Exodus 15:1-24: Singing Yahweh’s Victory
Our main text for today is Exodus 15:1-21. As you know, Moses and the Israelites have just crossed the sea on dry ground and Pharaoh's army has been drowned. Yahweh has accomplished their liberation from Egypt. They are free at last! Having been set free Moses and company break out in song to Yahweh for delivering them. In short, the theme is: "Look what the Lord has done!"
Up to this point a narrator has been telling the exodus story. But now the narrator somewhat steps aside and we hear Moses leading the Israelites in a hymn and his sister Miriam leading the women in a chorus. Whenever there is exodus to be told, there is song to be sung - all in praise to the One who delivers us! It might have been something like a song we sometimes use in worship:
To my knowledge, Exodus 15:1-21 is the first place there is singing in the Bible, unless you count Adam’s response upon waking up to Eve. That kind of makes this singing a little more special, as well as demonstrates what a powerful salvation event the exodus was. The salvation was so overwhelming the narrator could not keep the music from breaking into the story. All the narrator could do with this interruption in song was to make it part of the story.
It is also interesting that the first "song service" we find in the Bible consists of both a hymn and a chorus. I wonder if the following week Moses and Miriam had to split their service to keep everyone happy, having a hymn service for the traditionalists and a chorus service for those who preferred contemporary music? I wonder, if Miriam had sung first and Moses second, if choruses would have come to be considered traditional music and hymns contemporary?
All cynicism aside, I think we need to see that in the song service of Moses and Miriam, the first time there is singing in Scripture there is a hymn and a chorus side by side. Both have a part to play in worship, especially in terms of the teaching and life formation that takes place during worship. Noting the differences between Moses' hymn and Miriam's chorus will make this clear.
Moses' hymn, as most hymns do, contains four intertwined elements. First, it tells the story of salvation, in this case the exodus, in fairly detailed terms. Hymns tell the story in poetic fullness of what God has done. Second, in telling the story hymns also describe the majesty and power of God. God is known because of what God has done. Third, glory is ascribed to God for salvation. God is not just sung about, but actual praise and glory is rendered unto God. Fourth, there is a forward looking element as to what God is going to do. For Moses that entailed being led into the Promised Land.
In many of our Christian hymns the last verse is either about heaven or Christ's return. Thus, hymns lyrically spell out what God has done, who God is, and what God is going to do, and that all glory belongs to God because of who God is, what God has done, and what God is going to do. The fullness of the story is important in order to know God and to know one's salvation. Without the details we do not know why we are singing.
Choruses, on the other hand, tend to focus either on one detail or attempt to encapsulate the whole message in a short, memorable few lines. Miriam's chorus is a prime example, as she takes the first two lines of Moses' hymn and turns it into a chorus which captures the spirit, message, and theology of the hymn. But notice how "shallow" Miriam's chorus would be if you did not know Moses' hymn or the exodus story. The chorus is not a replacement for the hymn, but a memory device that pulls up the theology/message of the hymn. If you do not know the hymn or the message, or you have not experienced the message, there is little for the chorus to pull up.
But this is not to say that Miriam's chorus is shallow or of little value. It is of much value and it can serve as a tremendous tool for taking the message/event deeper into the heart/soul/mind/life of the singer. As the chorus is more easily remembered and more often repeated, it is able to take the message further into the depths of the believer. It becomes mind-shaping. Thus, while one may not be able to recite the whole hymn, the chorus helps one to remember the message, and the repetition of it drives that message deeper and deeper into the life of the worshiper. The Spirit is able to use it to bring to mind the various aspects of the message of the hymn.
I recently heard someone say that hymns are like computer programs and choruses are like the program icons on your screen's desktop. Programs carry all the details. Behind the simple icons the programs lie in all their glorious complexity. The icon brings the program and all it does to mind. Without an icon it would be hard to fit the program into our minds. Programs and icons are necessary to each other. Choruses and hymns are likewise necessary to each other. Choruses without the hymns behind them are like icons without programs. And hymns without choruses can be as unmanageable as programs without icons.
Miriam and Moses invite us to make sure our song services are full of both choruses and hymns. What is your exodus victory song? You need to sing it and someone needs to hear it. Make a joyful noise unto the Lord!