“Dance.” The Hebrew word translated “dance” is chul (#02342 חוּל), and it has a number of meanings that, in this context, can seem contradictory. It’s basic meaning is to twist or writhe, and so it means twist, writhe, tremble (from fear or pain), and travail (also used of women in labor). However, chul also means to twist from excitement or joy and thus also means “whirl, dance, twist (from joy);” (cp. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis). We see the meaning “dance” in Judges 21:21, 23.
But since chul can mean either “tremble” (in fear) or “dance” (with joy), which meaning does it have here in Psalm 114:7? The best answer seems to be “both.” The context seems to be unhelpful in determining a single meaning, because it too seems contradictory. But the scholars disagree with each other and take sides, For example, the Hermeneia commentary on Psalms by F. L. Hossfeld and E. Zenger examines both “tremble” and “dance” and concludes, “…it seems better to translate the imperative ח֣וּלִי in v. 7 not as “tremble,” but as “dance,” because it also fits the context better.” But the context does seem to go both ways. Before verse 7, when the sea fled, the Jordan River turned back, and the mountains and hills skipped, the word “tremble” seems to fit best. But after verse 7, in Psalm 114:8, the context is about blessings, because God brought forth water in the wilderness, which was a blessing to Israel and a blessing to the wilderness itself.
Psalm 114:7 is one of the verses for which the scope of Scripture points the way to properly understanding it. What happens on earth at the presence of Yahweh? How does the earth, and the people who live on it, respond? That depends on whether they have served God (or want to), or whether they have rebelled against him.
Much in creation will rejoice when Yahweh finally reigns through His Messiah, Jesus Christ. Romans speaks about earth’s situation today: “the whole creation has been groaning together and suffering the pains of childbirth together right up to this present time” (Rom. 8:22), and the whole creation is waiting expectantly for deliverance from its bondage to decay (Rom. 8:19-21). Much of the earth will rejoice when Yahweh delivers the earth through His Messiah.
Isaiah writes about the time of Yahweh’s deliverance: “the mountains and the hills will break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the fields will clap their hands” (Isa. 55:12). He also writes: “The wilderness and the dry land will be glad. The desert will rejoice and blossom like a rose. The burning sand will become a pool, and thirsty ground will become springs of water” (Isa. 35:1, 7). The Psalmist also writes of the time of God’s salvation: “Let the rivers clap their hands. Let the mountains shout together for joy in the presence of Yahweh, for he is coming to judge the earth” (Ps. 98:8-9).
But in contrast with the earth and the obedient people, who will rejoice when the Messiah reigns, rebellious things will tremble because their end has come. For example, thorns and thistles, which are a result of the Adam’s sin and the Fall, and which have been so ubiquitous and painful in every area of the world, will disappear. Isaiah writes: “Instead of the thorn will come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier will come up the myrtle tree” (Isa. 55:13). Similarly, wicked and rebellious people will be destroyed. The Psalmist writes, “there is a future for a person of peace,” but then he goes on to say, “But those who rebel, they will be destroyed together. The future of the wicked will be cut off” (Ps. 37:37-38).
Of the two possible translations, the REV has “dance” instead of “tremble” because even though there are a lot of things that will tremble when the Lord comes, there will also be much that will rejoice and dance, and it was always God’s intention that His creation dances in His presence, since He loves it so much and showers it with blessings.
So, how will things respond at the presence of Yahweh and when the Messiah reigns on earth? Some things will dance and be joyful. Other things will tremble with fear. Unlike most of creation, we humans are in a unique position to determine which response we will have when the Messiah comes. We can live rebellious and ungodly lives and then tremble in fear when Jesus comes back because we know we have no future, or we can obey God and rejoice when Jesus comes back because we know we have a wonderful and everlasting future.
The Hebrew word “chiyl” has two basic meanings and can be translated “tremble” or “dance”. Which should be used in this verse? The answer is both! God, in His infinite wisdom, is producing something to put us in deep thought, prayer, and self-reflection. There is something you can do to assure that you dance at the presence of Yahweh.
Verses: Ps. 37:20, 35-38; 98:8-9; 114:1-8; Isa. 35:1, 2, 5-7; 55:12-13; Rom. 8:22
Teacher: John Schoenheit