Exodus 15
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the LORD, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the LORD, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.


(1) Then sang Moses and the children of Israel.—With his usual modesty, Moses does not say that he composed the magnificent ode which follows; but it is scarcely conceivable that it can have had any other author. It bears a close resemblance to the Egyptian religious poetry, with which Moses—and probably no other Israelite of the time—would have been familiar from his early training; and it breathes the elevated tone of religious sentiment that was scarcely shared with Moses by any contemporary. The prophetic statements in the latter verses of the hymn have led some to assign to it a date later than Joshua; but the vagueness of these statements stands in a remarkable contrast with the definiteness and graphic power of the descriptive portion, and points to the time of Moses for the composition. The poetic genius shown in the composition is, no doubt, very considerable; but the statement that it transcends all later Hebrew poesy would not have been made by any critic whose judgment was not biased by his theories. The ode is distinguished from later similar compositions by greater simplicity in the language, and greater freedom in the rhythmical arrangement. There is the usual “parallelism of clauses,” with its three varieties of “antithetic, synthetic, and synonymous;” but the regular cadence is interrupted with unusual frequency by triplet stanzas, and the parallelism is less exact than that of later times.

The ode divides itself into two portions (Exodus 15:1-12 and Exodus 15:13-18): the first retrospective, the second prospective. Part II. has no sub-divisions; but Part I. Consists of three, or perhaps we should say of four, portions. First comes the burden, or refrain (Exodus 15:1), which was repeated at the close of each sub-division by Miriam and her choir of women (Exodus 15:21). Then we have the first stanza, or strophe, reaching from Exodus 15:2 to Exodus 15:5. Next we have stanza or strophe 2, extending from Exodus 15:6 to Exodus 15:10. After this, stanza or strophe 3, comprising Exodus 15:11-12. These shorter, and as it were tentative, efforts are followed by the grand burst of prophetic song which constitutes Part II., and extends from Exodus 15:13 to Exodus 15:18, terminating with the sublime utterance, beyond which no thought of man can go, “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.”

I will sing.—It may convey to the ordinary reader some idea of the rhythm of the ode to transcribe into Roman characters and accentuate this opening passage, which is as follows :—

Ashirah layhováh ki gaóh gaáh,

Sus v’rokebo ramáh bayyám.

He hath triumphed gloriously.—Heb., he hath glorified himself gloriously (ἐνδόξως δεδόξασται, LXX.). The main idea implied in the verb gââh is exaltation.

The LORD is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation: he is my God, and I will prepare him an habitation; my father's God, and I will exalt him.
(2) The Lord is my strength and song.—Heb., My strength and song is Jah. The contracted form of Jehovah, Jah, is here used for the first time; but its existence in the current speech has already been indicated by the name Moriah, which occurs in Genesis 22:1. It is here used on account of the rhythm.

He is become my salvation.—Heb,, he has been to me for salvation: i.e., “he has saved me out of the hand of Pharaoh.” The beauty and force of the passage causes Isaiah to adopt it into one of his most glorious poems, the “joyful thanksgiving of the faithful for the mercies of God,” contained in his twelfth chapter. (See Exodus 15:2.)

I will prepare him an habitation.—So Onkelos and Aben-Ezra; but Jarchi, the Targums of Jerusalem and Jonathan, the LXX., and Vulg., with most moderns, translate, “I will glorify him.” It is a strong objection to the rendering of the Authorised Version that Moses is not likely to have had the idea of preparing God a habitation until the revelation of God’s will on the subject was made to him on Sinai (Exodus 25-27). The law of parallelism also requires such a meaning as “glorify” to correspond with the “exalt” of the next clause.

My father’s God.—“Father” here, by a common Hebrew idiom, stands for “forefathers” generally. (Comp. Note on Exodus 3:6.)

The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name.
(3) The Lord is a man of war.—The directness and boldness of the anthropomorphism is markedly archaic, and is wisely retained by our translators. How turgid and yet weak are the Samaritan, “mighty in battle,” and the LXX., “crusher of wars,” in comparison!

The Lord is his name.—In the very name, Jehovah, is implied all might, all power, and so necessarily the strength to prevail in battle. The name, meaning “the Existent,” implies that nothing else has any real existence independently of Him; and if no existence, then necessarily no strength.

Pharaoh's chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea: his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red sea.
(4) His chosen captains.—Comp. Exodus 14:7, where the same word is used.

Are drowned.—Rather, were drowned.

