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by Doug Ward


The biblical book of Exodus tells the story of the miraculous deliverance of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. It describes how God carefully orchestrated Israel's liberation, imparting important lessons at each stage in the process. God in his wisdom had prepared special lessons for Pharaoh and the Egyptians (Exod. 8:22; 9:29), for surrounding nations (Exod. 9:16), and for his people Israel (Exod. 6:7; 10:2).

For example, each of the ten plagues of Egypt communicated powerful messages. The plagues were judgments against the Egyptian pantheon (Exod. 12:12; Num. 33:4). They demonstrated that Egypt's gods were powerless and proclaimed to the world the identity of the one true God (Exod. 7:5).

The waters of the Red Sea conveyed a final lesson to the haughty Pharaoh and his army (Exod. 14). For the Israelites, those same waters were a sort of baptism (I Cor. 10:1-2), completing their liberation from Egyptian bondage and enabling them to begin a new life under a new Master. The Red Sea rescue had a profound impact upon them, as we read in Exod. 14:31:

``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'' (NIV).

However, even this spectacular miracle would be all too easy to forget during the difficult journey to the Promised Land. Lasting faith could not be gained overnight. Instead, it would have to be developed over time, in the context of an ongoing relationship with the Creator of the Universe.

To help Israel remember its deliverance at the Red Sea, God inspired Moses to compose a song, the very first hymn of praise recorded in the Bible. Known as the Song of Moses or Song of the Sea, it is found in Exodus 15:1-18. This song must have provided great comfort and encouragement to the Israelites during their travels. Over the centuries since the Exodus, it has occupied a central place in Jewish and Christian worship [3, 4] and has served as a model for countless other songs of praise. The purpose of the present article is to explore the meaning, structure, and theological and prophetic significance of this archetypal hymn.

``It's All About You, Lord''

The Song of the Sea has an unmistakable theme: the exaltation of the God of Israel. Commentator Göran Larsson [3, pp. 103-104] points out that this theme distinguishes Exodus 15 from ancient victory songs of the surrounding cultures, which typically concentrate on the greatness of a human monarch. As an example, Larsson presents the beginning of a song written to commemorate a victory of Pharaoh Rameses II over the Hittites (c. 1280 B.C.):

His majesty was a youthful lord,


Active and without his like;


His arms mighty, his heart stout,


His strength like Mont in his hour.


Of perfect form like Atum,


Hailed when his beauty is seen;


Victorious over all lands,


Wily in launching a fight.

This song mentions Egyptian deities Mont and Atum, but it emphasizes the qualities of Rameses II.

Moses, on the other hand, makes no reference to himself in the Song of the Sea. Although his outstretched hand signaled both the parting and ``unparting'' of the waters, he knew that it was God who had performed the miracles (Exod. 14:21, 27). There was nothing about which Moses or the Israelites could boast-their deliverance was the work of God alone. And so Moses' song celebrated the greatness, uniqueness, and love of God.

In placing the spotlight squarely on God's character and mighty works, the Song of the Sea set the tone for the Psalms, which in turn have always played a foundational role in Jewish and Christian worship. When contemporary worship choruses picture a ``God of wonders beyond our galaxy'' or proclaim that ``it's all about you, Lord,'' they continue a tradition of nearly 3500 years' duration, begun by Moses in Exodus 15.

When we read Exodus 15, it is easy to see why the Song of the Sea has been so influential. Its timeless message of God's grace and power still speaks to us today. Those who have been enslaved to sin and then experienced God's deliverance in their own lives can readily identify with the joy and gratitude felt by the Israelites when they reached the eastern bank of the Red Sea and looked back to see their pursuers disappear under the onrushing waters.

The song also pictures God's qualities with vivid images that capture the imagination. In verse 3 God is ``a warrior,'' alert and ready to rise to the defense of his people. The parting of the waters is described in verse 8 as a ``blast'' from God's ``nostrils.'' In verse 9 the enemy give chase, expending much energy with their arrogant claims. But the pursuers are no match for the Lord, who with a mere breath (v. 10) erases their path and silences their boasts.

Structure and Message

The Song of the Sea begins with a celebration of God's miraculous deliverance of his people (vv. 1-12). It then moves on to a confident expectation of future divine guidance and protection (vv. 13-18). Theologically speaking, this is a natural progression. God's mighty works of the past and present constitute a promise for the future, a down payment and guarantee of wonderful things to come.

Scholars who have studied the structure of the song often divide it into four sections. Commentator Walter Kaiser [2] suggests a model in which the first section consists of vv. 1b-5, followed by a second section of vv. 6-10, a third of vv. 11-16a, and a final section of vv. 16b-18. There are two clues that support such a model. For one thing, the first three sections conclude with what might be called ``stone similes''-``they sank to the depths like a stone'' (v. 5); ``They sank like lead in the mighty waters'' (v. 10); ``they will be as still as a stone'' (v. 16). Moreover, the beginnings of the second, third and fourth sections are marked by repetitive parallelism-verse 6 repeats the phrase ``your right hand;'' verse 11 repeats the question ``Who is like you?''; and verse 16b repeats ``people pass by.''

