Today’s Psalm is a remembrance of how God brought the people of Israel out of Egypt. As you might remember, it took 10 plagues for the Israelites to be released from slavery. Even after the ten plagues, and after the Israelites were asked to leave — Egypt’s armies decided to go after them and bring them back into Egypt.
When Israel went into the wilderness, God led them in the form of a pillar of smoke and a pillar of fire. The Israelites saw the sign of God’s presence, and they had just seen examples of God’s power. With so much to remind them of God’s presence, and that God is in control, one would think that they knew that God could take care of a few soldiers, just as God was able to make all of Egypt eager to free Israel.
Of course, what one might think is not what one finds in the narrative. The Children of Israel ask: “Are there no graves in Egypt? Why did you lead us to die in the desert?” The Israelites see that the Egyptians are approaching them, and their back is to the sea — there is no where to run.
The fire (God’s presence) stands between Israel and the Egyptians. Moses raises his arms, the sea parts, and Israel walks across on the exposed seabed. As the armies of Egypt chase after Israel, God seizes up the chariot wheels. The soldiers suggest that they turn back — they cannot fight against God; but, they follow orders, chasing Israel into the sea. After Israel crosses the sea, Moses lowered his arms, and the sea was no longer divided; Pharaoh and his soldiers find themselves under water.
When Israel saw how the Egyptian solders died, they believed in God, and they believed in God’s prophet Moses. This was the end of their slavery, they were now completely free of Egypt. The story of the Exodus should not last much longer than this — Moses still needs to visit the Holy mountain to receive God’s law, but Israel trusts God and should be ready to go home to the land God promised them.
Of course, we all remember this isn’t what happened. Their faith in God did not last long; in only two chapters, we see Israel longing for Egypt again and asking if they were brought out into the desert to starve. When Moses received the law, they complained that Moses was gone too long, and they made an idol. Moses prays God forgive Israel, and God forgives them.
The punishment that Israel faces is that they must wander in the wilderness for 40 years — for context, a shepherd would have moved his flock that distance in about 2 weeks. They spent 40 years as nomad animal herders waiting for a promise that one day they would be settled in a land flowing with milk and honey.
The story of the Exodus is a story of a people who’s approach to faith was the question: “What did you do for us today?” It is a group of people who saw God provide every need, and protect them from every danger — yet, the first response when something new comes up is to look back to Egypt. This is a people who never really escaped Egypt, because they never accepted God’s providence, instead calling for a return to a system where they knew their place and rejected any different place.
Nobody who entered the promised land had any personal memory of being a slave in Egypt. The memory of those who entered the promised land was a people who lived a nomadic landless lifestyle — and who could never be sure that the wilderness would provide enough for them, but instead looked to God for their survival. The promised land offered enough for everybody. The core of the law was remembering Egypt, and making sure that Israel was a very different kind of place.
Psalm 77 is a memory of how God finally took the people out of slavery — those who had a claim on their lives did not manage to cross the sea. This remembrance came at a time when the kingdom was growing powerful and wealthy — it came at a time when there was a danger of forgetting the main reason to keep telling the story — the hope that they could create a society where nobody is born into hopelessness.
You might remember from our study of the prophets that this dream was not fully accomplished. It was a good and noble experiment, but even the best of laws can be perverted by corrupt officials — but, even though this dream was never accomplished, it also was never forgotten. The words: “Remember when you were slaves in Egypt” are still read; Passover is celebrated every year, and Moses is always remembered. Empathy and mercy remain standards for dealing with other people. Perhaps some of Egypt made it into the promised land — but, some of the promised land also made it to Babylon — and today, we remember and say never again; even though it was not our ancestors who were brought out of Egypt.