Numbers 9:15-23 – On the day the tabernacle, the Tent of Testimony, was set up, the cloud covered it. From evening until morning the cloud above the tabernacle looked like fire…Whenever the cloud lifted from above the Tent, the Israelites set out; whenever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped. At the Lord’s command the Israelites set out, and at His command they encamped. As long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle they remained in camp…Whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted, they would set out…They obeyed the Lord’s order, in accordance with His command through Moses.
There may not be a literal pillar of cloud and fire before us, but God continues to lead us by day and night through unfamiliar territory as He lead the Israelites in ancient times! We have started a new year and we have no idea what lies ahead, the Lord Himself knows. He is in control and will lead us by his own cloud. A few observations and lessons from Numbers.
Guidance and Protection: This was no ordinary cloud–this cloud was the evidence of God’s presence in the midst of His people! (See Exodus 33:9-10 and Psalm 99:7.) We first read of the cloud in Exodus 13, when the people of Israel were hurriedly departing from Egypt. Pharaoh changed his mind about allowing the people to leave, and pursued them to the shores of the Red Sea. Humanly speaking, it looked as though Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt would be short-lived. The barrier of the Red Sea was in front of them and Pharaoh’s army was behind them. (Talk about being between a rock and a hard place!) But there was no need to worry! We read in Exodus 13:21 that, “By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light.” God did not intend to leave His people stranded or overrun by their enemy, the Egyptians. He planned to guide and protect Israel both by day and by night with the visible evidence of His presence. We read that God used the cloud to keep His people safe and secure from the Egyptian army throughout the night before the crossing of the Red Sea. “Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel.
Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side, so that neither went near the other all night long” (Exodus 14:19-20). And when the Egyptians chased after the Israeli people into the Red Sea, “the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion” (Exodus 14:24).
Care and Faithfulness: God’s “cloud control” for Israel didn’t stop after the crossing of the Red Sea. The cloud was there throughout Israel’s wilderness wanderings to guide and protect them. When Israel needed protection from the hot desert sun, the “pillar of cloud” was there. When the people needed light and warmth during the chilly desert nights, the “pillar of fire” was there. (See Nehemiah 9:12; Psalm 78:14; Psalm 105:39.) The Lord took care of His people in a wonderful way. There should never have been a time when they doubted that God was with them!
At this point, some of us may be thinking that Israel had a “better deal” than we do as God’s people today. After all, they could “see and feel” God’s presence with them in the cloud and the fire. But think again. We certainly haven’t been shortchanged! As believers today we have the indwelling Holy Spirit of God to guide and direct us. And how much more protection could we ask than the personal presence of the living Lord Jesus with us at all times? Remember that God has promised us, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5), and in the very next verse the inspired writer of Hebrews comments on this promise: “So we may say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.”
One of the most amazing aspects of “cloud control” is the grace God extends to us when we fail and stray from Him. In Exodus 13:22 we read that neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.” Do you realize the awesome significance of this statement? God did not remove the cloud when the people murmured and complained and disobeyed. Even on the day that they bowed down and caroused before the golden calf idol, God did not remove the visible sign of His presence from His people. (See Deuteronomy 1:30-33; 1 Corinthians 10:1-10.) What an unbelievably compassionate and gracious God! He is the same God today: “I am the Lord. I do not change” (Malachi 3:6). How wonderful! The Lord has guaranteed His continual personal presence with us and His protection for us–even when our attitudes are selfish and ungrateful, or when we’re side-tracked and lured into worshiping earthly “idols,” or when we become involved in lifestyles that are not pleasing to Him. Although He will never forsake us, our negative attitudes and actions will bring sorrow to the heart of our Lord. How much better our lives will be if we continue to walk in fellowship with the Lord, while enjoying His presence and His protection.
Discipline and Correction: Meditating on the “cloud control” that we read about in Numbers 9 is well worthwhile. Normally we think of Israel’s 40-year period between Egypt and Canaan as the “wilderness wanderings” –and rightly so. God had declared that the people could not enter the Promised Land because of their unbelief and that the entire generation would wander in the wilderness. “The Lord’s anger burned against Israel and He made them wander in the desert forty years…” (Numbers 32:13). But forty years later, when Israel was finally ready to enter the Land, Moses reminded them that God had led them all the way in the wilderness. “And you shall remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and test you…” (Deuteronomy 8:2). Is this a contradiction in the Bible? Did Israel wander, or did God lead them? Answer: Both! Even though Israel was wandering and not moving forward into the Land of Promise, from God’s point of view their travels were not aimless or random. God was disciplining His people and teaching them valuable lessons all along the way. God knew exactly what location and length of time would best serve His purposes for teaching them these lessons. He led them accordingly, as we see in Numbers chapter 9. What wonderful cloud control!
