Studies in Exodus 15:1-21


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Exodus 15:1-21

In some important ways the book of Exodus is like the book of Acts.  In each book the church makes a new beginning, enters into a new chapter of her life, and in each book the author gives us an account of what we might call “representative facts.”  In both Exodus and Acts the material that is recorded serves to teach us about the church’s life in this new epoch.  We aren’t told everything that happened, but we are given an account of those events that best help us understand the church’s life, her calling, and her challenges in the new situation.  For example, in Acts we are told about the community of goods that marked the church’s life after Pentecost – the spirit of sharing and brotherly love – because that spirit is to mark the church’s life in the new epoch.  We are given an account of the establishment of the diaconate, not only to account for that new office, but as a reminder of the place that charity must occupy in the life and service of the church.  But we are also told about Ananias and Sapphira and their judgment, to teach us that, still in this new world God will punish the sins of the church.  Pentecost has not made an end to the  fear of the Lord!  We learn about missionary work because the church is to take the gospel to the world.  We learn about elders gathering to hammer out solutions to difficult problems because that is the way the Lord wants the church to be led.  Reading Acts we get a sense of what the church is, what she should be, how she is to live her life in the world, and so on.  Representative facts.

Well so it is with Exodus.  We have already read about Passover as an annual commemoration.  We know that the church in this new epoch is going to remember God’s mighty acts of redemption in solemn and joyful services of commemoration.  Israel is going to be a worshipping community.  We will learn more about that in chapters to come.  But now another representative fact:  Israel will be a singing community.

We come now, in chapter 15, to the first real hymn of the Bible.  It is beautiful and important in its own right, to be sure, but here, in Exodus, it is also paradigmatic.  It establishes a pattern to be followed in Israel’s history hereafter.

Text Comment

v.1       This song of praise and thanksgiving is addressed to Yahweh, as are all the hymns of thanksgiving in the Bible.  Yahweh is both the subject – the hymn is about him and what he has done – and the object – the hymn is sung to him.  And the reason for the hymn is what the Lord has just done for his people, his final deliverance of them from the Egyptians.  So verse 1 tell us what the hymn is about and to whom it is sung.  In the OT in general and especially in the book of Psalms, praise and thanksgiving hymns are public acknowledgements of the Lord has done for an individual or for the whole people.  They recollect the things the Lord has done for which he is being thanked and praise and call on others to give their thanks to God.  We will find all these features in this first biblical hymn.

v.2       God’s grace in the lines of generations (here “my father’s God”) is often mentioned in the biblical hymns as a reason for his praise and our thanksgiving.
v.3       Now begins in poetic form the recitation of the Lord’s mighty work of salvation.

v.6       “Right hand” is a very typical biblical metaphor for strength.  Now, it is generally held that this hymn is organized in three strophes or sections. The first strophe is vv. 1-6, the second vv. 7-11, the third vv. 12-16, with vv. 17-18 as a conclusion.  The dividing marker between the strophes is a repetition.  Notice in v. 6 at the end of the first strophe that “Your right hand” is repeated twice; in v. 11 “Who is like you” is repeated twice; in v. 16 “until your people pass by” is repeated twice.  The first strophe is an introduction, the second recollects the details of the Lord’s victory at the Yam Suph, and the third forecasts the Lord’s leading his people safely through the wilderness, with its peoples trembling in fear of Israel.  The conclusion in v. 17 carries the story on to the Lord’s settling of his people in the Promised Land.

v.8       Queen Elizabeth I said of the destruction of the Spanish Armada by storms at sea, “He blew and they were scattered.”  Remember, we read in the previous chapter that it was a wind that divided the waters of the sea.

v.9       The Egyptian’s confidence, their plans to defeat and recapture Israel are ridiculed.  Their arrogance, their presumption melted away in a moment before the power of the Lord.

v.11     This manner of speaking, which is found a number of times in the Bible, does not imply that Israel actually thought that there were other gods besides Yahweh.  But ANE peoples thought that there were and there were idols everywhere.  In that sense other gods existed.  But those gods were literally nothing compared to Yahweh.

