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12. Singing, But Then Sinning (Exodus 15:1-27)

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Life of Moses (12)

May 6, 2018

We all have our lists of sins that we think are really bad, going down to those that we tend to shrug off as hardly sins at all. We’d all agree that killing innocent people or even murdering an enemy are really bad sins. Raping women and molesting little children are really bad. Robbery or burglary are bad, but not as bad as murder or rape, assuming that no one gets hurt.

And so we work our way down the list. We’re usually careful not to put any of our own sins very high on the list. We think, “Sure, I have my faults, but I’d never commit any of those really bad sins!” I might admit that I have a tendency to grumble now and then, but I’d dismiss that as a relatively minor fault. In fact, I might not call it a sin at all—until, that is, I read God’s Word!

God had just miraculously delivered Israel from Pharaoh’s pursuing army by parting the Red Sea for Israel’s escape and then bringing the sea back over the Egyptian army. Then Israel had a joyful time of worship, singing to the Lord (Exod. 15:1-21). Next, we read that Israel went three days into the wilderness and found no water. Then they came to Marah, where there was water, but it was bitter and undrinkable. But rather than trusting in the Lord, who had led and provided for them thus far, Israel grumbled.

It’s easy for me to sit in my comfortable house, shake my head, and think, “What’s wrong with those people, anyway? Didn’t they know that the God who miraculously delivered them from Egypt could easily provide water? Why didn’t they just trust the Lord?” And yet, when I encounter minor trials, I’m often quick to grumble rather than thankfully to trust in the Lord who has graciously saved me from Satan’s domain of darkness!

The Spirit of God inspired Moses to put together the jubilant song of Moses followed immediately by the grumbling of the people at Marah. I could have separated these stories by preaching different sermons on each one. But I think there’s a lesson from looking at both of these incidents together:

If God has saved you, joyfully sing His praises, but avoid the terrible sin of grumbling.

First, let’s look at the song; then, the sin:

1. If God has saved you, joyfully sing His praises.

Scholars suggest different ways of analyzing this song, but I think the easiest is to see verses 1-12 as rejoicing in what God had done in delivering Israel from Egypt, while verses 13-18 rejoice by faith in what God is going to do when He gives Israel the land of Canaan. Verses 13-15 use the past tense; verse 16 uses the present, while verses 17 & 18 are in the future tense. But it all describes by faith how God will fulfill His promise to Abraham to give his descendants the land. Verse 19 recaps the great deliverance described in chapter 14, while verses 20 & 21 tell how Miriam led the women in singing this song and dancing. There are three main lessons:

A. Singing about God’s salvation should be joyful.

This is the first recorded song in the Bible and its mood is decidedly joyful, as seen in the women playing the timbrel (like a tambourine) and dancing. You get the impression that these people were happy about something! The singing was both congregational (v. 1, “Moses and the sons of Israel”) and personal (v. 1, “I will sing to the Lord”). Worship should be both: if God has saved you, you should joyfully sing because you personally have experienced His great salvation. But, also, you should join with others who have experienced His salvation so that the corporate singing magnifies your experience by a factor of how many hundreds or thousands of saved people are combining their voices in praise.

Note also that there is not a word in this song (except for the title, which is mentioned in Rev. 15:3, not here) about what Moses did to lead Israel out of slavery, but only about what God did. There is no mention of the people’s faith in putting the blood on their doorposts. Everything is about the Lord and directed to Him. They “sang this song to the Lord, and said, ‘I will sing to the Lord …” (Exod. 15:1, emphasis mine). There is a proper place for teaching and admonishing one another through corporate singing, but even then we should sing to the Lord (Col. 3:16, emphasis mine): “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Israel, of course, was joyful over God’s delivering them from hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt and from Pharaoh’s threatening army. But the exodus is the greatest picture in the Old Testament of God saving His chosen people from bondage to Satan and sin. And that is something worth getting excited about over and over again! Don’t ever allow yourself to get bored over the wonderful, eternally joyous truth that God has saved you by His grace! That’s why Jesus told us to celebrate His supper often in remembrance of Him. We tend to get busy with other less important things and forget what He did for us on the cross and where we’d be at if He hadn’t done that. So think often about God’s saving you. And if it doesn’t move your heart to think about what the Savior did for you on the cross, then confess it and ask Him to help you recover your first love for Him (Rev. 2:4-5).

