34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35 And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 36 Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. 37 But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. 38 For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys. – Exodus 40:34-38 ESV
The book of Exodus ends with a somewhat small but highly significant section of verses that provide the conclusion to the Israelite’s Sinai experience. They had been camped at this location for more than a year and, during that time, much had taken place. And this region had a special significance to Moses because it was at this same spot that he had received his commission from God to serve as the deliverer of Israel. Long before he had taken on this formidable responsibility to lead the Israelites from captivity in Egypt to the land of Canaan, Moses had been shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep near Mount Sinai. On one occasion, Moses’ attention was drawn to a strange and inexplicable sight.
He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” – Exodus 3:2-4 ESV
Much to Moses’ surprise, the bush spoke to him, and little did he know at the moment that the voice he heard was that of Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
“Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” – Exodus 3:5 ESV
Moses had entered a holy place because God Almighty had graced it with His presence. His divine glory appeared in tongues of flame that engulfed an ordinary bush but left it fully intact and unharmed. In a sense, that bush had become an earthly sanctuary for God – if just for a moment. Its original purpose had been dramatically altered as it was transformed into a temporary repository for God’s holy presence.
For a brief moment in time, God had turned a common and otherwise insignificant bush into a sanctuary in which Moses might commune with Him. By God’s grace, that remote desert location had become a place of worship and intimate fellowship with Him. It was holy ground and, from that spot, God spoke to Moses.
“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” – Exodus 3:7-8 ESV
Yahweh revealed His glory and His will to Moses. And now, more than a year later, God was going to reenact this divine encounter yet again. But this time, the place of meeting would be the newly erected Tabernacle and not a burning bush. With the Tabernacle now complete, it was time for God to fulfill His promise and take up residence within it. During his initial encounter with Yahweh at the burning bush, Moses had received the following promise.
“I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” – Exodus 3:12 ESV
God had kept His word. Moses had served God on Mount Sinai. It was there, on the top of the mountain, that God had revealed His glory once again.
All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently. – Exodus 19:18 NLT
The Lord came down on the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses climbed the mountain. – Exodus 19:20 NLT
God called and Moses obeyed. He climbed to the top of the mountain and entered into God’s presence, where he received God’s laws and His plans for the Tabernacle.
“Have the people of Israel build me a holy sanctuary so I can live among them. You must build this Tabernacle and its furnishings exactly according to the pattern I will show you.” – Exodus 25:8-9 NLT
Moses had kept his end of the agreement, having successfully overseen the fashioning and erecting of the Tabernacle. He had inspected every facet of the project and given it his approval. But now, it was up to God to give His Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval by blessing the Tabernacle with His presence. And Moses rather matter-of-factly records, “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34 ESV).
It was as if the glory of God had descended from the top of Mount Sinai and settled upon the Tabernacle. The same manifestation of His divine presence that had guided the Israelites ever since they left Egypt had now come to rest over the Tabernacle. The pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire would appear over the top of the Tabernacle, providing the Israelites with a visual reminder that God was home and dwelling in their midst. Moses states that “the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:35 ESV). He was unable to provide an explanation as to how this glory manifested itself, because he was not allowed to enter the Holy of Holies where God’s glory rested above the Mercy Seat on top of the Ark of the Covenant. But all the people were given a clear and unmistakable sign of God’s presence in the Tabernacle. As long as the pillar of cloud or the pillar of fire appeared over the Tabernacle, they would know that their God was near. He had not left or forsaken them.
But as soon as the pillar lifted up from the Tabernacle, they knew it was time to pack up and prepare to go.
Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. – Exodus 40:36-37 ESV
The Tabernacle had been designed and constructed to ensure its portability. It was to be a temporary and transportable structure that could be moved from place to place. But once God’s glory settled at a new location, the people were to stop and immediately reassemble the Tabernacle. God’s house was to be their highest priority because God’s presence was their greatest need. Without Him, they were hopeless, helpless, directionless, and powerless. Any hopes they had of making it to the land of promise and conquering the nations that lived there would be dashed if the Lord ever left them. His presence wasn’t a pleasant perk but a life-or-death necessity. The only thing that set them apart from the other nations was the presence and power of God. Without Him, they were no different than the many pagan people groups that occupied the land of Canaan.
The book of Exodus ends with the Tabernacle completed, the law given, the priesthood established, the sacrificial system inaugurated, and God’s presence in place. Everything was just as God had planned it. His will had been obeyed and He had blessed His people with the reality of His divine presence among them. Now, it was time to complete the rest of their journey to the promised land. The Tabernacle and Sinai were not their final destination. God had more in store for them, and the best was yet to come.
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.