From a sermon preached at Grace Baptist Church,
Cape Coral, Florida, September 9, 2012
The Christian faith is a faith that sings! It is God’s intention that His people sing. Throughout both Old and New Testaments we find not only examples of God’s people singing but also repeated commands to do so. There are over 400 references to singing and 50 specific commands to sing in the Bible, including two commands by the Apostle Paul that we sing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19). Our faith sings. It is inherent in the Christian faith to sing. It is the way God has designed us. It is the way He calls us to respond to Him.
Zephaniah 3:17 tells us that God Himself sings. He sings over His people in delight and joy. So it only stands to reason that when the Lord saves a person by His grace, He would turn that man or woman into a singer! To know God savingly is to respond in praise to God, including praise through singing. It is only by a complete disregard for the Word of God or because of serious spiritual immaturity that a professing Christian who is able to sing would choose not to express praise to God by singing.
The great 16th century reformer, Martin Luther, understood this and placed great importance on congregational singing. He wrote,
God has made our hearts and spirits happy through His… Son, whom He has delivered up that we might be redeemed from sin, death, and the devil. He who believes this sincerely and earnestly cannot help but be happy; he must cheerfully sing and talk about this, that others might hear it and come to Christ. If any would not sing and talk of what Christ has wrought for us, he shows thereby that he does not really believe and that he belongs not [to the realm of] New Testament [religion].1
That same understanding is reflected in the old Isaac Watts hymn, “We’re Marching to Zion,” part of which says,
Come, we that love the Lord
And let our joys be known
Join in a song with sweet accord
And thus surround the throne
Let those refuse to sing
Who never knew our God
But favorites of the heavenly King
May speak their joys abroad2
Those who know God must sing. This attitude and spirit has resonated wherever the church of Jesus Christ has been found walking in spiritual health and vitality. People who are happy in God sing praises to God and for God.
The Song of Moses
We have a shining example of this in Exodus 15. The first 21 verses of this chapter record the very first song of praise to God that is found in the Bible:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
The God who saves deserves songs of praise
Though this song is often called “the Song of Moses” it was sung by all of the people of Israel. Verse 1 says that “Moses and the people of Israel sang…” Quite literally it says, “and the sons of Israel” which probably suggests that the men sang the verses of the song. But the singing certainly wasn’t limited to the men. Verses 20-21 specifically say that Miriam–who was Moses’ and Aaron’s sister–led the women in singing, also. Again, literally, verse 21 says that Miriam “answered” them.
It may be that all of the Israelites, both men and women, sang all the words of the song but verses 20-21 do indicate that Miriam and the women sang a special chorus in response, perhaps after each section of the song. This antiphonal, or responsive way of singing was common among the Israelites and is reflected in some of the Psalms.
On the shores of the Red Sea Moses set a precedent for Israel’s praises. It was set to music to help them remember and delight in the works of God. It was thoughtful and poetic, intentionally designed to offer up to the Lord not only that which is true, but that which is beautiful. The people didn’t engage in singing half-heartedly. They all entered into it–both men and women–and no doubt the children, as well. This is only appropriate because they all had experienced the saving work of God in rescuing them from Pharaoh and the Egyptian army.
Though there are various ways that we could study this song I want to look at it by calling attention to the fact that it is all about God. Not only is it about God but it is also sung to God. “Yahweh,” the covenant name of God is used 10 times in the song–9 times in the verses that Moses and the men sang and once in the chorus that Miriam and the women sang. All together, this song offers up praise to God for 1) His work–what He has done, 2) His character–who He is, and 3) His promises–what He will do.
Sing praise for what God has done
The Song of Moses is a song of response. It was provoked by the works of God in saving His people. The “then” in verse one points us back to chapter 14. In Exodus 14 we read the account of God rescuing His people, bringing them through the Red Sea on dry ground and destroying the armies of Pharaoh. Verse 30 concludes:
Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.
In verse 31 we see Israel’s response:
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.
This is how it worked. God provided salvation in a miraculous way. Then the people were filled with awe and faith (14:31). And then they responded in praise (15:1-21). God acts, we believe, and in faith we declare and celebrate what He has done.
