We have here the history of the cloud; not a natural history: who knows the balancings of the clouds? but a divine history of a cloud that was appointed to be the visible sign and symbol of God’s presence with Israel.
I. When the tabernacle was finished this cloud, which before had hung on high over their camp, settled upon the tabernacle, and covered it, to show that God manifests his presence with his people in and by his ordinances; there he makes himself known, and to them we must look if we would see the beauty of the Lord, Ps. 27:4; Ezek. 37:26; 27. Thus God glorified his own appointments, and signified his acceptance of his people’s love and obedience.
II. That which appeared as a cloud by day appeared as a fire all night. Had it been a cloud only, it would not have been visible by night; and, had it been a fire only, it would have been scarcely discernible by day; but God would give them sensible demonstrations of the constancy of his presence with them, and his care of them, and that he kept them night and day, Isa. 27:3; Ps. 121:6. And thus we are taught to set God always before us, and to see him near us both night and day. Something of the nature of that divine revelation which the Old-Testament church was governed by might also be signified by these visible signs of God’s presence, the cloud denoting the darkness and the fire the terror of that dispensation, in comparison with the more clear and comfortable discoveries God has made of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ.
III. This pillar of cloud and fire directed and determined all the motions, marches, and encampments, of Israel in the wilderness. 1. As long as the cloud rested upon the tabernacle, so long they continued in the same place, and never stirred; though no doubt they were very desirous to be pressing forward in their journey towards Canaan, where they longed to be and hoped to be quickly, yet as long as the cloud rested, if it was a month or a year, so long they rested, Num. 9:22. Note, He that believeth doth not make haste. There is no time lost while we are waiting God’s time. It is as acceptable a piece of submission to the will of God to sit still contentedly when our lot requires it as to work for him when we are called to it. 2. When the cloud was taken up, they removed, how comfortably soever they were encamped, Num. 9:17. Whether it moved by day or night, they delayed not to attend its motions (Num. 9:21), and probably there were some appointed to stand sentinel day and night within sight of it, to give timely notice to the camp of its beginning to stir, and this called keeping the charge of the Lord. The people, being thus kept at a constant uncertainty, and having no time fixed for stopping or removing, were obliged to hold themselves in constant readiness to march upon very short warning. And for the same reason we are kept at uncertainty concerning the time of our putting off the earthly house of this tabernacle, that we may be always ready to remove at the commandment of the Lord. 3. As long and as far as the cloud moved, so long and so far they marched, and just where it abode they pitched their tents about it, and God’s tent under it, Num. 9:17. Note, It is uncomfortable staying when God has departed, but very safe and pleasant going when we see God go before us and resting where he appoints us to rest. This is repeated again and again in these verses, because it was a constant miracle, and often repeated, and what never failed in all their travels, and because it is a matter which we should take particular notice of as very significant and instructive. It is mentioned long after by David (Ps. 105:39), and by the people of God after their captivity, Neh. 9:19. And the guidance of this cloud is spoken of as signifying the guidance of the blessed Spirit. Isa. 63:14; The Spirit of the Lord caused him to rest, and so didst thou lead thy people. This teaches us, (1.) The particular care God takes of his people. Nothing could be more expressive and significant of God’s tenderness of Israel than the guidance of this cloud was; it led them by the right way (Ps. 107:7), went on their pace: God did by it, as it were, cover them with his feathers. We are not now to expect such sensible tokens of the divine presence and guidance as this was, but the promise is sure to all God’s spiritual Israel that he will guide them by his counsel (Ps. 73:24), even unto death (Ps. 48:14), that all the children of God shall be led by the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:14), that he will direct the paths of those who in all their ways acknowledge him, Prov. 3:6. There is a particular providence conversant about all their affairs, to direct and overrule them for the best. The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, Ps. 37:23. (2.) The particular regard we ought to have to God in all our ways. In our affections and actions we must follow the direction of his word and Spirit; all the motions of our souls must be guided by the divine will; at the commandment of the Lord our hearts should always move and rest; in all our affairs we must follow Providence, reconciling ourselves to all its disposals, and bringing our mind to our condition, whatever it is. The people of Israel, having the cloud for their guide, were eased of the trouble of holding councils of war, to consider when and whither they should march, which might have occasioned strifes and debates among them: nor needed they to send spies before to inform them of the posture of the country, or pioneers to clear the way, or officers to mark out their camp; the pillar of cloud did all this for them: and those that by faith commit their works to the Lord, though they are bound to the prudent use of means, yet may in like manner be easy in the expectation of the event. “Father, thy will be done; dispose of me and mine as thou pleasest; here I am, desirous to be found waiting on my God continually, to journey and rest at the commandment of the Lord. What thou wilt, and where thou wilt, only let me be thine, and always in the way of my duty.”
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