“On the day that the tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the testimony. And at evening it was over the tabernacle like the appearance of fire until morning. So it was always: the cloud covered it by day, and the appearance of fire by night. And whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, after that the people of Israel set out, and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the people of Israel camped. At the command of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the LORD they camped…At the command of the LORD they camped, and at the command of the LORD they set out. Numbers 9:15-18, 23 (ESV)
After God used Moses to free the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt, they began a long wilderness journey towards the Promised Land. During their years of travel in the desert, the Israelites built the Tabernacle according to God’s specific instructions. It was a holy place of worship where God met with His people, and it was the focal point of their life as a community.
We read in this passage the thrilling account of how, after the Tabernacle was completed, the Presence of God settled over it in the form of cloud and fire. As they wandered about in the wilderness, that pillar of cloud and fire was their only compass. By day, the cloud hovered; at night it became a column of fire so that even in the pitch-black darkness of the desert, God’s presence was a visible night-light. There was no pattern to the movement as far as the people could tell, nor to the mystery of God’s timing; but whenever the cloud and fire moved, they moved.
“Sometimes the cloud stayed only overnight and lifted the next morning…Whether the cloud stayed above the Tabernacle for two days, a month, or a year, the people of Israel stayed in camp and did not move on.” Numbers 9:21-22 (NLT)
The Tabernacle was a huge, portable temple with much ritual and intricacy involved in its set-up and use. I wonder how long they waited to unpack each time the pillar of cloud and fire stopped. After all, they could be moving again in the next hour…or perhaps not until the next year! I can imagine that the eyes of every Israelite were drawn to the cloud as their first act upon awakening, and to the fire as their last act before closing their eyes in sleep. Whatever chores they had to do, agendas they had set, or even weddings they had planned…it was all subject to the movement of God, and they had to be prepared. To make sure we get the point, the writer uses almost the exact same wording in verses 18 and 23; emphasizing that whether the Israelites were setting out or camping, it was always at the command of the Lord.
Sometimes I wish I had an object that tangible to follow. It is too easy to get caught up in the busyness of life and ministry and end up following a path that is self-directed rather than God-directed, even though my intentions are to serve Him. My good intentions will have no Kingdom value, however, unless I am continually following the fire of the Holy Spirit.
I Corinthians 6:19 says, “Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God?” As believers in Christ, we are now the living, breathing, moving “tabernacle;” and the presence of the Holy Spirit rests upon us just as surely as the pillar of cloud and fire rested upon the wilderness tabernacle. Though intangible to us, His Presence and His Light are no less real. This means, then, a sense of immediacy in seeking His face…watching for His movement…listening for His voice. This means asking Him to prioritize my tasks before I start my day (and being prepared for Him to give me a new agenda altogether).
As I thought about what this might look like in my daily life, immediately I thought of our dog Basil’s relationship with my husband and laughed aloud at the vivid picture it gives me of this idea. Basil loves me; but he ADORES Walter. If Walter is at home, Basil is at his feet. If Walter gets up to do something, Basil is at his heels. He has a constant awareness of wherever Walter is in the house. This reminds me of the days when I sense the closeness of God and feel like I am communing with Him all day long. Those are wonderful days! But then there are the days when I do not sense His presence, and I feel far from Him. Here too, Basil gives me a lesson. On the days when Walter is at work, the dog will often lay in front of the door, waiting; or he will stand at the window, watching for the familiar truck. Even though Walter seems far from him, he has confidence that his master WILL return and he yearns for that moment!
I am reminded of what Gail MacDonald wisely says in her book, “A Step Farther and Higher:”
“There will naturally be times when we will be unable to observe our desired time of meeting with the Lord. At such times, think thoughts of homesickness rather than allowing the counterproductive feelings of guilt. The latter stifles, the former frees and brings renewed desire for the next sharpening.”
Cultivating that sense of “homesickness,” of yearning for God’s presence, helps me to keep my eyes fixed on Him. But that’s not all. “Following the fire” of God’s Spirit also brings a fresh sense of excitement and anticipation to the daily routine! I never know where He may lead--but I can always know that His road is worth following.