“Moreover thou leddest them in the day by a cloudy pillar; and in the night by a pillar of fire, to give them light in the way wherein they should go.” (Nehemiah 9:12)
THE HISTORY ABOUT THE PILLAR OF CLOUD AND FIRE
The First Appearance of the Cloud and Fire
God’s miraculous guidance of Israel from Egyptian bondage was evident through the sign of a pillar of a cloud. The first account of this pillar of cloud and fire in the Bible, is in Exodus 13:20-22 (ESV):
20 And they moved on from Succoth and encamped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. 21 And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. 22 The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.”
This text suggests that the pillar appeared when the Israelites departed Succoth, the first camp after departing Rameses on 15 Abib (Nisan), 1445 BC (2513 years after the creation of Adam ). Smith’s Bible Dictionary (at BibleHub.com) says Succoth (“booths”) was reached at the close of the first day’s march and that the distance traversed each day was about 24 kilometres (fifteen miles). Following is a map of Israel’s journey through the first part of their 40 years in the wilderness.
(This map follows a conventional view. “More recent opinions place Mount Sinai further north at Har Karkom. Please see http://www.Harkarkom.com for specifics”, Br.David Rice, 2016. For a detailed account of Israel’s journey, giving each encampment, refer to Numbers 33.)
The Second and Subsequent Accounts of the Cloud and Fire
The next account in the Bible of this pillar of cloud is in Exodus 14:19‑20, after God instructed Moses to raise his staff, stretch out his hand over the sea, and divide the waters of the Red Sea for the Israelites to escape Pharaoh and his army pursing the Israelites. They had overtaken the Israelites as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon (Exodus 14:16, 9).
Exodus 14:19-20 (ESV) reads, “19 Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, 20 coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night.” Subsequently “during the last watch [“morning watch” – KJV] of the night, the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion” (Exodus 14:24, NIV). If there were four watches in the night, the last would have been about 3‑6 am. This suggests that the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea during the night, around the hours of 3‑6 am which would be classified as the 4th watch of the night (if there were four night watches).
The Pillar of Cloud and Fire and Its Association with the Tabernacle
When it was time for the long awaited moment of God’s glory to “move into” the newly built and consecrated Tent of Meeting:
“34 Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
35 And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
36 And when the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward in all their journeys.
37 But if the cloud were not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up.
38 For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys” (Exodus 40:34-38).
This occurred on the first of Abib, the following year, after the Tabernacle had been erected (Exodus 40:1, 17). Later, when God led them away from mount Sinai, He continued to direct them by the movement of the cloud representing His presence. “They departed from the mount of the LORD three days’ journey: and the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days’ journey, to search out a resting place for them. And the cloud of the Lord was upon them by day, when they went out of the camp” (Numbers 10:33-34).
The Last Account of the Pillar of Cloud and Fire
The pillar of cloud and fire was present throughout Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness (Exodus 40:38). Numbers 12:10 refers to it in the incident of Miriam’s complaint against Moses. “When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous.” It is mentioned also in Numbers 14:14, 16:42, Deuteronomy 1:33, and Deuteronomy 31:15 as the life of Moses was drawing to a close.
In 960 BC the Temple of Solomon was dedicated, replacing the function originally served by the Tabernacle (and any other “temple” that may have been temporarily in use between the two, 1 Samuel 1:9).
The pillar of cloud was no longer required after Israel settled in Canaan, for they no longer needed a token from God to direct their travels, giving “them light on the way they were to take” (Nehemiah 9:12).
One commentary suggested the following about the Feast of Tabernacles that Israel observed after settling Canaan. “This feast, also called Succoth, was to commemorate the protection God provided in the wilderness and it may have marked the cessation of the fiery pillar” (The Herald of Christ’s Kingdom, May-June 2006, “A Pillar and a Fire,” Br. Carl Hagensick).
The manna had stopped the day after the Israelites ate the food from Canaan (Joshua 5:12).
Perhaps the pillar of cloud and fire had completed its purpose about that time also. Notably, the account of the crossing of the Jordan River into the Land of Canaan (Joshua chapters 3, 4) does not mention Israel following the cloud. Joshua 3:3‑4: “As soon as you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God being carried by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place and follow it. 4Yet there shall be a distance between you and it, about 2,000 cubits in length. Do not come near it, in order that you may know the way you shall go, for you have not passed this way before.”
The “Dense Cloud”
The “dense cloud” over Mount Sinai apparently was different than the “pillar of cloud,” for “dense cloud” brought darkness, whereas the pillar of cloud evidently had not.
The Israelites came to Mount Sinai at the opening of month three after the Exodus (Exodus 19:1). At Sinai, God told Moses “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you” (Exodus 19:9).
