April 2013 Yavoh Article
One of the most fascinating aspects of the wilderness journey for the Children of Israel was the cloud by day and the fire by night. God provided this visible sign to lead them in their journeys from Egypt through the wilderness until they reached the land He promised to them.
The cloud is called a pillar throughout Scripture because of its vertical shape. It was able to position itself, raising and lowering itself, over the tent of meeting, separating the children of Israel from Pharaoh’s chariots at the Red sea, and maneuver throughout the wilderness showing them where to camp.
The first reference to the cloud is at the first camp of their forty-year journey.
Then they set out from Succoth and camped in Etham on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people. EXO 13:20-22
Succoth was the first camping place of the children of Israel when they left Egypt. Succoth (also spelled Sukkot) means “booths" or "huts.” This is where the children of Israel set up their temporary dwellings, which they lived in until they came to the Promised Land. Apparently, the cloud appeared during the night and began leading them the next day to the camp called Etham.
It must have been a marvel for this pillar of cloud to appear at the front of the camp. Clouds are normal occurrences, but a cloud that is vertical in shape and that moves in front of you and then transforms into a fiery light at night would have been very unusual. The cloud was large enough that everyone traveling could see the direction to go. At night, the fire was bright enough to enable the travelers to continue traveling even after the sun had set. It had to have been brighter than full moonlight. Remember, the children of Israel left in the middle of the lunar month (15 Nisan) so the moon would have been full and just beginning to wane. The pillar probably had a reddish tint at night since they referred to it as a “fire.”
This pillar led the children of Israel toward the Red Sea in that first week when they were eating “unleavened bread.” But, as the story is recounted in Scripture, Pharaoh had a change of heart about letting Israel leave and dispatched his chariots to turn them back. They caught them at the Red Sea. Then the pillar did something truly unexpected. The pillar moved to defend them, positioning itself between the Egyptians and Israel. See how Moses describes this event.
The angel of God, who had been going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud along with the darkness, yet it gave light at night. Thus the one did not come near the other all night. EXO 14:19-20
Without a lot of explanation, the pillar of cloud is now understood to be the Angel of God. The Angel of God immediately invokes the thought of God’s power and force to stand against enemies. Cecil B. DeMille, in his movie The Ten Commandments, depicted this event with the cloud becoming a barrier of fire that night allowing Israel to cross the Red Sea. That seems to be the consensus of most Bible teachers, the fire by night not only illuminated the way for Israel to cross but it blocked Pharaoh’s chariots. Then the fire changed back into a cloud in the morning. But the Angel of God wasn't done.
At the morning watch, that the Lord looked down on the army of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and cloud and brought the army of the Egyptians into confusion. EXO 14:24
The confusion was caused by God pulling off chariot wheels, causing confusion and the Egyptians to drive their chariots with difficulty. The advance of the Egyptians against Israel was probably fragmented and highly disorganized. It must have been like a multi-car accident on the freeway with chariots careening in every direction because of the lost wheels. In any case, Pharaoh’s chariots found themselves stalled in the crossing path of the Red Sea, and the waters’ sudden return brought about their demise.
Turning back to the cloud, this event and the reference to the Angel of the Lord lends personality to the cloud. The cloud is really a person, one who can size up the situation and react to events. Whenever the ancients of Scripture met such a personality, they usually gave attribution to an angel, and Moses suggests something stronger. In fact, another event did happen en route to Mount Sinai.
The children of Israel began to mumble and grumble for the lack of food to eat. In response to this need, the Lord brought quail and manna to the camp, but the Lord’s presence was made known at this event by the glory of God appearing in the cloud.
It came about as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the sons of Israel, that they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “I have heard the grumblings of the sons of Israel; speak to them, saying, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’” So it came about at evening that the quails came up and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew evaporated, behold, on the surface of the wilderness there was a fine flake-like thing, fine as the frost on the ground. When the sons of Israel saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, “It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.” EXO 16:10-15
I do not know what was different about the appearance of the cloud that indicated the glory of God. I could speculate and say that the cloud may have become very bright, but it is clear that the Lord wanted Israel to know that the quail and manna were from Him and not just happenstance. So the personality of this cloud not only leads and reacts to danger, the Angel of the Lord (with the glory of God) also provides food for the people. This cloud is more than a novel way to lead Israel in the wilderness; the presence of God is taking shape.
The cloud then led the children of Israel to the base of Mount Sinai. Israel spent almost a year at this location. There is not a lot of explanation about the cloud itself during that time. Instead, the Scripture speaks of God coming down onto Mount Sinai in a large cloud and fire on the mountain.
The Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you and may also believe in you forever.” Then Moses told the words of the people to the Lord. EXO 19:9
God spoke from the mountain, followed by Moses going up the mountain to get the two tablets of God’s instructions. Did the cloud that led Israel to Mount Sinai join with the cloud on the mountain or did it just stand by waiting for the events on the mountain? We don’t know, but I would speculate that the cloud and fire on the mountain served in place of the cloud closer to the camp. In other words, the cloud by day and fire by night may have dissipated until the events at Mount Sinai were completed.