Kaiser further subdivides each section into three parts. The first part is an introduction (vv. 1b, 6, 11, 16b), usually including repetitive parallelism as explained above. After the introduction comes a confession of God's greatness and attributes (vv. 2-3, 7-8, 12-13, 17). In sections one and two, this confession is followed by a narration of God's mighty works at the Red Sea (vv. 4-5, 9-10). In sections three and four, on the other hand, an anticipation of God's future works follows the confession (vv. 14-16a, 18).

Going from confession to narration and anticipation, the song flows from past to present and future, rejoicing in God's salvation and looking forward to further deliverance. The last two sections contain a remarkable prophecy, describing how God would lead his people to the Promised Land and establish his Temple in their midst (vv. 13-17). The song's final words foresee God's everlasting and universal reign.

The Purposes of the Song

The Song of Moses would have served multiple purposes for the Israelites as they continued on their journey. It was a source of encouragement, a reminder that God had rescued them in the past and would do so again. Singing it would have promoted faith and helped to keep them focused on their destination. It also provided a way to pass along the story of their deliverance to future generations.

Of course the song by itself was no guarantee against apostasy. Many in the older generation of Israelites, especially, were scarred by deep-rooted fears and idolatrous habits absorbed during a lifetime of slavery. Shortly after the crossing of the Red Sea, the people began to complain about a lack of drinking water (Exod. 15:22-24). This was the first of many bouts of grumbling and complaining. A few months later at Mount Sinai, they lapsed into idolatry in Moses' absence (Exod. 32). Eventually their lack of faith condemned them to forty years of wandering in the wilderness (Numbers 14:26-35). With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, none of the adult male Israelites who crossed the Red Sea lived to see the Promised Land.

Still, I believe that the Song of the Sea must have played an important role for Israel on its journey to the Promised Land and beyond. Perhaps Caleb was humming it when he first scouted the land and then returned to announce to his brethren, ``We can do this!'' (Num. 13:30) Undoubtedly it helped sustain many of the people during the wilderness years. For the young people who learned it as children, it would have helped them catch the vision of their special calling and destiny. It would have taught them something about God's greatness and helped give them the courage to take over the land.

The Song of the Lamb

The Song of the Sea has long been a part of both Jewish and Christian liturgy. In both traditions it is associated with the Pashcal season, since the rescue at the Red Sea is traditionally believed to have taken place on Nisan 21, the Last Day of Unleavened Bread. According to Göran Larsson, ``On this day, big crowds in Israel gather at the shores of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea in Eilat to read the Song at the Sea'' ([3, p. 106]).

Because of the song's prophetic thrust, it is also associated with the hope of future salvation. Early rabbinic commentators found a hint of the song's future role in a grammatical anomaly in Exodus 15:1. Since the first verb in Exodus 15:1 is actually in the future tense, the beginning of Exodus 15 could be translated, ``Then Moses and the Israelites will sing this song to the Lord.'' Larsson explains that ``to the rabbis the tense of the verb also implied that there will come a time when this song will be sung again and then in a way as never before'' [3, p. 107]. In addition, Larsson notes that, ``According to one midrash, the heavenly throne was located immediately over the heads of the Israelites when they first sang the Song of Moses. In the future they will once again sing this song, and then they will finally be home to sing the song in front of the divine throne'' (p. 108).

To Christians, these traditions sound remarkably similar to a vision of the apostle John recorded in Revelation 15. The setting of the vision is very much analogous to that of Exodus 15. At a time just before the pouring out of the seven last plagues, those who have been victorious over the Beast stand beside ``what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire'' (Rev. 15:2). There they hold ``harps given them by God'' and sing a song called ``the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb'' (v. 3). This song has much in common with the Song of the Sea. It exalts God as king, praising him for his great and marvelous deeds. Then it predicts that all nations will bow before him (vv. 3-4).

Scholar Alan F. Johnson [1] observes that each phrase of the song in Rev. 15:3-4 comes from the Torah, Psalms, or Prophets (compare Rev. 15:3-4 with Ps. 139:14; Amos 4:13; Deut. 32:4; Jer. 10:7; Ps. 86:9). He speculates that the words of the song ``may be drawn from the liturgy of the synagogue and no doubt from the early Christian church.'' In any case, John's vision is in concert with Jewish tradition in picturing a renewed Song of Moses for the messianic age.

For Christians, the messianic age has begun. The Lamb-Jesus the Messiah-has granted us victory over sin and death. The forces of evil have been defeated, and we rejoice in our salvation, confident that God will continue to deliver us until the time when all nations bow before him. Joining with the saints beside the sea of glass, we raise our voices in thanksgiving to sing the Song of Moses and the Song of the Lamb.


1. Alan F. Johnson, ``Revelation' in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 12, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1981.

2. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., ``Exodus'' in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 1, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1989.

3. Göran Larsson, Bound for Freedom: The Book of Exodus in Jewish and Christian Traditions, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1999.

4. Eric Werner, The Sacred Bridge: The Interdependence of Liturgy and Music in Synagogue and Church during the First Millennium, Columbia University Press, New York, 1959.


Issue 16 


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.01.On 5 May 2004, 21:24.