The Song of Moses in the City That Never Sleeps

Michael S. Horton
Saturday, November 2nd 2002
Nov/Dec 2002

church sign, which I used to pass frequently, boasted "The Singing Church," under the church's name. That a church would describe itself this way can serve as a starting point for realizing that music can be either too important to us as Christians-or not important enough.

Many people today are driven by music, and especially by pop music. However much some of us criticize its musical and lyrical shallowness, we still sometimes listen to it in our cars. It also seems to be always in the background in public and private places. As much as I hate to admit it, Joan Jett speaks for me when she belts out, "I love rock and roll." It's not a sin to listen to U2.

Yet just because we are saturated with pop culture, we need to be aware of our own presuppositions concerning ubiquitous "muzak" in our worship, as well. For many of us, complete silence in a worship service without any background music would be unnerving. A week without Communion is fine; a week without a sermon, some are saying, is tolerable; but a week without music would be unthinkable.

For many Christians, then, music has become too important. For some, "worship time" simply means "music time." Some churches have distinct services for different musical tastes even though both groups of worshipers remain formally united under one roof. Sometimes music is viewed as almost sacramental. One minister, writing in Worship Leader magazine, calls music our "heart language." He then adds that it "can be spiritually generative." What does that mean? "Spiritually generative events are things that 'connect' people with God and have a self reproducing quality." They are like the "Celtic orbs, knots and images about the Creation" that were "incorporated into what we know as the Celtic cross." To look at such a cross "was to see Christ," which was, therefore, "a spiritually generative event." Another author writes on "Music as a Medium to Connect Us to God." But we Christians must always remember that it is God's Word and his sacraments alone that are the means of grace-that is, they are his fixed means of connecting us to himself-and it is never the music as such but God's Word-whether enacted in the sacraments or spoken or sung-that effectively communicates to us Christ's benefits.

Yet we may err in the opposite direction by not taking music seriously enough. Perhaps we, as pastors and laypeople, don't think about worship-we just pass it off to the "worship leader" or music minister. Or maybe we think too little about where our music comes from. We don't care that much of it comes from music publishers in church traditions diametrically opposed to our own. Once we may have been allowed only to sing songs that had been approved by our denomination; now there may be a free-for-all that is impatient with challenges to think more deeply about worship music. Nostalgia and sentimentality all too often reign in both traditional and seeker-oriented worship.

Yet as German reformer Martin Luther noted in his oft-repeated dictum that music is second in importance only to theology, what we sing is significant. From the start, God's covenant people have been a singing bunch. When they were called out of Egypt to belong to Yahweh in his holy land, God's people sang the "Song of Moses." Here I want us to consider the remarkable career of that song, its place in redemptive history, and what it teaches us about why we sing.

The Song's Setting

In Exodus 14, the Angel of Yahweh leads Israel through the Red Sea. This is the same angel who judged Adam and Eve and yet clothed them in sacrificial skins; who judged Sodom and Gomorrah but delivered Abram and Lot; and who appeared in a burning bush before Moses on Mt. Sinai. He is, in fact, the pre-incarnate Christ who here acts in judgment again. Clothed in the cloud pillar, he goes before his liberated host, separating the waters to form dry land in order once again-as in the first creation-to make a habitable place where he may commune with human beings. In this way, the Exodus represents a new creation. This is why there are so many allusions in the Song of Moses to the natural world: biblical praise knows nothing of an escape from "the late great planet earth," but only of an escape from divine wrath and then of the coming restoration of all of creation at the end of the age.

This Angel of Yahweh is the Warrior-God of Israel, the Lord who fights for them against the Egyptians (see Exod. 14:14, 25). He is "the Lord of hosts" (see 1 Sam. 1:3, esv)-or "Yahweh of Armies"-by title, the general who leads his people to victory. It is to him alone that credit is due, which is why Moses' song is all about God and not about Moses or the Israelites. The means of judgment for the Egyptians is a means of salvation for the Israelites, as God fights for his people and leads them to safety.

Identifying the Song of Moses as the song of the Warrior-God evokes the memory of Adam who, as God's deputy, failed to drive the serpent out of God's garden. But God has sworn to be a father to Abraham and to his spiritual heirs despite their sin. He himself will drive the serpent out of his garden and banish sin and suffering from his dominion on the last day, a judgment that is already anticipated here at the Exodus. Israel, like Adam, will fail in its task, but this will not keep God from remaining faithful to his promise. A faithful Servant will appear, yet one who is not only a servant (as Moses was) but also a son over God's house. He will clean the garden of all defilement forever so that he and his people may dwell safely together in joyful communion rather than in wrath and destruction.

