After studying through a genealogy, a psalm that was also a parable, and a proverb about oxen, we at last moved back into a larger text. Particularly, we return to the book of Exodus, which we previously studied last year. We concluded with chapter 14 and then went on to conclude the Gospel of Mark. My reasoning for breaking larger books like Mark and Exodus into multiple series is twofold. First, I enjoy moving between different biblical genres, so I prefer to parse larger texts out over the span of a couple of years, studying other passages in between.
Second, I enjoy organizing sermons each year so that they loosely all build together upon a similar theme. Most often I try to do this with first an Old Testament text followed by parallel New Testament text. I have done this with pairing Ecclesiastes and Philippians under the theme of joy, with Haggai and Ephesians, Daniel and Mark 1-8, and Exodus 1-14 and Mark 9-16 all under the theme of God’s kingdom.
This year we depart from that overarching theme and come under the theme of God as our shepherd. Here in Exodus 15-19, we will see very clearly how the LORD shepherded Israel like a flock through the wilderness and to the foot of Sinai, and later the book of Hebrews will urge us to consider Jesus, “the great shepherd of the sheep” (13:20). For now, we begin our second part of Exodus with the Song of Moses.
THEN MOSES AND THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL SANG
The very first word of our text is then, which ought to immediately make us pause because it means that an effect is about to be given. Thus, we ought to pause to consider the cause. In the first fourteen chapters of Exodus, God redeemed His people from their four-hundred-year captivity in Egypt. By His sovereign hand, God preserved Moses’ life through the slaughter of Israel’s newborn males, established him in Pharaoh’s own palace to receive the highest quality education of his day (something that would undoubtedly be valuable as the Holy Spirit led him in the writing of Scripture), sent him into the wilderness for forty years as a shepherd, and then sent him back to Egypt to lead the Israelites out of their slavery. Through Moses, the LORD worked the wonders that we now commonly call the ten plagues, which left Egypt in ruin. Nevertheless, even after Pharaoh demanded Israel’s departure, God baited Pharaoh into riding out against Israel with all of his chariots, thinking that they had foolishly wandered to the edge of the Red Sea. God, however, miraculously parted the sea so that Israel went across on dry land. With his heart thoroughly hardened, Pharaoh actually had the hubris to chase after Israel into the midst of the sea, which was when the LORD released the walls of water, drowning Pharaoh and all his horses and riders.
That is the cause of verse 1’s effect: Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD… On the opposite shore of the sea, with their four-hundred-year sojourn in Egypt on the other side and with the bodies of men and horses washing upon the shore, Israel sang to their God, the true and living God.
This song, most often called the Song of Moses but also called the Song of the Sea, is the first psalm of the Bible, and there is a very good possibility that it was the very first portion of the Bible to have been written down by Moses. Indeed, we can easily envision Moses writing down these words before Israel sets out from the sea in verse 22. There have been many scholars who see this musical interjection into the narrative of Exodus as being out of place. Yet they fail to see both the theological and artistic composition of this book of Scripture. This musical interlude is a feature rather than a bug, and it is a feature both theologically and artistically.
It is an artistic feature of Exodus because Moses knew what many ivory-tower academics can easily forget: music is as woven into the foundations of the cosmos as much as wisdom is. Job 38:7 tells us that the stars and angels sang and shouted for joy during creation, and Revelation shows us repeatedly that our life everlasting will be marked by songs of praise. And there are songs everywhere in-between. Martin Luther is often noted for calling music the greatest gift that God has given humanity, second only to the Scriptures.
Theologically, this song is necessary. As I repeatedly have said, the exodus is the narrative heart of the Old Testament. It is the central act of redemption upon which the rest of Scripture depends. The exodus is the foundation of Israel’s identity as a people. They are fundamentally a nation of slaves that God redeemed to be His own people and to fulfill the promises that He long ago gave to their ancestor Abraham. The crossing of the Red Sea, therefore, was Israel’s chief moment of salvation. And throughout Scripture, singing is repeatedly shown to be the proper response to God’s salvation. Indeed, Philip Ryken writes, “The history of salvation is sometimes described as a drama–the drama of redemption. However, this drama is actually a musical. It is impossible even to conceive of Biblical Christianity without songs of praise.”