John Stott (Christianity Today [6/12/81], p. 19) told about a Salvation Army drummer who was beating his drum so hard that the band leader had to tell him to tone it down a bit. In his cockney accent the drummer replied, “God bless you, sire, since oi’ve been converted, oi’m so ’appy, oi could bust the bloomin’ drum!”

I’m not talking about pumping up your emotions or having our worship teams play songs that pump up everyone’s emotions. Rather, I’m saying, “Think about what God has done in saving you and then joyfully sing His praises in response!” In Jesus’ words, worship the Father in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24).

B. Our joyful singing should exalt the Lord who has saved us from a terrible past and promised us a glorious future.

1) The Lord has saved us from a terrible past.

That first generation of Israelites remembered all too well their horrible past. Some of the older ones remembered how Pharaoh had commanded them to kill their baby boys. They remembered the meaningless daily grind of making bricks from sunrise to sunset in the hot Egyptian sun. Many remembered the lashes of the cruel taskmasters when they couldn’t produce their quotas. In verse 9, they rehearse Pharaoh’s more recent evil intent:

The enemy said, “I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my desire shall be gratified against them;

I will draw out my sword, my hand will destroy them.”

The problem was, subsequent generations may not remember the terrible past of that first generation that God delivered through the exodus. And that can be a problem if you’re a second or third generation Christian. You may think, “I was raised in the church. I don’t have a terrible past to be saved from.”

But that’s not true! I used to have a friend named Glenn who was saved while he was in prison for drug dealing. He would boldly witness to every stranger he met, handing them a tract with his testimony as he said, “I was in prison when God saved me. Here’s my story.” He often told me, “I was forgiven much, so I love Jesus much!” But I used to think, where does that leave me? I was raised in the church. I’ve never been drunk or used illegal drugs. I’ve never been arrested. So how can I say, “I was forgiven much, so I love Jesus much”?

But then I was meditating on the story in Luke 7 where Jesus uses that phrase to describe the sinful woman who anointed His feet with perfume and her tears. The point of that story is that Simon, the proud Pharisee, who wondered how Jesus could allow this sinful woman to touch him, needed to be forgiven just as much, if not more, than this woman. But his self-righteousness blinded him to his sinful pride. And all of us, including us who may outwardly be pretty good people, needed to be forgiven much. If the Lord had not intervened to save me, I’d be heading for God’s righteous judgment. So when we think about our terrible past when we were slaves in Satan’s domain of darkness, we should exalt the Lord who saved us. But also ...

2) The Lord has promised us a glorious future.

In verses 13-17, Moses looks ahead to what God will do and describes this glorious future as if it’s a done deal. God would bring His people to His holy habitation. He would cause the inhabitants of the land to tremble in fear and anguish. He would plant His people in the mountain of His inheritance, where He would dwell in His sanctuary. All of this looked beyond the next 40 years in the wilderness and the battles to conquer the land under Joshua’s leadership. But by faith Moses views it as done. Verse 18 states the reason he could do this: “The Lord shall reign forever and ever.”

While the Bible plainly and repeatedly describes the many trials and hardships that the Lord’s people will go through (Acts 14:22; Rom. 8:35-36; 2 Tim. 3:12), it also promises that Jesus will return and we will be with Him forever in a new heaven and a new earth, where there will be no crying, pain, or death (John 14:1-3; Rev. 21:4)! As we think on the many gracious promises that the Lord has given to us about our eternal future, we should exalt Him with joyful singing.

C. Our joyful singing should exalt the Lord for His attributes and His actions.

1) Exalt the Lord for His awesome attributes.