The depths have covered them: they sank into the bottom as a stone.
(5) The depths have covered them.—Rather, covered them. The first stanza, or strophe, here terminates—the first historical review is completed. In it attention is concentrated on the one great fact of the deliverance by the destruction of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. At the close it is probable that Miriam, with her chorus of women, took up the refrain of Exodus 15:1, and slightly modifying it, sang, as recorded in Exodus 15:21, “Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath glorified himself gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.”

Thy right hand, O LORD, is become glorious in power: thy right hand, O LORD, hath dashed in pieces the enemy.
(6-10) The second stanza, or strophe, expands the subject-matter of the first. It begins, like the first, with some general expressions, setting forth the glory and power of Jehovah (Exodus 15:6-7), as shown in the recent catastrophe. From this it proceeds to the catastrophe itself, which it describes in considerable detail, noting (1) the sudden rise of the wind (Exodus 15:8); (2) the gathering together of the waters into separate masses (ibid.); (3) the boastful and vindictive temper of the Egyptians (ibid.); (4) the rise of a second wind (Exodus 15:9); (5) the consequent return of the waters; and (6) the submerging of the host by them. The second stanza is considerably longer than the first, consisting of twelve, whereas the first consists of only seven, lines.

(6) Thy right hand.—Here is a second anthropomorphism, following naturally on the first, and occuring in the later Scriptures frequently, though now used for the first time.

Hath dashed in pieces.—Rather, dashes in pieces. The verb is in the future, but is a future of continuance.

Thou hast overthrown . . . —Heb., thou overthrowest them that rise up against thee; thou sendest forth thy wrath: it consumeth them like stubble.

The blast of thy nostrils.—The “east wind” of Exodus 14:21. (Comp. Psalm 18:15.) As a physical effect, the gathering together of the waters, is ascribed to the “blast,” we must understand a physical cause. Otherwise, God’s wrath might be meant, as in Job 4:9.

The floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed.—The literalism which, taking its stand on these phrases, maintains that the water “gave up its nature (Kalisch) indicates an inability to distinguish poetry from prose, and fact from imagery. As well might it be held that the east wind was actually the breath of God’s nostrils. (See the Note on Exodus 14:22.)

The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.
(9) The enemy said.—Pharaoh’s soldiers were as anxious as their master to come to blows. (See above, Exodus 15:7.) They hoped to acquire the rich spoil which the Israelites had carried off from Egypt in the shape of gold and silver ornaments and goodly apparel (Exodus 12:35-36), as well as their flocks and herds (Exodus 12:38).

My lust.—Heb., my soul. The particular passion to be gratified was cupidity, or desire of riches.

Destroy them.—So the Vulg., Onkelos, Rosenmüller, Knobel, Kalisch, and others. The meaning “re-possess,” given in the margin, rests upon the rendering of the LXX., which is κυριεύσει, but is otherwise unsupported.

Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in the mighty waters.
(10) Thou didst blow with thy wind.—A new fact, additional to the narrative in Exodus 14, but in complete harmony with it. As a strong east (southeast) wind had driven the waters of the Bitter Lakes to the north-westward, so (it would seem) their return was aided and hastened by a wind from the opposite direction, which caused the sea to “cover” the Egyptians.

They sank as lead.—Compare Exodus 15:5. To an eye-witness, it would seem, the sudden submersion and disappearance of each warrior, as the waters closed around him, was peculiarly impressive. Each seemed to be swallowed up at once, without a struggle. This would be a natural result of the heavy armour worn by the picked warriors.

In the mighty waters.—With these words the second stanza, or strophe, closes. Miriam and her maidens, it is probable, again interposed with the magnificent refrain, “Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath glorified himself gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.”

Who is like unto thee, O LORD, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?
(11, 12) Stanza 3 is a short one, entering into no details—simply summing up the entire result in two sentences: one, parallel to Exodus 15:2-3; Exodus 15:6-7, setting forth the glory of God, as shown in the occurrences; the other emphasising the great fact of the occasion, and stating it in the briefest possible terms: “Thou stretchedst out thy right hand; the earth swallowed them.” This second clause is parallel to Exodus 15:4-5; Exodus 15:8-10. It concentrates into four words the gist of those two passages.