The Song of the Warrior-God

The Song of Moses (see inset on p. 20) is a recital of God's mighty acts in delivering his people and judging Egypt. It has two parts: the Exodus and the march to Canaan. It opens by acknowledging God's triumph and then recites the details of that triumph for posterity. In the "heart language" of song, Moses expresses not primarily his own experiences but the objective redemption that God has publicly wrought. "This is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name" (Exod. 15:2-3). In fact, Moses and the Israelites are noticeably absent from the hymn except as the beneficiaries of God's victory. It is all about God and what he has done to save his people. Egypt represents the arrogant city of man, contrasted with God's city. "The enemy said, 'I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.' You blew with your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters" (vv. 9-10).

The march to Canaan makes up the hymn's second part. The now-completed Exodus and the still-to-be-accomplished march are treated as one continuous event because God is not merely saving the Jews from Egypt but preserving them for fellowship with himself in his holy land. The godless nations are represented as standing along the parade route to Canaan as involuntary witnesses to God's victory:

In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode. The peoples heard, they trembled; pangs seized the inhabitants of Philistia. Then the chiefs of Edom were dismayed; trembling seized the leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan melted away. Terror and dread fell upon them; by the might of your arm, they became as still as a stone until your people, O Lord, passed by, until the people whom you acquired passed by. (vv. 13-16)

The goal of this march is for God's people to come to dwell with him in the house he has built for them as his bride: "You brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established. The Lord will reign forever and ever" (vv. 17-18).

But, alas, we read between the hymn's lines! We know what was to happen in the wilderness, in the sordid history of the monarchy, and then in the divided kingdom. The Song of Moses soon and frequently was surrendered to songs of complaint. Because of the unfaithfulness of God's people, the march to Canaan did not result in an everlasting Sabbath. Israel, and not just the pagan nations, defiled God's temple-garden. So the Glory left Israel-"Ichabod" (see 1 Sam. 4:21)-and she was exiled. Estranged from God in a foreign land and by the waters of Babylon, "there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hung up our harps upon the willows in the midst of it. For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song, and those who plundered us requested mirth, saying, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!' How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" (Ps. 137:1-4).

Yet even before the exile actually happens, the prophets look through it to a time of salvation: "The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no mediator; so his own arm brought him victory and his righteousness upheld him" (Isa. 59:15-16). Isaiah portrays God as coming down dressed for war, with a breastplate of righteousness, a helmet of salvation and garments of judgment (v. 17). These prophetic announcements are often filled with allusions to creation and the Exodus. This is the "new thing" that God will do.

Despite national Israel's failure, God has promised to bring back a remnant and sustain their march towards the heavenly Canaan, the promised Messiah, because of his promise to Abraham. In that day, God's people will once more be delivered, bringing with them liberated captives from every tribe and nation under heaven.

He will set up a banner for the nations …. The Lord will utterly destroy the tongue of the Sea of Egypt; with his mighty wind he will shake his fist over the River, and strike it in the seven streams, and make men cross over dryshod. There will be a highway for the remnant of his people who will be left from Assyria, as it was for Israel in the day that he came up from the land of Egypt. (Isa. 11:12, 15-16)

A little later in Isaiah, the anticipation of all nations being blessed in Abraham's Seed is rendered boldly in a text that tells a typical deliverance story-only with the irony that Egypt is included among the redeemed!

On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of Armies. One of these will be called the City of the Sun. On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and witness to the Lord of Armies in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a Savior, and will defend and deliver them. The Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day, and will worship with sacrifice and burnt offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them. On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria…and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, whom the Lord of Armies has blessed, saying, "Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage." (Isa. 19:18-24)

On that day, there will be a new exodus, only then it will include a remnant "from every tribe, kindred, tongue, people and nation" (Rev. 5:9). In that day, God promises to pour out his Spirit on all flesh. "For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be deliverance, as the Lord has said, among the remnant whom the Lord calls" (Joel 2:32).

Jesus Is the Warrior-God

During his earthly ministry, Jesus made clear that these prophesies do not refer to the reconstruction of a temple in the earthly Jerusalem, but to his own body. He is himself the new creation, the new exodus, the new temple. He is the Warrior-God who, seeing no one else to intercede, descends to save his people. As in the Song of Moses, when Jesus speaks of these things, he identifies earthly elements as witness-signs of God's redemptive work:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. (Matt. 24:29-31)

Ours is an age of grace, but when the Warrior-King returns in glory, final judgment will come upon the earth.