Numbers 33 is one of those chapters in the Bible that we tend to skim over in our devotional reading because it’s primarily a list of hard-to-pronounce place names. But let’s not skip over the implications of this “travel log” too quickly. Every single one of those locations was hand-picked by God Himself for His wandering people. His cloud led them to each place, and it led them away at God’s appointment. The exact amount of time the people spent in each place was precisely determined by the Lord–even down to the exact number of days and hours. “Sometimes the cloud stayed only from evening till morning, and when it lifted in the morning, they set out. Whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted, they would set out. Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out. At the Lord’s command they encamped, and at the Lord’s command they set out. They obeyed the Lord’s order, in accordance with His command through Moses” (Numbers 9:21-23). From the human perspective, the people wandered. From the divine perspective, it was “cloud control” all the way!
Sanctification and Encouragement: The implications of Numbers 9 and 33for the Christian today are amazing–and very encouraging! Is the same sovereign God leading His people today? Yes! Does His cloud control include all the details of our lives today? Yes! Just as the Lord led His people step by step in the Sinai wilderness, so He leads us step by step through the wilderness of life. He places us in just the right place, and for just the right period of time, so He can accomplish His purposes for us there. From our perspective our lives may seem random and even aimless at times, but from God’s viewpoint everything is appointed! From our perspective our lives may seem ordinary or even negligible, but God is working through all our situations and circumstances to make us more Christlike. He is more interested in us and who we are becoming, than in the earthly accomplishments that we humans regard as important.
Let’s consider one more possible lesson. Is there significance for us in the fact that God’s continual cloud control allowed Israel to travel by day or by night (Exodus 13:21)? First Corinthians 10:6,10 says all these things (including the cloud of verses 1 and 2) happened to the children of Israel as types (or spiritual illustrations), so that we can see the truth of God pictured the in Old Testament accounts. So drawing lessons from the fact that Israel could travel be day or by night is not beyond the scope of sound biblical hermeneutics. Throughout Scripture, “night” often portrays the absence of spiritual light or a perception of distance from God. Have you ever felt like it was “night” and the Lord seems distant and fellowship doesn’t seem to be as close–and you don’t know why? Have you “walked through a dark place” of grief or fear or loneliness because of the loss of a loved one, a serious illness, or rejection by a parent, a child or a marriage partner? Don’t despair! The pillar of cloud and fire is still there. In fact, it’s often through this “night travel” that we learn valuable lessons about God’s care for us through the dark times as well as the bright times. Do you remember when the Lord came to the disciples on that stormy night walking on the Sea of Galilee? They thought He was a ghost and cried out in terror. (See Matthew 14:25-33.) For the disciples, this was a situation of storm, fear and possible disaster–but it was all part of the Lord’s cloud control for His disciples. Think of the lessons they learned that night–especially Peter, who learned what it means to walk on water! Some lessons that God wants to teach us about cloud control can only be learned by “night-time” travel.
Obviously, God’s cloud doesn’t lead us into sin, any more then He led the ancient people of Israel into sin. But when we do sin, God’s cloud control leads us into the situations and circumstances where we will recognize our sin and learn valuable lessons. And because of His perfect “cloud control,” God is able to lead us into situations where His discipline is always just right. In His wisdom, He knows exactly what kind of discipline is needed in our lives to turn us around and draw us back into fellowship and make us productive believers once again. Isaiah described this truth by picturing a farmer’s “just right” methods for harvesting various types of plants, so that they will reach their maximum usefulness: “Caraway is not threshed with a sledge, nor is a cartwheel rolled over cumin; caraway is beaten with a rod, and cumin with a stick. Grain must be ground to make bread, but one does not go on threshing it forever… All this comes from the Lord Almighty, wonderful in counsel and magnificent in wisdom” (Isaiah 28:27-29).
Unlike ancient Israel, we don’t have a visible pillar of cloud by day or pillar of fire by night to keep us on track, but let’s remember that God is still in complete control. Ephesians 1:11-12 says that God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will…” This amazing statement is precisely in the context of God’s “cloud control” in the believer’s life. The hand of God can work through people, places, circumstances and “in all things” to teach us, discipline us, and move us step by step toward His good purpose of conforming us to the image of His Son (Romans 8:28-30). In Proverbs 3:5-6 we have God’s wonderful promise that if we trust wholeheartedly in the Lord and acknowledge Him in all our ways, He will direct our paths. We can be sure that throughout our lives God will continually direct and protect His people with His blessed “cloud control.”