Three days later there was thunder and lightening with a thick cloud over Mount Sinai and a very loud trumpet blast. “Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently” (Exodus 20:16, 18, NIV). Then God called Moses to the top of the mountain where he stayed 40 days and nights and was given the ten commandments. “The people remained at a distance while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21).
Though the “dense cloud” and the pillar of cloud were distinct, both indicated the presence of God. This would have been an enduring sign to the Israelites that God was with them all during their 40 years of wandering.
If the pillar of cloud and fire remained over the Tabernacle, after it was constructed, then it would have been over the center of the camp of Israel, for the various tribes camped about the Tabernacle (Numbers 2:17). The Tabernacle was no longer “outside the camp”, where “Moses used to take a tent and pitch it … some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting”. (Exodus 33:7)
When the cloud lifted to direct Israel, it moved forward, ahead of them. However, in Exodus 14:19, 20, 24, it move behind them to protect them. “And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them: and it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night. … And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians.”
Over the Most Holy
Apparently the usual resting place of the cloud was over the Most Holy of Israel’s tabernacle. It is theorized by some that the Shekinah light, that shone between the two golden cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant, was caused by an interaction between the electrically‑charged cloud and the Mercy Seat with its two carved angelic figures. If this conjecture is correct, it shows that divine wisdom, represented in the light, is a product of GOD, whose presence was indicated by the cloud, and the harmonious balance between the attributes of love and power, shown in the cherubim, and justice, represented by the Mercy Seat itself.
At the Door of the Tabernacle
On occasion, however, when GOD wished to make a pronouncement to His chosen people, the cloudy pillar took up a position at the door of the tabernacle. Three such occasions are mentioned (Exodus 33:9,10, Numbers 12:5, Deuteronomy 31:15).
There are two thoughts as to the shape of this miraculous cloud. Some view it as an upright plume as suggested by the word “pillar”, as shown here:
Others envision it more as a canopy similar to the cloud in this picture.
PURPOSE OF THE TWO PILLARS
The pillar of a cloud and of fire served in the following ways.
(1) God’s compass
It showed the Israelites where God wanted them to go and what God’s will for them was. The Psalmist David draws inspiration from this guiding light.
As Spirit begotten Christians, our compass is:
(a) God (Psalm 32:8) and Jesus (John 1:1‑12);
(b) the holy Spirit (Romans 8:26);
(c) the Word of God in the Bible;
(d) from the mouth of our brethren in Christ (Psalm 119:105).
(2) God’s instruction
The Israelites learned to discern God’s will by being given instruction through the movement of the pillars of cloud and fire. “Moses and Aaron among his priests, and Samuel among them that call upon his name; they called upon the Lord, and he answered them. He spake unto them in the cloudy pillar: they kept his testimonies, and the ordinance that he gave them” (Psalm 99:6,7).
As Christians we receive instruction also from the Word and God and the holy Spirit: “But the Comforter, even the holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, it shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you” (John 14:26).
(3) Israel’s Protection Mechanism
Isaiah 4:5‑6 (RSV) sheds light on this point. “Then the LORD will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy and a pavilion (“defense” in the KJV). It will be for a shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.”
The cloud served as a “canopy” that provided both “shade by day from the heat” and as “a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.” This implies a large cloud for the horde of two million Israelites plus their flocks and herds. Usually clouds bring rain, not shelter from rain. Clouds are porous and thus incapable of keeping out rain. But this miraculous pillar of cloud was unique in its ability to prevent the saturation of a down pour of desert rain.
Perhaps the lesson for us as Christians today is this: that God’s wisdom will not lead us where his grace cannot keep us. Faith can firmly trust him, come what may!
b) Security & Protection
The pillars of cloud and fire gave the Israelites a feeling of security—that God was watching over them. God accompanied the nation of Israel by either going ahead of them or placing himself in the rear of their group, thus protecting them against their enemies and against death itself (Exodus 14:19‑20).
Spiritual Israelites have the protection of the “armour of God” (Ephesians 6:10‑18):
“10 Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. 11 Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. 13 Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. 14 Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; 15 And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16 Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. 17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: 18 Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints.”
(4) A visual reminder to reverence God
The pillar of cloud and fire reminded the Israelites about who they were to serve. It was thus a warning, in a sense, to not worship foreign gods. It was a faith‑building and trust‑in‑God provoking tool for the Israelites (Exodus 19:9).
God wanted the Israelites to also show respect to Moses, the Mediator of the nation. So we, also, are taught to respect the Elders of the ecclesias that we meet with either for online meetings or physical meetings. They are chosen mouthpieces of God who deserve double honor (1 Timothy 5:17), “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”
Do we remember what happened when Solomon’s son Rehoboam did not listen to the Elders but followed the advice of the young men who he had grown up with? (1 Kings 12:6‑19). Let us learn from such examples to respect our Elders.
