In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Last week, we read about how the Israelites were delivered from the pursuit of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. And, remember, this wasn’t an isolated incident. Rather, it followed on the heels of God revealing his power in the Ten Plagues. In other words, the Israelites witnessed evidence upon evidence of God’s superiority over Egypt, and His intentions to rescue His people. After this particularly harrowing incident, with the Egyptians right on the doorstep (so to speak), it’s no surprise that they are in a celebratory mood – as evidenced by the record of this song of praise. So, several things that we can notice about this song.
Firstly, we remember that the Israelites, at this point, likely had a very limited understanding or knowledge of their God, YHWH. It’s likely that the twelve tribes had heard from their fathers, the twelve sons of Jacob, and that the twelve had heard from their father, Jacob, who had heard from his father, Isaac, and Isaac from his father, Abraham, of the God of the covenant who had called Abraham into a strange land. Especially as they toiled in slavery in Egypt, they probably held onto these stories in order to find hope in God’s promise. But their “theology”, at least as we tend to understand it, was likely extremely limited.
In this light, we’re reminded of the centrality of the theme, “So that they will know that I am the LORD,” in the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites are getting to know YHWH. They are seeing the power and authority of God, but they are also seeing the grace and mercy of God (i.e. in their rescue). And, most importantly, they are beginning to understand that who they are, their very identity as a people, is founded and grounded in the person and character of God. The song is a song of praise to God. The first lines of the song are:
2 “The Lord is my strength and my defense;
he has become my salvation.
But, God is not merely an instrument for the deliverance of the Israelites. He’s not merely the means by which the Israelites get what they want. Rather, the Israelites are the object of God’s sovereign actions. Evidence of this is how the Israelites frame the battle. The battle is not between Israel and Egypt; rather the battle is God’s. In verse 7:
7 “In the greatness of your majesty
you threw down those who opposed you.
You unleashed your burning anger;
it consumed them like stubble.
Further, reading from verse
12 “You stretch out your right hand,
and the earth swallows your enemies.
13 In your unfailing love you will lead
the people you have redeemed.
In your strength you will guide them
to your holy dwelling.
What we see is that, not only is it God who fights, God who redeems and rescues, but that the enemies are not, in fact, Israel’s but God’s. The song celebrates God’s victories over His enemies. Israel receives the benefits, but the battle and the victory are God’s.
This is important because it takes us back to one of the themes we looked at in the plagues. Ultimately, this is a cosmic battle – God is doing battle not with people, but with powers and principalities. We don’t want to under-play the historicity of the Exodus story, that it’s a story that takes place in actual history with actual people in an actual place in time. But the actual story takes place as part of the greater story of God’s redemptive work in history. And what God is doing in this greater redemption-story is overcoming sin and death.
It’s for this reason that I think it’s important to understand how the song is a song of praise for God’s victory, rather than a song of celebration of the defeat of Israel’s enemies. To reiterate, when we read these verses:
14 The nations will hear and tremble;
anguish will grip the people of Philistia.
15 The chiefs of Edom will be terrified,
the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling,
the people of Canaan will melt away;
16 terror and dread will fall on them.
By the power of your arm
they will be as still as a stone—
until your people pass by, Lord,
until the people you bought i pass by.
17 You will bring them in and plant them
on the mountain of your inheritance—
the place, Lord, you made for your dwelling,
the sanctuary, Lord, your hands established.
18 “The Lord reigns
for ever and ever.”
We shouldn’t understand these words as the gloating of a newly-freed people, but a recognition that God will overcome even the great nations of the earth. It is the Lord who will reign forever and ever; not any of the rulers, nations, or even the gods of the world. It seems to me that this fits with the themes that we’ve been seeing in the Exodus account.
So again, Israel is getting to know her God and who she is – or is to be, as a nation – in relation to this God. Reiterating, what I see in this song of praise and thanksgiving is as follows:
This battle is the Lord’s battle, not ours. This is actually remarkably freeing because victory does not depend upon our worthiness, holiness, or ability. God’s kingdom is established because of God’s faithfulness, not ours. As we’ve heard numerous times before, this means that we participate in God’s work because of and from victory, not for it – not in order to achieve it.
The battle is ultimately not against people, but against evil, oppression, and sin – it’s a cosmic battle. It’s important to note this so that we have a proper understanding of what redemption is actually about – what God’s actions are ultimately about. God’s business is ultimately about making right that which is wrong in creation.
