GUIDANCE FOR THE DEPARTURE AND ENCAMPMENT OF THE ISRAELITE TROOPS WAS PROVIDED BY THE CLOUD AND THE FIRE SIGNIFYING THE PRESENCE OF GOD
Divine Guidance tests our patience and our dependency upon the Lord. As parents we are very familiar with the constant badgering of our kids with the age-old question: “Are we there yet?” We want to control our journey. We are uncomfortable with uncertain expectations regarding timing and destination. Imagine the difficulty of the Israelites in trying to consistently obey this unpredictable guidance provided by the Lord on their journey to the Promised Land. We need to look for lessons regarding how we discern the Lord’s guidance today and how we manage our expectations and commit to obedience in confidence of the Lord’s faithfulness in leading us.
David Allen: Numbers 9:15-23 signals the conclusion of the time of Israel’s one-year encampment at Sinai and their embarkation on their journey through the wilderness to the promised land. During that year, between the first Passover in Egypt in Exodus 12, and the next Passover recorded in Numbers 9:1, God gave the people a series of new beginnings. He gave them the Law. He instituted the priesthood and sacrificial system. He gave them the tabernacle. He organized the twelve tribes; three tribes camping on each of the four sides of the newly constructed tabernacle.
The very presence of God Himself was evidenced by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. When the tabernacle was completed, this cloud of God’s glory and presence hovered over it. Here is God’s presence with and among His people . . . constantly (verse 16).
Whenever the cloud moved, the people moved. When the cloud stopped the people camped. “At the command of the Lord they marched, and at the command of the Lord they camped.” The people were totally dependent upon God for direction when to march and when to camp.
Once camped, there was a constant uncertainty of departure. While on the march, there was a constant uncertainty of duration. There was a constant uncertainty of destination as to where they would camp next.
Why was this? God was teaching His people dependence on Him. Days and weeks may pass, and the cloud did not move. Then suddenly, perhaps when least expected, the cloud moved! Both the continuance and the change alike were the will of God!
Israel had to be ready to break camp at a moment’s notice. Imagine the inconvenience! Some were impatient with God when he delayed moving. Some were impulsive and wanted to get ahead of God. Some were intransigent and wanted to lag behind or return to Egypt!
Notice the seven-fold repetition of the phrase “at the command of the Lord they marched/camped.” Notice the two-fold repetition of the phrase “they kept the Lord’s charge.” It was all about obedience to God. The phrase “they kept the Lord’s charge” in Hebrew connotes the notion of pulling guard duty!
Brown: The cloud demanded their obedience to God. The Lord does his part in providing them with the guiding cloud, but they must do theirs in responding to his directions: At the LORD’s command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped (18). The narrative contains eight references to the Lord’s orders and the Israelites’ obedient response (18, 20, 23). If only they had maintained their teachable and compliant spirit! The story of Numbers is a perpetual warning against the danger of knowing what God demands but failing to do it.
Iain Duguid: Israel was on the verge of a new start here at the end of Numbers 9. They were about to set out from Mount Sinai where they had been camping for almost a year. It was there at Mount Sinai that God gave them his Law and the instructions for building the tabernacle, as we see in the book of Exodus. It was there that he taught them about his sacrifices and the priesthood, as recorded in the book of Leviticus. It was there that he arranged the camp and prepared them to set out on this journey, as we have seen already in the book of Numbers. Now it was time for the talking and preparing to end and for the action to start. It was time for the Israelites to put their feet into motion and begin the journey into the wilderness, marching toward the Promised Land. That was a challenging prospect for Israel. There was so much that was unknown. Where would they camp? What would they eat and drink? When would they get there? Would their mission be a success? There must have been quite a few uneasy hearts in the camp.
