When I was at university, the church I belonged to did a sermon series in the middle of Genesis, looking at some of the details of the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. One morning there was a guest preacher called Graham Daniels who was then and still is the General Manager of an organisation called Christians in Sport. It wasn't the first time I'd heard him preach, but every time he started a sermon it hit me again straight away just how Welsh he is. I don't know if he ever said anything vitally important in the first twenty seconds of a sermon because I needed that time to adjust to his accent. And if that's you here tonight, welcome to the rest of the sermon.
Anyway, the passage Graham had to speak on centred around Jacob and a set of negotiations he was having with his father in law. Since they had huge flocks of sheep and goats, sheep and goats were the currency in question, and the passage contains a surprising level of detail about the sheep. I won't go into it, but Graham got into the pulpit and set the scene of the passage before pausing to say, "And by the way, I'm a bit disappointed to get this [passage] – sheep, agriculture, reproduction – a Welsh guy being asked to do it, not good at all!" He sounded something like that. You can laugh at his bad joke or my bad impression – whichever you prefer.
I feel a little bit the same coming to Exodus 15 tonight. The narrative of our series in Exodus has come and gone, but now, as soon as there's a song, it's the music leader who ends up preaching on it! I guess there are two things to say about that. One is that I volunteered for this passage. The other is that it's got plenty to say and is a great way for us to end our series tonight, so overall, there are no complaints from me.
Since we are ending our series tonight, let's take a moment to recap chapters 1-14 before we look at this song. Four hundred years earlier, Jacob and his sons and their families – numbering about seventy in all – went to Egypt to escape famine. They went with a promise from God ringing in their ears: 'Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again.' (Genesis 46.3-4) Their numbers rocketed and a new Pharaoh came to power who feared them. To subdue them, he worked them ruthlessly and decreed that their baby sons should be thrown into the Nile. God raised up a representative in Moses, who came to Pharaoh with the message from God, "Let my people go so that they may [worship] me in the desert." (Exodus 5.1) Pharaoh's reply set the scene for the rest of the series: "Who is the LORD that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go." (Exodus 5.2). The plagues of Egypt followed – a series of unprecedented disasters, affecting every pillar of Egyptian society, from threatening public health to undermining Egyptian gods, from the devastating loss of crops and livestock to the killing of firstborn sons throughout the land. At every stage Pharaoh resisted until finally he let the Israelites go. Then with blind stubbornness he changed his mind and chased after them. Just as it looked like the Egyptians would slaughter the Israelites as they stood trapped against the shore of the Red Sea, God miraculously opened the escape route through the water, bringing the sea down on their enemies. 14.28: not one of them survived.
I've just got the two sections tonight: Narrative is not enough; there must be song For songs in the Bible, content is king
Narrative is not enough; there must be song
30 That day the LORD saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. 31 And when the Israelites saw the great power the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.
It's pretty dry, isn't it? (No pun intended…) It's so very matter-of-fact. They've just walked on dry sea bed with walls of water on each side. They've just watched God complete the utter defeat and destruction of the most powerful human force on the planet at the time and there isn't so much as an exclamation mark. Let's try a different snapshot.
19 When Pharaoh's horses, chariots and horsemen went into the sea, the LORD brought the waters of the sea back over them, but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground. 20 Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing.
This time we're given the bare fact that they sang and danced. We've got a glimmer of the happiness of the people and the praise-worthiness of God, but even those two verses would be pretty lost without the song itself. Narrative is not enough. A simple telling of the facts was not enough for the Israelites who stood on the dry shore and it's not enough for us reading about it tonight thousands of years later.
Someone once said that delight is incomplete without expression. It's unnatural to be delighted on the inside and give no indication of it on the outside. It's like watching your football team score while you sit surrounded by opposition fans. You make tense up and make a kind of choking noise as if you'd just swallowed a golf ball, all the while hoping that any sound or movement you make is hidden among the despairing groans and shaking of heads around you. It's unnatural. Your delight is incomplete without expression. You are delighted, but unless you can jump up, wave your hands in the air and roar and whoop and burst into a chorus of "You're not singing any more" along with hundreds of like-minded supporters, it's just not the same.
