Cloud and Fire
Exodus 13-15 Sept 30, 2012
What is the result of seeing the glory of God? I want to start you thinking there – what is the outcome? What happens? What is an appropriate response? We are going to dive in this morning a little more, digging around in the book of Exodus and seeing the glory of God revealed to His people, but it is not simply a historical or theological exercise. It has to be more than that, it has to translate into how we live, how we behave, what our attitudes are, and how we worship. What is the result of seeing the glory of God?
Israelites in Egypt:
Let’s think back to the time when the people of God were slaves in Egypt. God called Moses to lead them out of slavery, and Moses had seen earthly glory. He grew up in the palace, treated as a prince, and so had seen the riches and the opulence of Pharaoh. But that was nothing compared to what Moses was going to see!
After the Passover, the final of the 10 plagues that God sent on Egypt as part of His plan to liberate His people from slavery, the Bible tells us this:
17 When Pharaoh finally let the people go, God did not lead them along the main road that runs through Philistine territory, even though that was the shortest route to the Promised Land. God said, “If the people are faced with a battle, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” 18 So God led them in a roundabout way through the wilderness toward the Red Sea. Thus the Israelites left Egypt like an army ready for battle.
19 Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear to do this. He said, “God will certainly come to help you. When he does, you must take my bones with you from this place.”
20 The Israelites left Succoth and camped at Etham on the edge of the wilderness. 21 The Lord went ahead of them. He guided them during the day with a pillar of cloud, and he provided light at night with a pillar of fire. This allowed them to travel by day or by night. 22 And the Lord did not remove the pillar of cloud or pillar of fire from its place in front of the people.
Now the first thing I noticed here was in vs 18: “God led them in a roundabout way…” It often seems that way, doesn’t it? We often think we know the best, shortest route; we often think we know how God should act for us, but it seems the way He is taking us is kind of “roundabout”. He doesn’t take us down the “main road”, and it is a sign of His love for us! There is a reason, and it is because God knows what is best, He knows what will bring us the most life and joy. But too often, we go our own road instead of following, and the result is always heartache. The lesson, instead, is one of trust. We have to trust God. We have to let Him lead. And we have to go where He leads.
But the important part, for our consideration of God’s glory, is in verse 21. We are introduced to one of the hugely significant ways that God revealed His glory in the Exodus – through the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire.
Old Testament scholar Trempar Longman III tells us: “Indeed, there is only one pillar, but the fire burning in the cloud becomes visible only during the evening and in this way remains a constant reminder of God’s presence to the people… A cloud, like smoke, serves well to represent God’s presence and, as we will see, also his glory, because though it is visible, a cloud also obscures one’s vision. People cannot see in it or through it; thus the cloud provides a sense of mystery and indirectness in the experience of God’s presence. The presence of God is in the cloud (Ex 13:21), protecting the people from a lethal dose of God’s glory.” (from “The Glory of God. Christopher Morgan and Robert Petersen (eds). Chapter 2, “The Glory of God in the Old Testament” by Tremper Longman III, 2010).)
This explanation opens up a whole bunch of questions. “Why would it be lethal?” “Why would God want to conceal or obscure His glory?” “Why would we experience God’s glory indirectly instead of directly”? Good questions, all of them. Let’s talk about them, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Let’s begin with the idea that “the cloud provides a sense of mystery and indirectness in the experience of God’s presence.” Why would we want to experience God indirectly?
Let’s think about it from God’s perspective for a few moments: why would God want to conceal or obscure His glory?
The Red Sea:
So we have the glory of God being revealed to His people in the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire as Moses leads the people out of Egypt. You remember what happens – the “roundabout” way God takes them hems them in, and Pharaoh comes after them with his army. Let’s pick up the story halfway through the next chapter:
15 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the people to get moving! 16 Pick up your staff and raise your hand over the sea. Divide the water so the Israelites can walk through the middle of the sea on dry ground. 17 And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they will charge in after the Israelites. My great glory will be displayed through Pharaoh and his troops, his chariots, and his charioteers. 18 When my glory is displayed through them, all Egypt will see my glory and know that I am the Lord!”
19 Then the angel of God, who had been leading the people of Israel, moved to the rear of the camp. The pillar of cloud also moved from the front and stood behind them. 20 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.
Notice first what God says about His glory: it will “be displayed through Pharaoh and his troops” so that “all Egypt will see my glory and know that I am the Lord”. We know what happens – God drowns Pharaoh and his army in the sea after the Israelites walk across dry land. And in this miracle, God displays His power and His strength, and shows who really is God. In other words, God wants people to know, God chooses to reveal Himself, and it can be really quite frightening.
Now, this ties back into the theme we were talking about a few minutes ago, and it is a very important counterpoint to our tendency to limit our thinking about God to the soft, pleasant, tender attributes of God. You know those, and they are real and present and accurate, but they are not exclusive. For example, we like to think of God as tender and forgiving, slow to anger, gentle, someone who will take us in His arms and give us a hug while He wipes away our tears, who never raises His voice or gets angry or runs and jumps. We like to imagine God as the perfect father, who is always patient and smiling and encouraging, there when we need him but content on the sidelines while we shine. And again, those are mostly not wrong – hear me clearly now, I don’t want a whole bunch of emails – those are mostly not wrong, they are just woefully incomplete.
