The cloud was also God’s means for guidance. That was clear from some of the passages we read. When the cloud rose up from over the tabernacle and began to move off, the people were supposed to move off, too. When the cloud stopped the people were to stop. As Nehemiah says, “By day the pillar of cloud did not cease to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night, to shine on the way they were to take” (v. 19). Another passage that gives more detail is Numbers 9:15-23.
Don’t you wish God would lead you with such clear direction like that? The cloud would set out and you would know that you are to go. And when the cloud would stop you would know that you were to stop. But I wonder whether you and I would really like it. The reason I ask that is because I don’t think the Israelites liked it one bit.
Imagine a Hebrew family traveling along with all of the other families, following the cloud in the midst of the heat of the summer in the Sinai Peninsula. The cloud is shading them, but it’s hot. They have been walking for five or six hours, and they are uncomfortable and tired. Finally, toward the end of the afternoon, the cloud stops. Somebody who notices it says, “I think the cloud has stopped.” And they all stop and look up and say, “Yes, I think the cloud has stopped.” So that’s the signal and then they stop, too. They think, “Thank goodness it’s the end of the afternoon. It’s time to quit.”
The family has a little donkey with them that’s carrying their things. They take their tent down off the donkey and they set up the tent. They have a few other household objects and they get those down and arrange them. And then they get out what they need to cook their supper and they do that. After finishing supper, when they are all ready to stretch out under their tents and sleep till the morning, somebody out on the very edge of the camp calls out in a loud voice, “I think the cloud is moving again!” And they look up and sure enough the cloud is moving again, when they’d just gotten settled. But they have to get going. And so they roll up all their stuff and get it back on the donkey. They start out after the cloud and it goes about an hour and a half from that little valley where they were, and moves just a little further up. Then it stops again.
“Well,” they say, “it’s not going to catch us this time! We’re just going to leave everything packed!” And so they sit there on the sand. Nothing happens. It gets dark, and so finally they have to lie down and go to bed. They wake up in the morning and when they look up, the cloud is still there. Well they just make do, and get through the day as best they can. At night it’s still there, so they lie down again.
In the morning they get up, and it’s still there. About a week goes by, and finally the mother who is more sensible in these matters says to the father, “You know, I think we might as well get it over with and set up our camp again.” The father says, “I guess you are right. We ought to do it.” So they take the tent down and set it up, along with all they need and arrange everything inside the tent. And no sooner do they get it all unpacked than somebody calls out, “The cloud is moving again!” And they’ve got to pack up and do it all again.
Something of that is conveyed in Numbers 9:15-23. Sometimes the cloud only stayed from the evening to the morning. Sometimes it stayed for three days. Sometimes it stayed for a week, sometimes a month, sometimes a year, and God didn’t tell them in advance what He was doing. I think they must have hated it, because I know that I would have hated it, and probably you would have hated it, too. You and I like regularity. Change is one of the hardest things you and I face. And if we do have to change, at least we want to be told about it in advance. We want all the options laid out, and we want to give our input. When we get all the details settled, then we decide how we are going to go.