Exodus 15 - A Song for the Wilderness

May 18, 2014 Speaker: Series: Exodus

Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Exodus 15:1–15:27

[Text: Exodus 15] “A Song for the Wilderness”

There are seasons in life when we have a song on our lips and full hearts. But we don't always live there. When young love becomes heart-ache; when a joyful job becomes drudgery; when what used to be sweet now tastes bitter we wonder - can the song ever return?

[Pray – Guide us, O God, in the reading of your Word, and by your Holy Spirit, that in your light we may see light, in your truth find freedom, and in your will discover peace; through Christ our Lord, Amen.]

[Read Exodus 15:1-21, saving vv.22-27 for later]

First things are important things, powerful things. They set direction and tone. They are foundational. A leader's first speech; your first impression of your neighbor; your first day at a new job - first things can be powerful things.

So, it might help us to recognize we're looking at the first song in the Story of Redemption.

Now, we've seen poetic language before in the Story - YHWH creating the heavens and the earth; the patriarchs blessing their sons. But this is different. This is poetry in song and it sings of YHWH's redemption; its exalted language and elegant style bringing our head and hearts together, confronting us with the weight of this God.

Song is powerful. Every teenager knows that. When you hear other people singing of things you're discovering for yourself, you can't help but move in body and soul. Yes, song is powerful but especially so when it sings of powerful things. And here Israel sings of their powerful God to their powerful God. As one people, they lift up their voices to their Maker and Redeemer.

But it was not always so. Their story began with groaning.

In Exodus 2:23, "the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help." For 400 years they'd endured harsh slavery. Now they are singing. "...(W)hat...produced this startling change?" one writer asks then answers, "Two things: the blood of the Lamb, and the power of the Lord."[1]

Back while Israel groaned in slavery, it says, "...God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham....." (Exodus 2:24) Here, now, YHWH has rescued his people, working through Moses to lead them out of Egypt and into life with him. Back in Egypt, YHWH ransomed them with the blood of the Passover lambs. The lambs died so that Israel could live. Now on the far side of the Red Sea, Israel saw his power to save them from the last great threat. Right before their eyes, YHWH opened the sea; they walked through deep places on dry ground between water walls. Israel saw the army of Egypt - the chariots and warriors who'd struck terror into their hearts - they saw Egyptians disappear beneath the waves when YHWH breathed on them. Through lamb's blood and tremendous power, redemption had come from YHWH. Israel saw their salvation and God changed their groaning into song.

And God still changes groaning into song.

In the person of Jesus, we see how YHWH still changes our tune. Though we groaned in slavery to sin; though we groaned in fear of death; though we groaned ashamed of ourselves because of our rebellion against this Holy God, he redeems us by the blood of the Lamb and his powerful resurrection from the dead. In Jesus, God has remembered and kept his promises to redeem – to buy back for himself – we sinners broken by our rebellion.

When we repent of going after life on our own terms and follow Jesus in faith - trusting him alone, resting in him alone and his finished work on the cross - then the Lord still works by his Spirit, turning our groans into song. That's why in this worship service and in our lives we sing of him and to him our songs of redemption. Like Israel on the far side of the Red Sea, we sing songs of his blood and songs of his power; we sing songs of Christ’s death and songs of his resurrection from the dead. And they move us in body and in soul because we hear that his death is our death and his life is our life. So, we lift up our hands and our hearts because in Christ we have left behind shame and guilt and fear of condemnation and fear of death! Singing fits those who live by the blood and power of Christ.

What we're talking about is worship. What we're talking about is our response to the person and work of our Savior. Israel saw the salvation God provided in blood and through water and they were not the same - they didn't sound the same. And by faith, we have seen the salvation God has provided in Christ's blood and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. So, we are not the same. The old has gone and the new has come. As we understand what he's done, we won't sound the same.

We won't sound the same because God's work of redemption does something to us. The redemption he is working in Christ is changing us in (at least) four ways. First, redemption warms our hearts. Second, redemption engages our minds. Third, redemption stirs our souls. Fourth, redemption gives us strength. Admittedly, there is a lot of overlap between these things. We are whole-beings; spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and physically we are one person. So, when one thing is touched, another is affected as well. But still, we hear YHWH's redemption changing Israel's heart, soul, mind and strength in this song.

So, let's first look at how his redemption warms hearts. Compare vv.1-2 with what they said when Israel first saw Pharaoh's chariot's approaching on the horizon. Back then, their hearts froze with fear, they spoke of graves in the wilderness. But now that redemption has come their warmed hearts sing to YHWH for doing what they could never have imagined. Verse 2 picks up their joyful response. But notice that they do not merely rejoice in the gift of salvation. They rejoice in the Giver of the gift!

