Partner with as God uses us to make a difference for those displaced by Russia's war on Ukraine.
Click to donate today!

Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Exodus 15

The account of Israel's Red Sea deliverance and the destruction of their enemies in the same mighty act of God was just concluded in Exodus 14. And it was appropriate and fitting indeed that such a colossal event should have been celebrated at once by those participating in it. And we entertain no doubt whatever that this chapter indeed records that immediate and spontaneous celebration. The critical nonsense of finding two or more songs here combined into one, and/or the ascription of this chapter to a period of time long afterward, and the groundless supposition that some unknown author wrote these lines is rejected. In the dramatic Red Sea deliverance, "God had glorified Himself as the God of gods and the King of the heathen."[1] The appropriate celebration of that triumph is given in Exodus 15.

The glory of this Song of Moses is imperishable. It set the tone and established the style of Hebrew poetry for all subsequent time. And, in the N.T., it is associated with the final triumph of the church (Revelation 15:3). This is the story of a nation's birth-hour. "It is an emphatic declaration that Israel did not simply happen, but was created. It is a mighty act of God."[2]

This song is not, as affirmed by Harford, "An exilic or post-exilic psalm implying the settlement of Canaan."[3] It is not, as claimed, "A point of beginning for the later song of Moses."[4] Why?

  1. "In language and style, the hymn bears many marks of high antiquity."[5] The same author added that, "There can be little objection" to attributing the song to Moses.
  2. "The emotional fervor and spirit of exultation of Exodus 15 can only be explained as spontaneous utterances of eyewitnesses of the great drama."[6]
  3. "It is not like the Hebrew poetry written in the time of David or later; it is more like the poetry of Canaan in the period from 1700 B.C. to 1400 B.C."[7]

For those who might be interested in the critical efforts to fragment this chapter and assign it to various times and authors, we call attention to the magnificent and monumental work of Oswald T. Allis, which is a thorough and devastating refutation of the whole sprawling and contradictory web-work of the so-called "higher criticism" which, especially during this century, has been directed against the Holy Bible. We have room here for only one brief quotation:

"It would be a simple matter to break a crystal ball into a number of fragments and then to fill a volume with an elaborate description and discussion of the marked differences in the fragments thus obtained, and to argue that these fragments all came from different globes. The conclusive refutation would be the proof that when fitted together they form once more a single globe. Thus, it is the unity and harmony of the Biblical narratives as they appear in the Scriptures which is the best refutation of the theory that these self-consistent narratives have resulted from the combining of several more or less diverse and contradictory sources."[8]

That there is far more in this hymn than the commemoration of Israel's deliverance is proved by the Scripture which says:

And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying:

"Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God the Almighty;
Righteous and true are thy ways, Thou King of the ages.
Who shall not fear, O Lord, and glorify thy name?
For thou only art holy; for all the nations shall come and worship before thee;
For thy righteous acts have been made manifest."
- Revelation 15:3-4.

Thus, there is affirmed the typical nature of that great Red Sea deliverance. And, when, at last, the saints of God gather in that eternal kingdom, they shall sing both the Song of Moses, and the Song of the Lamb. There are therefore foreshadowings of the final and eternal deliverance from sin in the marvelous words of this glorious chapter.

Verses 1-2

"Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto Jehovah, and spake saying, I will sing unto Jehovah for he hath triumphed gloriously: The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea. Jehovah is my strength and song, And he is become my salvation: This is my God, and I will praise him; My father's God, and I will exalt him."

"Then sang Moses ..." The proper meaning of this is that Moses not only led the congregation of Israel in singing this praise unto Jehovah, but that he also composed the song.[9] The allegation that this hymn was composed at a time long after Moses and that it was merely an expansion of the very brief chorus ascribed to Miriam is merely a critical bias unsupported by any evidence whatever. "The narrative makes it quite clear that Miriam simply took the opening sentences of Moses' song and made them into a chant or response for the women to sing."[10] The dictum that Miriam's chorus was an earlier and original version of this song "is based solely on the dubious principle that `shorter is earlier,"'[11] another of the false rules of criticism.

