The Fiery Cloud

Exodus 13:17-22

Exodus 13:17-18—

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road towards the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle. 

The shorter route would have been the main military road into Canaan. It led through the land of the Philistines to Gaza than to Canaan. To avoid attack, the people were providentially led by THE ROUNDABOUT WAY on the desert road—into a barren wilderness.

THE RED SEA is YAM SUPH in the Hebrew. YAM is Sea and SUPH is the general term for marsh plants such as reeds, rushes, water plants. Thus, THE REED SEA not THE RED SEA, which stems from the word used in the Greek OT. In a narrow sense, this term refers to the area of the Exodus crossing, possibly either the Bitter lakes (southern crossing) or Lake Timsah (central crossing). Some maps show a northern crossing at Lake Menzaleh, which would have been the shorter route. It is very possible the REED SEA refers to a more southern location on the Gulf of Suez. In Numbers 33:10-12, YAM SUPH is the Gulf of Suez and it is the Gulf of Aqaba in 1 Kings 9:26. Hence, YAM SUPH in the Bible does denote a body of water we can identify as THE RED SEA.

There is no warrant for the idea that because Israel crossed THE REED SEA that the water was shallow and no miracle was involved. Any deep sea may have reeds on the edge and Lake Timsah, the Bitter Lakes, and Lake Timsah are large and deep bodies of water.

The central route through Lake Timsah is almost impossible to coordinate with biblical names of the places where the Israelites camped. The northern route was forbidden by God Himself because, although it was the shortest and therefore the most direct, it was heavily guarded by a line of Egyptian fortresses that would surely have forced the people to return to Egypt.

So the LORD led them “around by the desert road toward the Red Sea,” which probably eventually turned south along the west coast of the Sinai Peninsula before winding its way toward the interior in a southeasterly direction.

Interestingly, the text says that THE ISRAELITES WENT UP OUT OF EGYPT ARMED FOR BATTLE. They might have been armed, but they certainly were not trained to fight. The word for ARMED also may denote they marched by fives. God is concerned that the people might change their mind if forced into battle. His concern is shown to be justified, given Israel’s later reaction in 14:10-12, where the people are terrified, cry out to the LORD, and blame Moses for bringing them into the desert to die.

Again, we see that God knows the heart, but indicates He is not certain of the outcome when He does not intervene!

This divine concern for Israel is important in that it shows that God must take into account prevailing forces as well as people’s emotional makeup in charting a way into the future. One might expect that God, with all power at His disposal, would not back off from leading the people into any situation. God would just mow the enemies down!

No, the human situation makes a difference regarding God’s possibilities and hence affects His decisions. So at first glance, God leads Israel on a route that has less potential for difficulty. There is real possibility for failure if it comes down to these delivered slaves winning battles with Philistines and Egyptians. So God keeps them entirely out of harms way! Not exactly! Instead, He paints the Israelites into a corner with no exit, where He alone will be the Victor.

The all-knowing God is certain that if He leaves them a way out, they will return to Egypt! This shows that, for God as well as for people, planning will make a difference with respect to the shape which that future will take.

It is also clear from this passage that God’s leading is not independent of human involvement. While God leads, Moses does too. Moses mediates the divine guidance to the Israelite people.

God’s promise of land is never far from sight in these passages. We are reminded of it again in Exodus 13:19—

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.”

Yahweh had told Abraham that his descendants would leave Egypt and return to Canaan. Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph believed that promise and he made his brothers take an oath that they or their descendants would carry his bones with them when they made the journey. Moses, in recognition of Joseph’s faith, fulfilled his dying wish.

One might wonder if Joseph had any faith after living among pagans for those many years. He lived his whole life by faith; he never compromised his beliefs. Joseph is the OT example of what Jesus means by “not out of the world, [yet] not of the world.” Hebrews 11:22 asserts—

By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones.

Why did Joseph want his bones buried in the Promised Land? Unlike the Christian, whose bodily resurrection will occur at the Rapture, the OT saint’s body will not be raised until the end of the Tribulation when he enters into the Millennial Kingdom and then Eternity. This was the hope of Joseph and Moses.

Since Moses died at the borders of the Promised Land, the Israelites who entered Canaan took Joseph’s bones with them and buried them at Shechem according to Joshua 24:32—

And Joseph’s bones, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem in the tract of land that Jacob bought for a hundred pieces of silver from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. This became the inheritance of Joseph’s descendants.

I have visited the traditional tomb of Joseph near the ancient site of Shechem. Once you have been to the Promised Land, there is a deep burning desire to return. Once one has tasted of this land, there is an enticing to one’s spirit unlike any place on earth. To Joseph, Egypt was still an alien land. Yet, Joseph had to remain as the Prime Minister of Egypt—God had brought him there for that purpose. He could not return to Canaan in life, but in death—one day—his bones would be buried in the Land of Promise and there be raised to everlasting life.

In a unique way, Joseph’s bones linked the present and the past together, they deepened the national consciousness that Israel was God’s chosen people, called to no common destiny, sustained by no common promises, pressing toward no common goal.

If Israel had been wise, they would have thought of Joseph, the Israelite in heart, though arrayed in the splendors of Egypt, remaining true to his God. Wealth, power and prestige have ruined many men’s faith, but not Joseph! King Solomon compromised every law God laid down for a king. He became a worldly king. Had Solomon taken Joseph’s example to heart, he would have prevented Israel spiritual decay after his death.

This lesson holds good today. A Christian looks at the “worldliness” of high office and rank in job or state; little dreaming that the “world” he seeks is strong in his own ambitious and self-asserting spirit, and will overwhelm him if faith is allowed to slip even a little! Compromise always begins with one-step that is almost certain to be followed by many more. Solomon did not set out to be captured by “the world.” But he transgressed God’s law by marrying unbelievers and 1 Kings 11:4 records the fatal result—

As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been.

