Exodus 13:21
And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night:
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(21) The Lord went before them.—In Exodus 13:17-18, the writer has declared that “God led the people;” he now explains how. from Succoth certainly, probably from Rameses, He moved in front of the host in the form of a pillar, which had the appearance of smoke by day and of fire by night. The Israelites marched, it is implied, some part of each day and some part of each night, which would be in accordance with modern practice, and is an arrangement introduced to get the march accomplished before the sun attains his full power. The pillar was at once a signal and a guide. When it moved, the people moved; when it stopped, they encamped (Exodus 40:36-38); where it went, they followed. It bore some resemblance to the fire and smoke signals which generals used when at the head of their armies (Lepsius, Denkmäler, vol. ii., pl. 150, 2; Papyr. Anastas, 1; Q. Curt, Vit. Alex. v. 2, &c), and indicated that God had constituted Himself the generalissimo of the host; but it was altogether of a miraculous and abnormal character.

To go by day and night.—The night journeys of the people are mentioned again in Numbers 9:21.

Exodus 13:21. And the Lord went before them in a pillar — In the first two stages, it was enough that God directed Moses whither to march; he knew the country, and the road; but now they are come to the edge of the wilderness, they would have occasion for a guide, and a very good guide they had, infinitely wise, kind, and faithful, the Lord went up before them; the shechinah, or appearance of the Divine Majesty, which was a previous manifestation of the eternal Word, who, in the fulness of time, was to be made flesh, and dwell among us. Christ was with the church in the wilderness, 1 Corinthians 10:9. What a satisfaction to Moses and the pious Israelites, to be sure that they were under a divine conduct! They need not fear missing their way who were thus led, nor being lost who were thus directed; they need not fear being benighted who were thus illuminated, nor being robbed who were thus protected. And they who make the glory of God their end, and the word of God their rule, the Spirit of God the guide of their affections, and the providence of God the guide of their affairs, may be confident that the Lord goes before them, as truly as he went before Israel in the wilderness, though not so sensibly. They had sensible effects of God’s going before them in this pillar. For, it led them the way in that vast howling wilderness, in which there was no road, no track, no way-marks, through which they had no guides. When they marched, this pillar went before them, at the rate that they could follow, and appointed the place of their encampment, as infinite Wisdom saw fit; which eased them from care, and secured them from danger, both in moving, and in resting. It sheltered them from the heat by day, which at some times of the year was extreme, and it gave them light by night when they had occasion for it.

13:21,22 The Lord went before them in a pillar, or appearance of the Divine Majesty. Christ was with the church in the wilderness, 1Co 10:9. Those whom God brings into a wilderness, he will not leave nor lose there, but will take care to lead them through it. It was great satisfaction to Moses and the pious Israelites, to be sure that they were under Divine guidance. Those who make the glory of God their end, and the word of God their rule, the Spirit of God the guide of their affections, and the providence of God the guide of their affairs, may be sure that the Lord goes before them, though they cannot see it with their eyes: we must now live by faith. When Israel marched, this pillar went before, and pointed out the place of encampment, as Divine Wisdom saw fit. It sheltered by day from the heat, and gave light by night. The Bible is a light to our feet, a lantern to our paths, with which the Saviour's love has provided us. It testifies of Christ. It is to us like the pillar to the Israelites. Listen to that voice which cries, I am the Light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the Light of life, Joh 8:12. Jesus Christ alone, as shown in the Bible, and as the Holy Spirit, in answer to prayer, recommends him to the soul, is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Joh 14:6.Pillar of cloud - The Lord Himself did for the Israelites by preternatural means that which armies were obliged to do for themselves by natural agents. The Persians and Greeks used fire and smoke as signals in their marches, and in a well-known papyrus, the commander of an Egyptian expedition is called "A flame in the darkness at the head of his soldiers." By this sign then of the pillar of cloud, the Lord showed Himself as their leader and general Exodus 15:3, Exodus 15:6. 21, 22. the Lord went before them—by a visible token of His presence, the Shekinah, in a majestic cloud (Ps 78:14; Ne 9:12; 1Co 10:1), called "the angel of God" (Ex 14:19; 23:20-23; Ps 99:6, 7; Isa 63:8, 9). The Lord, the Son of God, whose presence and conduct the Israelites had in the wilderness, as appears from 1 Corinthians 10:4,9; compare Hebrews 11:26; who is sometimes called the Angel of the Lord, Exodus 14:19, because he was and was to be his Father’s Angel or Messenger, sent by God unto men to ratify his covenant with them; whence he is called the Angel of the covenant, Malachi 3:1, as he is upon another account called the Angel of his presence, Isaiah 63:9.

