Exodus 13:21, 22
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…
The visible pillar is no longer beheld, but God's fiery-cloudy presence still attends the Church in her wanderings, and confers upon her benefits analogous to those enjoyed by the ancient people. God's presence, as manifested in the pillar of cloud and fire, was -
I. HOLY. -
1. God is holy. Holiness is the principle which guards the distinction between the Creator and the creature. It eternally excludes everything evil and impure from the Divine nature (Martensen). It is the "zeal of the Lord of Hosts" for his own honour, and for the maintenance of the interests of truth, purity, and righteousness. The fire in the cloud was a symbol of it.
2. It is as the Holy One that God dwells in his Church. "The Holy One of Israel in the midst of thee" (Isaiah 12:6). Holiness, accordingly, becomes those who would serve him (Psalm 93:5).
3. The privilege is great, but perilous.
(1) Sin leads to the withdrawal of God's presence. When Israel sinned in the matter of the golden calf, God withdrew beyond the precincts of the camp. The cloudy pillar removed to a distance (Exodus 33:7-10).
(2) Rebellion provokes God to anger. On more than one occasion fire came out from the midst of the pillar and destroyed the rebels (Leviticus 10:2; Numbers 16:22; Numbers 17:10). "Our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). Holiness turned against sin is wrath. God tempers the vision of his holiness, which otherwise would be unendurable to man, by shrouding it in the cloud.
II. ENLIGHTENING. "A pillar of fire to give them light." God's presence in his Church is illuminating.
1. Whence the light shines. The light shines in the Word, in Divine providence, and in the teaching of the Spirit which illuminates both.
2. What the light does. It shows us spiritual truth. It reveals duty. It guides (see below). It cheers in the night of affliction.
3. Light with attendant mystery. The light is in the cloud. At best, we know but "in part" (1 Corinthians 13:12). Even revealed truth has its side of mystery, HI. SHELTERING. The allusion in Isaiah 4:6 would suggest that the cloud spread itself over the camp in the daytime, and so formed a canopy or shadow from the heat. God's presence is a grateful shelter to his people. They feel the need of it when temptations fiercely assail, or when tribulation and persecution ariseth because of the Word. "In the time of trouble shall he hide me in his pavilion; in the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide me" (Psalm 27:5).
IV. GUIDING. The pillar went before the camp of Israel "to lead them the way" (cf. Deuteronomy 1:33). The cloud pointed the way in the daytime, the fire by night. The Church and the individual believer are similarly guided. He who seeks to know the will of God will not fail of direction. Providence opens the road. The light that streams from the Word shows the path of duty. "Thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way: walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand and to the left" (Isaiah 30:21).
V. ADAPTIVE. The pillar adapted itself to the circumstances of the people. In the daytime, when the sky was light, it took the form of cloud; in the night season, it shone as bright fire. Now it moved in front as a guiding beacon; again, it was spread as a grateful awning over the camp; at another time, it went behind, intercepting the enemy (Exodus 14:19). Thus does God vary the aspects of his presence and the modes of his help with unfailing adaptation to the special needs of his people. He is the All-sufficient.
VI. HOSTILE TO THE ENEMY. - He intercepts their pursuit; he hides his people from their fury; he makes their way dark to them; he frowns upon them, and discomfits them (Exodus 14:19-26). - J.O.
Parallel VersesKJV: 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: