Led Through the Wilderness

As we observe the appointed time of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) once again, we remember that YHWH has dwelt (tabernacled) amongst His people in times past, just as He promises to do throughout the ages. We are called to particularly remember that He caused the Israelites to live in temporary dwellings during their wilderness journeys after leaving Egypt (Lev 23:43).

This year, I want to focus on the words we find in Numbers 9:15-23. We read that on the very day that the tabernacle was first erected (almost a year after the first Passover), an amazing thing happened. The cloud that had been leading the Israelites covered the tabernacle, and that night transformed into the appearance of fire (v15). This continued throughout their wanderings: “So it was always: the cloud covered it by day and the appearance of fire by night” (v16). We see similar words describing the cloud’s original appearance as the Israelites left Egypt (Exodus 13:21-22). We are told that “the column of cloud did not cease by day, nor the column of fire by night, before the people”.

Clearly, YHWH was with the Israelites in this special, and miraculous way from the land of Egypt and throughout all their time in the wilderness. In the Numbers passage, though, we see a bit of a shift. Not only is YHWH going to lead by the cloud and fire, but He also now rests amongst His people within their camp. Isn’t this a great picture of Sukkot?!

Have you ever thought that the annual memorialising of living in temporary dwellings seems a little odd? I mean, compared to the Passover and Israel’s freedom from slavery it seems somewhat trivial, doesn’t it? What about remembering something like a famous victory in battle instead? Well, I think we all know that YHWH has reasons for all these things, and His reasons are far superior and more important than any of our ideas.

I actually think that this passage in Numbers gives us some understanding in these matters. Perhaps the very point of Israel living in temporary dwellings was to direct their attention onto much more important and eternal matters. And, with YHWH Himself coming to dwell amongst the people, I believe we’re seeing one big part of the lesson. Here was THE Creator, the eternal Elohim, coming down to those living temporary lives in temporary dwellings. The contrast couldn’t be more stark!

We must remember that we are, indeed, temporary beings living in temporary bodies. It’s not something us humans care to think about too much, but we are fooling ourselves if we think otherwise. I’ve certainly found that as my age increases, it becomes more evident that this body of mine is not going to last forever. And you know what? Perhaps that’s a good thing! We see in Sukkot, that YHWH is desiring to dwell with His people and He promises, in fact, that He will place His Spirit (His set apart Ruach) in us. If we abide in Him, He will abide in us. Think upon this, because it is truly something absolutely amazing and worthy of much praise!

There is another obvious aspect we read in Numbers concerning YHWH’s presence within the cloud and fire. We see how special and amazing it was for the cloud to come and dwell within the heart of the camp, but we also see that YHWH led and guided His people through this same cloud. We are told that when the cloud rested on the Tabernacle, the Israelites stayed where they were, and when the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites travelled to a new destination, to wherever the cloud directed. We’re told that the movement of the cloud was literally YHWH’s commandment to His people. “At the commandment of YHWH they rested in the tents, and at the commandment of YHWH they journeyed: they kept the charge of YHWH.” (v23)

I was thinking about this, and what it would have been like for you and me living in the Israelite camp during the Exodus times. I can imagine waking up early, and leaving the tent to see what sort of day we are in for. I see the pre-dawn light on the eastern horizon and then look over to the tabernacle in the centre of our large encampment, just as I do each morning. Even as I’m watching, I see the fiery cloud begin to lift. I’ve seen this many times before, but I still watch in wonder as I see the real, tangible evidence of our God directing His people in His ways. I call out to the family inside the tent, “It’s manna time kids. We need to hurry because we’re packing up and journeying today!”

What a clear and obvious method this was in commanding and leading His people! There was no need for great wisdom or some form of deciphering . It was a simple matter of looking at the cloud – and then following. And, from what we read in the Torah, this command appeared to be followed every day for 40 years with only one exception – when some tried to enter the Promised Land against YHWH’s will (Num 14). 

Obviously, we don’t have this same cloud and fire showing us where we should be going each day. Many would say that we now have the Holy Spirit (Ruach), and I would certainly agree with that. However, we need to recognise that the cloud did not continue to guide those early Israelites either! It’s interesting that we are never actually told in Scripture when the pillar of cloud and fire ceased. It is very likely, though, that the end coincided with Israel’s entry into the promised land. Concerning the crossing of the Jordan River into Canaan, we are told (in Jos 3:3) that Joshua “commanded the people, “As soon as you see the ark of the covenant of YHWH your God being carried by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place and follow it.” It wasn’t the cloud they followed here, but the ark of the covenant. If this was the first day without the cloud leading, it occurred on the tenth day of the first month. This was the day that the Passover lamb was selected and kept apart from the flock.

Imagine waking up the following day. As the people came out of their tents, they finally stood on the ground of the promised land – but the pillar of cloud was not there! I’m sure they were excited, but equally sure there was some uncertainty as well. Things were different! For forty years, the cloud of YHWH had guided their every step, but now what happens? Had He left them to their own defences? He definitely didn’t! He promised that He would go before them and enable them to remove the wicked people from the land. He also continued to dwell in a special way within the ark of the covenant.

YHWH never left His people when the cloud departed, but life changed. The Israelites went on to conquer much of the land, just as they were commanded to do, and then began to settle that land in their own permanent dwellings. There wasn’t a requirement anymore to see where YHWH was directing them, because He had brought them from a land of slavery into their own land to live happily ever after. The problem is – they forgot some valuable lessons that they had learnt on their way to the promised land and, in the end, they were exiled from that place once again. If only they remembered Sukkot!!

As we live in our own temporary dwellings (tents) for the special feast this year, we would do well to remember the lessons that come with this time. We also are temporary – “For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appears for a little time, and then vanishes away.” (Jam 4:14) Yet, in the midst of our temporary lives, YHWH comes and dwells with us! We are not alone, we are not unprotected, and we are not without direction and guidance. This should fill us with great joy and great confidence to live for our God every day of our lives. Everything we see around us is temporary, but the eternal Creator is here with us, and He will lead us into the fullness of His Kingdom! What more could we want?!

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