Went before them, not by local motion, but by his gracious and powerful operations for and about them. The pillar was but one, Numbers 9:15,16, having two different appearances and uses, of a cloud by day, to defend them from the heat, Psalm 105:39, which in those parts was excessive; and of a fire by night, to illuminate them. It was a cloud erected towards heaven, like a pillar upwards; but downwards flat and broad, spread over the body of the people, and afterwards more eminently over the tabernacle.

To lead them the way, which was altogether necessary in those vast and pathless deserts, Numbers 10:33 Deu 1:33.

And the Lord went before them,.... Who is called the Angel of the Lord, Exodus 14:19, not a created but the uncreated Angel, the Angel of Jehovah's presence, in whom his name, nature, and perfections were, even the Word and Son of God, the Lord Christ, see 1 Corinthians 10:9 who went before the armies of Israel, as their King, Leader, and Commander:

by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; through the Red sea, and the wilderness, at the edge of which they now were, which was untrodden, and trackless, and the way through it very difficult to find; and being a sandy desert, as soon as a path was made, it was immediately covered with sand, and to be seen no more: this cloud was not an ordinary one, but extraordinary, supernatural, and miraculous; in the superior part of it, it was in the form of a pillar, rising upwards towards heaven; in the lower part of it, it was more spread, and covered the camp of Israel; for, besides the use of it to show the way through a trackless wilderness, it was a shelter and protection from the scorching heat of the sun in a sandy desert, where there was scarce anything to screen them from it, to which the allusion is in Isaiah 4:5 this cloud was an emblem of Christ, who has sometimes appeared clothed with a cloud, Revelation 10:1 of the obscurity of his human nature, of the fulness of grace in him, and being in the form of a pillar, of his uprightness, firmness, stability, and visibility in it; and of the use and benefit he is to his people, partly to show them the way in which they should go, by his Spirit and word, and lead them in it by his own example, whom it becomes them to follow, he being a wise, safe, and constant guide; and partly to shelter and protect them from the heat of a fiery law, from the flaming sword of justice, from the wrath of God, from the fiery darts of Satan, and from the furious persecution of wicked men, sometimes compared to the violent heat of the sun, Sol 1:6.

and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; whenever they travelled by night, as they sometimes did, and in those hot countries it was very agreeable; and this pillar of fire gave them light when the moon shone not, and was a direction to them which way to go: sometimes it is night with the people of God, a night of darkness and desertion, of drowsiness, sleepiness, and carnal security, or of affliction and distress: Christ is the light and comfort of his people, and by his Spirit and word illuminates, guides, and directs them what to do, and where and how to walk:

to go by day or night; to direct them in their journey, whether by night or day: this was but one pillar, though Aben Ezra thinks they were two; but it may be observed they are mentioned as one, and that the pillar of cloud in the night was a cloud of darkness to the Egyptians, and gave light to the Israelites, Exodus 14:19, see also Numbers 9:21 and it is easy to observe that what appears as a cloud or smoke in the daytime, looks like fire in the night: so when Alexander's army was on the march, as a signal,"fire was observed in the night, and smoke by day,''as says the historian (x): nor can, this account of Moses seem incredible to the Heathens themselves, as Clemens of Alexandria observes (y), since they relate a story somewhat similar to this, which they profess to believe; as, that when Thrasybulus brought the exile Grecians from Phyle, and willing to do it secretly, a pillar was his guide, and as he passed in the night through untrodden paths, when the moon shone not, and it was a dark winter night, a light was seen going before him, which brought them safe to Mynichia, and then left them: indeed this was not so extraordinary and miraculous, if true, as this pillar, as Bishop Patrick observes, because it was but for a night, whereas this continued all the forty years in the wilderness, until the Israelites came to Canaan's land, as follows: the Arabic geographer (z) speaks of exhalations arising out of caves at the sides of mountains, which in the daytime looked like smoke, and in the night time like fire.

(x) Curtius, l. 5. c. 2.((y) Strom. l. 1. p. 348. (z) Climat. 3. par. 8.

And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a {l} cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night:

(l) To defend them from the heat of the sun.

21. went] In the Heb. a ptcp., implying ‘went continually.’

