If I was given the word “pillar” in a word association test, and I had not just read these verses from the Old Testament, I’d probably think of some sort of Grecian column. I doubt that anyone thinks of “guidance” in any relation to the simple word “pillar.” The Word of God certainly does, but there are other things that the word contains in the scriptures. For example, the church is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” That means that each and every scriptural assembly of Christ sits upon and also holds up the truth of God. Another scriptural image of “pillars” were those massive columns in the temple of God.
But this evening I want to consider that very special “Pillar” of cloud and fire which we find in Israel’s history. The first time Israel met the Pillar of God, they were just beginning their exodus from Egypt. It lead them in the way they should go, and it provided a covering, protecting them from the enemy. You could say that it isolated them from the world. Through that Pillar of cloud by day and Pillar of fire at night, God told the nation when to move. If it moved north, then Israel was to move north; if it moved east they headed east. When the pillar stopped moving, it indicated that Israel was to stop and make camp. It was, among other things, a symbol of the presence of their God. At times, it was from that Pillar that the Lord spoke to Moses.
It was a great privilege for Israel to be associated with that Pillar of cloud and fire. But did that nation have a greater blessing than saints today? I think not. Nearly everything they possessed, we also possess in a higher form or quality. They had a shadow, but we have the substance which cast the shadow. For example, they had temporary, transitory manna, but we have the true manna. Israel had priests, but we are priests. They had bullocks and goats to sacrifice, but we have the Lamb of God “slain from before the foundation of the world.” As the Book of Hebrews tells us we have better things than Israel had. And one of our great blessings is the gift of the Word of God. We have a more excellent guide than the Pillar of fire. Nevertheless, let’s consider it and make some comparisons for a few minutes this evening.
Israel saw the Pillar in two forms.
During the day it appeared as some sort of smoke or cloud, but at night its interior fire could be seen. Probably the core of this thing was as a flame, which was then enshrouded by dense cloud. If you pull out your trusty Bible encyclopedia you’ll probably be told that fire is an emblem of at least 15 or 16 different things. At the top of the list are the glory and holiness of Jehovah. And just as an intense fire is inapproachable, so is the holiness of God. It blinded Paul, emblazoned Moses and transfigured Christ Jesus. Another common use of fire is as a symbol of the judgment of God. For Israel, this cloud veiled the untouchable, unseeable holy nature of the Lord. As sinners, they would have been instantly destroyed by that holiness. Nevertheless they were lead through the wilderness by this same ineffable God.
Isn’t this much the same with us today? Oh, we know of many sins which we must avoid at all costs. Like Israel, we shouldn’t go there, and they must avoid that place, and the pillar told them so. But often, we sense the movement of the Lord without actually seeing His face or His hand. Today we see the Lord through a glass darkly. “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” “Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?” “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.” He is the “King eternal, and immortal,” but He is also “invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
Ah, but then there was Jesus, a veiled revelation of the God-head. Christ was like a beautiful lampshade – diffusing the radiance of Jehovah in a fashion which we can experience. As Jesus said, “He that hath seen me hath see the Father.” “Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me?” He is “the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person.”
In the case of the Pillar, the appearance of the Lord changed between day and night. I hope that you don’t misunderstand, but the Lord in some ways adapts to our needs. A black cloud at night, might have been difficult for Israel to see, but the Lord made sure that He was recognizable. To the weak, God is rock; to the hungry, He is manna; to the blind, He is light; to the thirsty, He is water. And when the night is the darkest that is when the Lord is the brightest. Our God is equal to any task or problem. Even when all hope is gone there is the Lord.
What do you suppose happened to the pillar of cloud when there was a great burst of desert wind? Was there never a thunderstorm during the forty years in the wilderness? Did the cloud or the fire ever have problems? Of course not. The Lord has promised never to leave us nor forsake us. Ever. But did Israel ever feel the temptation to forsake her pillar? Do the saints of God ever stray from the presence of the Lord?
The pillar of cloud had as its first purpose the guidance of the nation.