It is worth pointing out, at this point, that the Lord’s triumph over the powers of the sea on behalf of his people takes on special importance because of the mythology of the ancient Near East.  Almost all ancient peoples told tales of the battle of one of the great gods against the deity of the sea.  The sea, remember, stood for chaos, disorder, that was brought under control by the appearance of the land, the division between land and sea that occurs on the third day of creation and, we understand, is the factual origin of all those ancient myths.  In the ancient mythology, Rahab, the prince of the sea was not satisfied with her portion of the universe and rebelled.  The rivers stood with the sea in this rebellion and also the sea monsters, leviathan and the like. But the great god defeated them.  Well that mythology is taken up in several places in the Bible – always by the poets, not by the prose writers (this is a way of speaking about God, his power, his sovereignty, not the Bible’s theology!) and connected to the Lord’s demonstration of his power over the waters when he delivered Israel at the Yam Suph.

Here is Isaiah 51:9-10:  “Awake!  Awake!  Clothe yourself with strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in days gone by, as in generations of old.  Was it not you who cut Rahab – Rahab was the female monster of chaos or the sea in ANE mythology (found by different names in different national mythologies; e.g. she is Tiamat in the Babylonian story) – Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces, who pierced that monster through?  Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made a road in the depths of the sea so that the redeemed might cross over?”  It is very interesting that the Bible refers to Rahab as if she were a real god.  Again, this is poetry.  It is a figure of speech that Isaiah is using.  But that is what you do when you want to place the true faith in the context of the world in which you live.  For Rahab, real or not, is the god of the people around.  She is the embodiment of their understanding of the world.  And whether we think of her as a religious idea or simply as another name for the sea, Yahweh demonstrated his power over her in history.

In other words, Yahweh is the real Lord of the sea, the one who really controls it – not the imaginary gods of the nations – and he proved his power in history by dividing the waters, bringing them under his control for a real purpose, to deliver his people from their enemies.  ANE mythology becomes real history in Israel, not imagination; and mythological stories become a real covenant between God and his people in Israel.  Everyone has his story of how the world came to be, how the gods came to relate to my people and to me, and so on.  But all of this is primeval fantasy except in Israel where Yahweh, the true and living God actually has revealed himself as the sovereign Lord and actually has made a covenant with his people.  Here is our answer to the pluralists who want us to take seriously all the other religious viewpoints abroad in our world:  we say, “they aren’t true; they are made up.  Ours is not imagination; it is history.  It is history at the Yam Suph, it is history at Calvary, and it is history at the empty tomb.”  This is the Christian claim and it has been from the beginning.  It is not surprising that the real history would be distorted in human religious thinking – that you can find an echo of it everywhere in the religious thinking of mankind – from this story of the god’s conquest of chaos, to the story of a great flood, to the story of great heroes who saved their people from death.  But there is one story that is not simply an echo.  It is actual history:  real creation, not a primeval myth; a real flood, and  real heroes.  It is the story from which all the imaginary stories take their origin.  Were the Bible written today, with today’s Western mythologies as its cultural background, perhaps Isaiah might have said, “but the Lord cut Marxist dialectical materialism or Darwinian evolution into pieces!”

v.12     The third strophe of the poem now begins.  The first two concerned Yahweh’s victory over the Egyptians in the Yam Suph and his deliverance of his people.  This third, together with the hymn’s conclusion in vv. 17-18, concerns the future, what the Lord will do now for his people to carry them safely through the wilderness.  The Egyptians are destroyed, we read as the strophe begins; now what follows?

v.17     Remember, in the ANE every god had his mountain, even if it were only a hillock with a small sanctuary on top.  In keeping with the thought world of the ANE, the Bible often refers to the Lord’s mountain and, as you remember, the temple was situated atop Zion, the highest hill of the city of Jerusalem.  The consummation of salvation in history is described by the prophets as the time when the Lord’s mountain will rise above all the other mountains of the earth.  One of the problems with “high places” which we read so often about in the OT narratives – this king or that did not remove the high places – is that high places were ANE sanctuaries and that those who worshipped there – even if they claimed to be worshipping Yahweh – were buying into an ANE worldview and theology.  The Lord accommodated himself to the idea of putting his temple on a mountain, but not to the mythology that swirled around that practice.

v.19     This short section picks up the historical narrative again and tells us when this hymn was sung.  It was sung first by Miriam and the women and then, as we learned in 15:1 by Moses and all the people.  The repetition of the first verse serves as a title for the entire hymn.  Just as we use the first line as a title for a hymn, so did they.

v.20     The link between prophesying and singing occurs elsewhere in the OT.  The sense of the term in this usage does not seem to be the power to predict the future, but to lead in worship in some respect.  Just as all OT prophets did not predict the future – some were only what we would call preachers – so, apparently, all prophetesses did not have this office or role.