This is why we so often link singing and worship together. Of course, we know that worship itself is far more than just singing, yet even so, singing is intimately bound to our worship of God. Worship is most simply our act of giving to God the worth that He deserves. Thus, being created and redeemed by God, we owe Him nothing less than our very selves. Therefore, Romans 12:1 is perhaps the most succinct biblical description of our worship in Christ: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
Worship is nothing less than giving ourselves entirely to God, and this certainly encompasses our singing. To both the Colossians and the Ephesians, Paul clearly expected singing to play a regular role in communicating the truths of Scripture to one another. Indeed, throughout our sojourning through this life, we ought to say with the psalmist to the LORD: “Your statutes have been my songs in the house of my sojourning” (Psalm 119:54).
Indeed, nothing will sink the truths of Scripture more deeply into our hearts than songs. That is why I generally give more serious consideration to adding a particular song to our Sunday morning singing than I do to choosing which texts of Scripture to preach. When it comes to choosing a book or passage to preach, I certainly want to be sensitive to what would best fit our congregation’s particular season, yet in the end, God’s Word will never return void. The songs we sing, however, are compliments to Scripture rather than Scripture itself. They must, then, undergo a far greater degree of scrutiny. This becomes doubly important whenever we consider that songs are far more memorable than words alone. Thus, whenever I select songs for us to sing congregationally, I am actively looking for songs that are worthy of being the soundtrack to our earthly pilgrimage.
Indeed, there is no question that we will sing and make music; that is part of being made in God’s image. The question is what kind of songs will we sing. Particularly, will our heart’s theme song be: I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously?
THE SONG OF MOSES
As we move into the actual contents of this psalm, rather than moving verse-by-verse through it, we will focus upon its three broad themes: what God has done, what God will do, and who God is.
The whole occasion of the psalm is an exultation in what God had just done. Verses 4-10 and 12 largely give a poetic retelling of Pharaoh’s destruction in the waters of the sea. Ryken calls us to consider a point that many would rather pass over: “Realize that in this song he did not praise God for the exodus in general, but specifically for the death of the Egyptians as a demonstration of divine wrath.”
If that sounds harsh and even unjust, we need to recalibrate our notion of justice so that it accords with Scripture. God’s triumph in the exodus was certainly in bringing His people out of slavery, yet it was also about beheading Pharaoh as an offspring of the serpent. The plagues upon Egypt were judgment, and the Red Sea was an execution. Indeed, God made certain that the execution fit the crime. This Pharaoh drowned just as the Pharaoh before him had drowned so many infants in the Nile. It was right for Moses and the Israelites to celebrate, for as Proverbs 11:10 says, “When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices, and when the wicked perish there are shouts of gladness.”
Today, we sing similar songs of Christ’s triumph over the serpent himself. In the hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, we sing:
And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us
We will not fear for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him,
His rage we can endure, for lo his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
Working the greater exodus upon the cross, Jesus triumphed over the powers of darkness and put them to open shame. Even so, the greatest enemy that Jesus defeated is our own sin. In baptism, we have a picture of Christ drowning the Pharaoh within each of us and raising us back to life as His redeemed people. Thus, it is also right that we sing:
To this I hold: my sin has been defeated!
Jesus now and ever is my plea.
Oh, the chains are released
I can sing: I am free.
Yet not I but through Christ in me.
The song also looks prophetically to what God would still accomplish for Israel. This is particularly found in verses 13-17, which certainly seem to speak about the coming conquest of Canaan. The holy habitation and God’s own mountain are a prophetic expectation of the temple being established in Jerusalem and upon Mount Zion. As John Sailhamer notes:
Throughout the poem, however, the picture of God’s great deeds foreshadows most closely that of David, who defeated the chiefs of Edom, Philistia, and Canaan and made Mount Zion the eternal home for the Lord’s sanctuary (v. 17). Curiously enough, many of the poems in the Pentateuch seem to foreshadow events in the life of David as well as to go far beyond him to even greater days in the future (cf. Ge 49:8-12; Nu 24:17-19). In many respects, this Song of Moses resembles the psalm of Asaph (Ps 78), which, after rehearsing God’s great deeds of the past, moves on to describe God’s work through David: “He chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which he loved. He built his sanctuary like the high mountains… He chose David his servant…to be the shepherd of his people” (vv. 68-72).