I’m glad we are studying God’s glory, because Scripture shows us that it is shockingly powerful. It is decisive, and in control. The response throughout Scripture from people who experience the glory of God is almost always “woe is me!!”; to which God almost always instantly responds “do not be afraid”. Here in Exodus, God’s glory is so powerful that it is about to wipe out the mightiest leader of the day and his armies, by a mighty flood. There is incredible power, enough to defeat the largest and mightiest army of the day. This is the glory of God revealed, and it is not quiet and comfy and gentle.
There is something really fundamental here, which I have been feeling throughout the last few weeks of talking about God’s glory. It is hard to describe, hard to nail down, hard to articulate, because it is an expression of the very being of God, and that is too much for me to understand. God is so infinitely more than I can imagine or describe. He is so powerful. So holy. So big. So completely “other”. And when we talk about the glory of God, we are talking about a tiny glimpse of who God really is. He is a pillar of smoke and fire, a God who leads His people across a dry sea and who then unleashes that sea and drowns the mighty Pharaoh and his entire army. This fundamental thing is that God is God – huge and powerful and beyond my ability to describe or contain – and His glory fills the whole earth and the whole universe and all time. My vision of God is puny, reduced to a nice guy who can do great stuff sometimes when he chooses. But then we see God’s glory!
What is the result of seeing the glory of God? Remember I started with that question? What is the result? We feel small, and that is a good thing. Because we see a bit of who God is, and it is bigger than we usually imagine as we go about life day by day with our own needs and wants and desires clogging our thoughts and occupying our attention. The result of seeing the glory of God is a re-alignment of perspectives about what matters, about who is in control, about what makes life worth living.
That thought kind of scares us, so sometimes we shrink away from thinking about God like this. We are afraid that if we really are so small compared to God, then that will make us insignificant. But the opposite is actually true: as our understanding of God grows and we begin to see Him truly in His glory, then the fact that He loves us actually makes us more significant. What happens is that we are first overwhelmed with who God is, and then overwhelmed again that this God would number the hairs on my head, would count me more valuable than the birds of the air and the flowers of the ground, would send His one and only Son so that we could be forgiven and free.
The alternative is not good – the alternative to recognizing and seeing God in His true glory is that we then manufacture for ourselves a smaller, more predictable, more manageable God. And God does not want that for us! That smaller God is a lie, and that lie leads us down a dangerous road away from the true God.
Here is a question for us all: what might happen among us if we really began to see God in His glory? Like we see in the Exodus story – what might happen among us?
I asked what the result of seeing God’s glory is. Let me read the response of the Israelites:
Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord:
“I will sing to the Lord,
for he has triumphed gloriously;
he has hurled both horse and rider
into the sea.
2 The Lord is my strength and my song;
he has given me victory.
This is my God, and I will praise him—
my father’s God, and I will exalt him!
3 The Lord is a warrior;
Yahweh is his name!
4 Pharaoh’s chariots and army
he has hurled into the sea.
The finest of Pharaoh’s officers
are drowned in the Red Sea.
5 The deep waters gushed over them;
they sank to the bottom like a stone.
6 “Your right hand, O Lord,
is glorious in power.
Your right hand, O Lord,
smashes the enemy.
7 In the greatness of your majesty,
you overthrow those who rise against you.
You unleash your blazing fury;
it consumes them like straw.
8 At the blast of your breath,
the waters piled up!
The surging waters stood straight like a wall;
in the heart of the sea the deep waters became hard.
9 “The enemy boasted, ‘I will chase them
and catch up with them.
I will plunder them
and consume them.
I will flash my sword;
my powerful hand will destroy them.’
10 But you blew with your breath,
and the sea covered them.
They sank like lead
in the mighty waters.
11 “Who is like you among the gods, O Lord—
glorious in holiness,
awesome in splendor,
performing great wonders?
12 You raised your right hand,
and the earth swallowed our enemies.
13 “With your unfailing love you lead
the people you have redeemed.
In your might, you guide them
to your sacred home.
14 The peoples hear and tremble;
anguish grips those who live in Philistia.
15 The leaders of Edom are terrified;
the nobles of Moab tremble.
All who live in Canaan melt away;
16 terror and dread fall upon them.
The power of your arm
makes them lifeless as stone
until your people pass by, O Lord,
until the people you purchased pass by.
17 You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain—
the place, O Lord, reserved for your own dwelling,
the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established.
18 The Lord will reign forever and ever!”
The story began with God leading His people on a roundabout way, rather than the direct path. Because He loves them. Then we saw the presence of God described like a pillar of cloud and fire, with His people leading them out of slavery. Because He loves them. Then we saw the glory of God revealed in His power and strength, defeating the Egyptians by drowning them in the Red Sea so that His people could be safe and free. Again, because He loves them.
What is the result of seeing the glory of God? The people worship. There is a strong sense of how big God is, and how small I am, and of how incredible it is that this huge God still loves me. And that invites a response of worship – an outpouring of love – a perspective that says “I’m not following God because of what He can do for me, like get me a good job or heal my aches and pains or help my team win the football game. I’m not even following God because that way I can get into heaven when I die. No. This God is so huge, so powerful, so amazing, that I am following Him because there is nothing else worthy. Because I have seen God’s glory, God’s self-revelation, and it is not about me anymore but about God! I have seen God’s glory and lose all desire to live for lesser things. And so our hearts are filled with love and gratitude and awe/fear and conviction and one unflinching thought: this glorious God more than deserves my all.
And so we live, each and every day, for His glory. Going His way, and His speed, under His protection and provision. And living that way is an act of worship, with which God is well pleased.