By Day A Pillar Of Cloud, By Night A Pillar Of Fire
Re-Translated In April 2000
1. Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. The person who follows me will not walk in darkness, but have the light of life," (John 8:12). By the way, since the portion just before these words was an inserted episode, the scene actually talked about here falls on "the last day when the festival is magnificently celebrated," (7:37).
2. This "festival" is "The Feast Of Booths." In Hebrew it is called "Hag Succoth," and it is still practiced among the Jews today. In Leviticus it says this in the text in regard to this festival, "For seven days you shall dwell in booths." Every one born in the land of Israel shall dwell in a booth. This is so that all of the generations of your people will know that when I lead the Israelites out of the country of Egypt I had them dwell in booths," (Leviticus 23:42-43). "Booth" means "hut, tent, or cabin." In other words, this festival is a festival to commemorate the ancestors of Israel when they left Egypt and traveled in the wilderness all the while living in tents.
3. In Jesus' times on the first day of The Feast Of Booths we know that special events took place in the temple. About four huge golden lamp stands were set up in a section of the temple called "The Women's Court," and upon them fires were lit where the oil in them was nearly thirty liters. We're told that the fires glowed so much that it shed light on every nook and corner in Jerusalem.
4. But yet, why did they light a fire in the booths? This is related to today's passage of scripture. Please look beginning at verse twenty-one. "The Lord went ahead of them, since by day he led them with a pillar of cloud, and by night he shone on them with a pillar of fire, they could march on by day or night. By day the pillar of cloud, by night the pillar of fire did not depart from its leading of the people," (verses twenty-one and twenty-two). In other words, the light of the lamp stands was symbolical of the pillar of fire that guided them when the Israelites had traveled the dark night. And on the last day of the festival when these lamp stands had probably already burned out, Jesus cried out, "I am the light of the world."
5. Israel traveled to the promised land guided by the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire. Guided by Jesus as the light of the world, we are going towards the promised kingdom. The figure of Israel traveling in the wilderness is also the figure of the church traveling in this temporary world. As we overlap our figures with that of ancient Israel, we will listen carefully to the message for today.
A Journey Of Detours
6. The Israelites had departed Egypt, but the shortest road to the land of Canaan, the promised land, was the route that goes on the Palestinian highway that followed along the Mediterranean Sea. However, the text says that God did not lead them to that road, but let them go towards the road in the wilderness that went through The Sea Of Reeds [a.k.a. The Red Sea]. So, the first thing we have written for us in the scriptures about the people when they came out of Egypt is that they had taken a detour.
7. "Detour - the long way to the promised land" - I'd say this phrase probably best expresses Israel's journey. Amazing but, their entering the land of Canaan later becomes a reality after forty years passes. Well, to go further on this, the very history of Israel itself is the history of a people who have walked a road of detours with many twists and turns. That's how things are in the church of Christ too. Or even, you might say it's the same way in one's personal life. We too many times think: Why do I gotta take a detour like this one? Why is that? Why can't a person just go straight to his or her goals?
8. We can go back to the origin of this problem, in certain situations, to human disobedience against God. In regard to the Israelite's having wandered forty years in the wilderness, the Bible speaks in a clear way on the human disobedience which caused those wanderings. Then after they entered the promised land, the Israel that became a kingdom was divided into the north and the south. Then, both the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom were destroyed each in their turn by Assyria or Babylonia. While the southern kingdom was being destroyed, the temple that Solomon once had built was demolished. The demolished temple was rebuilt by the captives after they repatriated back again into Jerusalem. But, even that temple would soon be lost. It seems so much like going around in a soured circle. In its historical descriptions about this, the Bible is clear in referring it back to humanity's sin and disobedience.
9. But, if we're obedient to God, will everything go on favorably and we can take the short cut to [prosperity]? No, it's just not always like that. At least, today's passage of scripture isn't putting it like that. God made the people detour onto a wilderness pathway that went through the Sea of Reeds. This was not the result of the Israelites' disobedience in any way at all.