"The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea ..." On the incomplete and uncertain determination by archeologists that the Egyptians had no cavalry, and that soldiers did not ride horseback, this is alleged by some to be an anachronism, despite the fact of its being vigorously disputed by eminent Egyptologists.[12] Rawlinson and other able scholars avoid such a conclusion by affirming that the true translation of the place is, "all the chariot horses."[13] Even as the text is given here, it has no mention of men RIDING horses. "It says no more than that the warrior mounted on the chariot, was, along with his vehicle, submerged in the depths."[14]

"He hath triumphed gloriously ..." An alternate rendition of this is, "He is gloriously glorified."[15]

"My father's God ..." The singular here for "father" makes this a reference to the patriarch Abraham, or as Keil suggested, "a reference to all three of the great patriarch's Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as in Exodus 3:6."[16]

Verse 3

"Jehovah is a man of war: Jehovah is his name."

This verse concludes the first stanza of the hymn which may be divided thus: (1) God's Identity (Exodus 15:1-3); (2) God's Mighty Act in the Red Sea (Exodus 15:4-16a); and (3) A Prophecy of what God will do Later (Exodus 15:16b-18). For Israel, this great song was somewhat like that which the "Star Spangled Banner" is to Americans. The sabbath upon which the Jews read it was called the Sabbath of the Song. and a very great deal of the subsequent Scriptures either used it as a theme or made definite and frequent references to the Red Sea triumph. Nehemiah 9:9ff; Psalms 77:16ff; 78:11ff; Psalms 105; Psalms 106:7ff; and Habakkuk 3:8ff are examples.

"Jehovah is a man of war ..." This is profoundly true, and yet there is a partial and limited understanding of it which is profoundly wrong. Israel failed to understand that the war in which Jehovah was and is eternally engaged is by no means an exclusively carnal and military operation. "This is not a war against people; it is the continuing battle against evil."[17] The weapons of our warfare are not carnal (2 Corinthians 10:4); we do not struggle against fleshly armies, but "against the world rulers of this darkness, and against the spiritual hosts of wickedness" (Ephesians 6:12), and our armor is not that of the policeman or the soldier, but "the whole armor of God," which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:10-17). The great tragedy of historic Israel was their misunderstanding of this. The mighty Leader, God, promised the Messiah was not to be (as they thought) a great soldier who would rid the nation of the Romans, slay all their enemies, and reincarnate the abominable Solomonic Empire, but the glorious Sufferer, the Servant of God, who would die on Calvary for the sins of humanity! Some of the more perceptive among the Rabbis attempted to teach Israel the true understanding of this, but the circumstances made it most difficult. Erkhin captured the note of sorrow in the glorious hymn celebrating God's victory:

"The ministering angels wanted to sing a hymn. But the holy One, blessed is He, said to them, `Do you wish to sing a hymn when the work of my hands has been drowned in the sea?'"[18]

The delay of the hymn of praise until after the victory was explained as follows by another Jewish writer:

"In this vein, God said to the ministering angels, `Now, when the work of my hands is drowned in the sea, there is no cause for rejoicing. It had to be done, for evil cannot go unpunished, but it is painful for Me and it would be wrong to sing praise now. Only after the operation is complete and the wicked have been destroyed, may you rejoice at the victory won for justice and righteousness"[19]

Inadequate and fanciful as these observations are, they do speak of the tragedy of that awful scene in the Red Sea. The very fact of Israel's being indeed God's Chosen Race, seemed to blind the whole nation eventually to any understanding of the epic truth that it was the intention of God from the very first that the blessing of ALL the families of the earth should be accomplished through Israel, and that it was not their salvation alone that fulfilled the purpose of God. (See Genesis 12:3).

Verses 4-6

"Pharaoh's chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea; And his chosen captains are sunk in the Red Sea. The deeps cover them: They went down into the depths like a stone. Thy right hand, O Jehovah, is glorious in power, Thy right hand, O Jehovah, dasheth in pieces the enemy."

"Chosen captains are sunk ..." This is also rendered submerged, the waters being called "the deeps" in the next verse. Dobson says that the word here "is the same word used in the Canaanite language to refer to the deep sea."[20] The New English Bible renders it "abyss," but we believe that is incorrect. The fact that abyss, Scripturally, usually refers to the abode of Satan and evil spirits makes its use here inappropriate. Some of the NEB translators very likely favored that rendition for the sake of supporting the notion of a mythological basis for this account. Fields very adequately refuted that false interpretation.[21]

Adam Clarke pointed out that if Moses and the Israelites had been motivated by the same lust for power and loot that moved Pharaoh's host into the Red Sea, they might very easily have, "gratified themselves by returning and over-running and subjugating all of Egypt,"[22] due to the destruction of the whole military power of Egypt in the Red Sea.

