Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Mar 13 2019 - Numbers 9:15-23; 10:11-17 – The cloud and the Tabernacle

You will remember how the Israelites were led out of Egypt by a pillar of cloud and of fire. This symbolised the Lord's presence; he was the one who was leading his people. In Exodus 13:21-22 we read, "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, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people."

Moses had first encountered the Lord at the "burning bush", a bush that was aflame with fire but was not consumed. All Israel were then being led towards an encounter with the Living God at Sinai, a mountain that flamed with fire and was covered in smoke. Fire and smoke speak of God's burning purity and yet also of the mystery of his being which cannot be seen or easily perceived (see, for instance, 1 Timothy 6:16).

So the Lord graciously provided his people with this symbol of his presence; he is with them to lead them and protect them. Remember how the pillar of fire and of cloud stood between the Israelites and the Egyptians at the Red Sea, providing light for God's people while obscuring them from their enemies. David later exclaims:

The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 27:1)

The tabernacle was a second symbol of God's presence – his tent among the tents of his people. So, when they were settled and their tents were set up, the pillar of fire and of smoke was seen covering the tabernacle – like the flag that indicates a monarch is at home. When the people were to move, the fire and the smoke lifted from the tabernacle and they all packed up their tents and moved off, following the Lord who was leading them.

Today's reading records Israel's departure from Sinai and the first steps of their journey towards the Promised Land. James Philip helpfully comments:

When one thinks of the fractious nature of the Israelites, their murmurings and backslidings, their turning aside and falling away from God, it becomes an even greater marvel to realise that throughout it all, his presence was unchangeably with them. He had to rebuke them and chastise them. Many times he was angry with them, but he never left them. What can speak more forcefully than this of a God whose grace is greater than our sin? This is the assurance that the invitation to pilgrimage brings with it, and it comprehends every other consideration, every other possible blessing. If God is for us, says the apostle – and, we may add, with us – who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)

Jesus is the one in whom God has come to be with us – to tabernacle among us (John 1:14). We have seen God's glory in him. He has promised to be with us to the very end of our journey (Matthew 28:20). He leads us on and calls us to follow him. We are not left to walk alone. He knows the way through the wilderness and he will lead us every step of the way. His way may sometimes seem not to be the quickest or the easiest but it is the best and the safest. "How can we know the way?" Thomas asked Jesus. "I am the way", the Saviour replied. He calls us to follow him.

Lord Jesus, we thank you that you do not call us to tread a path which you have not trodden before us. Help us by your Spirit to run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on you, the pioneer and goal of our faith. Help us, Lord, to point others to you, for you are the way, the truth and the life. You alone are the one who can lead us to your Father's house.

Peter Misselbrook