This song is filled with God’s attributes: He is highly exalted (v. 1). He is Yahweh (11 times in the song), the self-existent, eternal One, as He revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush. He is the only God (v. 11). He is powerful (vv. 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 10); holy (v. 11); loving (v. 13); and, sovereign over all (v. 18). God’s inspired Word is our only source for knowing His awesome attributes. Don’t just read your favorite passages, but read the whole Bible to get a balanced view of who God is.

2) Exalt the Lord for His almighty actions.

He has become our salvation (v. 2). He is the covenant-keeping God of Abraham (v. 2). He is a warrior, who hurled Pharaoh’s mighty warriors and their horses into the sea (v. 1, 3). His burning anger consumes rebellious sinners who are enemies of His people (vv. 7, 14-16). He works wonders (v. 11). He guides the people whom He has redeemed to His holy habitation (vv. 13, 16). He gives them an inheritance (v. 17). He dwells with His people (v. 17). He reigns forever (v. 18)!

When you consider all of the reasons we have to exalt and praise our gracious God, the grumbling of the next section is jarring! It teaches us:

2. If God has saved you, avoid the terrible sin of grumbling.

God’s Spirit put verses 22-27 here to show how prone we are to go from the heights of praise to the depths of self-pity and grumbling. You may think, “The text here never calls grumbling a terrible sin.” But there are over a dozen passages in the Pentateuch where Israel grumbled against the Lord (R. Alan Cole, Exodus [IVP], p. 128). Psalm 95:8-11 brings up Israel’s grumbling as the reason God swore in His anger that this generation would not enter His rest. Hebrews 3:7-11 cites Psalm 95 and then applies it (Heb. 3:12): “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.” Paul (1 Cor. 10:5-10) says that Israel’s experiences in the wilderness are an example for our instruction. He warns us not to grumble as some of them did, incurring God’s judgment. Note four things:

A. Experiencing God’s salvation in the past is no guarantee that we won’t fall into grumbling in the future.

Not all of the Jews who came out of Egypt with Moses were born again spiritually (Rom. 9:6-8; Gal. 3:7). Many perished because of their unbelief (1 Cor. 10:5-10). But corporately they were God’s people, who “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor. 10:2). And yet, in spite of experiencing God’s gracious deliverance from slavery in Egypt, they immediately and repeatedly fell into this sin of grumbling. Thus after relating Israel’s wilderness experience, Paul warns us (1 Cor. 10:12), “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.”

B. Grumbling stems from false expectations about God’s gracious salvation.

I think that most of the Jews thought that being freed from slavery in Egypt would result in a direct route to the Promised Land, where God would quickly subdue their enemies and give them all the blessings He had promised to Abraham. But, as we’ve seen, God took them on “the scenic route” to the Promised Land. And now Moses led them three days into this barren wilderness, where first they found no water, and then the water they found was bitter. It wasn’t the program they thought they had signed up for!

Sometimes new believers naively think that once they’re saved, everything will go smoothly from there on out. After all, now they’re under God’s loving care! But God led His people He had delivered through the wilderness first to no water, and then to bitter water. He disciplines us as His children “for our good, so that we may share His holiness” (Heb. 12:10). Paul instructed new converts (Acts 14:22), “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Don’t expect a trouble-free life so that you don’t fall into grumbling!

C. Grumbling impugns God’s loving, faithful character.

The people grumbled against Moses (Exod. 15:24), but their complaint implicitly was against God, who had led them by the cloud to this barren wilderness. C. H. Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 17:234) observed that usually we aren’t honest enough to grumble directly against God, so we aim it at others. We grumble about people who irritate us or about our circumstances. But since God is sovereign over every hair that falls from our heads, He has ordained all of the difficult people and circumstances in our lives for our ultimate good.

Grumbling implies that God doesn’t care about us and that we know better than God what would be right for us. There is a proper way submissively to bring our complaints to God (as in the Psalms), but grumblers don’t come to God submissively, trusting in His goodness and love. Rather, they malign Him, while at the same time they reveal their own bitterness. Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 265) pointed out that God easily could have led Israel straight to fresh water, but instead, He led them to bitter water to reveal the bitterness in their hearts. Moses says that God did this to test them (Exod. 15:25).

