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What was the pillar of fire and cloud in the Old Testament?

The pillar of fire and cloud appeared and was to accompany the Children of Israel on their way out of Egypt and lead them through the desert (Ex. 13:21–22) to the Promised Land.

“…the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so as to go by day and night. He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night from before the people.” (Exodus 13:21-22)

The pillar is a picture of God’s faithfulness and a lesson to us that God never leaves nor forsakes His people. He reminds us of this in Hebrews 13:5–6, “Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as you have: for he has said, I will never leave you, nor forsake you. So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do to me.”

The children of Israel went out with boldness. Num. 33:3-4 the children of Israel went out with boldness in the sight of all the Egyptians. For the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn, whom the LORD had killed among them. Also on their gods the LORD had executed judgments.

There was a visible presence of Gods glory throughout Israel’s journey in the wilderness both day and night. 

Whenever the invisible God took on a visible form to be seen,  the omnipresence of God became localized, this visible presence was manifested in Glory. He would  appear in the form of a light, fire, or cloud or deep darkness

There was a pillar of cloud and fire were seen by all of Israel as they would travel at times both day and night. The pillar of cloud was by day and it was seen by all of Israel – nearly 2 million people. The pillar of fire was by night as it guided the Israelites during their exodus from Egyptian bondage.

We find that it is The Angel of the Lord, the Emissary Messenger, the pre incarnate Christ that was involved. Paul in the New Testament writes about Israel’s exodus from Egypt in 1 Cor.10:1-4, stating that “…they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.”

Pharaoh had the best military at his disposal,  Six hundred choice chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt:

Now it was told the king of Egypt that the people had fled, and the heart of Pharaoh and his servants was turned against the people; and they said, “Why have we done this, that we have let Israel go from serving us?” So he made ready his chariot and took his people with him. Also, he took six hundred choice chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt with captains over every one of them. And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the children of Israel; and the children of Israel went out with boldness. So the Egyptians pursued them, all the horses and chariots of Pharaoh, his horsemen and his army, and overtook them camping by the sea beside Pi Hahiroth, before Baal Zephon.

 Pharaoh asking Why have we done this, that we have let Israel go from serving us  had quickly forgot the 10 reasons he had to let Israel go,  especially the last one.   He want to put this embarrassment behind him.

At a point when Israel was gathered and needed to cross the Red Sea They spoke harshly to Moses “Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, 'Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians?' For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness." And Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid. Stand still , and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever. The LORD will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace." (Ex 14:11-14)

Its s good lesson for us to all, to be still and trust the Lord will bring about the deliverance.

It also caused a panic among the Egyptians pursuing them as it cut them off from the Israelites unable to see them.

Ex 14:19-20 “And the Angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel. Thus it was a cloud and darkness to the one, and it gave light by night to the other, so that the one did not come near the other all that night.”

Ex 14:24-25 “Now it came to pass, in the morning watch, that the LORD looked down upon the army of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and cloud, and He troubled the army of the Egyptians.   And He took off their chariot wheels, so that they drove them with difficulty; and the Egyptians said, "Let us flee from the face of Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians."

God troubled the Egyptians through the cloud, and Moses refereed to this in his plea for God to not destroy the Hebrews because of their sin (Numbers 14:14.)

So the Lord, the angel (Messenger) of God manifested both the pillar of cloud and fire. The cloud on one side so it could not see as the other side was lit up at night. It also tells us the messenger, the angel of God was not itself a pillar of fire nor the cloud. These were manifestations of glory

Exodus 13:21–22 explains that God gave them the pillar of cloud by day to lead them in the way. The pillar was not just symbolic but supernatural. When He wanted them to move, the pillar of fire or cloud would move. This was obviously a miraculous time for Israel to have their God watching over them leading them for their forty years in the wilderness. During the day the cloud guided their journey, during the night it gave light, it gave them comfort.

In addition to guidance for the Hebrews, the pillar was a testimony to other nations concerning God’s involvement with them and he was there to protect His people Israel.

Because the Lord was with them in the desert he provided food and water.

Ex 16:31 And the house of Israel called its name Manna, which means what is it? It was like white coriander seed, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.

John 6:31 Our fathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'

Ex 16:33-35 and Moses said to Aaron, "Take a pot and put an omer of manna in it, and lay it up before the LORD, to be kept for your generations."  As the LORD commanded Moses, so Aaron laid it up before the Testimony, to be kept. And the children of Israel ate manna forty years, until they came to an inhabited land; they ate manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.”

This provision and others were so important to remember. Deut. 29:5-6 “And I have led you forty years in the wilderness. Your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandals have not worn out on your feet" (also Deut.8:2)

Heb. 9:3-5 “behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron's rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant.”

God had them put inside the things that were miraculous along with his tablets.

When they were instructed to build the Tabernacle the glory that led them through the wilderness descended at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting when God conversed with Moses and Aaron (Ex. 33:9–10; Num. 11:25; 12:5).

The priests taught that "a cloud of the Lord" (not a pillar) with a fiery appearance by night, permanently covered the Tabernacle from the day of its completion. It would lift only to indicate they were to break camp for another journey (Ex. 40:34–38; Num. 9:15–23; 10:11–12, 34; 14:14).

Once the glory entered the tabernacle he appeared behind the second veil over the mercy seat, and the Pillar of fire and cloud were no longer seen again.

God’s provision of the pillar was remembered in the prayer of the Jewish leaders in Nehemiah 9 as an instance of God’s care and provision for His people during the time of transition into the land.


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