The Israelites have just been delivered from years of slavery and oppression and injustice and hopelessness. They've been set free by a God who has proved himself to be faithful to his promises and powerful to act. They've been freed from slavery to Pharaoh and into the service of a loving God. Now, living in the light of the cross, the ultimate mighty act of judgment and deliverance in one, we see that the awesome scenes of the Exodus are just a shadow of what the same God has achieved for us. He offers us freedom from our greatest enemy, sin. By default we're addicted to sin, powerless to stop ourselves, hopeless in the face of its consequences, chiefly death and judgment from God. But God frees us from sin, makes us alive, gives us sight, brings us from darkness to light, gives us eternal blessing and hope – eternal life, life to the full. How could we not sing? We have everything to sing about.
John Piper puts it like this:
The reason we sing is because there are depths and heights and intensities and kinds of emotion that will not be satisfactorily expressed by mere prosaic forms, or even poetic readings. There are realities that demand to break out of prose into poetry and some demand that poetry be stretched into song. So music and singing are necessary to Christian faith and worship for the simple reason that the realities of God and Christ, creation and salvation, heaven and hell are so great that when they are known truly and felt duly, they demand more than discussion and analysis and description; they demand poetry and song and music. Singing is the Christian's way of saying: God is so great that thinking will not suffice, there must be deep feeling; and talking will not suffice, there must be singing.
So how's your singing? Some people don't enjoy singing. Some people think they aren't particularly good at singing, and some people aren't. Some people never seem to be in the mood for it. But imagine the Israelites on the shore of the Red Sea. In the middle of the whooping and trumpeting and dancing, one chap turns to another and asks why he's not singing. "Oh, I'm not much of a singer – I'm a bit tone-deaf" or "It's too much effort." Or "I don't like the tune Moses picked." Or "I'm not in the mood." Or "I just dropped my kid at crèche and I missed the start – I'll maybe join in later." I can't picture it, can you? They'd experienced a great salvation by a great God, and that was enough to cause the most tone-deaf miserable grumpy old man to burst with song, however tuneful or otherwise. Because I'm responsible for leading music and picking songs here, I spend some time thinking about how to make the music better. Most of the time I'm thinking about wanting more musicians and more time to work with the ones we have. But the congregation has a massive scope for making the music better as well. Before the service starts, why not take five minutes to read the song lyrics and bible readings – it's one of the biggest advantages to printed service sheets. Or re-visit a verse from your own bible reading that helps you to focus in quickly on the magnitude of what God has achieved for us in Jesus. During the service, pay attention to what we're singing and how it relates to what we're learning from the bible. Sit close, sing loud, smile. We have a great God, a great Saviour, a great salvation. Narrative is not enough; there must be singing… so let's sing out. My second point is this:
For songs in the Bible, content is king
Let's see what the Israelites actually sang. There are several ways to divide up the song, but I'm going for three sections:
1-5: God has been victorious
6-12: No enemy can stand against God
13-18: God will be victorious
Verses 1-5 tell us the story of the victory that Moses and the Israelites have just watched: The horse and his rider he has hurled into the sea. Horse and rider – that is, weapon and warrior, so that no threat remains. I will exalt him – literally decorate, as a valiant soldier is decorated i.e. battle honour Pharaoh's chariots and army he has hurled into the sea. The best of Pharaoh's officers are drowned in the Red Sea. The deep waters have covered them; they sank to the depths like a stone. The Hebrew word for depths is a word with connotations of a mythical sea god, the implication being that no force, earthly or spiritual can do anything but conform to his will. The next section, v6-12, is book-ended by the mention of God's right hand in verse 6 and verse 12. The point in this section is that no enemy can stand against God, and the victory is God's alone. Look how many times God is addressed in this section:
6Your right hand, O LORD, was majestic in power.
Your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy.
7 In the greatness of your majesty you threw down those who opposed you.
You unleashed your burning anger; it consumed them like stubble.
8 By the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up.
The surging waters stood firm like a wall; the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea.
But did the Egyptians really deserve to be struck down so comprehensively? Well, look at their arrogant boasts.
9 The enemy boasted, 'I will pursue, I will overtake them.
I will divide the spoils; I will gorge myself on them.
