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Praise with Music
Fall Quarter: Celebrating God
Sunday school lesson for the week of September 5, 2021
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Lesson Scripture: Exodus 14:1-15:21
- To understand the motivation of our praise.
- To understand the motivation of God in caring for us.
- To understand the power of music as a vehicle of praise.
The author of this lesson believes God is a infinite, personal, boundless spirit. God cannot be defined by gender. I try to use inclusive words if possible. However, I cannot address God with “it” and often sentences lose flow when another noun or pronoun is used. When a pronoun is necessary, I yield to the Biblical use of the masculine. “In Christ there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.” Gal. 3:28
Preparation for Lesson:
Each lesson from Scripture has its own context. It was inspired by God at a very definite time in human history, and in a manner people understood. A vessel was chosen to impart God’s truth, and the vessel had an audience to whom they wrote.
The people of God in the time of the lesson had strong beliefs and theological understandings.
Our lesson today exists within the Mosaic Book of Law Exodus.
What was life like in this particular era? Israel is now a nomadic people. They have experienced the greatest historical and theological event in Jewish history, The Exodus.
These nomads were headed to a specific destination. God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob a promised land of opportunity and blessing. They traveled toward Canaan, where Mt. Zion would become the seat of God’s power and Israelite rule. Mt. Moriah is the place where Abraham offered Isaac in sacrifice. It will later become the Temple Mount. In their journey they would transport a portable tabernacle through the wilderness for worship. The Israelites are in a state of wandering and yet moving in the direction of a permanent home in Canaan. Israel’s own rebellion led to 40 years of wandering before entering the promised land under the leadership of Joshua.
Many of the Israelites struggled with polytheism. The great gift of Holy Scripture is monotheism. There is one, and only one God. Deut. 6:4 says, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one.”
However, the historical background of the Hebrew tribe is steeped in polytheism, as are most tribes. Why was it so difficult to forsake polytheism for the new revelation of the one God revealed mightily in the Exodus? The Israelites were being asked to forgo a history of worshipping other gods, the same history as all who came before them. Recall the moment when the Israelite leaders fashioned a golden calf as Moses was receiving the decalogue from God. However, God never gives up on Israel. They are not only receiving the revelation that there is one God only, the Israelites are also witnessing signs and wonders that point to the one Lord. This great revelation in the Exodus continues until the incarnation of the Christ. Exodus is a book of law through which God is revealed. God is revealed through the Exodus event and the miraculous events that followed like the provision of manna and quail. Furthermore, the great design and moral order revealed in the Law are revelations of the nature and will of God. The Law reveals how Israel is to live before God and with one another.
It is also important to understand a sharp distinction existed between the divine and human. Israelites were prohibited from looking upon God, thus they encounter angelic messengers that come as the “word of the Lord” and “angel of the Lord.” They serve as the Lord’s intermediaries. They cannot even speak God’s name. Thus, they use the term “Lord.” The Israelites spell God’s name as YWH. Notice the absence of vowels, rendering it impossible to pronounce. A person could not bridge the distance between God and humankind without invitation. Only God could bridge the gap. Repeatedly in Old Testament history God’s breaks into human history by choice for the purpose of revealing himself and his will. This bridging of the gap was accomplished fully in Christ. Prior to Jesus, God breaks into human history through signs, wonders, and the gift of “word” through angels, prophets and prophetesses.
All of the above are important in studying today’s text and lesson.
Today’s lesson is concerned with praising God through music. Music implies both the instrumental and the lyrical. Music is old and primal. It is almost as if it is present soon after we were created. Some may even argue that it existed prior to our creation through the winds in the trees, the sound of the waters, and even through animals. Whatever the truth, music is old, and it is a gift. The Psalms in the Bible date back to Moses.
It is also the most remarkable vehicle for memory and the expression of emotion. Music moves us. Many of us use music as a timeline for our life. We can remember where we were at a particular time and place. Most of us realize words in music are more easily remembered than words alone. I am most thankful that I remember the hymns, old and new, of the church. Hymns are rich in theology. The same was true for the Israelites. The book of Psalms was the Israelite hymnbook. The psalms recalled their history with God and the feelings they experienced. Psalms are filled with historical references and the feelings of people at the time and afterward. They recalled God in their life, along with the joy, salvation, and serenity God brings. Who cannot hear David’s serenity in Psalm 23?
