I Will Sing to the Lord
I Will Sing to the Lord
by William Klock
Last Sunday we read about, we recalled the mighty saving acts of God that took place at the Red Sea. The Lord could have delivered Israel from Egypt in all sorts of different ways. He didn’t have to afflict Pharaoh and his people with those ten awful plagues. But that’s how he chose to do it. And when Pharaoh was seemingly broken and sent the Israelites packing, the Lord could have led them any way he wanted. Remember, it was the Lord who led them: a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He could, perhaps, have led them by a more direct route, bypassing Egyptian and Philistine outposts and garrisons. He surely knew where these places were. But, instead, he led them on a meandering route that led them to a place where they were boxed in by the sea. No big deal, you might think. But Pharaoh’s spies watch and sent word back. That meandering route and that stop by the sea gave Pharaoh the impression that Israel would be easy pickings for his army. And so—all because of the Lord’s orchestration of the events—Pharaoh marched out with his army. The Israelites quaked in fear. They whined and complained to Moses and to the Lord. “We’re all going to die!” And then the Lord did what no one expected. He parted waters of the sea and led the Israelites through to the other side. Not only that, but when the Egyptians followed, the Lord ensured their chariots become bogged down in the mud and then took his hands off the waters, ceased to hold them back, and the Egyptian army died in the flood. And the Israelites stood watching on the far side as the bodies of the dead Egyptians washed onto the shore. Exodus 14:31 says:
Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
But this was the Lord’s purpose all along. He had said to Moses repeatedly that his purpose was to manifest his glory to the Egyptians and to the Israelites so that they would know that he is the Lord. The plagues struck at the gods of Egypt, revealing them to be powerless before the Lord. The plagues struck at Pharaoh and his claim of divinity and exposed him as a fraud. Pharaoh was stripped of everything but his earthly power. He might have been exposed as a mere mortal, but he still had the most powerful army on earth. And now the Lord has taken that away. The Israelites watched all of this—they were spectators to it all—and what other response could they have had than what we read: that they stood in awe of the Lord and believed?
But that’s not the end of the episode. Exodus isn’t quite ready to move on with the story. Before the Israelites continue on their journey they break out into song—the song we heard read just a few minutes ago. Exodus 15 begins:
Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying,
“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a man of war;
the Lord is his name. (Exodus 15:1-4)
That’s the first stanza of the song. The whole episode follows a pattern that we see over and over again throughout the Old Testament. The people end up in some kind of trouble, they cry out to the Lord, the Lord hears and delivers them, and then the people worship the Lord with a song.
It’s interesting. There were the Israelites on the shore, watching dead Egyptians soldiers wash up on the beach, standing in awe and wonder of the Lord and the most natural thing for them to do was to break out in a song of praise. I think past generations would have thought this completely natural as well—or least not particularly surprising. But it probably seems a little odd to us. Maybe we’re so familiar with the story that we don’t stop to think about it, but if we do, I don’t think this is how most of us would respond. And that’s because our culture doesn’t sing anymore. Of course, we still have singing. But there was a major cultural shift that began in the 50s and 60s. There are number of massive cultural changes that have to do with music that have resulted from that shift, but the important one here is that music has been professionalised. Musicians make music. The rest of us just listen. Even folk music has largely become professionalised. And that means that as a people we don’t sing anymore. We like to listen to professionals sing, but we don’t sing ourselves—or most of us rarely do. In fact, church is one of the few places where public singing by non-professionals is still common. But even in churches, the shift has been towards professionalisation. Congregational singing is quickly being replaced by band and singer performances that the congregation listens to. In fact, a lot of the music being sung in churches wasn’t even written for congregation singing and few churches anymore can even sing in four-part harmony. (If you’re interested in this subject, media ecologist T. David Gordon wrote a very thought-provoking little book about ten years ago titled, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns.) But my point is that we—or least most of us—no longer respond the way God’s people throughout the Bible (and throughout history) have responded to God’s mighty and saving acts. Even when we do sing, the trend is increasingly towards singing about how we feel about God and how we feel about what he’s done more than it’s actually about God and his mighty deeds. We’re quickly becoming spiritual narcissists, which isn’t surprising considering the narcissistic culture in which we’re immersed.