The spirit begotten Christian is given reminders through the holy Spirit working within—we develop an educated conscience through studying the Word of GOD and through prayer. We also receive reminders from Brethren in Christ such as the Apostle Paul reminded the Brethren through the disciple Timothy (1 Timothy 1:14‑16, ESV) –
“14 Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 16 But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness.”
In Titus 3:1‑11 (ESV), Paul wrote to Titus these words about what to remind the brethren in Crete.
“1 Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. 3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,
5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 8 The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.
9 But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. 10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self‑condemned.”
(5) A sign of God’s power
Not only were these two pillars a witness to the Israelites but also a witness to the surrounding nations that Israel’s God was wise, powerful, and protective of his chosen people: “And they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land: for they have heard that thou Lord art among this people, that thou Lord art seen face to face, and that thy cloud standeth over them, and that thou goest before them, by day time in a pillar of a cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night” (Numbers 14:14).
CLOUDS IN THE BIBLE
Clouds are mentioned throughout the Bible and often signify trouble, or a time of judgment. Here are some examples.
Psalms 97:2 – “Clouds and thick darkness surround Him; Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.”
Job 37:11 – “Also with moisture He loads the thick cloud; He disperses the cloud of His lightning.”
Revelation 14:14 – “Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and sitting on the cloud was one like a son of man, having a golden crown on His head and a sharp sickle in His hand.”
Here the white cloud represents blessing as opposed to dark thunder clouds. Jesus sits on it showing that he is in control since the beginning of 1874 (Christ’s invisible second presence) when the end of the harvest, and the sifting of wheat and tares, began. This continues until the last member of the 144,000 Bride of Christ goes beyond the vail, that is, completes their sacrifice until death and becomes a Divine being. The sharp sickle held by Jesus is for gathering the Church, not the world.
1 Thessalonians 4:17 – “Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.”
This verse also applies to Christ’s (invisible) Parousia—the Suntelia period—the ending period of the Gospel Age, described in Matthew 24.
Leviticus 16:2 – “The Lord said to Moses: ‘Tell your brother Aaron that he shall not enter at any time into the holy place inside the vail, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, or he will die; for I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat.'” This refers to the cloud of incense, not the cloud over the Tabernacle.
1 Kings 8:10‑12 – “It happened that when the priests came from the holy place, the cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that He would dwell in the thick cloud.”
Fire in the Bible
Fire in the Bible represents: purging and destruction. Here are some examples of Scripture:
Hebrews 12:29 – “For our God [is] a consuming fire.”
Luke 3:16 – “John answered, saying unto [them] all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire:”
Jeremiah 20:9 – “Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But [his word] was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not [stay].”
Jeremiah 23:29 – “[Is] not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer [that] breaketh the rock in pieces?”
Luke 12:49 – “I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?”
1 Corinthians 3:15 – “If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.”
Revelation 20:9 – “And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.”
Revelation 21:8 – “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”
The fire that purges evil from the world, is not literal fire, but a symbol of destruction of the evil systems of the world approaching in Armageddon. This will lead into the most glorious world government ever seen. Earth will be ruled by Christ and his Bride for 1000 years during a reign of righteousness until God shall be all in all.
No cloud or fire either figurative or literal will be required
in the future eternal eternities.
No longer will a Tabernacle or Temple be needed (Revelation 21:22-27), and God shall dwell in the hearts of all people as His laws will be in their minds (Hebrews 8:10; 10:16).
As the fiery pillar led Israel safely to the promised land of Canaan, may God’s presence in our lives lead us to our promised Zion, our heavenly and perfect and holy home.
We wish to thank Br. David Rice for his great zeal in the Lord’s work and patient endurance in the editing and sharing of content for this post in the “Beauties of the Tabernacle” Series on http://www.BIBLEStudentsDAILY.com
Special thanks to Br. Carl Hagensick for source material from his article “A Pillar and a Fire,” The Herald of Christ’s Kingdom, May-June 2006.
Further Suggested Reading
STUDY 1: An Introduction To The Tabernacle And It’s Purpose
STUDY 3: The Tabernacle Construction: The Holy and The Most Holy https://biblestudentsdaily.com/2016/09/14/study-3-the-tabernacle-construction-the-holy-the-most-holy/
STUDY 4: The Court (“Holy Place”)
STUDY 5: The Camp. The Israelites.
STUDY 6: The Levites
STUDY 7: The Priests. The Day of Atonement.
STUDY 8: The Tabernacle Coverings
STUDY 9: The Gate. The Door. The Vail.