And all of this, God’s victory over sin and evil, and our participation in His victory – the establishment of God’s kingdom – is because of the character and nature of God. Or, to put it another way, the kingdom in which we participate, the kingdom values and principles that we live here and now, in anticipation of the final fulfillment, flow from the character of God.
So What Now…?
Here’s what this means to me. Inasmuch as we understand that the battle is the Lord’s and not ours, and inasmuch as we understand that God’s purpose is to defeat sin and evil, that His desire is not to defeat people, to destroy human beings, but to restore and redeem creation, can we as the people of God find a way to oppose sin and evil, to affirm righteousness ad justice, without vilifying others who do not think and act the way that we want them to?
In a nutshell, I think that our responsibility as the people of God is to work for justice, peace, and redemption. I believe that we are called to oppose injustice, oppression, and evil – but that is not the same thing as opposing people.
I’m concerned with our tendency – or what appears to me to be a tendency – to turn everyone who doesn’t think like we do or live like we do into the enemy. Not that we have to agree with everyone else, but that we tend to turn every disagreement into a fight. And if it’s a fight, then it’s a fight that we have to win. You only have to turn on the news and watch a couple of minutes of political coverage to understand what I’m talking about.
Tribalism seems to be the default lens through which we understand our place in the world. Tribalism is the tendency for people to organize themselves into groups or teams of like people. Sometimes that group is organized by race, age, location, religion, or any other number of things. This makes a lot of sense because we have an innate desire to be with people who are like ourselves. The problem is that by forming tribes, we create an “us” and a “them”. Everyone who is not part of us, by definition, becomes “them.” If you are not part of my tribe, then you are not only wrong, you are the enemy. Moreover, once we start organizing people into “us” vs. “them”, we no longer have to deal with people, we can deal with categories – abstracts. And it’s much easier to fight against, and in fact hate, abstract entities instead of people.
In the Western world, Christianity seems to be under-going a shift in our social standing. To many, it feels like we are under attack, under siege. We can no longer take for granted that most of society shares the same values and priorities that the Church has assumed for so many years. Now what we should do with this situation is up for debate (again, the Christ and Culture question). Unfortunately, the response for many in the Church has been to tribalize – to create categories of “us” vs. “them” and to turn “them” into the enemy. We either live in fear or we live in open hostility to those whom God wants to save.
Now what can we do about this state of affairs?
We understand that the battle is God’s, not ours. It’s God who fights, not us. It’s God who works, not us. We talk about this a lot, and I don’t want you to take it the wrong way – but God doesn’t need us. It’s not as if God, the omnipotent, sovereign ruler of all creation is waiting on tenterhooks, anxiously saying to himself, “oh my – if Billy doesn’t do x, y, or z, all is lost!” Which isn’t to say that God doesn’t invite us, to call us to participate in His work. However – and I’ll put this simply for the sake of brevity – what He calls us to is proclamation, not conflict. Which leads us to my next point.
We understand that we live in victory, not that we fight for victory. The battle, so to speak, is already won. Jesus Christ defeated the powers of sin and darkness on the cross and in his resurrection ushered in a new era in which we can live completely assured of God’s forgiveness and acceptance, not only in the age to come, but in this present age. So fear has no place in the kingdom. We don’t have to worry that we might lose something or that the enemy is gaining ground because victory has already come. Even when things are getting hard, or things seem to be lost, regardless of our imperfect perceptions or expectations, Jesus sits enthroned over His kingdom.
Finally, we understand that God’s desire is to defeat evil but to redeem people. In Ephesians, Paul tells us that our battle is not against flesh and blood but “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (ESV) Therefore, what we do not do is turn people – those who are created in the image of God and for whom Christ died – into the enemy.
- We need to see people, not tribes
- We need to learn to listen
- We need to confess our own fallen-ness
Because of what God had done, because of what God had done in rescuing and redeeming the people – and in my opinion, distinctly not because thousands of Egyptian soldiers died in the Red Sea – Moses and the Israelites were able to rejoice. Because they were able to see and experience the power, sovereignty, and mercy of God, they were able to rejoice. I hope that we, as a people of God, would desire to share that love and mercy, to live and demonstrate the kingdom, and to invite the world to share in and participate in the salvation that only comes from God.