Here is, I. The choice God made of their way, Exod. 13:17, 18. He was their guide. Moses gave them direction but as he received it from the Lord. Note, The way of man is not in himself, Jer. 10:23. He may devise his way, and design it; but, after all, it is God that directs his steps, Prov. 16:9. Man proposes, but God disposes, and in his disposal we must acquiesce, and set ourselves to follow providence. There were two ways from Egypt to Canaan. One was a short cut from the north of Egypt to the south of Canaan, perhaps about four or five days’ journey; the other was much further about, through the wilderness, and that was the way in which God chose to lead his people Israel, Exod. 13:18. 1. There were many reasons why God led them through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea. The Egyptians were to be drowned in the Red Sea. The Israelites were to be humbled and proved in the wilderness, Deut. 8:2. God had given it to Moses for a sign (Exod. 3:12), You shall serve God in this mountain. They had again and again told Pharaoh that they must go three days’ journey into the wilderness to do sacrifice, and therefore it was requisite that they should bend their march that way, else they would justly have been exclaimed against as notorious dissemblers. Before they entered the lists with their enemies, matters must be settled between them and their God, laws must be given, ordinances instituted, covenants sealed, and the original contract ratified, for the doing of which it was necessary that they should retire into the solitudes of a wilderness, the only closet for such a crowd; the high road would be no proper place for these transactions. It is said (Deut. 32:10), He led them about, some hundreds of miles about, and yet (Ps. 107:7), He led them forth by the right way. God’s way is the right way, though it seem about. If we think he leads not his people the nearest way, yet we may be sure he leads them the best way, and so it will appear when we come to our journey’s end. Judge nothing before the time. 2. There was one reason why God did not lead them the nearest way, which would have brought them after a few days’ march to the land of the Philistines (for it was that part of Canaan that lay next to Egypt), namely, because they were not as yet fit for war, much less for war with the Philistines, Exod. 13:17. Their spirits were broken with slavery; it was not easy for them to turn their hands of a sudden from the trowel to the sword. The Philistines were formidable enemies, too fierce to be encountered by raw recruits; it was more suitable that they should begin with the Amalekites, and be prepared for the wars of Canaan by experiencing the difficulties of the wilderness. Note, God proportions his people’s trials to their strength, and will not suffer them to be tempted above what they are able, 1 Cor. 10:13. That promise, if compared with the foregoing verses, will seem to refer to this event, as an instance of it. God knows our frame, and considers our weakness and faintheartedness, and by less trials will prepare us for greater. God is said to bring Israel out of Egypt as the eagle brings up her young ones (Deut. 32:11), teaching them by degrees to fly. Orders being thus given which way they should go, we are told, (1.) That they went up themselves, not as a confused rout, but in good order, rank and file: they went up harnessed, Exod. 13:18. They went up by five in a rank (so some), in five squadrons, so others. They marched like an army with banners, which added much to their strength and honour. (2.) That they took the bones of Joseph along with them (Exod. 13:19), and probably the bones of the rest of Jacob’s sons, unless (as some think) they had been privately carried to Canaan (Acts 7:16), severally as they died. Joseph had particularly appointed that his bones should be carried up when God should visit the (Gen. 50:25, 26), so that their carrying up his bones was not only a performance of the oath their fathers had sworn to Joseph, but an acknowledgment of the performance of God’s promise to them by Joseph that he would visit them and bring them out of the land of Egypt, and an encouragement to their faith and hope that he would fulfil the other part of the promise, which was to bring them to Canaan, in expectation of which they carried these bones with them while they wandered in the desert. They might think, “Joseph’s bones must rest at last, and then we shall.” Moses is said to take these bones with him. Moses was now a very great man; so had Joseph been in his day, yet he was now but a box full of dry bones; this was all that remained of him in this world, which might serve for a monitor to Moses to remember his mortality. I have said, You are gods; it was said so to Moses expressly (Exod. 7:1); but you shall die like men.