I have often wondered how OFTEN Israel moved during those forty years? I am convinced that the nation did not move every day, nor probably every week. Can you imagine the logistics of several million people breaking camp and methodically moving? How far would a group of people like be able to travel? If they traveled 20 miles, would the tail end of the camp be only as far as the first had been the day before?
Despite my questions, we know that from time to time the Lord did lead them down the road toward the Promised land. Usually the pillar resided over the Tabernacle. When it was time to move on, it slowly lifted off the ground, and people started packing their few things. Did the top of the cloud then lean in the direction they were to go? Or did it remain vertically erect and simply start moving? As the groundward part of the pillar started to move, the camp started to follow according the directions they had received. For Israel there was no ambiguity. They didn’t have to listen to their generals or council members. Word wasn’t passed down the chain of command or down the rows of tents. The last family in the column, or in the nation, didn’t have to worry about directions or orders. The cloud was tall enough that shortest Zaccheus in camp could see the direction he was to walk.
But what about timing? Did the Lord always give Israel time to eat breakfast and wash the dishes before He lead them away? Did He instruct the nation to be sure to look toward the pillar at 9 in the morning for their daily instructions? Or did He sometimes start leading them at 9 am, sometimes at 3 pm and at other times at 6:00? Whatever the Lord did, we do not read of any problems in this.
Why is it today that we are so incapable of trusting the guiding hand of God? We trust the Lord for salvation because we have no choice. There are no alternatives to saving grace. Sometimes we trust God for food, shelter and clothing, believing His promise to provide for us. But why can’t we daily seek the will of God the way that Israel did? Are we that dependent upon some sort of physical revelation? Even among the saints, we often don’t look toward the Lord for direction until there is some sort of crisis. If we daily sought the Lord’s pleasure, we’d never have to worry whether the Pillar was leaving without us.
“Oh, but we don’t have an obvious Pillar the way Israel did?” True, but we have a more sure word of prophesy than they had. The primary place for direction from God is in the pages of His Word. But did you look toward the Lord this morning? The person who really wants to know the will of God, saturates Himself with His Word. “Thy WORD is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” Can we make that verse apply to the Pillar of Fire? “Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.” But what if the Bible has nothing to say about the specific question which I have today? I believe that when we have a desire for the Lord sufficient to make us fill ourselves with His Word, then he will shine a light down on the path which He wants us to follow.
If we were asked to select one person of the Godhead to be represented by the Pillar of Fire, who would we choose? Rarely would we name God the Father, for anything like this. But what of the Son? We see Him in so many types and illustrations? But is this God the Son? Isn’t this more an illustration of the Holy Spirit? I think so.
Then when it comes to us today, are we to watch for the Holy Spirit out on the horizon – or in church? Perhaps you might, but I think we should first be listening to his direction in our hearts. Once again we have such a great advantage over the poor Israelite. “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” “For as many as are the children of God, they are led by the Spirit of God.” We are not orphans, parentless and guideless. The Holy Spirit sanctifies, empowers, enlightens and directs His children. Look at the life of Paul as an illustration of this point. There were many specific occasions when the Spirit told the man, “Do not go there, I want you to go to this other place. And then there are the providential directions. “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord.” And as Joseph was a good man, we see God leading him, by circumstances into the Prime Minister’s chair.
As I’ve suggested, Israel was obedient to the direction of the Pillar.
Apparently, instant obedience was expected by the Lord, and it was apparently given. When God said, “Let there be light,” instantly there was light. And when Jesus said, “Take up thy bed and walk,” that is what the man did. When God says, “Let there be obedience,” He expects compliance. When He told Israel, “Let’s move,” the nation packed up and began to move in the direction the Lord indicated.
And similarly we are to be perpetually watchful. “Pray without ceasing;” study without a holiday. Because our peace and blessedness largely depend on our eagerness to follow God’s Pillar of cloud. Israel enjoyed the shadow of the cloud, but we possess the substance. Do we appreciate that blessing?