(11) Who is like unto thee . . . Among the gods ?—This is undoubtedly the true meaning. It had been a main object of the entire series of miraculous visitations to show that Jehovah was “exalted far above all other gods.” (See Exodus 7:5; Exodus 14:4; Exodus 14:18.) Moses now emphasises the contrast by adducing three points on which Jehovah is unapproachable—holiness, awefulness, and miraculous power. God is (1) “glorious in holiness,” exalted in this respect far, far above all other beings; (2) “fearful in praises”—the proper object of the profoundest awe, even to those who approach Him with praise and thanksgiving; and (3) one who “doeth wonders,” who both through nature, and on occasions overruling nature, accomplishes the most astonishing results, causing all men to marvel at His Almighty power. The gods of the heathen were, in fact, either nonentities or evil spirits. So far as they were the former, they could come into no comparison at all with Jehovah; so far as they were the latter, they fell infinitely short of Him in every respect. Of holiness they possessed no remnant; in awfulness they were immeasurably inferior; in the ability to work wonders they did not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. “Among the gods,” as the Psalmist says, “there is none like unto thee, O Lord; there is none that can do as thou doest” (Psalm 86:8).

Thou stretchedst out thy right hand, the earth swallowed them.
(12) The earth swallowed them.—The sea, which actually “swallowed them,” was a part of the earth. Literalism might argue that the statement contravened former ones (Exodus 15:4-5; Exodus 15:10); but the fact is otherwise. If we only allow our common sense fair play, and permit sacred writers the same latitude as profane ones, we shall find wonderfully few discrepancies, or even difficulties, in the Biblical narrative.

Thou in thy mercy hast led forth the people which thou hast redeemed: thou hast guided them in thy strength unto thy holy habitation.
(13-18) The concluding stanza of the ode involves a change of attitude, and deals with new matters. The poet’s eye fixes itself upon the future. First, he speaks of the guidance of God, lately begun, and about to continue until Canaan is reached (Exodus 15:13). Then his glance turns to the enemies of Israel, and he considers. The effect which the miraculous deliverance of Israel from Egypt will have upon them (Exodus 15:14-16). Finally, he sees the people brought into the “land of their inheritance,” and securely established there under the ordering of Divine Providence. Then, with an ascription of glory which may be compared with the Doxology attached to the Lord’s Prayer in St. Matthew (Exodus 6:13), and to that attached in the Liturgies of the Church to the Psalms and Canticles, he terminates his composition.

(13) Hast led forth . . . hast guided.—Or, leadest forth . . . guidest. The guidance was not over; rather, it was just begun. The want of a present tense in Hebrew causes the preterite and future to have, both of them, under certain circumstances, the force of the present.

Thy holy habitation.—It might be supposed that Canaan was the “habitation” intended; but the words of Exodus 15:17 imply something more. Moses certainly knew that when Canaan was reached God would select a place to “put His name there” (Deuteronomy 12:5; Deuteronomy 12:11; Deuteronomy 12:14; Deuteronomy 14:23-24; Deuteronomy 16:6; Deuteronomy 16:11, &c.), and possibly knew by revelation what place would be ultimately selected.

The people shall hear, and be afraid: sorrow shall take hold on the inhabitants of Palestina.
(14) The people.—Heb., The peoples: i.e., all the various tribes and nations of the desert and of Palestine—the Amalekites, Edomites, Philistines, Moabites, Amorites, &c.

Shall hear, and be afraid.—On the fear which was actually felt, see Numbers 22:3; Joshua 2:11; Joshua 5:1; Joshua 9:3-15, &c.

The inhabitants of Palestina are the Philistines, from whom the Holy Land derived the name which it still retains in most of the languages of modern Europe. The Hebrew word is Phĕlâsheth, of which the nearest English equivalent would be “Philistia.”

Then the dukes of Edom shall be amazed; the mighty men of Moab, trembling shall take hold upon them; all the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away.
(15) The dukes of Edom.—Comp. Genesis 36:15, where the same title is found. Apparently in the course of the thirty-eight years between the Exodus and the approach to. Canaan, the oligarchy of dukes” had been replaced by a monarchy. (See Numbers 20:14.) The fear of Israel had also passed away; and the Edomites “came out against Moses with much people, and with a strong hand,” laying a foundation for that prolonged hatred of which we have traces in 2Samuel 8:14; 1Kings 11:14-22; 2Kings 8:20-22; 2Chronicles 20:16; Psalm 137:7, &c.

The mighty men of Moab.—On the terror of the Moabites, when Israel approached their borders, see Numbers 22:3-4. The efforts made by Balak to procure Balaam’s curse upon them were indications of the alarm felt.

All the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away.—Compare Joshua 2:11 : “As soon as we had heard these things, our hearts did melt;” and Exodus 5:1 : “It came to pass . . . when all the kings of the Canaanites heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of Jordan, that their hearts melted, neither was there any spirit in them any more.”