II. Here is the guidance they were blessed with in the way: The Lord went before them in a pillar, Exod. 13:21, 22. In the first two stages it was enough that God directed Moses whither to march: he knew the country and the road well enough; but now that they had come to the edge of the wilderness (Exod. 13:20) they would have occasion for a guide; and a very good guide they had, one that was infinitely wise, kind, and faithful: The Lord went before them, the shechinah (or appearance of the divine Majesty, which was typical of Christ) or a previous manifestation of the eternal Word, which, in the fulness of time, was to be made flesh, and dwell among us. Christ was with the church in the wilderness, 1 Cor. 10:9. Now their King passed before them, even the Lord on the head of them, Mic. 2:13. Note, Those whom God brings into a wilderness he will not leave nor lose there, but will take care to lead them through it; we may well think it was a very great satisfaction to Moses and the pious Israelites to be sure that they were under divine guidance. Those needed not to fear missing their way who were thus led, nor being lost who were thus directed; those needed not to fear being benighted who were thus illuminated, nor being robbed who were thus protected. Those who make the glory of God their end, and the word of God their rule, the Spirit of God the guide of their affections, and the providence of God the guide of their affairs, may be confident that the Lord goes before them, as truly as he went before Israel in the wilderness, though not so sensibly; we must live by faith. 1. They had sensible evidences of God’s going before them. They all saw an appearance from heaven of a pillar, which in the bright day appeared cloudy, and in the dark night appeared fiery. We commonly see that that which is a flame in the night is a smoke in the day; so was this. God gave them this ocular demonstration of his presence, in compassion to the infirmity of their faith, and in compliance with that infant state of the church, which needed to be thus lisped to in their own language; but blessed are those that have not seen and yet have believed God’s gracious presence with them, according to his promise. 2. They had sensible effects of God’s going before them in this pillar. For, (1.) It led the way in that vast howling wilderness, in which there was no road, no track, no way-mark, of which they had no maps, through which they had no guides. When they marched, this pillar went before them, at the rate that they could follow, and appointed the place of their encampment, as Infinite Wisdom saw fit, which both eased them from care, and secured them from danger, both in moving and in resting. (2.) It sheltered them by day from the heat, which, at some times of the year, was extreme. (3.) It gave them light by night when they had occasion for it, and at all times made their camp pleasant and the wilderness they were in less frightful.
III. These were constant standing miracles (Exod. 13:22): He took not away the pillar of cloud; no, not when they seemed to have less occasion for it, travelling through inhabited countries, no, not when they murmured and were provoking; it never left them, till it brought them to the borders of Canaan. It was a cloud which the wind could not scatter. This favour is acknowledged with thankfulness long afterwards, Neh. 9:19; Ps. 78:14. There was something spiritual in this pillar of cloud and fire. 1. The children of Israel were baptized unto Moses in this cloud, which, some think, distilled dew upon them, 1 Cor. 10:2. By coming under this cloud, they signified their putting themselves under the divine guidance and command by the ministry of Moses. Protection draws allegiance; this cloud was the badge of God’s protection, and so became the bond of their allegiance. Thus they were initiated, and admitted under that government, now when they were entering upon the wilderness. 2. Some make this cloud a type of Christ. The cloud of his human nature was a veil to the light and fire of his divine nature; we find him (Rev. 10:1) clothed with a cloud, and his feet as pillars of fire. Christ is our way, the light of our way and the guide of it. 3. It signified the special guidance and protection which the church of Christ is under in this world. God himself is the keeper of Israel, and he neither slumbers nor sleeps, Ps. 121:4; Isa. 27:3. There is a defence created, not only on Sion’s assemblies, but on every dwelling-place in Sion. See Isa. 4:5, 6. Nay, every Israelite indeed is hidden under the shadow of God’s wings (Ps. 17:8); angels, whose ministry was made use of in this cloud, are employed for their good, and pitch their tents about them. Happy art thou, O Israel! who is like unto thee, O people?