The conclusion of many large narrative units in the Bible is marked by a hymn or psalm.  This hymn concludes the Egyptian phase of the exodus story and the beginning of the wilderness phase begins with the next paragraph.  As a representative fact, this first great biblical hymn will explain a great deal that follows in the Bible.

God’s people have sung their faith, their praise, their prayers from very early on.  No doubt this is not the first hymn God’s people sang, but it is the first recorded for us in Holy Scripture.  And so it would continue.  And there is really no other religion in the world in which music plays such a large part in worship and life.  Other religions chant and hum, some sing sometimes, but Christianity, from its origins in the covenant life of Israel has been a singing faith and has produced its own beautiful music in the psalms of ancient Israel, in the hymns of early Christianity, in Gregorian chant, in the hymns and psalms of the Reformation, in the hymns of the Protestant church, in the black spirituals of American slavery, and in the marvelously varied praises of the Christian church existing in all the cultures of the world.  We saw a video at prayer meeting some weeks ago about the Canaan Hymns, new hymns being sung by Chinese Christians, many written by a young peasant woman with no formal musical education.

If we ask why music should take such a prominent place in the practice of our faith, we will find that the Bible gives us no specific answer.  But it illustrates the answer in many different ways.

  1. Music glorifies words.  It awakens, strengthens, and makes more beautiful and powerful the meaning of words.  In our faith we speak to God and about God and music helps us to speak with weightier, more beautiful words.  Music adds to the words.  “I will sing to the Lord, for he is the exalted” are wonderful words to say; music makes them more powerful and more beautiful.  Every Christian knows this experience:  the way the same thing that is said becomes the more powerful in being sung.  This is, of course, the explanation of all song in a way:  whether the Christian hymn, the spiritual, the love song, or the patriotic anthem.  This is why Israel sang her sorrows by the rivers of Babylon and why the early Christians, as Pliny says, as part of their worship “sang a hymn to Christ as God.”  This explains James’ remark in chapter 5, verse 13 of his letter.  “

“Is any one of you in trouble?  He should pray.  Is anyone happy?  Let
him sing songs of praise.”

That is, the appropriate thing to do when one is happy is to sing praise to God.  It is the most fit expression of a happy heart.  It gives the truest, deepest, most beautiful expression to that heart to sing!

  1. Second, music induces an attitude.  In our faith it is not enough to say the right things.  One must mean what one says.  He must have in his heart the right attitude as he speaks to or about God.  Music is an aid to the heart.  It has power to awaken emotion, to stir feeling, and to lift up the soul.  This is why Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns when thrown in prison in Philippi.  As Tertullian would later put it, “the feet feel nothing in the stocks when the heart is in heaven.”  [To the Martyrs, 2]  And music carries the heart to heaven.   Milton gives voice to this experience in Il Penseroso:

There let the pealing organ blow
To the full voic’d choir below,
In service high and anthems clear,
As may with sweetness, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all Heav’n before mine eyes.

Every Christian has had this experience as well.  We find that music carries us up into the meaning of what is being said and makes us feel the power, the glory, the heartbreak, the joy of that meaning.  We have finished a service singing The Son of God Goes Forth to War and we feel in our hearts the courage, the determination to be good soldiers of Jesus Christ, just as a British regiment may steel itself for battle by singing Men of Harlech.  We sing Abide with Me and we feel the force of that magnificent text and want to walk near to the Lord all the days of our lives and to know his presence at the hour of our death.  We sing William Walsham How’s For all the Saints and want to be faithful to that long, great line of Christian faithfulness in this world and can’t wait to be part of the procession that finally enters through the gates of heaven on the great day.  And, to be sure, if we sing that great hymn to the tune Sarum we are not nearly so moved by the stirring theme of its great verses as we are when we sing it to Ralph Vaughn William’s magnificent tune Sine Nomine.  The text gathers power in our hearts, stirs our feelings from the music; the better the music, the greater the power.

Music even has the power to make acceptable to our hearts the hard things of our faith.  It sweetens the heart toward even those things that the heart finds most difficult.  Basil, the early church father, puts it this way:

“The Holy Spirit sees how much difficulty mankind has in loving virtue,
and how we prefer the lure of pleasure to the straight and narrow path.
What does he do?  He adds the grace of music to the truth of doctrine.
Charmed by what we hear, we pluck the fruit of the words without
realizing it.”  [Hom. in Ps. 1]  [Cited in J. Gelineau, “Music and Singing in the Liturgy,” The Study of Liturgy, 496]

It is this power of music to induce feeling that has led to frequent suspicion of its power over the mind and heart and sometimes positive efforts to banish it from the church.  Like any good thing it can be misused but the Bible has too much to say in recommending its use for us to think we could ever practice our faith properly without singing to God.