21, 22. How Jehovah, in a pillar of cloud by day, and in a pillar of fire by night, guided the Israelites in their journeyings. For cloud, and fire, as symbols of the Divine presence, cf. on Exodus 3:2, Exodus 9:28, Exodus 19:9; Exodus 19:18, Exodus 20:18. The Pent., however, contains three representations of the Divine presence in the cloud, corresponding to the three sources: in J the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night precedes the Israelites continuously to guide them in the way (so here, Exodus 14:19 b, 24a, Numbers 14:14 b, Deuteronomy 1:33; comp. Nehemiah 9:12; Nehemiah 9:19, Psalm 78:14): in E the pillar of cloud is not spoken of as a guide, but it descends from time to time and ‘stands’ at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, and Jehovah speaks in it to Moses (so Exodus 33:9 f., Numbers 11:25; Numbers 12:5, Deuteronomy 31:15; cf. Psalm 99:7): in P (who does not speak of a ‘pillar’) the cloud covers the Tent of Meeting immediately upon its erection, and remains there, with fire in it by night, till the camp is to be moved, when it is lifted up above it (Exodus 40:34-38, Numbers 9:15-22; Numbers 10:11 f.: cf. v. 34, Exodus 14:14 [the words, ‘and thy cloud standeth over them’: comp. Psalm 105:39; also Isaiah 4:5], Leviticus 16:2, Numbers 16:42, and on Exodus 16:10). The fiery cloud thus formed an imposing visible symbol of the spiritual presence of God, guiding (J), protecting (P), or (E) speaking in Israel, during its journey through the wilderness. But, as in other cases, the symbolism had no doubt some natural basis; and it is thought by Di., McNeile and others that it was suggested by the variously attested custom of a brazier filled with burning wood being borne along at the head of a caravan of pilgrims, or an army (see reff. in Di. and McN.), or of a chief having a fire blazing before his tent (T. H. Weir, Expositor, July 1910, p. 81 f.), or carried before him (cf. Ebers, Gosen, 530, 2544).

Verses 21, 22. - THE PILLAR OF THE CLOUD AND OF FIRE. Having stated, in verse 17, that "God led the Israelites," and determined their route for them, the writer here proceeds to explain how this leading was accomplished. With extreme simplicity and directness he states, that the conduct was effected by means of an appearance, which in the daytime was like a column or pillar of smoke ascending from earth to heaven, and in the night was like a pillar of fire. He considers the presence of God to have been in the pillar, which moved in front of the host, and showed them the way that they were to go. When it halted, they halted when it advanced, they advanced. Their journeys being made as much in the night-time as in the day, on account of the intense heat, the pillar took in the night the appearance of a column of fire, so as to be equally visible as by day. All attempts to give a rational explanation of the phenomenon are misplaced, since the writer, from whom alone we derive our information on the subject, clearly regarded it as miraculous; and both here and elsewhere (Exodus 14:19, 20, 24; Exodus 33:9; Numbers 12:5; Numbers 14:11) speaks of it as a form under which God was pleased to show himself. There is little doubt that fire and smoke signals were already used by commanders of armies for much the same purpose as that which God now accomplished in this way. The Egyptian documents of the period contain indications of the usage; and it is found among the Arabians, the Greeks, and the Persians. (See especially Q. Curt. Vit. Alex. 5:2; "Perticam, quae undique conspici posset, supra praetorium statuit, ex qua signum eminebat pariter omnibus conspicuum: observabatur ignis noctu, fiunus interdin.") The miracle was thus, in a certain sense, founded upon an existing custom, with the difference that God here gave the signals miraculously, which were wont to be given in a natural way by the human leaders of armies. He thus constituted himself the general of the host. Verse 21. - The Lord went before them. From Succoth at any rate; perhaps even on the journey from Rameses to Succoth. In a pillar of cloud. The pillar was seen - the presence of Jehovah, though unseen, was believed to be in it, and to move it. To go by day and night. Or, "so that they might march both by day and by night." Night marches are generally preferred by Orientals on account of the great heat of the days. The night-marches of the Israelites are again mentioned in Numbers 9:21. Exodus 13:21From Etham, at the edge of the desert which separates Egypt from Asia, the Israelites were to enter the pathless desert, and leave the inhabited country. Jehovah then undertook to direct the march, and give them a safe-conduct, through a miraculous token of His presence. Whilst it is stated in Exodus 13:17, Exodus 13:18, that Elohim led them and determined the direction of their road, to show that they did not take the course, which they pursued, upon their own judgment, but by the direction of God; in Exodus 13:21, Exodus 13:22, it is said that "Jehovah went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way, and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light, to go by day and night," i.e., that they might march at all hours.

(Note: Knobel is quite wrong in affirming, that according to the primary work, the cloud was first instituted after the erection of the tabernacle. For in the passages cited in proof of this (Exodus 40:34.; Numbers 9:15., Exodus 10:11-12, cf. Exodus 17:7), the cloud is invariably referred to, with the definite article, as something already known, so that all these passages refer to Exodus 13:21 of the present chapter.)