They are also confessional. We hear God’s people wrestling with their fears, feelings and sins. Read David’s confession in Psalm 51.
Long before there were books there were songs and music. In worship, music allows us to pour out our hearts in praise, wonder, and thanksgiving. Through music we recognize the uniqueness of our God, the one true God. We also recognize our failings and sins, almost always followed by God’s loving choice to redeem us.
The inspired author of songs and music wrote with purpose. There was and is a message they desire to be declared. Psalms call us to praise and pray. They call us to bow. They call us to look upward and inward. Furthermore, they also call us to look outward. They call us to recognize, understand and respond.
Music is miraculous in and of itself. From one piano keyboard has come an inexhaustible number of songs. How can eight notes within seven octaves produce thousands of songs? Music is a wonder.
We will study the underpinning of a psalm found in Exodus. Tradition teaches Moses is either the author or the one who recorded the song of Miriam in our lesson. I will refer to either Moses or Miriam as “the psalmist.” Furthermore, I prefer to use the term “psalm” rather than “song.”
Recorded in Exodus 15:11-19 is a beautiful psalm of God’s redemptive activity for Israel.
In what manner is music important to you? What purpose or purposes does music provide? Can you recall certain moments when music sustained you? Filled you with joy? Filled you with love? What role does music play in your church?
Do you find knowing the theological and historical context of a song helpful? How? Can you share a hymn that is very important to you with the class, and why? Can you share a lyric from a hymn of praise that reveals a special facet of God’s nature?
The psalm declares the reasons God should be praised.
1. Praise God who is over all!
In verses 1-13 the listener encounters the reality of one God, great and powerful. The song opens with a pointed rhetorical question: “Who among the gods is like you, Lord?” Notice the term gods with a little “g.” Certainly, the created gods of wood and stone fill a human need, but suffer great limitations. The idols were touchable. People were not asked to fully believe in the invisible. One could lay their hands upon and look upon their gods. However, the worship of idols is often the worship of the self. They are a projection of our own wants, needs, and even fears. The worship of idols explained the mysteries of a tribe’s life. From where did we come? From where comes the lightening? Why does the sun rise and fall? Why does one tribe win a battle and another loses?
The God of Israel is the creator. The creator controls all of nature and humankind. Every god is limited. One idol may explain the sun, but little else. Thus, we have gods of the sun, the water, the heavens, of war, etc. The God of Israel is Lord over all! “Who among the gods is like you, Lord?” The answer is “none!”
The psalm continues as it describes the one God over all. We can better understand the power of the opening verses of the psalm by illuminating the adjectives and nouns. The author uses adjectives rich in meaning. God is majestic and awesome. The term majestic is a term of “royalty.” Kings were often referred to as “your majesty.” The proper definition for the word majesty is “impressive stateliness, dignity or beauty.” God, to the inspired author, is the king of all! God is to be revered, for the Lord sits with the greatest dignity. God is most beautiful, and the creator of everything beautiful in the cosmos.
My young daughter once interrupted my yard work by showing me a little yellow wildflower. She asked, “Isn’t it pretty?” “Yes,” I responded, and continued my work. She then exclaimed, “But Dad, it is really pretty!” I then stopped and looked the flower over. It possessed dainty petals; yet, they could withstand strong wind. At its center were future wildflowers. Yes, it was really pretty! It is a mistake to describe God with words we rarely consider. God is majestic and beautiful. Yes, but God is really
majestic and beautiful!
The term awesome means to be sated, filled with awe. When one is awestruck, they are overwhelmed by what they witness. The body responds by growing still and the heart races. Usually, we are in awe of what we rarely see, of a person who embodies our highest values, or of a reality so beautiful it is indescribable. The God encountered by Israel in the Exodus and beyond is “overwhelming.” There is no reality greater. The Lord’s light is so brilliant it is blinding. God’s beauty is beyond description. God is the presence of purest love. Therefore, offer unto God all praise!