  1. Third, music enables God’s people to share in the activity of praise and

thanksgiving in a way, on a level impossible in any other way.  Here the emphasis       falls on the fact that it was not only Moses or Miriam who sang, but Miriam and the women and Moses and the Israelites.  Music allows a measure of unity in the expression of thought that cannot be duplicated in other ways. One of the wonderful things about music is the way in which it blends many voices into one.  I stand at the front of the church and, as a result, I hear the entire congregation sing better than any of you does.  And I don’t hear you as many different voices but as one voice.  It is a beautiful way of expressing unity in diversity.

John Chrysostom said once in a service to his congregation:

“The psalm which occurred just now in the [service] blended all voices together, and caused one single fully harmonious chant to arise; young and old, rich and poor, women and men slaves and free, all sang one single melody…. All the inequalities of social life are here banished.  Together we make up a single choir in perfect equality of rights and of expression whereby earth imitates heaven.  Such is the noble character of the church.”

He might have said, “Such is the noble quality of the church when she is singing and when the church is singing she is what she ought to be at all times.”  This unity in diversity, this beauty in unity can be expressed still more powerfully when a congregation sings in harmony and not simply in unison.  The same text being sung to different notes at the same time, but beautiful in the harmony of those notes, is a lovely picture of unity in diversity.

  1. Another virtue of music is as an aid to recollection.  We all know that we can remember things that we sing better than things that we simply read.  We can all remember advertising jingles from years ago.  (“You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.”)  We all learned our ABCs by singing them.  In this church we can all say the Nicene Creed because we have learned to sing it and, were we to recite it, many of us would have to sing it in parts to remind ourselves how it runs.  Here, as in so many psalms, the hymn is designed not only as a vehicle of praise and thanksgiving but as an aid to memory.  Just as Passover commemorates Israel’s deliverance from Egypt – serves to keep it fresh in mind – so the hymns that recite that history remind us of it and keep that recollection a living power in our minds.  That is the point here in Exodus 15 of course.  It is a fair criticism, I think, of much of contemporary Christian music that it doesn’t teach very much and Christians don’t learn very much from it because it doesn’t recollect much.  It doesn’t elaborate, as the biblical hymns do, why we should praise God and thank him.  Here the whole story of the deliverance of Israel from the Egyptians at the sea is retold and retold in a highly memorable, theological way.  I think we would all be surprised to learn how much we remember, how much we do not forget of what God has done for us, because we sing that history over and over again in the church.  We would all be astonished, I’m sure, to learn how much we have memorized – both the sacred and the ridiculous – because we sang it and the music has fixed it in our memories.  This is one of the reasons why missionaries have always used hymns and songs to teach the faith to people who are learning it for the first time.

So far we have been considering music and singing together.  But it is worth pointing out that even here, with this first biblical hymn, there is mention made of a musical instrument, in this case the tambourine.  The tambourine doesn’t add melody.  It adds rhythm.  But, as you know, later many other instruments will be mentioned as being used to accompany the singing of the church.  So it is not only singing per se that the Bible teaches to be part of the practice of our faith as Christians but singing accompanied by the playing of musical instruments.  These instruments function in a way in the same way as singing itself does.  They glorify the singing, make it more beautiful and more powerful in its effect.

There is also mention of dancing as another way in which the effect of the song is heightened and in which the joy of the praise is expressed.  How to translate that practice into our modern church life is a controversy, as you know, and I haven’t time to do justice to that this evening.

So God has worked a great salvation for us by his power and his love.  And it is ours to thank and praise him for it.  And we do that best, or, at least, one of the best ways we do that is to sing a hymn that recollects his great work in beautiful poetry accompanied by musical instruments.  We have learned something about the Christian life as we so often learn such things in the Bible:  by the example of the saints who have gone before us.

I leave you with Martin Luther:  “Why say it when you can sing it?”  When we sing, as we now shall at the communion, let’s remember both that song has been a part of God’s worship from time immemorial and why it has been so.  And then let us give ourselves to the singing so as to glorify God with it and to get for ourselves the good that is in it for us.