Last week we saw how God provided for the Israelites’ physical needs with manna and quail. This week gets even more exciting with God providing a pillar of cloud and fire. Psalm 78:14 (NIV) says, “He guided them with the cloud by day and with light from the fire all night.”
What guide would the Israelites have had if not for God? They hadn’t plotted their evacuation. They didn’t convene to choose a destination. And they had no maps.
But the pillars of cloud and fire were more than God’s GPS through the wilderness.
The pillar chose the path for the Israelites.
The first thing God did was steer them away from a northern route—the shortest route to the Promised Land. Exodus 13:17 (NIV) tells us why:
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.”
Praise God for His infinite wisdom! How often do our own plans get us into a hot mess? How much better off would we be if we asked God to show us which way to go? Proverbs 16:9 says we can plan all we want, but the Lord determines our steps.
The pillar protected and provided day and night.
Psalm 105:39 (NIV) says, “He spread out a cloud as a covering, and a fire to give light at night.”
Desert travel happens in early morning and evening hours. People pitch their tents and rest during the hottest hours of the day. But God provided a way for the Israelites to travel safely throughout the day or night.
What other things did the pillar of cloud or fire do for the Israelites?
Pillar of cloud
A quick sidebar: the pillar of cloud wasn’t wispy white stuff like we see in the sky. It was very dense. Multiple Bible verses describe this:
- When God descended on Mt. Sinai to talk with the Israelites, God covered the mountain in a thick cloud (Exodus 19:9).
- When Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle, he couldn’t enter the Tent of Meeting (the first-generation equivalent of the Holy of Holies) because God’s glory settled on it as a dense cloud (Exodus 40:34-35).
- After the priests brought the Ark into the first Temple during its dedication, they couldn’t stand in the Temple to minister because a thick cloud filled the building (1 Kings 8:10-11).
The Hebrew word for “glory” (kabowd) refers to a weightiness in terms of splendor and abundance. So God’s glory manifested as a dense cloud makes perfect sense.
In addition to providing direction for traveling, the pillar of cloud protected the Israelites from physical danger:
- It provided daily shade to shield the Israelites from the scorching desert sun.
- It prevented the Egyptians from seeing the Israelites on the edge of the Red Sea.
Pillar of fire
The Israelites had no humanly sustainable source of food or firewood. Again, God demonstrated how He alone could enable the Israelites to survive the wilderness. The pillar of fire provided warmth at night when they camped. It provided light and direction when they traveled at night.
In a larger sense, the pillar of fire showed that the Almighty was the Light mankind needs.
Moses saw God in a burning bush. The Israelites saw God as a pillar of fire during the Exodus and when God met with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. When the first Temple was completed, God’s fire consumed the sacrifice. Centuries later, Jesus said He was the Light of the world. The flames of Pentecost announced the presence of the third part of the Trinity, which came to dwell not in a temple but in people’s hearts.
Prereqs for the pillars
Two things had to happen before the pillar appeared.
First, the Israelites had to prepare themselves by sprinkling blood on their doorposts and eating the Passover meal. That represented atonement for their sins.
Then they had to leave Egypt and reach Succoth. That wasn’t a stop for rest; they collected the Hebrew workers at the area’s Egyptian-controlled copper and turquoise mines. When God was sure all His people were gathered together, He made His first visible appearance at Succoth as a pillar of cloud.
What was the pillar really?
In contrast to the food God provided, the pillar of cloud and fire was a manifestation of GOD HIMSELF (a theophany). A visible symbol of His presence in the Israelites’ lives.
Cloud and fire together
At the climax of the Exodus, God manifested Himself simultaneously as both a pillar of cloud AND fire. (Like two sides of a coin. How cool is that?!) When He positioned Himself between the Egyptians and the Israelites, He was darkness to the Egyptians but light to the Israelites (Exodus 14:19-20):
And the angel of God, who had gone before the camp of Israel, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from before them and stood behind them, so that it came between the camps of Egypt and Israel. The cloud was there in the darkness, but it lit up the night. So all night long neither camp went near the other.
God’s glory was dreadful and deadly to the Egyptians, but it was the Israelite’s deliverance.
God is shrouded in darkness to those who don’t believe in Him. But to those who accept Him as Lord, He is light.
Get out of your Egypt
Part of the reason for the Israelites’ wilderness wandering was God wanted to be sure they left behind the Egypt of their hearts to follow Him. Unfortunately, the Israelites were still in bondage to memories, ingrained habits, and doubt. The same is true for us today. Only when we’re willing to let go of our past can God lead us into the future He has planned for us.
When I read the Exodus story, I’m in awe of God’s relentless, unshakable commitment to guiding the Israelites and caring for their every need. His presence never wavered, even when their hearts wandered.
God can do the same for you today.
My friend, God is with you all the time—but especially when you wander through the wilderness.
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Enjoy these wonderful sung images of God’s glory:
Feel the anticipation of the Israelites ascending the hill to the Temple in Threshold of Glory
The first 6 minutes of this video sing the praises of being in God’s Throne Room