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.”
God used a cloud to control the movement of His people in the wilderness. Instead of crowd control, think cloud control.
Guidance and Protection
But this was no ordinary cloud! This cloud was the evidence of God’s presence among His people. (Exodus 33:9-10 & Psalm 99:7.) The cloud is first mentioned in Exodus 13, when the people of Israel were hurriedly departing from Egypt. Pharaoh changed his mind about allowing his slaves to leave, so he 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 Red Sea was in front of them and Pharaoh’s army was behind them.
But there was no need to worry! “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” (Exodus 13:21). God did not intend to leave His people stranded, and He wouldn’t allow them to be overrun by the Egyptians. God guided and protected Israel, by day and by night, with the visible evidence of His presence.
During the night before they crossed the Red Sea, God used the cloud to keep His people safe from the Egyptian army. “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 the next day, 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 they crossed the Red Sea. The cloud was there to guide and protect them throughout their wilderness journey. 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 actually see and feel God’s presence with them in the cloud and the fire. But think again. We haven’t been shortchanged! As believers today we have the Holy Spirit of God living in us 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 writer of Hebrews commented 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 that God extends to us when we fail and stray from Him. Exodus 13:22 says 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 that statement? God did not remove the cloud when the people murmured and complained. He didn’t remove it when they disobeyed. Even on the day they formed the golden calf idol and caroused before it, God didn’t remove the visible sign of His presence! (Deuteronomy 1:30-33; 1 Corinthians 10:1-10.) That’s evidence of God’s amazing grace.
What an unbelievably compassionate and gracious God! And He is the same God today. “I am the Lord. I do not change” (Malachi 3:6). 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 bring grief to our Lord’s heart. How much better our lives would be if we continued to walk in fellowship with Him, while enjoying His presence and His protection.
Discipline and Correction
Considering the details of the “cloud control” is well worthwhile. Normally we think of Israel’s 40-year period between Egypt and Canaan as the “wilderness wanderings.” God declared that the people could not enter the Promised Land because of their unbelief, and 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 seemed to be wandering around and not moving forward to the Promised Land, 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. And so He led them (Numbers 9:21-23). What wonderful cloud control!
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 are amazing for the Christian today – 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 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 – 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. God 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)? Yes! All these things (including the cloud) happened to the children of Israel as “types” – as spiritual illustrations (1 Corinthians 10). And we can see the truth of God pictured the in Old Testament accounts. So drawing lessons from the fact that Israel could travel by day or by night is not beyond the scope of sound biblical interpretation.
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? Your fellowship with Him 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, or a child, or a marriage partner? Don’t despair! The pillar of cloud and fire is still there! In fact, when we travel through “dark nights,” we learn valuable lessons about God’s care for us – through dark times as well as bright times.
Do you remember that stormy night when the Lord came to the disciples, walking on the Sea of Galilee? (See Matthew 14:25-33.) They thought He was a ghost and cried out in terror. 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 them. 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 travel.
Obviously, God’s cloud doesn’t lead us into sin, any more then He led the ancient people of Israel into sin. They sinned by their own willful decisions. But when we do sin, God’s cloud control leads us into situations and circumstances where we will recognize our sin. Because of His perfect cloud control, God can lead us into situations where His discipline will be just right.
In His wisdom, God knows exactly what kind of discipline is needed to turn our lives around, draw us back into fellowship, and make us productive believers again.
Unlike ancient Israel, we don’t have a visible pillar of cloud or pillar of fire 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 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 for our lives: “conforming us to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:28-30).
In Proverbs 3:5-6 we have a wonderful promise – 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. That’s something to be grateful for!
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