From: Pete Williamson
I was taught many songs elementary school. Most I’ve forgotten. Some I could recall if prompted. But I remember being deeply drawn to one song in particular. It was a Christian song that a classmate’s mother wrote and sang to us, and the refrain has these lyrics:
A cloud by day and a fire by night
I will guide you, I will be your light
The presence of God manifesting as cloud and fire is something I haven’t really put much thought into recently, but it was one of the first things I knew about God in the Bible. As I read today’s story of Israel in the wilderness I couldn’t help but notice how closely the passage links this cloud and fire with God’s leadership.
When considering the cloud and fire, I’ve usually focused on the powerful depiction of God’s presence amid his people in the wilderness, and I’ve rarely thought of cloud and fire as images of God’s leadership. Yet today’s passage goes to great lengths to emphasize how the people in the desert did nothing without God’s initiative. The language is so repetitive that it seems awkward reading it in English in the 21st century. Verses 17-23 simply assert over and over again that when the cloud stopped, they stopped; when the cloud moved, they moved. This is a picture of a people desperately dependent on God.
This stands in stark contrast to later episodes in Israel’s history where they did not trust God or God’s leadership and instead looked to humans to command and lead their nation. As 1 Samuel 8 explains, when Israel begged for a human king – in order to be like the other nations – they were rejecting God.
This is a pattern throughout the Bible and in our own lives. People, time and again, do not trust God and God’s leadership, and look to humans – whether it is themselves or others – to follow instead.
This should lead us to ask ourselves: In what ways is God leading in our lives? In what areas do we try to avoid God’s leadership? What does it look like for ‘God’s cloud to move’ in our lives? That is, how can we notice where God is leading us?
It is worth noting that God’s redemption is always at work. Even as God’s people were replacing him with a human king in the Old Testament, God was preparing to send them a King who would be both human and God, so that even our desire for human leadership might lead us to God, his leadership, and his kingship.
I work for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as a Campus Staff Member for Graduate and Faculty Ministries at Harvard University. I’m from New Zealand, and live in Dorchester with my wife, Kelly, and my energetic dog, Wicket.