This is the very first moment of Israel’s history; God intervened powerfully to lead his people to freedom; through Moses, his envoy, he asserted himself before Pharaoh, revealing himself in his full grandeur and at last broke down the resistance of the Egyptians with the terrible plague of the death of the firstborn. Israel could thus leave the country of slavery taking with it the gold of its oppressors (cf. Ex 12:35-36) and “defiantly” (Ex 14:8), in the exulting sign of victory.
At the Red Sea too the Lord acted with merciful power. Before an Israel so terrified by the sight of the Egyptians in pursuit as to regret its departure from Egypt (cf. Ex 14:10-12), God, as our Psalm says, “divided the Red Sea in sunder... and made the people of Israel pass through the midst of it... but overthrew Pharaoh and his host” (136:13-15). The image of the Red Sea “divided” into two seems to call to mind the idea of the sea as a great monster hacked into two and thereby rendered harmless. The might of the Lord overcomes the danger of the forces of nature and of these soldiers deployed in battle array by men: the sea, which seemed to bar the way of the People of God, let Israel cross on dry ground and then swept over the Egyptians, submerging them. Thus the full salvific force of the Lord’s “mighty hand, and an outstretched arm” (cf. Deut 5:15; 7:19; 26:8) was demonstrated: the unjust oppressor was vanquished, engulfed by the waters, while the people of God “walked on dry ground through the sea”, continuing its journey to freedom.
Our Psalm now refers to this journey, recalling in one short phrase Israel’s long pilgrimage toward the promised land: he “led his people through the wilderness, for his steadfast love endures for ever” (v. 16). These few words refer to a 40-year experience, a crucial period for Israel which in letting itself be guided by the Lord learned to live in faith, obedience and docility to God’s law. These were difficult years, marked by hardship in the desert, but also happy years, trusting in the Lord with filial trust. It was the time of “youth”, as the Prophet Jeremiah describes it in speaking to Israel in the Lord’s name with words full of tenderness and nostalgia: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jer 2:2).
The Lord, like the shepherd of Psalm 23 whom we contemplated in a Catechesis, for 40 years guided, taught and cherished his people, leading it right to the promised land, also overcoming the resistance and hostility of enemy peoples that wished to block its way to salvation (cf. 136:17-20).
So as the “great wonders” that our Psalm lists unfold, we reach the moment of the conclusive gift, the fulfilment of the divine promise made to the Fathers: “gave their land as a heritage, for his steadfast love endures for ever; a heritage to Israel his servant, for his steadfast love endures for ever” (136:21-22). Then, in celebrating the Lord’s eternal love, the gift of land was commemorated, a gift that the people were to receive but without ever taking possession of it, continuing to live in an attitude of grateful acknowledgment and gratitude.