Walter Brueggemann: Squirming toward Newness (Psalm 114; Matthew 18:21-35)

Psalm 114 is a lyrical rendering of Israel’s Exodus memory. The Psalm readily divides into three parts, just right for a sermon sketch! Verses 1-2 quickly summarize the master narrative of Israel’s faith. That narrative begins with the departure from Egypt and culminates in arrival into the Promised Land. Here, as in the Song of Moses (Exodus 15:1-18), emancipation from Pharaoh ends in “God’s sanctuary,” that is, in Mt. Zion in the Jerusalem temple. Exodus is not only deliverance from (Pharaoh); it is also deliverance to safe, secure life in the land of wellbeing at the center of which is the sovereign presence of YHWH in the Jerusalem temple.

After these summary verses, 3-4 engage in a bit of mocking, liberating fun at the expense of God’s creatures that are destabilized by the force of the creator God. Verses 3-4 report on what happened at the Exodus. “The Sea,” embodiment of the force of chaos, took one look at the emancipatory resolve of God and fled for safety. That is, the waters retreated in order to make way for YHWH’s emancipatory act (see Exodus 14:21-22).

But here the retreat of the waters is not only for emancipation.

The chaotic waters are frightened by YHWH and flee the scene. They are unable to stand in the face of that dangerous, holy sovereignty. In poetic parallel, the mountains, the great reliable monuments of stability, are reduced to the tottering of new born lambs that can scarcely stand. Even the mountains that have been there forever become unstable in the face of the emancipatory force of YHWH. (See Psalm 46:2-3).

All creation will desperately yield to the liberating purpose of YHWH, either in fear or in obedience. Thus the Exodus is parsed not only as an historical event (which it is!), but a cosmic disruption of the form and shape of creation. (See Joshua 10:12-13 where we have notice of the way in which creation acts for the sake of YHWH’s particular intent.)

The rhetorical questions of verses 5-6 that follow the report of verses 3-4 constitute a mocking tease. These are rhetorical questions because the Psalmist knows very well why the sea and the mountains have fled in fear. Israel, confident of YHWH’s liberating intent, says to the restless sea and to the staggering mountains: “Fraidy cat, fraidy cat!” They fled because the force of the creator is immense and cannot be withstood. Nothing in all creation can stand in the way of the emancipatory resolve of the creator God. To withstand that resolve is to invite ruin on one’s self. The questions of verses 5-6 are likely an anticipation of the mocking Paul does of the power of death, affirming that death, like chaos, is no match for the God of emancipatory impulse:

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?” (I Corinthians 15:55; see Hosea 13:14).

Like chaos, death has no sting and no power when assaulted by the God of life. Taken benignly, this mocking affirmation may be taken as: “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” or “This is my father’s world.” The tone here, however, is not benign. This is a contest to see who will have the final say in creation. It turns out that the sea (chaos) has no final say. Death has no final say.

The final say belongs, without much contestation, to the creator God, a lesson that the forces of chaos and death always have to learn yet again.

That is why the God of the Exodus could assure the escaping slaves:

“Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still” (Exodus 14: 13-14).

We are able to hear an echo of this assurance in the mighty affirmation of Paul in Romans 8:37-39!

We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, or angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

All of this is from the outset on the horizon of this water-from-rock God.

Third, the psalm moves to the startling imperative of verse 7 that is no doubt the pivot of the Psalm toward which all these poetic lines have been moving. It turns out that this reference to the Exodus is not simply a history lesson. Rather, it is memory that yields a very present-tense warning.

The verb “Tremble” bespeaks the twisting anguish that happens both in the birth process and in troubled fear and in writhing pain. Thus we may translate it as “squirm”: squirming discomfort in fear or alarm. The imperative is addressed to Pharaoh as one might expect; Pharaoh should rightly squirm in fear before YHWH. Beyond Pharaoh, the mandate to squirm is addressed is to all historical players, all the earthly princess, all the political managers, all the economic predators, all the authoritarian teachers. Squirm at loss; squirm at embarrassment; squirm because the rule of YHWH outflanks and undoes all of our arrangements that serve our comfort, security, and advantage.