The song is focused on the saving work that God had just performed for His people. They sing in verse 1 that He “triumphed” over His enemies, vividly describing God’s actions: “The horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea” — a phrase echoed in the chorus sung by Miriam and the women (15:21). Verses 4 and 5 recount: “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.” God saved His people. They had just seen it. They had just experienced it. It was fresh to them. The right hand of God, glorious in power, had reached down and shattered their enemies. And so as they sing, they dwell upon His saving work.
Included in the song is an awareness of the enemies arrayed against God. In verse 9 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.” The enemy was intent. Pharaoh had set himself against God and had come against the people of God. But God made clear that those who oppose Him will be opposed by Him. God came against Pharaoh and defeated him. In verse 10 we read:
You blew with your wind; the sea covered them;
they sank like lead in the mighty waters.
And in verse 12:
You stretched out your right hand;
the earth swallowed them.
God did that! And so His people sing in verse 11:
“Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
There is exuberance in this song of praise because there was a fresh awareness of what God had done to save them from the Egyptians. They are on the shores of the Red Sea. Only a few hours before they were stuck between an angry army and an impassable sea. BUT GOD… but God had come and rescued them. So they sing His praises. Their joy and relief are turned to song.
There is something inevitable in true praise. It is an overflow of our joy. You cannot help but praise what you enjoy and delight in. Just watch a dedicated fan when his football team makes a great play. What does he do? He rejoices! Claps! Shouts! He celebrates. Why? Because it is inevitable. It is a natural expression of His joy.
We praise what we value, what we appreciate. What we enjoy we naturally praise–whether that is a football team, an Olympic record, a child or a friend or a lover. C.S. Lewis put it like this, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.”3 Praise completes delight.
Wherever you find anemic praise of God, you can be sure that there is diminished joy in God. Wherever you find anemic praise of God for His great works you can be sure that the reason is that there is little of enjoyment of God or appreciation for all that He has done.
This can serve as a real diagnostic tool for us. You will extol what you enjoy. You will celebrate what you appreciate. You will praise what you delight in. So if your worship is half-hearted or weak, don’t look for emotional tricks or gimmicks to get back on track or pump yourself up. Look to the mighty works of God! Go to the source! Bring back to your mind and affections in a fresh way to all God has done for you in Christ. Think about the cross! Think about what Jesus has done to accomplish our salvation! Look and consider! Ponder and rejoice! Because, when you see and exult in all that God has done for you in His Son, you cannot help but sing praises to your Redeemer-King.
This is exactly what is going on in heaven. The revelation that John was given into the experience of heaven includes a scene recorded in Revelation 5:9-10, when the 24 elders–representing all the people of God–and the 4 living creatures–representing all the rest of creation–see Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, seated on the throne of heaven. And John writes,
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
They cannot help but praise God when they think about God. You can’t stop heavenly beings from thinking about and praising God. Their delight is in Him. Heaven is a place overflowing in joy and praise. If you don’t learn to love God and delight in Him now–to express your praise to Him now–I wonder what makes you think you will be fit for heaven? If praising God is a drag for you, it is an indication that you have not yet come to see the glories of His saving power.
Has the great work that Jesus Christ accomplished for you become stale in your mind and heart? Can you think of it or speak of it without being amazed by it anymore? Some of us need to go back to the shores of the Red Sea, and remember where we were–what we were–when God reached down and saved us. It was while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Think of what it took to save you. Remember your sins, your spiritual indifference and your rebellion. Yet, God loved you and sent His Son to die for you! God brought someone into your life to teach you the gospel. God sent His Spirit to give you new life. He turned your heart away from vain idols and gave you saving faith!
Have you seen Jesus? Have you laid hold of the truth and magnitude of what He has done? Our God has done great things, and that’s worth singing about!
Sing praise for who God is (what He is like)
What God has done tells us a great deal about what He is like. His works reveal His character. And this song praises God for who He is as well as for what He does. Five attributes of God are highlighted in this song.
1) His eternality
Ten times God is called by His covenant name, “Yahweh,” meaning “I am that I am.” God is self-existent, without beginning and without end.