Fear and dread shall fall upon them; by the greatness of thine arm they shall be as still as a stone; till thy people pass over, O LORD, till the people pass over, which thou hast purchased.
(16) Fear and dread shall fall upon them.—A portion of the Edomites felt so much fear of Israel that they allowed them to pass through their coasts (Deuteronomy 2:4). The Moabites of Aracted similarly (Deuteronomy 2:29).

Till thy people pass over—i.e., cross the frontier of the Canaanites, and enter their country. There is no need to suppose that Moses had as yet any distinct idea of the place where the frontier would be crossed.

Thou shalt bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of thine inheritance, in the place, O LORD, which thou hast made for thee to dwell in, in the Sanctuary, O Lord, which thy hands have established.
(17) In the mountain of thine inheritance.—Some suppose Mount Moriah to be especially intended; but it is better to understand Canaan generally, which is a country consisting almost entirely of mountains, with only two plains of any extent—those of Sharon and Esdraelon.

The Sanctuary can only mean the place where God was “to put his name.” (See the comment on Exodus 15:13.) This is spoken of as already “made” and “established,” because it was so in the Divine counsels, as Moses very well knew. (See Deuteronomy 12:5; Deuteronomy 12:11; Deuteronomy 12:14; Deuteronomy 14:23-24, &c.)

The LORD shall reign for ever and ever.
(18) The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.—Compare Psalm 10:16; Psalm 29:10; Psalm 145:13; Psalm 146:10. In simplicity and consequent force the expression of the idea by Moses transcends all later ones.

For the horse of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and with his horsemen into the sea, and the LORD brought again the waters of the sea upon them; but the children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea.
(19) This verse is parenthetic. It forms no part of the “Song of Moses.” Originally, perhaps, when that song was a separate document, it was appended as an historical comment, showing the occasion on which the poem was composed. When the records of Moses were collected—either by himself, towards the close of his life, or by Joshua—the addition was kept, although it had become unnecessary for the original purpose. As it stands, it emphasises the great fact of Israel’s final deliverance—the nucleus around which Exodus gathers itself.

And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.
(20) Miriam the prophetess.—In Miriam we have the first of that long series of religious women presented to us in Holy Scripture who are not merely pious and God-fearing, but exercise a quasi-ministerial office. Examples of other “prophetesses” will be found in Judges 4:4; 2Kings 22:14; Isaiah 8:3; Luke 2:36. In the early Christian Church there was an order of “deaconesses (Romans 16:1; Apost. Const., vi. 17). The office of “prophetess” seems to have been permitted to women in Egypt, though that of “priestess” was, until Ptolemaic times, forbidden them.

The sister of Aaron.—She is called “sister of Aaron,” rather than of Moses, because Aaron was the head of the family (Exodus 6:20; Exodus 7:7). There is no reasonable doubt that she was the sister who kept watch on Moses when he was in the ark of bulrushes (Exodus 2:3-8). On her later history, see Numbers 12:1-15. The prophet Micah regarded her as having had a part in the work of Israel’s deliverance (Micah 6:4).

Timbrels and with dances.—By “timbrels” are meant tambours, or tambourines, favourite instruments in Egypt, and usually played by women there (Wilkinson: Ancient Egyptians, vol. i., p. 93). The combination of music with song in religious worship, here for the first time brought before us, became the fixed rule of the Tabernacle service from the time of David (2Samuel 6:15; 1Chronicles 23:5; 1Chronicles 25:1-6), and was adopted into the Temple service from its first establishment (2Chronicles 5:12). Sanctioned under the new covenant by the general praise of psalmody, and by the representations given in the Apocalypse of the Church triumphant in heaven (Revelation 5:8; Revelation 14:2-3), it has always maintained itself in the Christian Church, and still holds its ground firmly. Dancing, on the contrary, though adopted into religious worship by many nations, sanctioned by the present passage, by the example of David (2Samuel 6:16), and by expressions in the Psalms (Psalm 149:3; Psalm 150:4), has never found an entrance into Christian ceremonial, unless among a few fanatic sects. The reason of this is to be found in the abuses which, through human infirmity, became by degrees connected with the practice, causing it to become unfit for a religious purpose. In the primitive times, however, solemn and stately dances were deemed appropriate to festival periods and religious rejoicings, and among the more moral tribes and nations had nothing unseemly about them.

The arrangement of the choir on this occasion into two bands—one of males, the other of females—and the combined employment of music, song, and dancing by the female band, are in close accord with Egyptian customs.