But let’s look at this biblical response to God that we see in Exodus 15. This first stanza does use words like “I” and “we”. I will sing to the Lord. The Lord is my strength and song. The Lord is my salvation. He is my God and I will praise him. But notice that even when the Israelites say I and my, the focus is away from themselves and towards God. They’re not singing about their feelings for God; they’re singing about what God has done and who he has revealed himself to be in those mighty deeds. The sing to glorify the God who has shown himself to a might warrior, who threw the Egyptians into the sea. He is the God who has saved his people. More importantly, he is the God of their Father, Abraham, who has kept his covenant promises and shown himself to be faithful and righteous.
The second stanza, verses 4-10, recall the specifics of the Lord’s might act by which he saved his people:
“Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea,
and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them;
they went down into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power,
your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.
In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries;
you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble.
At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up;
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’
You blew with your wind; the sea covered them;
they sank like lead in the mighty waters.
The Egyptians thought they had the upper hand. Even after the ten plagues, Pharaoh thought he could claim God’s people as his own. But in a show of glorious power, the Lord not only split the sea so that his people could pass through safely, he caused those same waters to destroy Pharaoh’s army.
The short third stanza then asks, “Who is there like the Lord?”
“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
You stretched out your right hand;
the earth swallowed them.
This is more praise. Who had the mightiest king and the most powerful gods in the world? Egypt did. And the most the gods of Egypt could manage when challenged was to make the first few of the Lord’s plagues worse. The Lord turned the water of the Nile to blood. If the gods of Egypt had had any power, their priests should have changed the blood back into water, but the best they could do is make more blood. The Lord stripped Pharaoh of his divine claims. And when all he had left was his might army, the Lord proved himself even mightier. There is no one, god or man, who can compare to the majesty of the Lord in his holiness. There is no one, god or man, who can perform such glorious deeds.
The final stanza, verses 13-18, now takes us from the Red Sea to the conquest of Canaan and then to the building of the temple by Solomon on Mt. Zion. The final stanza praises the Lord as he dwells on the mountain in the midst of his people as King.
“You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed;
you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.
The peoples have heard; they tremble;
pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia.
Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed;
trembling seizes the leaders of Moab;
all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.
Terror and dread fall upon them;
because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone,
till your people, O Lord, pass by,
till the people pass by whom you have purchased.
You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain,
the place, O Lord, which you have made for your abode,
the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established.
The Lord will reign forever and ever.”
Almost every English translation shifts from the past tense—singing about the events at the Red Sea which had just happened—to the future tense with these verses. From the standpoint of the Israelites at the sea, these things were to happen in the future. The problem is that the tenses of the verbs are consistent throughout the song. There’s no grammatical reason to witch to the future tense in this last stanza. All of this was in the past. And that strongly suggests that while the Israelites sang an earlier, probably shorter version of this song at the sea, the song in the form we now have it was expanded and revised through the centuries. It was probably used as part of the Passover celebration and revised in the days after Canaan had been conquered and the temple built. But it all flows naturally from Israel’s deliverance at the sea. It highlights that Israel’s deliverance was part of a larger plan. He delivered Israel to create a people for himself, who would live in his land and in his presence. First the tabernacle and then the temple represented the Lord’s presence in the midst of his people.
And so the song goes on to praise the Lord not just for the initial act of deliverance, but also depicts the Philistines, the Edomites, the Moabites, and the Canaanites quaking in their boots in fear. It depicts Israel entering the land and being planted there by the Lord. His people in his place. This is the place the Lord has made. This is the place the Lord has called his own and made his habitation. The people sing praises to him for all of this. And they praise him, finally singing, “The Lord will reign forever.” Why would he not? There is no god or king more powerful. There is no one like him. There is no one so holy. There is no one so powerful. And, at the heart of why the Israelites sing their praises, there is no one more faithful to his promises. And, notice, none of this is about the Israelites. None of it is about how the Israelites feel towards the Lord. Their praise is centred on him and on him alone. And notice how specific it is. I’ll come back to this in a bit, but there’s no “God is awesome” without a retelling and remembrance of the mighty acts and the specific acts of faithfulness that reveal the awesomeness of God.
Now, finally, in verses 19-21 there’s a summary of the events and another bit of song:
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.”
