15 On the day that the tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the testimony. And at evening it was over the tabernacle like the appearance of fire until morning. 16 So it was always: the cloud covered it by day and the appearance of fire by night. 17 And whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, after that the people of Israel set out, and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the people of Israel camped. 18 At the command of the Lord the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the Lord they camped. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. 19 Even when the cloud continued over the tabernacle many days, the people of Israel kept the charge of the Lord and did not set out. 20 Sometimes the cloud was a few days over the tabernacle, and according to the command of the Lord they remained in camp; then according to the command of the Lord they set out. 21 And sometimes the cloud remained from evening until morning. And when the cloud lifted in the morning, they set out, or if it continued for a day and a night, when the cloud lifted they set out. 22 Whether it was two days, or a month, or a longer time, that the cloud continued over the tabernacle, abiding there, the people of Israel remained in camp and did not set out, but when it lifted they set out. 23 At the command of the Lord they camped, and at the command of the Lord they set out. They kept the charge of the Lord, at the command of the Lord by Moses. – Numbers 9:15-23 ESV
When the people of Israel had been released from their captivity in Egypt, they had begun their journey to the land of Canaan under the leadership of Moses. But they had also been blessed by the visible manifestation of God’s presence.
But God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.…And they moved on from Succoth and encamped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people. – Exodus 13:18, 20-21 ESV
This miraculous demonstration of God’s presence and power was intended to bring the Israelites comfort and security. It was visible proof that He was not only among them but was guiding and directing their every step. Just before God parted the Red Sea so that His people could cross over on dry ground, He had placed Himself between the camps of the Israelites and the Egyptians.
The pillar of cloud also moved from the front and stood behind them. The cloud settled between the Egyptian and Israelite camps. As darkness fell, the cloud turned to fire, lighting up the night. But the Egyptians and Israelites did not approach each other all night. – Exodus 14:19-20 NLT
God protected His people. He illuminated their lives with His glory and assured them that He would always go before them, no matter what they faced along the way.
Years later, Moses would set up a tent on the outskirts of the Israelite camp, where he would meet with God. This “tent of meeting” was a place of communion and communication between God and His chosen leader.
When 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. And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. – Exodus 33:9-11 ESV
Once the people had finished fabricating all the pieces that would form the new tabernacle, they dedicated it to God. This new facility would become the new tent of meeting and God confirmed His approval of this “house” by consecrating it by the manifestation of His divine glory.
On the day that the tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the testimony. And at evening it was over the tabernacle like the appearance of fire until morning. So it was always: the cloud covered it by day and the appearance of fire by night. – Numbers 9:15-16 ESV
Every time the people of Israel stopped for an extended period of time, they set up their camp with the tabernacle strategically located in the center. The 12 tribes would then pitch their own tents around the circumference of God’s dwelling place. And as long as the pillar of cloud or fire remained above the tabernacle, the people would know that they were to remain in that spot until further notice.
Whenever the cloud lifted from over the sacred tent, the people of Israel would break camp and follow it. And wherever the cloud settled, the people of Israel would set up camp. In this way, they traveled and camped at the Lord’s command wherever he told them to go. Then they remained in their camp as long as the cloud stayed over the Tabernacle. – Numbers 9:17-18 NLT
Here in chapter 9, God reveals how He chose to lead the people of Israel. He appeared to them in the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God’s presence would hover over His dwelling, signifying that He was with them. As long as the cloud or pillar of fire was there, they were to remain right where they were. But as soon as the cloud or fire moved, they were to pack up and head out. It didn’t matter if the cloud was there for two days, a month, or a solid year. As long as God’s presence remained, they stayed put. It was a pretty simple system. Or so it would seem.
But think about it. They were at the complete mercy of God. Sure, there was comfort in the fact that they could look up at any moment, day or night, and see the manifest presence of God, but they also had to be prepared at any moment, day or night, to pack up and head out – no matter how comfortable they may have felt in their present location.
And setting up camp would not have been an easy or enviable task. The tabernacle alone would have been a chore to reconstruct every time they relocated. And if they got to a site and spent all night getting everything arranged, and then God’s presence moved, they were expected to pack up everything and follow.
This was about obedience; not their comfort or convenience. The lifting up of the cloud was intended to be a clear sign from God that it was time to break camp and follow His lead to the next destination. The Israelites didn’t need to ask what God’s will might be, they simply had to keep their eyes on the cloud and follow it wherever it led.
The truth is, that most of us already know God’s will for our lives, but we choose to ignore or avoid it. The real issue is that we don’t want to obey it because we find it inconvenient or impractical. I think there had to be times when the people became impatient with God, wondering why He hovered over one spot for so long. They wanted to get to the promised land, but for some reason, He had decided to stop in some obscure spot in the wilderness. And as long as He stayed, they were stymied. They couldn’t move without Him.
There were probably other times they got comfortable right where they were, only to have God’s presence pick up and move. This had to have frustrated them as they wondered, wondering why God kept disrupting their comfort with His constant wanderings. But when God moved, they were to follow – obediently.
While the Bible doesn’t make it clear, there had to be some kind of system established for the people to know when God was moving. So they probably had sentinels set up to watch the sky over the tabernacle 24/7. Someone had to warn the people when it moved, so they could react. The people were kept in a constant state of uncertainty, never knowing from one day to the next what their next move might be or when it might occur. So, they were obliged to hold themselves in constant readiness to march on a very short warning. But isn’t that how we should live our lives? Constantly waiting on God. Waiting on Him to direct our paths. Looking for His presence in our lives and seeking to know when He is moving and where He might be leading us.
God’s will is that we seek Him. God’s will is that we live for Him. God’s will is that we obey Him. We are to look for His movements in our lives. We are to seek His direction by watching Him. Today, rather than a tabernacle, we have His Word. We can spend time in it, seeking to meet with Him and waiting for Him to direct our paths. But too often, we get comfortable and find His will for our lives inconvenient, so we ignore it. We hear Him speaking. We see the handwriting on the wall, but we refuse to do what it says. The Scriptures speak to us, but we tend to rationalize away what they have to say, deeming their content as impractical or impossible. But God calls His people to obedience. He doesn’t ask us to obey when it’s convenient or pleasant. He expects us to move when He moves – day or night – willingly, obediently, faithfully.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.