Indeed, note the language of verse 13: You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode. He speaks of Israel’s settling around Mount Zion as if it had already happened. Verse 17, of course, confesses that it still must come to pass, that God will bring His people to Canaan and to Jerusalem. Since God Himself is outside of time, both are true. When God promises that He will do something, it is as certain as if it had already happened. Let us take this to heart when it comes to Christ’s return to bring His church to the New Jerusalem. Even Satan knows the certainly of that final triumph (see Revelation 12:12), let us all the more believe this blessed hope!
In this song, Moses finally and most importantly celebrates who God is. This is particularly true of verses 2-3, 11, and 18. Indeed, we might argue that verse 3 is the heart of this song, so we should close pay attention to verse 3: The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is his name. In the battle between Egypt and Israel, Pharaoh had his army of chariots, which were the supreme military technology of that day, but Israel had an army of one, the LORD. John Calvin writes:
His power shows itself clearly when the ferocity of the impious, in everyone’s opinion unconquerable, is overcome in a moment, their arrogance vanquished, their strongest defenses destroyed, their javelins and armor shattered, their strength broken, their machinations overturned, and themselves fallen of their own height; and when their audacity, which exalted them above heaven, lays them low even to the center of the earth; when, conversely the humble are raised up from the dust, and the needy are lifted up from the dung heap [Ps. 113:7]; the oppressed and afflicted are rescued from their extreme tribulation; the despairing are restored to good hope; the unarmed, few and weak, snatch victory from the armed, many and strong.
Calvin was not specifically writing about the exodus, yet the exodus is one of history’s greatest examples of those truths. God is a warrior whose power is revealed as He fights on behalf of His people and as the wicked are consumed entirely. Here again Jesus is the great embodiment. In this exodus, God destroyed Pharaoh with the sea. In the great exodus, Jesus disarmed the serpent upon the cross and will one day cast him eternally into the lake of fire.
The confession of God’s name is also important because that was the very purpose behind the exodus. Before Exodus 3, Moses did not know God’s name, and in Exodus 5, Pharaoh reveled in his ignorance of God’s name. Both were followed with God declaring that He is the LORD, Yahweh.
To Israel, God said in 6:7: “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.”
Of the Egyptians, God said in 7:5: “The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.”
To Pharaoh, God said in 7:17: “By this you shall know that I am the LORD: behold, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood.”
Then before the parting of the sea, God told Moses in 14:4: “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.”
Indeed, before the waters engulfed them, the Egyptian soldiers cried out, “Let us flee from before Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians” (14:25).
Now on the other side of the sea, Moses and the Israelites made this mighty confession of praise: The LORD is his name. Again, since God repeatedly told us that the purpose of the exodus was to make His name known to Israel, to Egypt, and to all the world. Each plague was a judgment upon the so-called gods of Egypt, forcing Israelite and Egyptian alike to admit that there is no god like the LORD, Yahweh. He alone is majestic in holiness. He is the only Holy One, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Those like Pharaoh who would ascend to heaven in their pride will be swallowed up in the earth as it obeys the decree of its Maker. He alone will reign forever and ever.
God works the mighty salvation of His people in order to make Himself known. Paul makes that point explicitly in Ephesians 3, where he points out that our salvation through Christ is revealing to the angels God’s manifold (literally multi-colored) wisdom. But if that sounds megalomaniacal to us, that God chiefly saves His people in order to be known and glorified by them, we reveal our own ignorance of God’s glory, which is also for our good. Perhaps the supreme example of this is John 17:3 where Jesus prayed: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Knowing God is eternal life, which makes God’s declaration “I am the LORD” to be both glorious and supremely loving. In revealing Himself, God reveals eternal life.
We see this truth in verse 2: The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation. Moses was certainly the instrument that God used to work the mighty wonders throughout the exodus; however, here Moses confesses a deeply important reality. God did not merely give Moses strength; God was Moses’ strength. Likewise, as Moses stood upon the shore of the Red Sea, we readily acknowledge that the Holy Spirit inspired Moses to sing this song; however, Moses goes further and says that God is his song. In other words, God is not simply the object of His people’s praise; He is our song. Likewise, salvation was not merely a gift that God gave to Israel, as if salvation were a thing outside of God; no, God Himself is salvation. Or, as John Piper rightly put it, God is the gospel. Yes, He declares to us the good news that Jesus Christ saves us from our sin and restores us back to Himself, but also most fundamentally, He is that good news. Our salvation from the consequences of our sin would be worthless without being able to experience communion with Him.