One of the last events at Mount Sinai was the construction of the tabernacle. The pillar again played a significant role.
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. EXO 40:34-35
Between the Lord giving the Torah at Mount Sinai and the erection of the tabernacle, there was a very significant negative event that we should consider. While Moses was on the mountain, a group of Israelites rose up against the Lord and made the golden calf. Moses returned with the tablets, threw them down in his anger, and those who participated were put to death (about 3,000 of them).
There is a lot of commentary on how this tragedy occurred. How could they have done this, having just left Egypt with all of its judgments, crossing the Red Sea, and witnessing God speak from atop the mountain giving them the Ten Commandments?
How could they make the golden calf with the cloud (even though it was on the mountain) still present with them every day? Remember, the light in the camp at night was still there. We can extend that question to other mistakes that took take place in the wilderness. The cloud was present every day, yet it didn’t seem to deter their unbelieving behavior against Moses or the Lord.
It seems that the presence of the cloud became common place in the minds of the Israelites and did not seem to register as significant. I find this disturbing because many of us today regard the Holy Spirit (God’s presence to lead us) in the same manner as Israel did the cloud.
There was a daily routine to the presence of the cloud, especially when Moses would receive instructions from the Lord.
Whenever Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent; and the Lord would speak with Moses. When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would arise and worship, each at the entrance of his tent. EXO 33:9-10
Throughout all their journeys whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the sons of Israel would set out; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day when it was taken up. For throughout all their journeys, the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and there was fire in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel. EXO 40:36-38
Once the tabernacle was constructed, the cloud remained over the tabernacle. When the cloud moved the tabernacle was disassembled and moved until the cloud came to rest. This entire description is given to us again in the book of Numbers.
Now on the day that the tabernacle was erected the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the testimony, and in the evening it was like the appearance of fire over the tabernacle, until morning. So it was continuously; the cloud would cover it by day, and the appearance of fire by night. Whenever the cloud was lifted from over the tent, afterward the sons of Israel would then set out; and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the sons of Israel would camp. At the command of the Lord the sons of Israel would set out, and at the command of the Lord they would camp; as long as the cloud settled over the tabernacle, they remained camped. 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. 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. If sometimes the cloud remained from evening until morning, when the cloud was lifted in the morning, they would move out; or if it remained in the daytime and at night, whenever the cloud was lifted, they would set out. 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. NUM 9:15-22
There are other Scriptures that note how God’s presence and leading was in the cloud. In fact, it is part of God’s faithfulness to Israel remaining with them on the wilderness journey. Nehemiah said it this way in poetic fashion.
You, in Your great compassion, did not forsake them in the wilderness; the pillar of cloud did not leave them by day, to guide them on their way, nor the pillar of fire by night, to light for them the way in which they were to go. NEH 9:19
The pillar and the tabernacle became integral parts of the camp of Israel. Whenever issues arose, God would make His presence known with the cloud over the tabernacle followed by God giving counsel to Moses. When the seventy elders of Israel were anointed to join Moses in leadership, the cloud was involved.
Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him [Moses]; and He took of the Spirit who was upon him and placed Him [the Holy Spirit] upon the seventy elders. And when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do it again. NUM 11:25
When Miriam (the sister of Moses) spoke against him, the Lord in the cloud corrected Miriam.
Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the doorway of the tent, and He called Aaron and Miriam. When they had both come forward,... But when the cloud had withdrawn from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow. As Aaron turned toward Miriam, behold, she was leprous. NUM 12:5, 10
Again, following the rebellion of Korah the people rebelled against the Lord because of how He judged Korah.
It came about, however, when the congregation had assembled against Moses and Aaron, that they turned toward the tent of meeting, and behold, the cloud covered it and the glory of the Lord appeared. NUM 16:42
Instead of a mild-mannered cloud of mist, the cloud became the very presence of Almighty God. The fear the Lord and His awe were revealed by the presence of the cloud. This is significant because this fear and awe would become part of the instruction for the cloud of incense inside the sanctuary of the tabernacle.
The Lord said to Moses, “Tell your brother Aaron that he shall not enter at any time into the holy place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, or he will die; for I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat. He shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the ark of the testimony, otherwise he will die.” LEV 16:2, 13
Maybe you have never made the observation before, but the cloud that led the children of Israel in the wilderness has the very same power and person (the very glory of God) which is inside the tabernacle, inside the Holy of Holies in the cloud of incense above the mercy seat. This is also worthy of note. While not explicitly written in Scripture, the traditional explanation of the smoke arising from the fire altar outside of the sanctuary was said to be a pillar. The wind would not cause the smoke to drift and blow about, either in the sanctuary or the temple in Jerusalem. It is said that the smoke rose straight up in pillar fashion before dispersing into the air. This is consistent with the cloud by day and fire by night.
We should also take note of a special activity that was done at the Feast of Tabernacles in the temple at Jerusalem. There were four great columns in the Court of Women on which would have been fires put on top during the nights of Tabernacles. These four lights would be directed toward the city of Jerusalem during the feast for all of the pilgrims there. It was said that this reminded them of how our ancestors journeyed in the wilderness living in booths and huts with the fiery light in the night time provided by God’s presence through the cloud.
