Egypt to Canaan: Guidance

The Cloud & Fiery Pillar

There have been times when a little personal reflection revealed to my own heart that I had failed to follow the guidance of God. I hesitated when He wanted me to move; I took a step when it was His will for me to wait. How did the Spirit of God respond to my failure to perfectly trust Him? By patiently teaching me and remaining determined to guide me, “for he who promised is faithful” (Heb 10:23).[1] The Holy Spirit’s guidance for us today is previewed through His faithful guidance to Israel during their wilderness journey: “The pillar of cloud to lead them in the way did not depart from them by day, nor the pillar of fire by night to light for them the way by which they should go” (Neh 9:19).

The Church’s Corresponding Guidance

The pillar of cloud and of fire was one and the same – a cloud, with a column of fire above, the light of which illuminated the cloud at night. It was the personal manifestation of God’s presence among His people and it foreshadowed the ministry of the Holy Spirit today. As Israel was baptized in the cloud, so the Church was baptized in the Spirit (cf. 1Co 10:2 and 1Co 12:13).[2] The cloud came as the Lord’s gracious gift to His people immediately upon their redemption, “to lead them along the way” and it “did not depart from before the people” (Exo 13:21-22). Likewise in the Church, we receive the gift of the Spirit upon our salvation (Eph 1:13), He is with us forever (Joh 14:16), and it is characteristic of the sons of God to be “led by the Spirit” (Rom 8:14).

The Manner of Guidance

Without the aid of GPS or Google Maps, Israel had to journey through a barren, howling wilderness. But they were not left to wander according to their own intuition. The cloud lifted and moved to tell them to break camp, and it settled where the Lord wanted them to set up camp. God’s guidance was clear. You may wish the Spirit’s guidance was still so clear today – it is! Each of the movements of that cloud are called “the command of the LORD” (Num 9:18), or literally, the “mouth” of the Lord. “In the pillar of the cloud he spoke to them” (Psa 99:7). That cloud was like the Spirit’s voice to guide God’s people. And the Spirit’s voice is still heard clearly today, because the Scriptures are the words of the Holy Spirit.[3]

The Spirit of God gives us clear guidance as to where we should and should not go, with whom we should and should not be, and how we should and should not walk. We are not left to our own intuition to determine how to manage our Christian pilgrimage. The God who sent a pillar of cloud and fire for Israel “has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” (Gal 4:6). He is committed to leading us, and His leading will never contradict His own written Word. As we walk by the Spirit (Gal 5), yielding to His control, we will know more of His guidance in our lives. But keep in mind, if you want to hear the Spirit speaking to you most clearly, read your Bible. And if you want to hear the Spirit speaking to you audibly, read your Bible out loud.[4] The clear guidance provided by the pillar of cloud and fire teaches us that the Spirit of God gives us clear guidance today through His revealed will in the Scriptures.

The Response to Guidance

For all of Israel’s complaining and unbelief in the wilderness, the words of Numbers 9:15-23 are precious and instructive. Seven times we read “the command of the LORD,” and twice “the charge of the LORD,” and in each and every case, across those 38 years, Israel obeyed the Lord’s command by following the guidance of the cloud. Sometimes the cloud remained only for one night and then began to move again in the morning, and the people followed. How quick are we to follow the Spirit’s voice? Sometimes the cloud kept them in one spot for many days. How willing are we to wait, and wait some more, to know clear guidance from God’s Spirit? “In His perfect and unerring wisdom He knew what was best for His people. Some routes may have seemed tedious or even arduous, but if they obeyed God’s commandment in the visible appearances of the cloud, whether stationary or moving, they would certainly be in God’s will.”[5]

The Faithfulness of the Guidance

Most remarkable in light of Israel’s spiritual waywardness during their wilderness journey is that God’s Shekinah cloud never departed from them. God was faithful to lead His people then, and He is still faithful today. In fact, He will bring back the cloud and fire upon the cleansed nation of Israel itself in the Kingdom (Isa 4:5), because He is faithful to His word and to His people. We don’t need to point fingers at the people in the wilderness and ask, “How could they doubt? How could they complain?” We do some doubting, and complaining, and disobeying ourselves. But God will never take His Holy Spirit from us (Eph 1:13-14). If we grieve the Holy Spirit, our perception of His guidance will be hindered until we confess our sin. But “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn 1:9).

The Spirit of God is determined to lead His people. Some worry that because of a mistake in the past, they are forever outside the will of God, with no opportunity to walk in full fellowship with God again. That is mistaken thinking. Learn from the pillar of cloud and fire in the wilderness – God is faithful to lead His people. The Spirit of God wants to guide you through all the rest of your Christian pilgrimage, until He brings you safely home to glory.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.

[2] Note that the reference to the cloud and fire is followed immediately by “You gave your good Spirit to instruct them” in Neh 9:19-20. See also Isa 63:11-14, where Scripture links the Holy Spirit with the leading of Israel.

[3] E.g., 1Ti 4:1; Heb 3:7; 2Pe 1:21

[4] A modified version of a quotation that may have originated with Justin Peters.

[5] John Stubbs, What the Bible Teaches: Numbers (Kilmarnock: John Ritchie Ltd, 2003), 127.