God also gave them bitter water to teach them that if they would trust Him and call upon Him, He can make bitter water sweet. Moses cried out to the Lord, who showed him a tree. When Moses threw it into the water, it became sweet. There were no miraculous powers in the tree itself; the power was from God. But in this case, He chose to use the means of this tree, just as Jesus sometimes used means to effect His miraculous cures (Mark 7:33; John 9:6). He wants us to learn that He has sufficient resources to meet our every need if we will trust in Him.

In the Garden of Eden, there was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which was forbidden, and the tree of life, which God barred the couple from eating of once they had sinned (Gen. 2:17; 3:22). But in the New Jerusalem, there will be a tree of life for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2). Eating of that tree, which symbolizes Christ and the cross, turns the bitterness of sin into the sweet water of eternal life.

D. Grumbling hinders us from enjoying God’s abundant blessings.

Note Exodus 15:26-27:

And He said, “If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the Lord, am your healer.” Then they came to Elim where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they camped there beside the waters.

Obedience is not the means of salvation—God had already delivered Israel from Egypt. But it is the means of experiencing His blessings after we’re saved. Disobedience, including the sin of grumbling, brings His corrective discipline to our lives. This was not a promise to heal everyone in Israel from all diseases if they would obey Him. Even the obedient in Israel got sick and died, as we all do. Rather, it was a promise that if Israel obeyed, God would not bring on them the plagues which He had brought on Egypt. And, it points to the truth that God is able to heal our diseases when it is His will to do so.

The fact that Jesus went around preaching the gospel and healing people reveals Him to be the Savior. He can heal our bodies when it is His will to do so. But even more importantly, He can heal our souls from the eternally deadly consequences of sin. When He brings us to the place of bitter waters, He wants us to learn His sufficiency for our every need, whether it is physical, emotional, or spiritual.

The final verse of the chapter illustrates God’s abundant grace, even for those who have grumbled against Him. He led Israel from Marah to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water (one for each tribe) and seventy date palms (one for each of Israel’s elders, Exod. 24:9). There wasn’t any grumbling there, although I wonder if some grumbled when they set out from Elim and went again into the wilderness (Exod. 16:1-2).

Why didn’t Israel just settle in Elim, where there seemed to be plenty? Because God had something better for them in Canaan. We can enjoy the comforts that God gives us here, but keep in mind that all of His gracious blessings here are only a foretaste of the blessings He has stored up for us in heaven (Rev. 22:1-5).


I remember how God convicted me of grumbling 48 years ago. I was in seminary in Dallas and it was hot and humid. I was taking a bath one day and grumbling to myself because my apartment didn’t have air conditioning or a shower. It only had a bathtub. I didn’t hear a voice from God, but the Lord impressed on me that the Vietnam War was going on, and I could be over there in a sweltering jungle with bullets flying at me! I quickly repented! But I still have to fight grumbling all the time!

Thankfulness is the antidote to grumbling. Paul commands us (1 Thess. 5:18), “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” To obey that command, you must be able to say of the Lord Jesus what Moses said (Exod. 15:2), “This is my God, and I will praise Him.” You must enter into a personal relationship with Christ through faith in His sacrifice for you on the cross. Then you can begin practicing for heaven, where we all will sing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb (Rev. 15:3), “Great and marvelous are Your works, O Lord God, the Almighty; righteous and true are Your ways, King of the nations!”

Application Questions

  1. God commands our joy (Ps. 100:1-2). If you don’t feel joyful, how can you be joyful? Wouldn’t that be hypocritical?
  2. What should you do if you feel depressed, not joyful? Is depression always a sin? Why/why not?
  3. The psalmists sometimes express their complaints to the Lord. Were they sinning? Why/why not?
  4. Read Philippians, which Paul wrote while wrongfully imprisoned and maligned, noting the emphasis on joy. Is rejoicing and not grumbling a choice?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Failure, Hamartiology (Sin)

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