"Down into the depths like a stone ..."; Exodus 15:10 has, "They sank as lead in the mighty waters." The Hebrew word here means, "Literally, went gurgling down!"[23] There is utterly no way to harmonize such statements with the notion that this destruction was nothing more than the bogging down of Pharaoh's chariots in some swampy land. Of course, the heavy armor which men of that era wore into battle would make their sinking in such waters a certainty.

Verses 7-10

"And in the greatness of thine excellency thou overthrowest them that rise up against thee: Thou sendest forth thy wrath, it consumeth them as stubble. And with the blast of thy nostrils the waters piled up, The floods stood upright as a heap; The deeps were congealed in the heart of the sea. The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; My desire shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them. Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them. They sank as lead in the mighty waters."

This is a deeply impassioned and emotionally charged passage. Note the mingling of present and past tenses and the short, staccato sentences:

"I will pursue;
I will overtake;
I will divide the spoil;
My desire shall be satisfied upon them;
I will draw my sword;
I will destroy them!"

This whole passage is a classic of animated and powerful expression. There are powerful figures such as the anthropomorphic representation of the mighty winds as the breath of God's nostrils. Then there is the mention of the waters as being like "a heap," or "a wall," or "congealed." These are all bold figures of speech and should not be distorted to mean that the waters stood up vertically like a brick wall. "Heap" implies a contour for the waters which, by definition, forbids the idea of a vertical wall, and yet the effect was the same as that of a wall. Some commentators struggle valiantly to get a myth out of all this, leading to such views as that of Clements: "The great deep congealed: a reference to the drying up of the sea bed, which is couched in semi-mythological language, suggesting that the deep was like a dragon curling itself up."[24] Can you see a dragon curling itself up here? If so, may we suggest that you would also be able to see the king's invisible britches in the fable!

Verses 11-15

"Who is like unto thee, O Jehovah, among the gods? Who is like thee, glorious in holiness? Fearful in praises, doing wonders? Thou stretchest out thy right hand, the earth swallowed them. Thou in thy lovingkindness hast led the people that thou hast redeemed. Thou has guided them in thy strength to thy holy habitation. The people have heard, they tremble: Pangs have taken hold on the inhabitants of Philistia. Then were the chiefs of Edom dismayed; The mighty men of Moab, trembling taketh hold upon them. All the inhabitants of Canaan are melted away."

"O Jehovah ..." Scholars have pointed out that a substitute for this name was used in Exodus 15:2, where the short form, Yah, is used (an abbreviation for Jehovah), perhaps for the sake of maintaining the rhythm, that being the first occurrence of it. Later, it was also used extensively in proper names, as in Abijah, Ahaziah, Hezekiah, Zedekiah, Mount Moriah, etc.[25]"

"Who is like unto thee ... among the gods?" It is a gross error to suppose that this recognizes the heathen gods as actually existing. One of the great purposes of the plagues was to demonstrate that they did NOT exist. We might paraphrase the passage as asking, "Where, among the heathen idols, is there anything like the true God Jehovah? ... The so-called gods of the heathen were non-entities."[26] The new translation of the Torah does not use the term "gods" here at all, rendering it "celestials."[27] That this passage indicates "a belief in many gods with whom the Lord could be compared,"[28] is true only in the sense that some of Moses' contemporaries held that view. Certainly, that was not the belief of Moses, or any other of the prophets of God. Gods, as used here, refers neither to potentates nor great men, but to the heathen gods, and the Hebrew idiom here (a negative stated as a question) is not an invitation to compare Almighty God with heathen idols, but a mighty negative declaring that such is impossible? Fields summed it up thus:

"Whether the word `gods' refers to mighty men, as in Ezekiel 32:21, or to mighty angels, as in Psalms 29:1, or to idols, as in Isaiah 43:10, or to other supposedly-existing mighty gods, NO ONE is like THE LORD.[30]

"Who is like thee, glorious in holiness ...?" Again from Fields:

"The idea set forth in the Broadman Commentary (Vol. 1,1969), that moral perfection and righteousness were applications of the term `holiness' used only in centuries later than Moses is contradicted by Leviticus 19:15, from a book written by Moses. Of course, the skeptical critics affirm without proof that Leviticus was written during or after the Babylonian exile![31]

Furthermore, in this same connection, much of the balance of Exodus, with its strict injunctions against all kinds of wicked behavior is related absolutely to the intrinsic and perfect HOLINESS of Almighty God.