There was one thing that was not to be an unknown, however. They wouldn’t have to go into the wilderness alone: God was going to go with them. The central focus of the second half of There was one thing that was not to be an unknown, however. They wouldn’t have to go into the wilderness alone: God was going to go with them. The central focus of the second half of Numbers 9 is to underline the connection between the cloud and the tabernacle. The tabernacle was the visible symbol of God’s presence in the midst of his people, the tent of their heavenly King at the center of the camp. It was not just an empty symbol, however: it was inhabited by the cloud of God’s glory that descended onto it on the very day it was first set up (v. 15). This descent of God’s glory demonstrated that God would indeed dwell in the midst of his people. What is more, the book of Exodus ended with the recounting of the same event (40:34–38). By repeating it here, the narrator is linking this new journey into the wilderness with the journey in the book of Exodus that took them to Sinai in the first place. Just as God had accompanied them out of Egypt on the way to Mount Sinai by means of the pillar of cloud and fire, so now the same pillar would rest on the tabernacle. God was indeed present with his people. Here was comfort for uneasy hearts.
Wiersbe: The Israelites were a pilgrim people, marching through the wilderness like an army, and they constantly needed the guidance of God. Their goal was the Promised Land, and the God who delivered them from Egypt promised to bring them into their inheritance if they would trust Him and obey His will.
Harrison: This section recapitulates the events of Ex. 40:34 and describes in greater detail the significance of the cloud that had settled on the Tabernacle. To that extent the material helps to integrate the narratives of Exodus and numbers into the same chronological sequence.
I. (:15-16) PHENOMENA OF THE CLOUD AND THE FIRE SIGNIFYING THE PRESENCE OF GOD
A. (:15) Appearance of the Cloud and the Fire
1. Appearance of the Cloud
“Now on the day that the tabernacle was erected
the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the testimony,”
J. Ligon Duncan: The cloud is a picture, whether by day or night, of God’s nearness to and presence with His people. The cloud makes visible God’s nearness to and presence with His people. If the tabernacle serves as a tangible, material reminder that God is dwelling in the midst of His people and that His people meet with Him in this appointed place of meeting, which God has commanded and described and called for the construction of.
So the cloud is a supernatural manifestation of God dwelling in the midst of His people, and it’s not surprising that the cloud rests upon the tabernacle itself. As the tabernacle is the visible, tangible place where the people of God see the nearness of God to them, so the cloud supernaturally makes God’s nearness to and presence with the people of God visible. And so it shows God’s guiding and guarding of the children of Israel, His providence, and His protection. It serves to show them when they are to move out and when they are to camp. And so the cloud is a symbol, a supernatural act of God, of tremendous significance to the children of Israel.
Harrison: Some commentators have thought that the cloudy pillar of the Exodus and the cloud that descended on the Tabernacle were identical. Although this is possible, Thompson is probably correct in supposing that there were two different phenomena involved: (1) the guiding cloud, and (2) the cloud of God’s presence. In any event, the very fact that a cloud was in existence in the wilderness in such close proximity to the ground is an amazing occurrence in itself, since clouds are unusual features of the wilderness environment. . .
Its brightness by night proclaimed God’s sovereignty, while its darkness during the day concealed His majesty. The lifting of the cloud would constitute the signal for the tribes of Israel to move their camp, and conversely, when the cloud halted at a particular place, the tribes pitched their tents and remained in that location until the cloud rose once more.
2. Appearance of the Fire
“and in the evening it was like the appearance of fire over the tabernacle, until morning.”
B. (:16a) Consistent Pattern of the Cloud and the Fire
“So it was continuously;”
Brown: The cloud inspired their confidence in God. Despite their evident failings, he had promised to go with them and here was a visible sign of his reliable presence. There were times when their hearts willfully or carelessly turned away from him, but he did not remove the cloud: That is how it continued to be. He had promised in his firm agreement that they could count on his unfailing companionship throughout their days. Day and night it was a continuing reassurance to the travelers and a serious warning to their enemies: God was with them.
C. (:16b) Appearance of the Cloud and the Fire
1. Appearance of the Cloud
“the cloud would cover it by day,”
2. Appearance of the Fire
“and the appearance of fire by night.”
3 DESCRIPTIONS OF THE LORD’S GUIDANCE:
II. (:17-18) DESCRIPTION #1: DEPARTURE AND ENCAMPMENT REGULATED BY THE LORD –
EMPHASIS ON DIVINE GUIDANCE DICTATING ISRAEL’S MOVEMENTS
A. (:17) Function of Guidance Provided by the Cloud of God’s Presence
1. Regarding Departure
“And whenever the cloud was lifted from over the tent,
afterward the sons of Israel would then set out;”
2. Regarding Encampment
“and in the place where the cloud settled down,
there the sons of Israel would camp.”