We’re not sure why the story is told this way. Some think that Miriam’s version may have been the original version of the song that the Israelites sang spontaneously after these events. Some think that this was an antiphonal response to the song that Moses sang. This brings an end to the first section of Exodus and some think that recalling Miriam here sort of bookends the story that began with Moses mother. Women play an important part in Exodus and this may highlight that. It’s hard to say, but one thing that’s clear is that the biblical writers always have a purpose in what they tell us. I think the repetition highlights what the author was getting at. Moses’ song has already pointed to the future acts that the Lord will perform as he leads the Israelites into the land. We’ve seen the importance of the Passover as a celebration through which future generations participate in the Exodus and make it their own. Miriam’s repetition of the first part of Moses’ song is, I think, another element of the story aimed at future generations saying, “Repeat these words. Sing these songs about the Lord’s saving acts.” Brothers and Sisters, if we need anything, it’s to recall time and time again what the Lord has done. His faithfulness is the reason we have faith and trust in him. We need to be always recalling what he has done. Not just singing about how great he is or how loving he is or how merciful he is, but actually singing about the specific acts he has done that reveal his greatness, his love, his mercy.
Friends, this is the biblical pattern of worship. It’s not that there aren’t times and places for songs that make short or general statements about God and praise him for that, but if we follow the biblical patter of worship, the staple of our worship should be the recalling of his acts of faithfulness. Our worship should recall what God has done and in that it not only draws us into those acts, it nourishes our faith and our hope. The Psalms are full of these sorts of songs that recall what God had done in the past. The recollection is an act of praise and worship that gives hope. So often the psalmist was facing enemies or trials of his own. Sometimes it was the nation itself facing some sort of difficulty. But recalling what the Lord had done in the past gave hope for the future. The other thing we don’t thin much about in terms of worship is that it was often the recollection of how God had acted in the past, disciplining his disobedient people, that moved the worshippers to repentance.
The same pattern continues in the New Testament. Think of the song that Mary sang when she realised that her child was going to be the long-awaited Messiah. Note how it’s not about her; it’s about what the Lord is about to do and note how the whole thing hinges on the past faithfulness of God. Mary was confident these things would happen because God has always been faithful to his promises. Luke 1:46-55.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
And then jump to the last book of the Bible, to Revelation 5:12-13 and to the song that John heard sung by the heavenly host:
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
It’s much shorter, it lacks as many details, but it’s praises are still centred in what God has done. Jesus is the lamb who was slain. Jesus is the King who gave his life for the sake of his people, who was raised from death, and who, having been vindicated by his Father, now sits on the throne as Lord. The song of Revelation 12 brings us full circle from the song of Moses and the Israelites. The Lord has performed mighty and saving deeds and established his reign forever and ever.
One thing that strikes me is that, again, even in singing about God’s salvation, these songs are not focused on the singers, but on God. The song isn’t narrowly focused on what God has done for me, but on the bigger picture. Particularly in Exodus the people sing of the day when the nations bow before the Lord. It’s not just about saving one people from a bad situation, but about the Lord extending his good rule over all the earth and, as the story progresses through the Bible, we see the songs moving even further towards an all-encompassing image of the Lord setting all creation to rights. There are appropriate times and places to sing about the little bits and pieces of that big picture and about what the Lord has done for me, but the staple of Biblical worship—especially our corporate worship—is the big picture that focuses our attention on what God has done and what it’s leading towards.
Our natural tendency is to always be thinking about ourselves. As I said earlier, we live in a narcissistic culture and that narcissism often infects our worship. We need to be conscious of how we worship. It’s essential that our worship turn us from ourselves to the one who is truly worthy of our love, praise, and worship. Paul wrote to the Colossians, saying, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). The word of Christ—the Scriptures—should be dwelling in us, filling our minds and shaping the affections of our hearts. That happens as we hear the word of Christ preached and as we share it with each other, but Paul emphasises the important place singing has in filling our hearts and minds with the word. If it was true in the Old Testament, how much more important is it for us? You and I are participants in an exodus far greater than the exodus experienced by the Israelites. We’ve been led by Jesus from the bondage of sin and death and he leads us as we march in hopeful expectation into his new world.
Let us pray: Almighty God, you have revealed yourself in mighty saving deeds that show us your power, your sovereignty, your love, your mercy, and ultimately your worthiness of our worship. Remind us, we pray, to keep your word in our hearts, that our faith and hope be always shaped and strengthened by your faithfulness. As we steep ourselves in your word, put a song in our hearts that overflows into our public worship, that in our times together we would set aside ourselves and focus give you the glory you deserve. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord, by whose death and resurrection we are your people. Amen.