I have been reading in Exodus recently, getting caught up in the story of Joseph. Then, as it progresses, I just can’t put this down as the people’s story is told. Something struck me the other day as I was reading. Exodus 13 and 14 refer to the Lord moving in front of the Israelites as a pillar of fire and pillar of cloud. If you aren’t familiar with that, this is the part where the plagues have occurred in Egypt. There has been severe impact on the land, and Pharaoh has finally reached the point where he wants the Israelites out.
The people were slaves for a period of time in Egypt, long enough that those were living probably didn’t experience being something other than slaves. They were now moving out in a different direction. If can be frightening to move into something new, to make changes. For them, I would imagine it would be doubly difficult as they also had enormous psychological baggage to overcome. So, it strikes me as so interesting that God went ahead of the people, “in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light.” I wonder how much heat a pillar of fire puts off or how much shade a pillar of cloud offers. Either way, it would be a comfort to see such a prominent road sign in front. “Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.” The Lord provided a clear sign of where to go, and then stayed there leading the people. By staying in front of them, he provided a visual reminder of his presence, that they were to literally follow him.
I love that vision! How many times have I wondered if I should turn right or left, so caught up in the possibilities around me that I have forgotten to look at the pillar of fire and cloud right in front of me. I’m so thankful that God provides us direction. A pillar of fire, that would provide light, but I don’t know how much light it would cast over a distance, how bright it was in the dark of a desert in night. It reminds me when things seem dim and dark to look for that pillar of fire to light the way, letting me see one step at a time.
Things changed as the Israelites traveled. Pharaoh changed his mind, and started pursuing the people with the force of his army. The pillar that had been in front of the people 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; so neither went near the other all night long.” The people had their way set before them. They had their direction, they knew the way they were supposed to go. But, there was a threat coming behind them and the Lord moved to protect them from that threat. It would be easy to become distracted at that point, to focus on what is going on behind you instead of front of you. Their protector was now behind, guarding, which meant that the people needed to be brave enough to set out on the direction they had been given. Sometimes, we need to do the same. We have something which we need protected from and it may feel that God is doing just that, but not standing in front of us as well. Perhaps the way has already been given, we now need the courage to move forward, knowing we are protected.