Solomon the wisest man who lived could not win his wives to his religion, but they won him to theirs! No wonder the Bible warns Christians not to be yoked with unbelievers!

Bringing out of Joseph’s bones brings closure to the Egyptian stage of Israel’s life and provides a symbol of the fact that what began with Joseph has now been realized in a marvelous way—Israel has been preserved alive by God’s providential activity.

The fact that they knew and honored dying wish of Joseph after 400 years shows that the people never lost sight of the promised redemption.

Exodus 13:20-22 introduce the visible presence of God on this journey to the Promised Land and tell us how He led Israel—

After leaving Succoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. By day the LORD
went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.

SUCCOTH and ETHAM was probably Egyptian frontier fortresses since ETHAM actually means FORTRESS WALL. ETHAM’S location is not known today.

Yahweh led His people with only one pillar rather than two. It was A PILLAR OF FIRE AND CLOUD according to Exodus 14:24. Like the burning bush, the pillar was the visible symbol of God’s presence among His people. Yahweh was in the pillar and often spoke to the people from it. He who is Invisible manifested Himself in this FIERY CLOUD.

A similar cloud of smoke came to represent the glory of the LORD in the sanctuary throughout much of Israel’s history. The Jewish theologians refer to this cloud as THE SHEKINAH GLORY.

The PILLAR’S base would have been sufficiently large enough to provide Israel protection from intense heat of the desert. Our God never leaves His people without guidance and provisions they need.

Symbolically, the FIERY CLOUD foreshadows the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life.

The FIERY CLOUD was not given to Israel until they had been redeemed by Passover lamb and delivered from Egypt ruled by Pharaoh. Likewise, the first Christians received the Holy Spirit after the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who delivered them from the power of the world ruled by the evil one.

The FIERY CLOUD was God’s gracious GIFT to Israel. No word is said about the people asking for this Guide. It came to them quite unsought, as a tender provision of God’s mercy. Likewise, Jesus said in John 4:16—

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you for ever.

THE FIERY CLOUD would not only provide guidance, but protection for the Israelites also. By day the cloud would protect them from the hot sun rays and the fire would provide warmth from the cold desert nights according to Psalm 105:39—

He spread out a cloud as a covering, and a fire to give light at night.

The FIERY CLOUD, which provided cover and protection, was a PROOF to Israel of the almighty power of Yahweh. He could shelter His people when no other comfort was available. Likewise, the Spirit comforts us. Acts 9:31 records—

Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was
strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.

The FIERY CLOUD was given to GUIDE Israel through their desert journey. What a merciful provision—an infallible Guide to conduct them through the trackless desert! In like manner, the Holy Spirit has been given to Christians to direct their steps along the Narrow Way, which leads to life. Romans 8:14 declares—

Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

The FIERY CLOUD gave LIGHT. Nehemiah 9:12 says—

By day you led them with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire to give them light on the way they were to take.

For a similar purpose is the Holy Spirit given to Christians according to John 16:13—

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.

God spoke from the FIERY CLOUD to Moses and the people. In like manner, the Holy Spirit is the One who speaks for the Triune God today. Jesus said to each of the seven Churches in Chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation—

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

The FIERY CLOUD brought darkness to the Egyptians in 14:20—

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.

Pharaoh and the Egyptians show that rejection of God’s Word brings hardness of heart, which is darkness. The Spirit sheds light or darkness on man. We read in Matthew 11:25—

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

Enlightening and darkening is the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said in John 14:17—

The Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.

The FIERY CLOUD foreshadowed the coming of the Holy Spirit upon that Blessed One who tabernacled among men, of Whom it is written in John 1:14—

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

As the cloud filled the Tabernacle in the desert and the Temple at Jerusalem (both picturing Christ), so the Holy Spirit fills the Christian who is being transformed into the likeness of Christ according to 2 Corinthians 3:18—

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

The Spirit takes us places we might not otherwise choose to go. Luke 4:1-2 records—

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

Likewise, God leads His people into the desert not only to test their faith, but also to bring it to fruition and perseverance. Look at Exodus 14:21—

And when the Israelites saw the great power the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.

The great theological truth of Romans 5:1-5 is being played out centuries before in the events of the Exodus in the lives of the Israelites—

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

It is in the day of trial and difficulty that the soul experiences something of the deep and untold blessedness of being able to count on God. Were all to go on smoothly, this would not be so. It is not in gliding along on the surface of a tranquil lake that the reality of the Master’s presence is felt; but actually when the tempest roars, and the waves roll over the ship. If Peter and the disciples were here, they would tell us it is so!

The LORD does not hold out the prospect of exemption from trial and tribulation; quite the opposite: He tells us we shall have to meet both the one and the other; but He promises to be with us in them; and this is infinitely better!

Daniel’s three friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, could testify it was far better experiencing the Master’s presence while passing through the fiery furnace than the display of His power to keep them out of it. And Daniel would tell us the same thing about the Lion’s Den!

God’s presence in trial is much better than exemption from trial and He is about to teach Israel that reality in the Exodus Experience. God has chosen the road and He leading them on it. Near journey’s end, Moses would proclaim in Deuteronomy 8:15—

He led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions.

Finally, the FIERY CLOUD was with Israel throughout all the desert wanderings. The sign of God’s presence in the Pillar of Cloud and Fire did not depart from Israel so long as the people continued in the desert. Likewise, the Holy Spirit will be present in the redeemed Church until it is removed from this earth to heaven at the rapture.

Israel needed the FIERY PILLAR because redemption had not yet been worked out in history as is has now. We do not need the visible presence of God in order to walk by faith since we have the Holy Spirit. The key to God’s leading in the Christian life is to allow the Spirit to fill us.

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