The story is told of a young woman who tragically lost her eyesight in an accident. After months of rehabilitation, it became clear that she would never be able to see again. She was placed on a waiting list to receive a seeing-eye dog trained to give her back some of the freedoms she had lost and enable her to live an independent life.
After months of waiting and training, the dog and new owner met and connected well. Soon they became an inseparable team. The young woman restarted her career and was able to live a “normal” life. One evening, after she heard the familiar “bling” sound announcing the arrival of the elevator and the opening of the door to take her from her eleventh-floor office to the entrance area of her building, she was taken aback when her dog did not start moving. Though she prodded her dog using the guide frame, he would not move. She spoke to him firmly and commanded him to move forward, but he did not move. Exasperated, she started to push toward the open elevator door, trying to avoid having to wait more time for the next one. In response, her dog moved quickly right in front of her and pushed back against her with all his might. Suddenly a coworker shouted a warning to the young woman. The elevator door was open—but there was no elevator waiting in the gaping black hole.
BY CLOUD AND BY FIRE
We often wonder about God’s leadings in our lives. We may struggle to hear His voice. We may doubt that what we heard was His voice. Sometimes we just don’t like what we’re hearing, and stop moving.
God knows the complexity of our lives—after all, Jesus was one of us—and He also knows how we often vacillate in our lives. That’s why He is eager to engage with us—even when we are wondering which direction we should take or when we have wandered astray. His goodness, mercy, and compassion help us realize that He wants only our best. As our Creator and our Redeemer He wants to remind us that His thoughts are good thoughts toward us (Jer. 29:11).
The story of Israel’s departure from Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land offers us many lessons of how God leads and how He yearns to be part of the equation of our lives. The cloud and the pillar of fire leading Israel through the wilderness offer us examples of visible divine communication. Let’s revisit some of these important moments in Israel’s history that may stir our own memories as we remember God’s leadings in our lives.
MOVING—AND BEING MOVED
Israel’s exodus from Egypt following the tenth plague (or “sign”) and Pharaoh’s surrender to YHWH’s lordship and power represents an important moment in the history of God’s people. Freedom and the Promised Land are just around the corner. But before reaching home, they will have to cross a wilderness, for God doesn’t take them the direct route “by way of the land of the Philistines” (Ex. 13:17), but by the way of the wilderness (verse 18).
God leads them all the way—and He chooses visible manifestations of a pillar of cloud (during the day) and a pillar of fire (during the night) to remind them that He is at the helm and close by. Exodus 13:21 introduces us to the specifics of God’s leading. “And 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.” Intriguingly, between the departure notice from Egypt (Ex. 12:31-39) and the description of the wilderness way (Ex. 13:17-22) the biblical text inserts two significant elements: the prescription of two important festivals associated with the Exodus (namely, the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread [Ex. 12:43-13:10]) and the law of the firstborn (Ex. 13:11-16), one of the key principles of communal living that is rooted in the Exodus experience. Both the festivals and the firstborn principle are intended to remind future generations of this crucial event. Note to self: if we forget God’s past leadings, we become anchorless and directionless—we start wandering about without a way to orient ourselves.
THE PILLAR OF CLOUD AND THE PILLAR OF FIRE
The Hebrew phrases ‘ammud ‘anan, “a pillar of cloud,” and ‘ammud ‘esh, “a pillar of fire,” do not always appear in all texts describing God’s leading of Israel. Often the biblical text uses abbreviations. In Exodus 40:38 it has contracted to “the cloud of YHWH” and “a fire.” In Numbers 9:15-23 it has morphed into he’anan, “the cloud” (verses 15, 16). The cloud’s importance can be seen by its repeated use in Numbers 9. The term appears 11 times in only nine verses (verses 15, 16, 17 [2x], 18, 19, 20, 21 [3x], 22). Repetition points to importance—also in biblical texts.
Readers of the Torah will remember that “the cloud” that filled the tabernacle during its inauguration is twice set in parallelism with “the glory of YHWH” (Ex. 40:34, 35; cf. Ex. 16:10). The close association of cloud and fire with YHWH’s glory is a good illustration for God’s immanence and His transcendence, for God is present in His sanctuary. In fact, through the cloud He “settles” (or “tents,” using the Hebrew shakan, the root that is also underlying the noun mishkan, “tabernacle”) in the camp (Num. 9:17, 18, 22).