I will draw my sword and my hand will destroy them.'
After everything that has happened they are still defying God, still bloodthirsty. So God's judgement on them is righteous. Yes, it's severe and yes, it's final, but it's right. And how effortless was God's victory:
10 But you blew with your breath, and the sea covered them.
Never mind the earthly enemies of v6-10,
11 Who among the gods is like you, O LORD?
Who is like you— majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?
Not the gods of Egypt. No god has ever acted in power like this. No other power has been shown to be truly majestic, truly holy and awesome in glory (literally, rightly to be feared in praises), working wonders (literally, acting supernaturally). God acts to protect his glory and to honour his loving promises.
Human enemies? You blew with your breath, and the sea covered them.
False gods? You stretched out your right hand and the earth swallowed them.
The sea and the earth – a contrast expresses that the whole creation does the bidding of the Creator. No enemy can stand against God. And there is only one victor, only one saviour. This wasn't a collaborative effort between God and his people. It was God's solo work.
For the last section we see that verses 13-18, are like a reflection of verses 1-5. In 1-5, God was victorious, In 13-18 he will be victorious. He has acted to bring his people safely out of Egypt, and he will act to guide his people safely into the promised land. Pharaoh and his military were crushed, The nations and their leaders will tremble and melt away. God was highly exalted, God will reign forever. By the way, why Philistia, Edom, Moab and Canaan? Well, Canaan is the promised land. Edom and Moab are on the route to Canaan, and Philistia is a future opponent.
In verse 19 we get a short summary of events and then in v20-21, Miriam and the women of Israel take up the song, or at the very least the lines recorded here. And how fitting it is that the women whose sons were taken from them and thrown in the river Nile at the very start of the book, along with Miriam, who hid the baby Moses to keep him safe, are now dancing and singing and shaking tambourines on the far bank of the Red Sea, celebrating God's wonderful deliverance. It's a fitting end to our series in these first fifteen chapters of Exodus.
Here is one key observation from all of this that I think is particularly helpful these days. Songs in the bible are primarily there to express an experience of God, not to generate an experience of him. Why do I think that's important? Because there are competing philosophies nowadays about how we use music in church. Here's an example. I recently received this short thought-for-the-day type of message in a weekly email from a website I keep tabs on for sheet music.
In Genesis 3 in The Message, we read, "When they heard the sound of God strolling in the garden in the evening breeze, the Man and his Wife hid in the trees of the garden, hid from God. God called to the Man, 'Where are you?'" Many of us are still hiding from God. As worship leaders, our place is to provide a meeting place with God, where the many or the few can gather, and 'come out of hiding' before God. When we create that place of encounter, with words and music that draw the soul from its clandestine struggles, we give people the opportunity to touch the healing power of God.
I read that the day after I preached on the crucifixion, an event which seemed imply that it's Jesus who provides the only way to meet God, the only way to come out of hiding before him, the only way to be healed. Jesus didn't do this with a stylish chord progression and a key change into the chorus. He did it by dying, by shedding his blood to pay for sins. Bible songs and poetry and even passages like Ephesians 1 show that the correct emphasis is praise and thanksgiving that we've been saved and taken by God to be his own, just like in Exodus 15.
Songs in the bible are primarily there to express an experience of God, not to generate an experience of him. Bible songs therefore often celebrate specific events that reveal God's character. Psalm 98.1 puts it best: Sing to the LORD a new song for he has done marvellous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. So this song, for example, expresses the people's thanks and praise and adoration in response to God's victory, which proves his power and his faithfulness.
This means that one of the most important elements of our singing isn't a great band or a brilliant voice, much as those things help, but rather a keen heart for the gospel, for the salvation offered to us. We need to have hearts that are thankful for Jesus's sacrifice on the cross as the true Passover lamb. We need to have hearts that are overjoyed by his resurrection, which is the deliverance that shows that the sacrifice was effective, just like the Red Sea confirmed the Passover. If we want to sing spiritually and passionately, we need to think of how God has lovingly and powerfully and self-sacrificially bought us out of hopeless slavery to sin by the death of his son and how he will bring us safely into his presence, his dwelling, his sanctuary.