Already in the Gospels the disciples report that even the demons are subject to them in Jesus' name-and Jesus replies that he saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning. God's kingdom is now going forward with the outpouring of his Spirit among all peoples; and exilic mourning turns into outbursts of joy. The once-mute lips of those who were "not my people" become the harps upon which God plays his "new song."

Why Do We Sing?

So where are we? Into what part of God's song do we fit? And what shall we sing and why shall we sing it?

When we now gather for worship, we do not gather in an earthly temple but in the heavenly Zion, where we are surrounded by a great "cloud of witnesses" (Heb. 12:1) and where we participate in the worship of heaven that is now in progress. The Book of Revelation, recapitulating this whole history from the first Exodus to the last, mirrors the historical context of the Song of Moses perfectly. In chapters 8 and 9, there are the plagues, after which the angel announces the establishment of the kingdom of God, Satan is expelled from heaven, and the theater of conflict moves to the earth, where Babylon persecutes the people of God.

But in the middle of all of this, John sees God's people being brought through their final sea-crossing with the Pillar of Fire leading the way:

Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous: seven angels having the seven last plagues, for in them the wrath of God is complete. And I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire, and those who have the victory over the beast, over his image and over his mark and over the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, having harps of God. (Rev. 15:1-2)

Here, at last, the exiles are returning with a "new song" in their heart, taking up their harps to sing once again the songs of Zion. Yet their "new song" is a fulfillment of the "old song":

They sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, "Great and marvelous are your works, Lord God Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the saints! For who shall not fear you, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. For all nations shall come and worship before you, for your judgments have been manifested." (15:3-4)

The songs that emerge from biblical faith-whether Moses' or Miriam's or David's or Mary's-celebrate moments of significance in redemptive history. Like miracles, these "new songs" witness to the "new thing" that God is doing. Even when they testify to a divine work in an individual's life, they are usually messianic in character: "He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord" (Ps. 40:2-3).

Biblical songs are not, to borrow a poem title from Walt Whitman, a "Song of Myself." They do not testify generally to what God has done for someone in his or her own experience. Rather, they celebrate God's latest victory or, as in the songs of lament, give vent to the desolates' cries for God's redemption in history. The Psalter's final two songs celebrate God's glory filling the earth in the new creation: "Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the faithful" (Ps. 149:1), concluding in a crescendo of praise.

So why do we sing? We sing in order to "keep in step with the Spirit" (Gal. 5:25) and to announce and give witness here on earth to God's mighty victory in Jesus Christ, just as the Song of Moses, transposed into the Song of the Lamb, is being sung in heaven. Like teaching and admonishing each other in all wisdom (see Col. 3:16), singing psalms and hymns is part of our common witness to God's triumph. Certainly, our singing includes both the "before" and "after" of his triumph, which is why it is not all happy and joyful but is often filled with laments. But isn't this how God finds us? Isn't this our most realistic response?

We should sing chiefly to celebrate what God has done publicly, in history, and not primarily to testify to our own personal saving encounter with God. The apostles do not tell us very much about themselves; but they tell us a lot about Christ's person and work on our behalf. And so their testimony differs markedly from what often passes as witness and testimony today.

Too much of our singing, even when we sing the Psalms, separates the imperatives-"Sing to the Lord a new song!," "Praise the Lord!," "I will bring thanksgiving," among others-from the indicatives-"Pharaoh's chariots and his army he cast into the sea!," "Christ the Lord is risen today!" Our singing is often full of declarations of what I have done and intend to do, with few references to the mighty acts of God in the history of redemption. But if our church singing is predominantly "I will, I will, I will," then we are not harmonizing with the Song of Moses and the Lamb. Self-assertiveness appears in Moses' song only once, 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.'" Then Moses immediately refocuses on God: "But you blew with your wind, the sea covered them" (v. 10).

We sing a new song because we have something about which to sing: God has done a new thing! Our faithful forebears marked the solemn stages of God's further execution of his plan with appropriate music, much as the great kings of the earth have commissioned poems, paintings, and symphonies to honor their exploits. We sing because we are no longer in exile, and our hearts cannot resist the lure of the heavenly choir that has just discovered the only One worthy to explain the secret meaning of history:

They sing a new song: "You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and with your blood you ransomed for God people from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom of priests serving our God, and they will reign on the earth." Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!" (Rev. 5:9-14)

As God calls us to be part of his people here below who are to join his choir above, may we be singing witnesses to the Lamb, so that God's will may be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Saturday, November 2nd 2002

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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