The nouns offer further rich understanding of the Lord. The first noun is holiness. God is majestic in holiness. Holiness implies perfection. In God there exists no lack. God has no limitations, boundaries, or shortcomings. God’s love, justice, mercy, peace, and joy are perfect. We rarely experience absolute perfection. In our human life we live mostly in an imperfect world. Human sin and error affect so much of our life. Houses, skyscrapers, roads, bridges, and even relationships suffer in some degree. However, God is perfect, really perfect! Thus, God is perfect in majesty!
The word “holiness” also implies being “set apart” from all imperfection. Prior to the gift of Jesus, God was understood as standing above and beyond us. Thus, the chasm to which I referred earlier exists. We fall “short of the glory of God.” Our human life falls short as well. Only God will bridge the chasm through revelations that break into human history through word, signs and wonders. Eventually, God breaks through perfectly and fully in Jesus Christ. Not only is God the only one to bridge the chasm, God chooses
to enter our life and world.
The second noun is “glory.” In my Greek exegesis class in seminary, I was assigned the task of conducting a word-study on the word glory. I researched every use of the term in the Old and especially the New Testaments. My research revealed the term is related to God’s nature and character. When we experience God’s glory, we are encountering God’s divine perfect character and nature. When Paul writes “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” he is stating that our only hope of being like Christ lies in Christ dwelling within us. In the psalm, God is “awesome in glory.” God’s nature and character still overwhelm us. When we are asked to give glory to God it is a call to praise God for whom God is. When we witness God’s glory, we are recognizing the Lord’s presence and nature in life. The activity of God in life is what we call a “wonder.”
What other gods contend for your faith? For the soul of the world? What gives you hope in chaotic times? Is your hope grounded in the reality that God is over all? How do you live out this faith and hope? Have you witnessed such hope in another? Can you share an experience in the class in which you heard through music the glory and wonder of God? Has God used music to break into your life? How? How important is music to your daily walk with Christ?
2. Praise God for his providential care!
God is and always has been active in our life. The psalm reveals what our one, perfect God has done and will do for his people.
- God will break into human history with his right hand. The hand of God always refers to the Lord’s strength and power. That power and strength was revealed in the Exodus. It is interesting to note expressions of power in the Bible always use the metaphor of the “right hand.” Naturally, God is spirit. It is easy for some to imagine God as a man, a grandfatherly looking man. God isn’t man or woman. The Lord transcends both! However, we need metaphors to more deeply understand the divine at work in our finite world. We speak of God with terms like sitting on a throne, thrusting forth his right hand, dwelling in a holy house, etc. It is God who inspired our use of such terms. Even Jesus used what we see, touch and experience to reveal divine truth. His parables used birds, flowers, trees, vineyards, etc.
The left hand does not represent weakness in the Bible. In some parts of the near-eastern world, to be left-handed was to be unclean. Some cultures even believed being left-handed meant you were from another spiritual world (usually evil). In the days of the witch hunts, left-handed people were often perceived as witches. God used left-handed people as well as right. Ehud is a great example. He delivers Israel from the Moabites because he is left-handed. Over 90% of people in the world have always been right handed. It is usually the strongest arm. Naturally, God’s power is revealed with the term “right hand.”
This psalm, like many in the book of Psalms, reveals the importance of the Exodus. The right hand of God burst into Israelite life as they escaped Egypt and crossed the sea; then, the hand withdraws as Israel’s enemy is “swallowed by the earth.” The psalm uses the plural “enemies.” Therefore, it is referring not just to Egypt, but to all enemies. As nomads, Israel experienced a violent world. They were not skilled warriors. They trusted God to deal with their enemies. In its own way, it is a statement of humility. The psalmist recognized they were often powerless. Actually, Israel safely navigated the wilderness because of their reputation. The Israelites were known as a people with a mighty God. Their God overpowered the pharaoh and parted the sea for their escape. Other tribes were not so much afraid of Israel, they were afraid of Israel’s God! This psalm is referring to actual, physical enemies. Enemies were an all-important concern in their violent world. Naturally, eradicating their enemies was paramount for them.
