God’s revealing Himself in the cloud culminates in the coming of Jesus Christ. You may recall that at the very beginning of John’s Gospel, John uses this very language, harkening back to Exodus, to talk about the incarnation. Speaking of Jesus, John writes, “The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). Revelation 21 gives us the fulfillment of this idea of God’s dwelling among us. In verse 3 the apostle John wrote, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and will be their God.’” Through the appearing of the cloud in Exodus, God was teaching them about His presence in a preliminary, rudimentary, visible, and dramatic way for the people of Israel.
In addition to the cloud serving as the presence of God, it also was given to Israel for their protection. God protected them from their enemies, the Egyptians. “Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long” (Ex. 14:19-20). From the very beginning the people learned that the God who was with them was with them as their protector.
You have to remember that the number of people who went out from Egypt was very large. In the book of Numbers, we’re told that the men alone numbered 603,550, in addition to the women, children, and others who went with them who were not Hebrews. This would bring the total to at least two million, and probably more. A million of anything is a lot. It’s very hard to imagine a million. When the Rose Bowl stadium in California hosts an athletic event, it has already held close to one hundred thousand. The number that went out of Egypt with Moses was at least twenty times that.
God was leading this large group of people out into one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. The temperature in the daytime can go above one hundred degrees when the sun beats down out of the cloudless sky. When I was in Egypt years ago, we went down to Luxor, which is not as far out into the desert as they were in Sinai, and the temperature there was so hot that we couldn’t even go out in the daytime. We had come to tour, and so we would get up about 4:00 in the morning and go out, and then come back by 8:00 a.m. Then we would cool off inside during the heat of the day, and then go back out again at night around 8:00 or 9:00. But then at night, because the air is so thin in the desert, when the sun goes down the temperature drops precipitously. Sometimes you can have temperatures in the daytime over one hundred degrees, and suddenly it falls below freezing at night, even causing water left outside the tent to freeze.
God’s cloud spread out all over the people to provide shelter from the sun in the daytime, and at night it turned into a pillar of fire that provided light and a certain degree of warmth. Psalm 105:39 says, “He spread out a cloud as a covering and a fire to give light at night.” John Newton’s great hymn “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” picks up this idea:
Round each habitation hov’ring,
See the cloud and fire appear
For a glory and a cov’ring,
Showing that the Lord is near:
Thus deriving from their banner
Light by night and shade by day,
Safe they feed upon the manna
Which he gives them when they pray.
When you began to think about the cloud in that light you understand that it was not only a symbol of God’s presence, which was glorious in itself, but it was also a pledge that God stood by them to protect them from any and all circumstances.