And says the Psalmist, if you do not believe that, take a look back to Exodus 17:1-7 and the water drawn from flint rock. Everyone knows, in that pre-scientific world, that you cannot get water from rock. But we are witnesses to it! We have witnessed creation at the behest of the creator. We have witnessed the capacity of God to up-end all of our assumptions and all of our power arrangements, and all of our designations of privilege.

Good reason to twist and squirm!

The Psalmist might also have alluded to bread from heaven (Exodus 16:14-15) and quail from the seashore (Exodus 16:13). Or we might be offered an inventory of inexplicable inversions through the blind see, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the lamb walk, and the poor have good news (see Luke 7:22). YHWH is the master of many transformations that the world judges to be impossible. We may be able to notice that the world, under the sway of YHWH, turns out to be very different from that which we had imagined

Given the breath-taking force of the imperative of the Psalm, it is an easy move to the gospel reading in Matthew 18. In that parable, the king is accustomed to settling his accounts on time. He is familiar with debt and expects debts owed him to be promptly repaid. He is calling in all his loans. He is a tough dealer who is comfortable with a transactional mode of communication without apology and has a capacity to enforce his transactional demands.

Except — of course the parable concerns a very different governance … “the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:23). The king in the parable is a practitioner of generosity. He readily forgives debts. He intends that such generosity should pervade his regime. He is sternly impatient with underlings who contradict his generosity. He poses the obvious question to his recalcitrant slave who failed in debt forgiveness:

Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you (v. 33)?

The obvious answer is “yes”; yes, the one who received generosity from the king is expected to replicate that generosity in their own lives and their own claims. Now the king is provoked and insists that his unforgiving slave should be held fully accountable (v. 34). The conclusion of the parable in v. 33 is a severe warning about being parsimonious and deficient in forgiving generosity.

The warning can be taken as an echo of the imperative of our Psalm: Tremble! Tremble when you contradict the way of the new governance. Tremble if you hold on to old parsimony. Tremble if you stay inside old transactional calculations. Tremble if you refuse the new rule of neighborliness.

Such generosity concerning real economic matters is like water from rock. It makes possible real life in an arid economy. It turns out that the parable is about forgiveness of debts … real forgiveness of real debts, not the clichés of piety. The kingdom of heaven is about the failure of old transactional systems of social relationships. Debt is the governance of the old order. Debt lasts forever and keeps people in hopelessness (see David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years).

And now the new governance breaks the vicious cycle!

Debt lingers with its power to disable. Except … of course except … the water-from-rock God wills otherwise. Good news to the indebted. Good news to those too long kept poor and powerless. In Psalm 114:1-2, we have seen the quick tracing of our master narrative from Egypt (a place of hopeless debt!) to the new land of wellbeing. Between Egypt and the new land is Sinai. Sinai is the venue for Torah as an alternative to the predatory rules of Pharaoh. This alternative turns on love of God and love of neighbor. It is the Exodus God who gives the new torah provision for neighborliness (Exodus 20:1).

Eventually Moses will extend Sinai mandates to the forgiveness and cancellation of debts (Deuteronomy 15:1-18). YHWH wills a new regime of neighborliness. No wonder we are summoned to “Tremble!” No wonder we are warned against not showing mercy when we have received mercy.

In our society we are facing the long term debt incurred against Black people who have worked to “make America great” without compensation or advancement for a long time (See Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism). We are now reckoning with the questions of whose life matters. It turns out that the lives of the debtors matter along with the lives of the creditors. Who knew? Biblical interpreters have a chance to lay out this reality that culminates in an uncompromising imperative. A trembling turn toward the new governance will indeed be as life-giving as water from rock! This is the God who terminated the bondage-making, debt-urging regime of Pharaoh. That remembered deliverance was not and will not be the last time this water-from-rock God acts in mercy. As that happens yet again, we are invited to notice … and to tremble!


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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