2) His sovereign power
Verse 6 and verse 12 speak of God’s “right hand” shattering the enemy and causing the earth to swallow them. The “right hand” of God is often used as a metaphor to depict His great power and authority. Certainly, with what the Israelites had just witnessed, they were freshly aware of the incredible, sovereign power of their God. He is almighty!
3) His anger and wrath
Verse 7 speaks of God’s fury consuming the enemy like stubble. God’s “fury” (nro§j}) denotes His “burning anger.” The term conveys the idea of a fire that has been kindled and is now burning hot.
God’s wrath is not like our sinful anger. Our anger is often unbridled, selfish and misdirected. God’s anger is always righteous. It always opposes all that is unrighteous (Romans 1:18) and it always opposes unrighteousness in the right way.
It is a sobering thing to consider that the God of the Bible is a God of wrath. We tend to emphasize His love, and well we should because “God is love” (1 John 4:8), but, as verse 3 celebrates, our God is also a “man of war.”
Did you know that the Bible speaks more of God’s wrath than it does of His love? Hell is the place where the unending wrath of God will be poured out on His enemies for all eternity. It is the place where God’s justice will be eternally displayed in the punishment of evil. Jesus spoke more about hell than heaven.
Can you praise God for His wrath? You can, if you are overwhelmed by the mercy and grace of God that has spared you from the wrath you justly deserve! The Israelites felt this and so they praised God for who He really is, not who some merely imagine Him to be. And included in our great God’s attributes is His holy, just wrath.
If you refuse to acknowledge the wrath of God or diminish it in any way, you will not be able fully to appreciate the death of Jesus Christ. On the cross we see both God’s love and God’s wrath on display. On the cross, Jesus endured the wrath of God against our sins. This is why Isaiah prophecies what He does about the sufferings of Jesus. In 53:4-10 he says that Jesus was “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; … and with his wounds we are healed. … the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was … like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, … it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt.”
Our sins deserve God’s wrath as surely as Pharaoh’s sins deserved God’s wrath. But God sent His Son, Jesus, to the cross, in order to bear the punishment for our sins, so that whoever trusts Him as Lord not only escapes God’s wrath but also becomes reconciled to Him. This is how we can praise God for His wrath without being terrorized by it–in Christ we have a wrath-removing Savior!
4) His supremacy
Verse 11 reminds us that God is supreme. He is supreme in who He is, “majestic in holiness.” Holiness is the essential attribute of God–His “otherness.” And He is supreme in what He does, “awesome in glorious deeds” and “doing wonders.” The word used for “awesome” (ar:è/n) is a word that means fearful. God is the author of activities that righty should invoke fear.
All of these attributes of God are expressed by way of rhetorical questions: “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you…?” The obvious answer is no one! Israel is proclaiming in effect: YOU ALONE are God! There is no one like you. You are the only true God. Pharaoh and the Egyptians had their own gods, but they were not real gods. They were imaginary–impotent–the creation of fertile imaginations. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6, “For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth–as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”– yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”
5) His unfailing, covenant love
In verse 13 God’s people sing, “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed…” “Steadfast love” (Ds]j’)–“hesed” refers to God’s covenant love, His particular love for His particular people. This song celebrates this love of redemption–the love of faithfulness.
God accomplishes His Word and keeps His promises. The deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt and from the cruel intentions of Pharaoh was a fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham. Moses and the people view their salvation in terms of God’s covenant faithfulness and so they sing about it.
If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, your existence and devotion to Him is a testimony to God’s covenantal faithfulness. The fact that you ever came to agree with God about your sin and turn away from it; that you ever humbled yourself before Jesus Christ and trusted Him; that you have not finally turned your back on Him despite many lapses and falls; the fact that you woke up this morning still saved is a testimony not to your strength or determination but to God’s steadfast love–all this points to His unending grace and faithfulness! Praise Him for that! Praise Him with singing!