Through Jesus we realized our enemies were also spiritual, and most often within us. I love the Pogo comic in which Pogo says, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.” However, the psalm proclaims God eradicates our enemies through the love of Christ.
- The psalmist now addresses the profound eternal reality that divine power acts out of the divine motivation of God’s love. Most people will agree love is the greatest power in the world. In the 1960s, a “love movement” occurred. The movement was especially active in popular music. A generation recognized what everyone has known for years, but hardly ever fully embraced. Love is the answer for fulfilment, healing, and peace. However, love was defined, and continues to be defined, in a myriad of ways. People were encouraging all to love, but few were asking, “What does it mean to love?” The Bible not only proclaims God’s gift of love in Christ, it also defines love. In the Old Testament, love began with the realization that God loved us. We learned God’s love bridges the chasm between us and God. It also bridges the gulf between ourselves and others. In the Mosaic Law we learned love values the community and its welfare. When one loves they do not encroach upon their neighbor’s property, family, and life. Love doesn’t kill or steal. Love was experienced in a social order that sought the best for everyone. After experiencing the redemptive love of God in the Exodus and receiving the gift of the Law, Israel now must remember all love begins and is sustained by God. Sing it loud, “God is love!”
Now the psalm describes the nature of this love: it is unfailing. The first law of thermodynamics states: energy cannot be created or destroyed. Energy can only be transferred from one form to another. This same law relates to the energy of love. We did not create love, we received it. It was transferred from God to us, and we are called to transfer it to others. This love cannot be destroyed. God’s love doesn’t “wind down,” nor does it ever stop. Love, as it exists in the nature of God, is steady and constant.
What metaphors in your life best describe God’s power and glory? Can you witness to a moment or time when God power was displayed in a manner that changed you? What do you think it means for God’s love to be unfailing? How powerful do you believe the church to be in “transferring” the energy of God’s love? Can you recall the person, place or time when God’s love was transferred from another into you? How can we transfer such love better? How is God’s love transferred through music?
3. Praise God for his protective and sustaining power!
The psalmist describes the coming reality for those who seek harm for God’s people. The nations will hear and tremble. The psalm is most certainly referring to news of the Exodus. As cited earlier, Israel is protected by its reputation. The nations hear of God’s mighty acts in freeing the Israelites. Their God was more powerful than their gods. Consequently, many were afraid to attack or oppose Israel. They tremble in fear at the very thought. But, it is important to realize God’s protective power for Israel was “being heard.” The acts of Israel’s God were being proclaimed. Few things are more powerful than our personal testimonies to what God has done in our life. Naturally, the proclaimed word is highly effective, however, each of us is a sign and wonder of what God has done. In Ephesians Paul describes us as God’s workmanship. The phrase in Greek reads, we are God’s “poema.” Each of us is a poem of God, with our own rhythm, rhyme and grace. However, we are written by God. We are the poetry and reputation of God in the world!
Three nations are specifically mentioned: Edom, Philistia and Moab. Edom is the nation that emerged from Esau. Esau never really permanently reconciled with his brother Jacob. Thus, Edom was a long-term enemy of Israel. The second is Philistia, whose tribe was known as the Philistines. Philistia was the one tribe Israel did not cast out of the Holy Land. They were a powerful people regarding weaponry and war. The Philistines would become the major enemy of Israel for decades. The two nations engaged in perpetual war. Moab was the third nation. The Moabites were the descendants of Lot. Moab was a son of Lot, therefore there always existed a connection between the two nations. However, they engaged in perpetual war with Israel. Moab was one of the nations through which Israel traveled, being the stop just before entering Canaan. It was here that Moses died.
Why are these three major enemies mentioned in the psalm? They were the most feared by Israel. In terms of warfare Israel appeared weak in contrast to the three. However, the psalmist reminds Israel they are sustained and supported by God, the God of the Exodus! Edom and Philistia would succumb to anguish and fear. Moab would tremble, for Israel followed the one true God! All of the nations of Canaan would melt away! They would stand still as stone as Israel passed before them. As Israel walked through the sea they would walk through their enemies!