"YHWH is my strength and my song,

and he has become my salvation;"

They don't say, "YHWH gives me strength. YHWH makes me sing. YHWH saves me." They say, “YHWH is my my song...has become my salvation." And they claim him as their own God, praising his faithfulness to them and to their fathers. Yes, they are grateful to be alive. But their hearts are warmed because now they have YHWH.

Sometimes I can be so enamored with God's gift of forgiveness and new life in Christ that I forget to see Christ as my gift. I'm like an ungrateful child on his birthday who can't take his eyes off the shiny truck to see the one who loved me enough to give me a shiny truck. But when our hearts are warmed to see Christ is our salvation – that we are only righteous in him; that we only flourish in him – then we sing rightly. So, we sing praising our Lord and our God, looking beyond what he gives with hearts warmed only by sight of him - even while receiving his gifts with grateful hearts.

What else does redemption do to us? Now, we live in a culture that prizes emotion above almost everything else. We marry because we're “in love” (by which we mean a feeling as opposed to “love as commitment”). We divorce because we don't feel happy. We grumble about work because we don't feel fulfilled.

By the way, I just want to take a moment to say this - I love y'all. And I love serving as one of your pastors here. I want you to know that.

So, we live in a culture that prizes emotion above almost everything else. It is both obscene and unhealthy how feelings drive so many decisions. I'm not saying that we're not supposed to feel - God gave us our emotions and we need them to sing rightly! But while many folks will resonate with the reality that God's work through Christ is meant to warms our hearts to praise him, far fewer will understand how redemption is supposed to impact our intellect.

But see how YHWH's redemption has engaged Israel's minds (repeat) in v.3 (and following)? Because when this God works, he works in ways other than we expect, ways that challenge our (mis)conceptions of God and how things "should" work in the world. But if we would sing to this God, we must sing praising him for all of who he is. And as his redeeming work engages our minds, we sing of YHWH's justice.

Israel watched YHWH execute justice on the Egyptians who proudly rose against his people (and v.9 gives us insight into the prideful heart of the Egyptians). They would have gladly run the men of Israel through and taken their wives and children back to the brick-pits of Egypt. But the refrain of Israel's song; the work of God that led to the arrival of their salvation is the destruction of the horse and his rider. Singing of chariots cast into the sea and sinking like lead, Israel praises YHWH for doing justice against his enemies.

And we still sing of YHWH's justice. But first and foremost, we sing because God satisfied his justice by killing Jesus to the cross! At the time when we were proud enemies of God, going our own way against his good law, seeing ourselves as the measure of all things and thinking our way is better than his - even then - God sent Jesus as the blood ransom to pay for our rebellion. His death was to satisfy our debt to the God of justice - a debt we cannot pay. So, in the body of Christ on the cross, we see that YHWH is a God of justice as much as he is a God of love. And we must sing of him as both.

But from Israel we can learn that we may also celebrate his justice being demonstrated against his enemies. Notice I do not say "our enemies." See v. 7? Israel sings to YHWH, speaking of the Egyptians as "your adversaries." These were the men who'd made Israel suffer. These were the soldiers who kept them in subjection for so long. Even so, the Israelites acknowledge that they were most truly YHWH's enemies. And they are his enemies to either judge or redeem, even as we were.

So for those who would harm Christians today in mockery or death, we do not pray for revenge. Instead, we pray for repentance and faith from God the Father to find them as it has found us. The redemption God is working in Christ is engaging our minds and changing it - teaching us to praise God for all his attributes, teaching us to leave behind revenge and pray for mercy for others as we trust he gives to us.

That trust in YHWH is what we hear growing in Israel. This is the third thing we hear in Israel's song. And this is the third thing our redemption in Christ does for us. God's work of redemption stirs our souls.

Israel's souls are being stirred up to trust YHWH more than they ever have. In v.11,

“Who is like you, O YHWH, among the gods?

Who is like you, majestic in holiness…?”

At the Red Sea, Israel was continuing to learn the difference between YHWH and all the other gods of the earth. They’d seen him next to the gods of Egypt in the plagues, seeing the impotence of those idols against YHWH’s power. Now, they saw a God who could open the seas and drown proud armies. Whom else could they trust? Their souls are stirred up in faith to entrust themselves to the One True God.

When we see by faith Christ hanging on the cross, walking from the tomb, ascending into the clouds and standing at the right hand of God as our faithful high priest, are our souls not stirred? Does our faith not grow and flourish the more we take our eyes from our present circumstances and set them on him? Doesn't our faith grow when we hear the Gospel that says our salvation depends on him and not us? That we are secure because of him and not us? That he holds us when we fail to hold him? The Gospel still stirs our souls to believe.

That is why I need to be here every week. Not only to preach God's Word to you, but to preach it to myself. Not only to sing for myself but to hear you sing the Gospel. Not only to be worthy of my wages, but to hear that my inheritance in Christ is greater than the wealth of Egypt! Has God promised to stir my faith beneath the tree in my back yard? No! But he promises to minister to my heart and mind and to stir up my soul beneath his word - sitting under the Gospel of Jesus. And so he promises you, too.

