1 NRSV).
who delivered your people from slavery in Egypt,
and has shown your redeeming love for all people through Jesus Christ,
Remind us anew of your love and power
so that we may trust in You through all the uncertainties of life.
Remind us anew of who we are in You
raised up to new life
witnesses to your Gospel of Christ
living examples of your power and love
chosen to be a people reflecting Your glory.
Keep us faithful.
Let our praise not only be expressed in our words
but also in our lives.
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.