"The earth swallowed them ..." How strange that men should quibble about this, on the basis that it was not the earth but the sea that swallowed Pharaoh's army! Have they not read what Jonah said when he went down into depths? "The earth with its bars closed upon me forever "(Jonah 2:6). As Dummelow put it, "The earth is a general term including the sea."[32]

"Thou hast guided them ... to thy holy habitation ..." The word guided here is used in the sense of "bearing or carrying." "All guidance involves patience and forbearance."[33]

"To thy holy habitation ..." This is not a reference to the Jewish temple, nor to the city of Jerusalem, nor to any sanctuary, and not even to Mount Moriah. "The holy habitation of God was the land of Canaan (Psalms 78:54), and it had been consecrated by God as a sacred abode for Jehovah among His people in the land promised to the patriarchs."[34]

Furthermore, this passage is not proof that Exodus was written long afterward when the Jews were settled in Canaan, it is a prophecy of what God will do, spoken of here in the past perfect, or prophetic tense, the passage of the Red Sea and the overthrow of the Egyptians having made it clear that what God had promised relative to settling Israel in Canaan was considered as good as done already. Jones discerned this and said, "The evidence of God's irresistible and gracious power just given was sufficient warrant for praising him in anticipation for what remained to be done."[35] There is no understanding of the O.T. whatever, apart from the recognition of prophetic tense when it appears. There is no doubt whatever of its occurrence here. "The shifting of tenses here shows that the time of the events mentioned was partly in the past, partly in the present, and partly in the future."[36]

The branding of the mention of the land of the Philistines (Philistia) here as an anachronism, as many have done, was pointed out by Fields as, "an error. There is some archeological evidence of the Philistines in that area at the time of the exodus; and, besides, here is the Biblical testimony!"[37] I recently observed a bumper sticker that said: "The Bible says it; I believe it; and that settles it!" Keil's comment on this alleged problem was as follows:

"The fact that the inhabitants of Philistia and Canaan are here described in the same terms as Edom and Moab, is an unquestionable proof that this song was composed at a time when the command to exterminate the Canaanites had NOT YET been given, and before the boundary of the territory to be captured by the Israelites had been fixed. In other words, this proves that it was sung by Moses and the children of Israel AFTER their passage through the Red Sea.[38]

Verses 16-18

"Terror and dread falleth upon them; By the greatness of thine arm they are as still as a stone. Till thy people pass over, O Jehovah, Till the people pass over that thou hast purchased. Thou wilt bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of thine inheritance, The place, O Jehovah, which thou hast made for thee to dwell in, The sanctuary, O Lord, which thy hands have established. Jehovah shall reign forever and ever."

The use of mingled present and future tenses here confirms the understanding of the past tense in Exodus 15:13 as prophetic, because that which was spoken of there as past, appears here in Exodus 15:17 as future. The several references here to "the place" into which God would bring His people should be understood as referring to "the land of Canaan," and not to Mount Sinai, or the Jewish Temple, etc. A hindrance to this understanding is the rendition of "sanctuary" in Exodus 15:17. Some highly-respected expositors take that view (as did Keil), but we believe Huey was correct: "It should be understood as the entire Promised Land, That is the sanctuary, literally, `a separated place.'"[39] "The whole people of Israel could not be brought into a single mountain."[40] "We are not to understand the word `sanctuary' as a single place, but we are to see the whole land."[41]

Verse 19

"For the horses of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and with his horsemen into the sea, and Jehovah brought back the waters upon them; but the children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea."

This single verse of prose sums up the occasion for the hymn of praise, identifying the Red Sea Deliverance as both the REASON for the song and the OCCASION of its being sung.

Verse 20

"And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out with her with timbrels and with dances."