Sing praise for what God will do
Not only does this song teach us to praise God for what He has done and who He is, it also instructs us to praise Him for what He will do. Note the change in focus from the present and past to the future in verses 14-18. Four different groups of people are mentioned: Philistines, Edmonites; Moabites and Canaanites. These are the future enemies the Israelites will face. Edomites and Moabites are enemies Israel will face on the way to the Promised Land. Canaanites are enemies they will have to displace to take the Promised Land. Philistines will be ongoing enemies that will harass them in the Promised Land.
The future is envisioned with such certainty that it is expressed as having already happened. Verse 14 says: “the peoples have heard.” No doubt word spread quickly, so the nations had heard, but God was preparing to do even more. Moses was familiar with the different nations they would come against and he was full of confidence that God would fully defeat all of Israel’s enemies, and so they sing praise to God.
Though enemies will come against them, those enemies will not thwart God’s purposes. Verses 14 and 15 say they will “tremble.” They will be filled with “terror and dread” (16) and become “still as a stone” (16), in other words, “petrified.” God will dispose of all His enemies and fulfill His saving purposes for His people. He will protect them and provide for them (16) and get them safely and securely to the Promised Land (17). Verse 17 speaks of Jerusalem, the place God chose for His Old Covenant people: “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.”
All this happened in the ensuing history of Israel. Forty years later when Joshua sent two men on a reconnaissance mission into Jericho, one of the citizens of that city named Rahab said this to them: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:9-11).
God delivered His people into the land of Canaan just as He promised, and many of those singing this song by the Red Sea would live to see that promise fulfilled. But the song’s future perspective does not end with the Israelites inhabiting the Promised Land. Rather, the song ends with a declaration about eternity. In verse 17 they sing: “The LORD will reign forever and ever.” God’s saving purposes are not limited history. Jerusalem and the Land of Promise were earthly symbols of heaven. Day by day God continues to bring more and more people into the promise of heaven by the power of His saving work in Christ. All God’s people can sing now and will sing eternally: “The LORD will reign forever and ever.”
The song of Moses teaches us much about how we as the people of God, saved by His grace, purchased through blood, ought to respond to the Lord with praise-filled, whole-hearted singing.
The song is all about God. It is sung for Him in response to what He has done. Though Moses served as a great leader and was the useful instrument God used to deliver His people, Moses is not even mentioned in the song. The glory and worship belong to God alone!
The song is also sung to God. Note the change of voice of verse 6. Israel addresses God, saying, “Your right hand, O LORD, is glorious in power.” We are commanded to sing to the Lord as well as about the Lord. We must sing words that not only declare truth about God, but express our praise and adoration to God.
How do you imagine Israel sang this song? How should God be addressed? Lackadaisically? Apathetically? Thoughtlessly? Heartlessly? NO! Wholeheartedly! With passion! With honesty! Authentically! Emotionally! This was their song and they expressed it personally. Notice all the personal pronouns. “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. (15:2)” The Song of Moses sets a precedent that we see throughout the psalms and songs of Israel–music filled with deep, heart-felt, personal praise.
We must learn from the Song of Moses. When we declare our praises to God we must not do so in a detached, clinical manner. This is our God! The God who sent Jesus into the world is our God. The God who created and rules the world is our God. The God who establishes rulers and throws down empires is our God. The God who rules the winds and waves is our God. The God who is working all things together after the counsel of His own will is our God. The God who sends His Spirit to teach us His Word and to draw people to Christ is our God. The God who has promised that the nations will come to worship before Him is our God!
This is why we must sing–why we cannot help but sing! Praising God is what we will be doing in heaven throughout eternity. The book of Revelation closes Scripture, with a reminder, like bookends, calling for us to sing praise to God. We will be singing throughout all eternity because it will take that long to declare the greatness of our God. John describes this for us in Revelation 15 where he gives us a glimpse into heaven. There he sees God’s people standing beside another sea–this one “a sea glass mingled with fire.” And, John says, “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.’” That is why we sing! That’s our song. That’s our God!
1 from Luther’s Introduction to the Baptsche Gesangbuch, WA 35:476f.
2 Isaac Watts, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1707.
3 C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego, CA: Harvest Book, 1964), 94-95.