The mention of these tribes prepared Israel for the days to come. As Israel was saved by God from the Egyptians in the Exodus, they will be saved by God as they encounter Edom, Philistia and Moab. Praise God for the Lord’s sustaining power!
What are spiritual enemies we face as a community of faith? What personal enemies within do we fight? What role does God play in these battles? Can you name a hymn that praises God for saving us from our enemies?
4. Praise God for our future!
Journey and faith are intertwined. As we follow the Lord we move into God’s glorious future for his people. The psalmist reveals God’s desire for his people. These desires of the Lord are the same today for the church. “You will bring them in.” God has always gathered his children and created community. We are not led to live solitary lives. We belong to God, thus, we belong to others. The church is a beautiful expression of the fulfillment of God’s desire. Next, the psalmist reveals that God desires we be “planted” in the Kingdom of God. No nation could physically survive in the violent world of the Israelites unless they were anchored. There had to be a foundation out of which they would act. The nation found this anchor in God, and more specifically through God’s messages through Moses. As the church, we are anchored in Christ. Jesus is the one common reality that draws us to God, and toward each other. The psalmist wants us to understand we did not arrive in the church on our own. God has always been drawing us through life’s experiences. Furthermore, we do not “plant” ourselves in the Kingdom. God plants us! The Lord uses pastors, teachers, and fellow Christians to plant us in the spiritual reality known in Scripture as the Kingdom of God.
The psalmist, like most in his day, believed in the “house or sanctuary of God.” God was drawing and planting his people in the “house of the Lord.” Through Jesus we realize it isn’t a house of wood or stone; it is a “spiritual house” (read I Peter 2:5). Israel’s future was a land of promise. It would be a land of blessing, purpose, and worship. Notice, this is not a house we build.
God not only called us together, he planted us in the spiritual reality of the Kingdom. The Church is the presence of God’s Kingdom on earth. Our destination is provided and established by God! Just as faith and journey
are intertwined, so is our life and grace.
Yes, “the Lord reigns forever and ever,” and over all!
What hymn do you like that speaks of God’s promise of our future? When you imagine our “promised land,” what pictures come to mind? How does the promise of God’s future sustain and encourage you today? What do you think Peter meant when he reminds us we are part of spiritual house? In what way is our past, present and future in the faith connected?
5. Praise God for our redemptive history!
The psalmist closes with the recounting of the Exodus. God has done remarkable things for each of us. We can recall moments when the Lord touched and moved us. We were enlightened, calmed, comforted, and strengthened. Many of the psalms of Israel are anchored in the reality of the Exodus. For Israel, this was the greatest and highest redemptive act in their history. For us, Jesus is the greatest and highest redemptive act in our history and future. Like Israel, we have much to proclaim! We have our exodus from bondage and sin through Jesus Christ!
Miriam is especially mentioned. Miriam was Moses’ and Aaron’s sister. In this song she is referred to only as Aaron’s. Most certainly this choice of wording has to do with Moses not having grown up with Miriam. He was in the house of Pharaoh. Naturally, Miriam and Aaron would have been emotionally closer. After the Exodus, Miriam was so overjoyed she took a timbrel in hand and began to sing and dance. The other women followed. Had we been standing there, imagine the sound of hundreds and hundreds playing instruments and singing praise to God! One thing would have made this music especially moving. The people were motivated to praise! They knew God was over all. They witnessed the love and power of God for themselves. Therefore, they make music! I love Miriam’s words of praise:
“Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted,
What is your greatest memory of the community praising God in song? What made that moment special? What do you believe was the state of heart of those singing? Can you recall you own personal heart as you sang? What made your participation special?
both horse and rider were thrown into the sea!”
The great Sidney Lanier wrote, “Music is love in search for a word.” What a beautiful description of music. I am moved to add, “and love has found its word
in the Logos, Jesus Christ!”
Almighty God, our words fail us. Your unfailing love and providence overwhelm us. Hear our feeble prayer. We praise you for our past, for our today, and for our future. You are unchangeable, ageless, as is your love. May we offer you praise in the morning and evening. May we praise you in the hour and in the minute. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at email@example.com.