To this sign of the divine presence and guidance there was a natural analogon in the caravan fire, which consisted of small iron vessels or grates, with wood fires burning in them, fastened at the end of long poles, and carried as a guide in front of caravans, and, according to Curtius (de gestis Alex. M. V. 2, 7), in trackless countries in the front of armies also, and by which the direction of the road was indicated in the day-time by the smoke, and at night by the light of the fire. There was a still closer analogy in the custom of the ancient Persians, as described by Curtius (iii. 3, 9), of carrying fire, "which they called sacred and eternal," in silver altars, in front of the army. But the pillar of cloud and fire must not be confounded with any such caravan and army fire, or set down as nothing more than a mythical conception, or a dressing up of this natural custom. The cloud was not produced by an ordinary caravan fire, nor was it "a mere symbol of the presence of God, which derived all its majesty from the belief of the Israelites, that Jehovah was there in the midst of them," according to Kster's attempt to idealize the rationalistic explanation; but it had a miraculous origin and a supernatural character. We are not to regard the phenomenon as consisting of two different pillars, that appeared alternately, one of cloud, and the other of fire. There was but one pillar of both cloud and fire (Exodus 14:24); for even when shining in the dark, it is still called the pillar of cloud (Exodus 14:19), or the cloud (Numbers 9:21); so that it was a cloud with a dark side and a bright one, causing darkness and also lighting the night (Exodus 14:20), or "a cloud, and fire in it by night" (Exodus 40:38). Consequently we have to imagine the cloud as the covering of the fire, so that by day it appeared as a dark cloud in contrast with the light of the sun, but by night as a fiery splendour, "a fire-look" (כּמראה־אשׁ, Numbers 9:15-16). When this cloud went before the army of Israel, it assumed the form of a column; so that by day it resembled a dark column of smoke rising up towards heaven, and by night a column of fire, to show the whole army what direction to take. But when it stood still above the tabernacle, or came down upon it, it most probably took the form of a round globe of cloud; and when it separated the Israelites from the Egyptians at the Red Sea, we have to imagine it spread out like a bank of cloud, forming, as it were, a dividing wall. In this cloud Jehovah, or the Angel of God, the visible representative of the invisible God under the Old Testament, was really present with the people of Israel, so that He spoke to Moses and gave him His commandments out of the cloud. In this, too, appeared "the glory of the Lord" (Exodus 16:10; Exodus 40:34; Numbers 17:7), the Shechinah of the later Jewish theology. The fire in the pillar of cloud was the same as that in which the Lord revealed Himself to Moses out of the bush, and afterwards descended upon Sinai amidst thunder and lightning in a thick cloud (Exodus 19:16, Exodus 19:18). It was a symbol of the "zeal of the Lord," and therefore was enveloped in a cloud, which protected Israel by day from heat, sunstroke, and pestilence (Isaiah 4:5-6; Isaiah 49:10; Psalm 91:5-6; Psalm 121:6), and by night lighted up its path by its luminous splendour, and defended it from the terrors of the night and from all calamity (Psalm 27:1., Psalm 91:5-6); but which also threatened sudden destruction to those who murmured against God (Numbers 17:10), and sent out a devouring fire against the rebels and consumed them (Leviticus 10:2; Numbers 16:35). As Sartorius has aptly said, "We must by no means regard it as a mere appearance or a poetical figure, and just as little as a mere mechanical clothing of elementary forms, such, for example, as storm-clouds or natural fire. Just as little, too, must we suppose the visible and material part of it to have been an element of the divine nature, which is purely spiritual. We must rather regard it as a dynamic conformation, or a higher corporeal form, composed of the earthly sphere and atmosphere, through the determining influence of the personal and specific (specimen faciens) presence of God upon the earthly element, which corporeal form God assumed and pervaded, that He might manifest His own real presence therein."

(Note: "This is done," Sartorius proceeds to say, "not by His making His own invisible nature visible, nor yet merely figuratively or ideally, but by His rendering it objectively perceptible through the energy it excites, and the glorious effects it produces. The curtain (velum) of the natural which surrounds the Deity is moved and lifted (revelatur) by the word of His will, and the corresponding intention of His presence (per dextram Dei). But this is effected not by His causing the light of His countenance, which is unapproachable, to burst forth unveiled, but by His weaving out of the natural element a holy, transparent veil, which, like the fiery cloud, both shines and throws a shade, veils and unveils, so that it is equally true that God dwells in light and that He dwells in darkness (2 Chronicles 6:1; 1 Timothy 6:16), as true that He can be found as that He must always be sought.")

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