We can tie this again to Christ, for Paul wrote in Colossians 1:16 of Jesus, saying, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” Notice those prepositions. All creation was made by Christ, through Christ, and for Christ. He is the mode, the means, and purpose for creation itself. All things were created by Him, and all things were created for Him. To desire life outside of Christ is sort of like wanting to live without breathing, but even then the comparison breaks down because breathing is only the means of life, not the goal. Jesus is our strength. Jesus is our song. Jesus is our salvation. Jesus is our life everlasting.
THEN SHALL THE YOUNG WOMEN REJOICE IN THE DANCE
Our text concludes by recounting once more why the Israelites were singing and notes that Moses’ sister Miriam led the women in singing as well:
For when the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his horsemen went into the sea, the LORD brought back the waters of the sea upon them, but the people of Israel walked on dry ground in the midst of the sea. Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. And Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”
Most commentators seem to believe that Miriam led the women in singing the entire song again, which is what Moses means by only recording the first verse, and I would agree with that assessment. Yet the most interesting question to me is why does Moses specifically record Miriam and the women repeating and dancing to the Song of Moses?
Some, like Ryken and Merida, say that it displays the necessity of all of God’s people to sing His praises. It was not sufficient for Moses alone to sing this song nor even to be joined by the men. No, men and women together as the image of God must sing of His redemption. Stuart makes this suggestion:
Moses had authored this great victory song; Miriam now popularized it among all the women so that it would be known and sung in every family, every home. The result was that every Israelite, whether he descended from Abraham or newly joined to the nation (12:38) would know by heart the story of the great divine deliverance of God’s people at the sea.
I see no reason why both of those explanations cannot be true, yet perhaps I may be able to add a possible third explanation. We ought remember that, especially in chapters 1-3, Moses displayed Pharaoh’s oppression against Israel as being a particular outworking of Genesis 3:15. Long ago at Adam and Eve’s fall from paradise, God made this declaration to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Pharaoh, as an offspring of the serpent, did just that whenever he drowned Israel’s infants in the Nile.
Furthermore, Moses showed Pharaoh being undermined by women, first the midwives and then by his own daughter. Indeed, when we consider Moses’ connection to women (being saved by his mother, his sister, Pharaoh’s daughter, his wife, and also that Moses delivers future sisters-in-law), he is very much the offspring of woman (though, of course, only a foreshadowing of Christ as the true Offspring of woman) in contrast to Pharaoh as the offspring of the serpent.
With all of this in mind, I think Moses highlights the dancing and singing of the Miriam and the women as declaration of God’s ultimate redemption of Eve and her daughters over the serpent through her Redeemer. Indeed, in Jeremiah 31:1-14, we find similar imagery being used as God promises the restoration of Israel from their exile. Like the Song of Moses, God promises to redeem them from their mighty oppressors and to bring them back to Zion. It concludes with these beautiful words:
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,Jeremiah 31:13-14
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy;
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance,
and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness,
declares the LORD.”
The Song of Moses was sung after God had won a mighty battle over His enemy, and sadly, the people’s joyous singing and dancing did not endure. Next week, we will read of their first in a long series of grumbles against the LORD. Israel was out of Egypt, but Egypt was not yet out of them. Pharaoh had been defeated, but sin still lurked within the heart of every Israelite. Even so, this song and celebration is a picture of the eternal singing and worship that we will enter into when Christ comes to make all things new. Indeed, that is the very vision that John received in Revelation 15:2-4:
And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,
“Great and amazing are your deeds,
O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
O King of the nations!
Who will not fear, O Lord,
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
As we come to our Lord’s Table, let us eat and drink in proclamation of Christ’s redeeming death until He comes. Let us look upon our Savior and Champion who has drowned our sin forever in the sea of His own blood. As we taste and see the goodness of our God, let us joyously declare our hope in the day when our feasting and celebrating and singing will have no end.
 Philip Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, 368.
 Ryken, Exodus, 373.
 John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, 272.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.v.8