Miriam is the first woman mentioned in the Bible as a "prophetess," and this was because she was endowed with the gift of prophecy. What a preposterous statement on this is the affirmation that "she was endowed with the gift of ecstatic utterance!"[42]; Numbers 12:6-8 reveals that her inspiration was of a degree less than that of Moses, which also may account for her being introduced here, not as Moses' sister, which presumably she was, but as the sister of Aaron. The mention of dances here is in keeping with the custom of religious dances prevalent also in the times of David. We like the comment of Dobson on this to the effect that any such acceptance of dancing into Christian worship was frustrated because, "dancing was closely connected with the worship of other gods, or with drunkenness or sexual immorality."[43] It should also be remembered in this connection that at no time or place did any of the apostles of Jesus Christ sanction any such thing as a dance in the worship of God. We must also add that the same applies to timbrels and other instruments of music.

Verse 21

"And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to Jehovah, for he hath triumphed gloriously; The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea."

"And Miriam answered them ..." This appears to indicate that Miriam and the women accompanying her repeated these opening lines of Moses song as a chant at appropriate places in the hymn, which was evidently sung by all the people, or even, possibly, after every line of it. We can know nothing, really, of exactly how all this was done. See another comment on thus under Exodus 15:2, above. However, the significant mention of Miriam here is appropriate, for it shows the important place of women in God's deliverance of his people. It should be recalled here that Miriam saved Moses' life in the events surrounding his birth. Other women in the Bible called prophetesses are: Deborah, Judges 4:4; Huldah, 2 Kings 22:14; Nodiah, a false prophetess, Nehemiah 6:16; Isaiah's wife, Isaiah 8:3; and Jezebel who called herself a prophetess, Revelation 2:20.

These verses actually conclude the mighty event of the Red Sea Passage and Israel's immediate and magnificent celebration of it, and many commentators find a major division in Exodus right here, all of the rest of the book being the account of Israel's journey from the Red Sea to Sinai and their attendant maneuvers in the wilderness.

Verses 22-26


"And Moses led Israel onward from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water. And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the watars of Marah, for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah. And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink? And he cried unto Jehovah, and Jehovah showed him a tree, and he cast it into the waters, and the waters were made sweet. There he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them; and he said, If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of Jehovah thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his eyes, and wilt give ear unto his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases upon thee, which I have put upon the Egyptians: for I am Jehovah that healeth thee."

Just as trials in the Christian life come early, this distressing episode followed very quickly upon the triumphant rejoicing in the Song of Moses. Three days earlier they were indeed flying high: delivered from slavery, their foes drowned in the sea, they were already anticipating the entry into the land of Canaan; and then, they ran out of water! When they found water, it was too bitter to drink. So what did Israel do?

What they did here must be hailed as an eloquent commentary on what not to do in an emergency. Did they call a council, resort to prayer, appoint a committee to look for water, or even attempt to dig a well, or call a prayer meeting to pray for rain? Oh no, they MURMURED!

"The people murmured against Moses ..." The specific word for "murmur" is found in seven chapters of the O.T.: "It occurs in Exodus 15; Exodus 16, and Exodus 17; in Numbers 14; Numbers 16, and Numbers 17; and in Joshua 9:18."[44] This reaction to conditions which Israel did not like was to continue throughout the period of their probation and would eventually be the reason why most of them would never enter Canaan.

"Jehovah showed Moses a tree ..." The word here rendered "tree" actually means "a piece of wood."[45] It is very similar to the word used for the Tree of Life, and this, coupled with the fact of Jesus' both entering and leaving our world "in the wood" (of the manger and of the cross), has led many to see in this a type of the Christ who makes life's bitter waters sweet. Certainly, we may reject out of hand the notion that, "Moses, a man of long experience in wilderness survival, had learned in Midian the formula for sweetening bitter water, and applied it now!"[46] No! It was the Lord who actually healed the waters, despite the fact of its having been contingent upon Moses' casting that "tree" into the waters.

Verse 27

"And they came to Elim, where were twelve springs of water, and three score and ten palm-trees: and they encamped there by the waters."

It is amazing that the number of the twelve springs corresponded to the number of the Twelve Tribes and of the Twelve Apostles, and the 70 palm-trees corresponded to the seventy souls of Jacob's family who went down into Egypt, to the seventy assistants appointed by Moses, to the seventy nations of mankind, and to the seventy sent out by the Lord Jesus Christ. Both the numbers twelve and seventy were sacred to the Jews; and they must have felt in the recurrence of these numbers in the outstanding features of Elim, that is, in the springs and in the palm-trees, that it was a place especially prepared for them by the Lord. No wonder they camped there for an indefinite time.

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Exodus 15". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.