And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the LORD, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.
(21) Miriam answered them.—Miriam and her maidens at the close of each portion of the “Song”—i.e., at the end of Exodus 15:5; Exodus 15:10; Exodus 15:12; Exodus 15:18—sang the refrain which is here given—a refrain very slightly altered from the opening verse of the “Song” itself, marking, no doubt, the time with their timbrels, and moving gracefully through a stately and solemn dance.

So Moses brought Israel 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.

(22) So Moses brought Israel.—Rather, And Moses brought Israel. The regular narrative is here resumed from Exodus 14:31, and the Israelites are brought two stages upon their journey towards Sinai (Exodus 3:12)—first to Marah (Exodus 15:23), and next to Elim (Exodus 15:27). It is uncertain at what exact point of the coast they emerged from the sea-bed, but it can scarcely have been at any great distance from the modern Suez. The “springs of Moses,” Ayun Musa, which are about seven miles from Suez, may well have been the halting-place where the “Song” was composed and sung. At this spot there is considerable vegetation, and a number of wells, variously reckoned at seven, seventeen, and nineteen.

The wilderness of Shur is the arid tract extending from Lake Serbônis on the north to Ain Howarah towards the south. It seems to have been called also “the wilderness of Etham” (Numbers 33:8). The Israelites traversed only the southern portion, which is an actual desert, treeless, waterless, and, except in the early spring, destitute of herbage.

They went three days.—From Ayun Musa to Ain Howarah is a distance of about thirty-six miles, so that, if Howarah is Marah, the average of a march can have been no more than twelve miles. This, however, is quite likely with so large a multitude, and when there was no reason for haste.

And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah.
(23) The waters of Marah . . . were bitter.—The extreme bitterness of the springs at the southern extremity of the wilderness of Shur is witnessed to by all travellers. (Burckhardt: Travels in Syria, p. 777; Robinson: Palestine, vol. i., p. 106; Wellsted, Arabia, vol. ii., p. 38, &c.) There are several such springs, that called Ain Howarah being the most copious, but scarcely so bitter as some others.

Therefore the name of it was called Marah.—“Marah” means “bitterness” both in Hebrew and in Arabic. It appears to be a form of the root which we find also in mare and amarus.

And he cried unto the LORD; and the LORD shewed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet: there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them,
(25) The Lord shewed him a tree.—There are trees which have the power of sweetening bitter water; but none of them is at present found in the Sinaitic peninsula, and the Arabs are not now acquainted with any means of rendering the bitter waters of Howarah and the neighbouring springs palatable. Perhaps in ancient times there were forms of vegetable life in the peninsula which do not now exist there. Moses would scarcely have been “shown a tree” unless the tree had some virtue of its own; but, on the other hand, the tree alone is scarcely to be credited with the entire effect. As in so many other instances, God seems to have made use of nature, as far as nature could go, and then to have superadded His own omnipotent energy in order to produce the required effect. (Compare our blessed Lord’s method in working His miracles.)

He made for them a statute and an ordinance.- God took advantage of the occasion to draw a lesson from it. He promised that, as He had healed the waters, so, if the Israelites would henceforth faithfully keep His commandments, He would “heal” them (Exodus 15:26), keeping them free from all the diseases of Egypt, and from the far greater evil involved in their own corrupted nature and infirmity.

And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters.
(27) Elim—the next stage to Marah, where there were “twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees”—seems to be rightly identified with the Wady Ghurundel in which “abundant grass grows thick and high,” where acacias and tamarisks are plentiful, and in which, notwithstanding the ruthless denudation of the country by the Arabs, there are still a certain number of palm-trees. These are not now “seventy” in number, neither are they the ideal palm-trees of pictures, or even such as grow in the Valley of the Nile and in Upper Egypt generally. They are “either dwarf—that is, trunkless—or else with savage hairy trunks, and branches all dishevelled” (Stanley: Sinai and Palestine, p. 68)—specimens of the palm-tree growing under difficulties. The exact number of “twelve wells,” which is mentioned in the text, cannot now be traced with any distinctness; but there is a perennial brook which supports the vegetation through the whole of the year, and in the winter-time there is a large stream which flows down to the sea through the wady.—(Niebuhr: Description de l’Arabie, p. 347.)

They encamped there.—The head-quarters of the camp were at Elim (Wady Ghurundel); probably the mass of the people filled all the neighbouring wadys, as those of Useit, Ethal, and Tayibeh, or Shuweikah, which are all fertile, and have good pasturage.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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