It must have been fascinating to visit the temple during the Feast of Tabernacles, seeing the smoke rising from the altar, seeing the fires that illuminated the temple and surrounding area. Now, consider these amazing sights from Ezekiel’s testimony upon seeing the temple in heaven.
Now the cherubim were standing on the right side of the temple when the man entered, and the cloud filled the inner court. Then the glory of the Lord went up from the cherub to the threshold of the temple, and the temple was filled with the cloud, and the court was filled with the brightness of the glory of the Lord. EZE 10:3-4
The prophet Isaiah also had a vision of seeing the temple of God in heaven. This is how he relates to us the glory and a cloud of smoke.
Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. ISA 6:2-4
Let’s shift gears to the writings of the Apostles. Is there anything in the New Testament that compares to the events of the exodus and the tabernacle in the wilderness concerning the pillar? If the cloud was God’s presence in the camp, do we see a cloud when it comes to God’s presence (the Messiah) in the days of His ministry?
The answer is a resounding YES! Consider these events recorded in the Gospels.
The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all record the event of the transfiguration, when Yeshua appeared with Moses and Elijah in the presence of the disciples. A cloud was part of the transfiguration.
While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and behold, a voice out of the cloud, said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” MAT 17:5
Then a cloud formed, overshadowing them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is My beloved Son, listen to Him!” MAR 9:7
While he was saying this, a cloud formed and began to overshadow them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!” LUK 9:34-35
There is probably no more dramatic moment of Yeshua’s presence with His disciples than this. It is comparable to Moses meeting the Lord in the cloud. This is as impactful as when, following His crucifixion, Yeshua departed from them and ascended into the cloud.
And after He [Yeshua] had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. ACT 1:9
It is clear from the testimony of the Tanach that the appearance of the cloud by day and the fire by night is the very presence of God—His glory, His power, and His majesty. But it is also clear that this very cloud was part of Yeshua’s presence with us when He came to do the work of redemption. The cloud is not just a thing of the past. The cloud has a future and it involves us as the final generation.
The Apostle Paul refers to this future by reminding us of the lessons of the cloud in the past.
For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 1COR 10:1-2
Paul recounts how the children of Israel, despite the presence of the cloud and the incredible events that God brought about, continued to grumble, craved the wrong things, rose up to play (with the golden calf), and were immoral. He then relates that we should learn from their misdeeds and mistakes. He concludes that we will be tested at the end of the ages.
Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. 1COR 10:11
When the great tribulation comes and many brethren escape to the camp of the righteous as part of the “greater exodus,” I am not sure that our generation will do much better than our forefathers did. I believe we too will have a cloud by day and a fire by night in our camps. I base this on Paul’s reference to the end and the prophet Isaiah referring to the tribulation saints who escape, survive, and endure.
In that day the Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the earth will be the pride and the adornment of the survivors of Israel. It will come about that he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy—everyone who is recorded for life in Jerusalem. When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and purged the bloodshed of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning, then the LORD will create over the whole area of Mount Zion and over her assemblies [the camps of the righteous in the greater exodus] a cloud by day, even smoke, and the brightness of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory will be a canopy. There will be a shelter [a sukkah] to give shade from the heat by day, and refuge and protection from the storm and the rain. ISA 4:2-6
This is clearly a future prophecy. It is not talking about the exodus of Egypt; it is talking about the events at the end of the age as part of the great tribulation.
Consider this thought and our future as the final generation. We escape from our homes and cities, joining other brethren in our sukkahs (booths, huts, tabernacles, and tents). God leads us from camping location to camping location with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. In our day, to what extent will we recognize God’s power and presence in the camp with us by the witness of the cloud? Will we learn the lessons of the past and not make the same kinds of mistakes that our ancestors made? Will we understand the meaning of the cloud and recognize God’s presence with us? I hope that we will, but given that we are sons and daughters of the ancients, we will have to learn quickly. I fear that our life in the nations, with its pleasures and comforts, has pre-conditioned us to make the same mistakes of the past.
Will we hold the presence of the cloud in awe and respect of God?
I believe I know the answer to this and the answer is YES. I don’t know about the cloud that will be seen in the camp as we travel. We will probably have to deal with a lot of rebels and those who won’t trust the Lord, but I believe we will do the right thing when the Lord comes down from heaven in a cloud.
And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. LUK 21:27
On that day, everyone (believer and unbeliever) will be compelled to take note of that cloud and the presence of God. That will be a glorious day because the cloud will shine very brightly!
Let me conclude with these thoughts.
The Messiah was in the cloud; He led the children of Israel out of Egypt. He is the One who leads us to the Father and His Instruction (the Torah). He is the One who builds the tabernacle in our hearts and inhabits it. He is the One who takes us to the Promised Land. The same cloud was there when the disciples heard the voice of the Father say, “This is my beloved Son...” It is the same cloud that Yeshua ascended to heaven in. It is the same cloud that we should expect to see in the camps when we escape the great tribulation. It will be the same cloud that will bring Him back to rule and reign from Jerusalem.