Monday, February 08, 2016

Three Songs of Moses

I’m not sure I can easily picture the Moses of this 1861 Ivan Kramskoy painting “Prayer of Moses” breaking into song.

Can you?

Some Bibles, including my ESV, give Exodus 15 the title “Song of Moses”. Technically this is true, because we read that Moses and the people of Israel sang the words that follow to Jehovah after the crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptians. We don’t actually read that Moses was the one who wrote it, though most scholars assume it and it seems likely.

But there are three “songs” in scripture attributed to Moses, and he may well have written more.

Number Our Days

The second is Psalm 90, which in context is called a “prayer”, and is primarily a request to God for wisdom given the finiteness of human existence. “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom,” he pleads. I can only think that Moses wrote it while watching a generation of rebellious Israelites fall in the desert and fail to enter the rest of God in Canaan, as it is consumed with the themes of death and judgment: “We are brought to an end by your anger … we bring our years to an end like a sigh”.

Here Moses speaks not just for Israel (though that is obviously his primary intent, as he refers to “your servants” more than once), but for all of mankind, because we are born under the same curse of death and judgment, and we share the same rebellious nature displayed by Israel over and over again on their way to Canaan. He speaks of that which is characteristically human: “You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’ ”

And he goes on to add:
“The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.”
That’s universal. The words of Psalm 90 speak to us all, though undoubtedly prompted by what Moses saw all around him.

All His Ways Are Justice

The third Song of Moses (and arguably the greatest, or at least the most well known) is Deuteronomy 32, which was also written at the end of his life. Moses had written down all of the law for Israel, had commissioned Joshua to replace him and lead a new generation of Israelites into the promised land. Then he and Joshua together recited to the people the words recorded in Deuteronomy 32. At 120 years of age, perhaps Moses’ voice was not up to the job of addressing the people alone, or perhaps this was his way of showing the people that Joshua was assuming his mantle, but in any case Joshua must have memorized the entire, lengthy song. There were no teleprompters in the desert. And Moses further commanded the Israelites to memorize the words of the song and teach them to their children, along with the law he had declared to them.

The Song of the Lamb

All of which makes it a pretty important song. If we didn’t think so, there is a reference to this song in Revelation. At least, I’m pretty sure it’s this particular song that is referred to. When the wrath of God is finished, those who have conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name (which can only refer to believers in the coming Great Tribulation) sing “the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb”. The words in Revelation are different because the Lamb (Jesus Christ) is now their focus. Jehovah’s Name has been specifically revealed to Israel and to the world in human form. The “King of the nations” is about to take his throne and rule the earth in glory.

But Moses’ words are incorporated into the “Song of the Lamb”, so it is also the “Song of Moses”. In revealing himself in the person of Christ, God has not changed his essential nature in the slightest. He is the same God who led Israel through the desert. So in Revelation the redeemed sing, “Just and true are your ways”, just as Moses could sing, “All his ways are justice”.

A Prophetic History

The Song of Moses in Deuteronomy is really a prophetic history of Israel that takes the nation long past the point at which they stood in the desert on the brink of entering the land of Canaan and claiming the promises of God. Moses anticipates their entry and material blessing in their new home:
“He made him ride on the high places of the land,
and he ate the produce of the field,
and he suckled him with honey out of the rock,
oil out of the flinty rock,”
and Israel’s descent into idolatry:
“They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods;
with abominations they provoked him to anger,”
along with Israel’s rejection by God:
“And I will heap disasters upon them;
I will spend my arrows on them,”
and ultimately, their restoration to the land:
“He repays those who hate him
and cleanses his people’s land.”
But the part of the Song of Moses that makes it into the Song of the Lamb and, in effect, sums up all God’s dealings with Israel and, by extension, his people today, is this line: “All his ways are justice”.

Amen to that. But back to the first “Song of Moses” for a moment.

Jehovah Has Become My Salvation

Moses and the people sang a song of victory to the Lord after their Red Sea deliverance. Ten times the Song mentions “Jehovah” (in most of our Bibles, “the Lord” in small capitals). While Moses had revealed this very personal name of their God to Israel during their time of slavery in Egypt, this is the first time that the nation has embraced the aspects of God’s character that were revealed to them in this special way. R. E. Harlow says this about the name Jehovah:
“God said, ‘I AM WHO I AM’ and this was His Name, ‘I AM’. The name Jehovah may come from the same word, meaning ‘He is’, that is, He exists, always has and always will.”
Jehovah’s self-existence had practical implications which might not at first have been apparent to Israel. But in this moment on the Red Sea shore, as a nation they agreed together to express a number of truths about this Jehovah who had revealed himself to them, first through the words of Moses, and now in his actions toward Egypt on their behalf.

Jehovah Saves

These were the things they had learned:
  • Jehovah has triumphed gloriously, throwing horse and rider into the sea.
  • Jehovah is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.
  • Jehovah is a man of war.
  • Jehovah is his name.
  • Jehovah’s right hand is “glorious in power”.
  • Jehovah’s right hand “shatters the enemy”.
  • Jehovah is unique among the Gods, “majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders”.
  • Jehovah purchased Israel.
  • Jehovah made an abode for Israel.
  • Jehovah will reign forever and ever.
The eternal, self-existent God, the “I AM”, reveals himself here to be not simply glorious, powerful and unique, but a redeemer, a savior and one who has made a home for his people. It is not the name of one who is merely to be admired distantly, but one with whom his people can have an intimate relationship which he himself has voluntarily initiated.

Anticipating the Messiah

In these ten things Israel learns here about Jehovah, Moses anticipates Messiah, who in being lifted up on the cross would draw all men to the God of Israel:
  • Jesus has triumphed gloriously, disarming rulers and authorities and putting them to open shame.
  • Jesus is the Christian’s strength. We sing because of him.
  • Jesus is a man of war.
  • Jehovah is literally Jesus’ name. Strong’s concordance tells us that “Joshua” (or “Jesus”) means “The Lord is salvation”, or simply, “Jehovah saves”. It is the same declaration Moses and all Israel make here.
  • Jesus is glorious in power.
  • Jesus shatters the enemy. The “offspring” of the woman crushes the head of the serpent.
  • Jesus is unique. This is the essence of the term monogenes, or “only begotten”. Surprisingly, even Wikipedia gets this right.
  • Jesus purchased us.
  • Jesus is making an abode for us.
  • Jesus will reign forever and ever.
The Danger of Missing the Point

For a few moments in the early part of Exodus 15, it might appear Israel actually got it, that they understood who they were dealing with. But Israel was a rebellious nation by nature, and would fail again to trust God to be who he had always been even before this chapter of Exodus has ended.

They could sing together of all the wonderful things they had learned about Jehovah, and then doubt him the moment they ran out of water. This is not something God failed to anticipate. He made provision for their failure over and over again, as he makes provision for ours today.

The self-existence of God means this above all: that his nature does not depend on us. Our failures and disobedience cannot negate his promises. If we are faithless, he remains faithful.

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