God’s work of redemption warms our hearts, engages our minds, stirs our souls to greater trust. And redemption also gives us strength.

Redemption gives them strength to follow their God, trusting in his steadfast love. Strength to walk among the warrior peoples mentioned in vv.14-16, trusting YHWH will protect them. Strength to go forward into the Promised Land. But remember what Israel sings in v.2? Their strength is YHWH. They can only follow where he leads and walk among warriors and go forward from the Red Sea because their Strength goes with them; YHWH is with them in the pillar of cloud and fire.

For all who trust in Christ, Christ is our strength. We have none in ourselves. But because he is with us in his Spirit – always, never leaving us nor forsaking us – because he is with us, we can follow him and walk among dangers and go forward in every circumstance. Paul wrote, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:12-13) We really are weak, but he truly is strong. And as Hannah sang and we confessed earlier, where the Lord is working redemption “the feeble bind on strength.” (1 Samuel 2:4) And that is cause for singing. That’s why Israel sang as they followed Moses toward the Promised Land.

But before leading them into the Promised Land, YHWH led Israel into the wilderness. And in the wilderness, Israel forgets to sing.

[Read 15:22-24]

Three days. Three days into the wilderness and Israel needs water. But when they find what they’re looking for, the water is bitter. And Israel’s song turns into grumbling against Moses. The irony is thick. Those who walked through water by the power of God don’t trust God to provide water for them. Three days into the wilderness and Israel’s faith is exposed as fleeting – fickle at best.

How very much like me.

You see, after redemption comes, God still leads us into the wilderness. We who have passed through judgment and into life in Christ – like Israel on this side of the Red Sea – we who have passed through have seen our salvation come. But we have not yet reached the Promised Land. No, God leads his people into this present wilderness. And as the quote on the front of the bulletin says, the wilderness teaches us about ourselves and our expectations and our unbelief.

Martin Luther said, “When the supply fails, our faith is soon gone.” And when comforts decline and hardship comes, when the song leaves our lips and what was once sweet tastes bitter, we often grumble against the Lord we were just singing to. How many worship services have we left with warm hearts and engaged minds and stirred, strengthened souls only to fall flat an hour later? Yes, this present wilderness is revealing. We are not as constant as we imagine ourselves.

But the Good News of Jesus says our God is more faithful than us. And even though Israel grumbled against Moses – ultimately against YHWH himself – he provides for Israel.

It begins with a log.

[Read 15:25-27]

YHWH heals the water, giving them sweet water to satisfy their thirst. And he calls them back to listen and walk with him. God will have his redeemed people walk in his ways. But see the order? Grace first, then obligations to obedience. And if they will not obey, then they will not flourish.

But he calls his people to look again to him, to remember that he, YHWH, is their healer. He calls them to remember that in him they will flourish and sing even walking through the wilderness. And to prove his faithfulness once again to a short-sighted people, he leads them to Elim, “where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water.” (v.27)

One spring for each tribe. Shade trees for tired bones to rest beneath. This is YHWH leading them back to himself and to their song.

Has the Lord led you to bitter waters in the wilderness? And having tasted the bitterness, have you forgotten the song of redemption?

What do we do when we forget his salvation? When unbelief again rears its head? Go back and listen to the old songs about who he is and what he's already done in Christ. Go back and listen to his promises about what he's going to still do in Christ. Go back and listen to the Gospel of Jesus so that you can sing again.

Because this God still leads us back to sing. Even in the face of our unbelief, when the song has left our lips and discontented grumbling replaces it, the super-abundant grace of God persists. Because this God does not abandon us in the wilderness. Instead he leads us back always to Christ, the Spring of Living Water, from whom a tired soul may drink and never thirst again. And he lets us rest in the shade beneath his wings.

[Pray – Father, in your wisdom you lead us into the wilderness. And this wilderness reveals much about us and much about you. Unbelief still clings to us – cooling our hearts, darkening our minds, stagnating our souls, and leaving us weak and fearful. But you, Triune God, have not abandoned us. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you remain faithful. You gave Christ to die for us; Christ to live for us. By faith we have been baptized into him and we have already passed through the waters of death into life with you. If you would not withhold Christ, then we know you will also give us all that we need. And we trust you, that even what is bitter now will be sweet again. Perhaps not in this wilderness (although we have much to be thankful for). But we know that Christ who redeemed us is coming again to make all things new and right. And what he has taken, he will not fail to restore more sweetly than we could ask or think. To Christ our salvation we offer this prayer of praise, asking that you would help us to keep our eyes on him – our Savior, our Shade, our Strength, our Living Water, our Song. In his name we pray, Amen.]


[Benediction – from Number 6]

The LORD bless you and keep you;

the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;

the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.



[1] A.W. Pink, Gleanings in Exodus.

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