God's Careful Consideration And Purpose
10. Instead, we are told that God was thinking ahead for them in this. Had they proceeded along the Mediterranean coastline and made war with the inhabitants there, they might have reluctantly went back to Egypt. In thinking of them like this, the Lord tells them that he has led them into the wilderness.
11. Later we find out that God's decision was not off. The people certainly had this weakness. During the severity of the wilderness trip, they began to complain as follows, "It would have been better off for us to have died under the hand of the Lord in Egypt. At least then we sat before pots that had lots of meat in them and we had bread to eat till we were full...," (16:3). This makes it clearer than day how these people with this weakness would turn out had they become dragged into war just after their being freed from Egypt.
12. God often times leads us onto the long way around based on his careful consideration of our human weaknesses. Though of course, God's intentions are hidden to the human eye. Therefore, it is not always very pleasant for us people. But, God's careful consideration comes plainly through to us later. The text says, "God did not lead them by the Palestine highway." The name of "Palestine highway" (translated literally as "the road of the Philistine people's land") didn't belong to Moses' period of time. It's of another time period. In reviewing history with the eye of faith, one could see that right off there was a special careful consideration in God's leading them there.
13. Furthermore, we shouldn't overlook that the text speaks of "a wilderness path that crosses the Sea of Reeds." This is directly related to chapter fourteen where it continues. What will take place at the Red Sea? There, the Israelites will fall into a desperate crisis of life and limb where "Before them is the sea and behind them is the pursuing Egyptian army." However, the sea will be divided by a miracle from God and they will advance forward on a way prepared for them in the sea. This is the miracle of the Sea of Reeds that will be passed down into the distant future.
14. But really, we have no way of finding out how true it was. But anyway, the Israelites experienced a salvation based entirely on God's grace. Then they were led to Mt Sinai. While there, based on God's grace they were given the ten commandments and entered into a covenant with God.
15. Thus, they were not only led out of a consideration for human weakness, but in a positive sense, God led the people into a roundabout long way because of his special purposes. There was something that they had to experience before entering into the promised land. And the grace of God which they were supposed to experience was first to be acquired by means of a detour. The road upon which they were supposed to proceed was not a short cut, but had to be "a wilderness road going through the Sea of Reeds."
Trusting In The Promise Of God
16. Well now, I'd like for us to take notice of what the text says here, "Moses was carrying the bones of Joseph," (verse nineteen). The reason for this act of Moses is explained in the same verse where "Joseph said, 'God will surely look over you.,' and so Joseph made the children of Israel solemnly swear, 'Therefore, when he does, take my bones up with you from here.'" By doing that, Moses was thereby fulfilling the oath of his ancestors.
17. However, the truth is that before this message from Joseph, there had been another from Joseph. Before this Joseph had said, "I am about to die. But God will surely look over you and lead you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," (Genesis 50:24). Thus, before there was a human oath, there was God's own oath. They had God's promise. What Joseph had sworn regarding his bones, that "God will surely look over his descendants and lead them up into the promised land," was done based on his trusting in God's loyalty to the truth.
18. Therefore, when Moses was carrying Joseph's bones it was not just a fulfillment of an oath. It was also equal to an act of sharing in Joseph's faith. The people of God were carrying his bones for the very reason that they believed that they could arrive in the promised land. And since they could arrive in the promised land, it would not be because of their own strength and power, but because of God's promises. Both Moses and the Israelites were only trusting in God's promise and you might say along with the bones they were also carrying the word of God's promise.
19. We shouldn't forget that setting out on faith and the new departure for the Israelites based on God's work of salvation did not mean a life all at once in the promised land. It was a wilderness journey. It was a trip that seemed like the long way around. But, they had the word of God's promise spoken to them. Therefore, the important thing for them was to trust in God's promise and to peacefully follow the Lord as he lead them with the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire.
20. Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. The person who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." Upon what kind of pathway will the church of the Christ, who has given these words to us, proceed? What kind of journey will we be given? Will it be a detouring series of twists and turns? Will it be a kind of trip in a harsh wilderness? Whatever though it may be, we must not lose sight of God's careful concern and purposes within it. We too should want to trust steadfastly in the promises of God spoken to us and follow the Lord, the light of our leading, until the last day.