Ronald Allen: This phrasing [The English rendering “shekinah” is built on the verb meaning “to dwell”] symbolizes both God’s nearness and his remoteness. He is present as a cloud but hovers above; he is near as a fire, but one cannot draw very close.
B. (:18) Regulation of Guidance Provided by the Command of the Lord
1. Regarding Departure
“At the command of the LORD the sons of Israel would set out,”
Robert Rayburn: “At the Lord’s command” is the theme of this passage and its repetition in the following verses emphasizes it. They made their journey “at the Lord’s command” as it was expressed by the movement of the cloud, starting when it lifted from the sanctuary and stopping when it settled over it again and enveloped it. Israel’s march was directed by God, not man; not even by Moses
2. Regarding Encampment
a. Fact of Encampment
“and at the command of the LORD they would camp;”
b. Duration of Encampment
“as long as the cloud settled over the tabernacle,
they remained camped.”
III. (:19-22) DESCRIPTION #2: ENCAMPMENT AND DEPARTURE REGULATED BY THE LORD –
EMPHASIS ON THE UNPREDICTABLE NATURE OF THE DIVINE PLAN
A. (:19) Necessity of Patience vs. Presumption
“Even when the cloud lingered over the tabernacle for many days, the sons of Israel would keep the LORD’s charge and not set out.”
Ronald Allen: The movement of the cloud and its presence were unpredictable, without discernable pattern. This was to impress on the people the sense that it was God who was leading them, not some pattern of creation nor some whim from above.
B. (:20) Encampment Might Last a Few Days – Uncertainty of Timing
“If sometimes the cloud remained a few days over the tabernacle, according to the command of the LORD they remained camped.”
“Then according to the command of the LORD they set out.”
C. (:21) Encampment Might Be Very Short – Urgency of Moving Out
1. Be Ready to Move Out
“If sometimes the cloud remained from evening until morning,
when the cloud was lifted in the morning, they would move out;”
2. Be Ready to Move Out
“or if it remained in the daytime and at night,
whenever the cloud was lifted, they would set out.”
D. (:22) Encampment Might Last for a Long Time – Hold Your Water
“Whether it was two days or a month or a year that the cloud lingered over the tabernacle, staying above it, the sons of Israel remained camped and did not set out;”
“but when it was lifted, they did set out.”
IV. (:23) DESCRIPTION #3: ENCAMPMENT AND DEPARTURE REGULATED BY THE LORD –
EMPHASIS ON CONSISTENT OBEDIENCE TO THE LORD’S COMMAND
“At the command of the LORD they camped,”
“and at the command of the LORD they set out;”
C.H.M.: A more lovely picture of absolute dependence upon and subjection to divine guidance it were impossible to conceive than that presented in the foregoing paragraph. There was not a footprint or a landmark throughout that “great and terrible wilderness.” It was therefore useless to look for any guidance from those who had gone before. They were wholly cast upon God for every step of the way; they were in a position of constant waiting upon Him. This to an unsubdued mind – an unbroken will, would be intolerable; but to a soul knowing, loving, confiding, and delighting in God, nothing could be more deeply blessed. . .
There is nothing in all this world more deeply blessed than to lead a life of habitual dependence upon God; to hang upon Him moment by moment, to wait on Him and cling to Him for everything, to have all our sprigs in Him; it is the true secret of peace, and of holy independence of the creature.. The soul that can really say, “All my springs are in Thee” is lifted above all creature-confidences, human hopes, and earthly expectations.
1. To the Lord
“they kept the LORD’s charge,”
David Thompson: Verse 23 says they kept the command of the Lord. If Israel’s story would have stopped at verse 23, it would have been a great story. But it did not. This kind of commitment to God and His Word did not last long.
2. Through the Mediatorial Leadership of Moses
“according to the command of the LORD through Moses.”
Ronald Allen: The level of the tragedy of their subsequent disobedience is heightened by this paragraph of great obedience.
What role do spiritual leaders play in discerning God’s guidance in your life today?