The first line I read in my research on this particular passage went something like this: this is one of the most profound poems from the Jewish faith in the entire Bible. That got my attention.
The reason it is so significant is because it restates the Jewish understanding of God so clearly, harkening back to the creation poem in Genesis chapter one, where out of the waters of chaos God brought forth life. Now, in this poem (Exodus 15:1-21), God used the water of chaos to defeat Pharaoh’s army in order to save the people of Israel. In the poem, Moses makes one thing abundantly clear: this was all God’s doing, born out of God’s love for the oppressed Israelites. Pharaoh, the self-identified demigod who ruled the world’s super power of that time was no match for God. Ant, meet shoe.
There are times in life when it seems the presence and power of God are undeniable, when we stand in awe of God. Sometimes being immersed in creation draws our attention to the Creator. Or when a baby is born. Or when deep love is abundantly displayed in some profound way. Or when it feels like God has intervened in some special way. There are many stories from WWII where it seems like God’s hand showed up and caused a gun to jamb, or a leader to not advance troops, which allowed for life to go on.
I’ve experienced physical healing, what I claim was divine intervention. I prayed, and the pain left and soon after my ailment healed after years of failed treatment. I experienced divine intervention after a car wreck. After such experiences, I sang pretty loud songs of praise to God.
Sometimes we experience God intervening in other ways, seemingly aligning stars for a particular reason. My family experienced this in July at a camping trip which brought us into deeper relationship with a couple we’d met weeks before. All of us were wondering if God somehow orchestrated this coincidence, and wondered why God might bother. Note: I don’t generally play this card, and wouldn’t except that the likelihood of all of this happening was so small we simply couldn’t shake the thought that somehow God was in it. When these types of things happen, it feels natural to be grateful to God.
At other times it is not so easy to sing, because we sense God’s lack of intervention. Our prayers don’t get answered the way we hoped. The gun didn’t jamb when it was pointed at a loved one. The wreck took life. Sometimes “it” hits the fan and spreads it everywhere. We look for someone to blame. Sometimes it’s us. Sometimes it’s someone else. Sometimes it’s a destructive system. Sometimes it’s Mother Nature. Sometimes it sure feels like God could have intervened. I bet there were some Jews on the victory side of the sea who, while they were delighted at God’s defeat of Pharaoh’s army, wept, wishing God had acted sooner, before their sons were thrown into the Nile, or their loved one died from beatings because they didn’t meet their quota of bricks.
I bet everyone has been impacted by the pain cancer has caused. I know I have grieved the loss of many lives taken by this indiscriminate foe. And how many millions of Jews died because the war ended too late? How many tens of thousands of Japanese were immediately incinerated or slowly, excruciatingly painfully killed from radiation because the threat of a nuclear bomb wasn’t taken seriously, and because we dropped it. How many people today are stuck in human trafficking, being exploited for their work or their sexuality? Love to stream porn? Do you really think all those different women are hoping to be porn stars? Wake up! The greatest likelihood is that they are on camera under threat.
In these times, it’s hard to sing a song about God’s immense power to deliver us from evil. So we turn to other songs in the Bible. Like Psalm 42 and Psalm 44. These are good songs for excrement-filled days. If my coarse language here offends you, perhaps you haven’t actually had one yet. Sometimes vulgarity allows for appropriate expression. Isn’t it good to know the Bible itself gives us permission to vent?
So, where are we then? Seems a little wanting to sing praise to God for being omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent when it feels like God didn’t quite have enough in the tank, or made a poor choice, or just plain didn’t show up where needed.
The Jewish people were no strangers to oppression. Most of their existence as a people has been on the receiving end of someone’s hatred. In all of history, they haven’t truly ruled their own land for much longer than the United States has hers. Think about that. In 4,000 years of history, they’ve had their hands on their own steering wheel (speaking in geopolitical terms) for a few hundred years. Their glory days were during the reign of David and Solomon. That was around 1,000 BCE. Not long after Solomon reigned, everything fell apart. They have faced one challenge after another forever. Why do they still sing praise to God?
The Jewish faith (which is the foundation for Christian faith) believedGod to be constantly good, constantly active, and constantly loving. God cannot be otherwise. God’s choice to redeem Israel in the exodus from Egypt had nothing to do with Israel’s holiness or DNA. The move had everything to do with God’s unchangeable character of love. For ancient Jews, reading the story of Adam and Eve reminded them that life is sometimes “excrementy”. Sometimes it feels like a snake in the grass is the source. Sometimes it’s people we love and are supposed to love us back - they defecate on it. And sometimes we’re the ones who do the defecating. That’s a whole lot of excrement! Maybe that’s why the Garden grew so much fruit! The Garden story reminds us that life is sometimes awful for a wide range of reasons, not the least of which is our own individual arrogance and quest for greater power, even equality with God. We’re told from the get-go to expect life to be like that. But this Jewish story also tells of their generation-after-generation experience of God as One who is loving despite our shortcomings and outright defiant rejection; One who comes to heal, restore, instruct, and help move forward. This is the nature of God, our Ground of Being, Ultimate Reality: Love.
This great, eternal truth is very good news – the same Good News Jesus proclaimed as a corrective to a too-narrowly defined legalistic interpretation of the Jewish faith at that time by the Sadducees who were in charge. The Good News is this: no matter how excrementy things get, the end of the story is the goodness of God. I’m not talking about some wimpy, cop-out, denial of and checking out of reality while we wait for heaven. I’m talking about living through the grit and shit knowing that it does not mean the absence of God, but in fact simply is an expression of the reality of life. But a reality that need not and should not define us. Our ultimateidentity is in the person of God, who is with us through and through, supporting and sustaining us even as we wade through the cesspools of life. When we choose to praise God for this hope which rings eternal, it is an act of honest, strong defiance against that which would have us think less of ourselves, the cosmos, and God. Praising God even in the midst of the shitstorm is an act of giving the finger to cancer, to evil, to tyranny, to all that tries to go against what is eternally good. It is a statement declaring that we choose to be defined by our identity in God and nothing less. This allows us to move forward not with strength instead of fear, joy instead of mourning, because that which gives us life is eternal and cannot be compromised by the light and momentary troubles we may experience here and now.
While such a metaphor may offend our modern sensibilities, the whole claim of rescue, deliverance, and salvation depends on the reality that God can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. It is as though the utterance of Yahweh’s name is a defiant challenge to any power that might try to undo the liberation and force the singer back into bondage. The singer anticipates the Pauline assertion: “I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Rom 1:16 NRSV). This singer is not embarrassed to take a strong stand for the future in this affirmation. The singer is buoyant and delighted at the new possibilities the reality of this God makes possible. The remainder of the poem explicates this passionate faith and sure confidence… It is the liturgic remembering and hoping of every community of the oppressed that catches a glimpse of freedom and authorizes liturgical (and eschatological) exaggeration to say, “Free at last!” When the song is sung, clearly this is not yet “at last.” The community at worship, however, can dare such exaggeration, because its hope is more powerful and more compelling than any present circumstance. – New Interpreter’s Bible
May we choose to recognize the majesty of God not only when it is so obvious, but especially when it is not, that we may be beacons of hope as we sing the song that cannot be silenced and must be sung: Where, o death, is your victory? Where, o death, is your sting?