The New Testament uses the concept of “tenting” to describe the incarnation of Christ (John 1:14) and underlines the Old Testament notion of divine presence in the sanctuary/temple. Jesus not only claims to be the “cornerstone” of the temple (Mark 12:10; Matt. 21:42); He uses the temple in reference to Himself in an exchange with the Jewish leaders (John 2:19-21). As noted by New Testament scholar Gregory Beale, Jesus essentially takes over the function of the temple by His ministry and sacrifice.1
The divine presence is witnessed by not only the priests and Levites, the cultic professionals, in the wilderness sanctuary, but by all people with a clear view toward the tabernacle. At the same time, however, the amorphous and “intangible” nature of a cloud reminds us that God is always the completely Other, who cannot be fully grasped by His creation and who is distinct from all other gods (Ex. 15:11).
When Israel camped around Mount Sinai, God provided a veritable light-and-sound show to communicate His presence to them. The cloud covering the top of the mountain is associated with God’s appearing or theophany. Sinai was the place Israel received the law and committed formally to the covenant requirements (Ex. 24:16; cf. verses 7, 8). The visible means of God’s leadership of Israel is really forward-looking—to the Promised Land, to saving His people from themselves, and to becoming a light for the nations. The distinct cloud imageries used in the Pentateuch highlight God’s omnipresence, as noted by Old Testament scholar Walter A Maier III: “The pillar of cloud, the mountain cloud, and the atonement-cover cloud reminded the Israelites that God could be at different locations at the same time. They could speak of Yahweh’s presence being localized but also confess that Yahweh was omnipresent.”2
FROM SIGNS AND WONDERS TO CLOUD AND FIRE
Some have noted that God’s leading through cloud and fire following the more dramatic divine manifestations during the Exodus (involving the 10 signs and wonders), through the parting of the sea, and the impressive multimedia production from Mount Sinai suggest a “downshift” from power to presence.3 Instead of a downshift, however, it may be better to think of a “normalization” of God’s leading. God’s power is clearly visible through the remainder of the wilderness journey as He supplies all of Israel’s needs—physical, spiritual, emotional—even in the midst of repeated rebellion and distrust (Num. 11-14). He hasn’t suddenly walked away from His people, even though at times there would be good reasons. Instead, His presence is felt in more subtle ways. “God is equally present, though in subtler form, in the people’s journey under the guidance of clouds,” argues Carey Walsh. “This theophanic shift offers a theology of hope, not in miracles or divine power, but in the efficacy of worship, where God’s presence is still encountered.”4
Through the sanctuary Israel was able to observe God and approach Him daily. And while we don’t look at a physical wilderness sanctuary or an impressive church building covered in a cloud, we are told that we can find Him when we gather together—two or three of us—in His name. Worship is the key to enter into His presence wherever we are because we realize our needs and focus on our High Priest, who understands us and ministers on our behalf.
AND THEN IT MOVED
Israel experienced God’s constant protection and presence visibly when they looked to the sanctuary or followed the pillar of cloud or the pillar of fire when it moved. During the day it offered protection from the scorching sun. At night it dispelled the darkness and gave hope and warmth.
When God moves, we’d better follow. Israel at its best followed the cloud and the pillar of fire wherever it led them. At times they got distracted and murmured and rebelled, but they always returned to the faithful cloud and the warm, glowing fire.
How do we respond to God’s leading in our lives? How closely do we follow? How clearly do we see? How fully do we trust Him?
Thirty-eight years ago God called me to ministry—somewhere high up in the Swiss Alps—in the midst of a terrible storm amid thunder and lightning.5 His call was unmistakable. Yet when I responded to that call, I couldn’t always see around the corner God’s leading for me and, later, my family. When I said yes to His call, I thought of pastoring a local congregation somewhere in Germany. God, however, had other plans. They were bigger and broader, yet also at times scarier. I had to travel across an ocean and an entire continent to find the love of my life. When Chantal and I got married in November 1990, we never imagined that we would serve around the world. We both knew ourselves called to ministry, but what would that ministry look like? Where was the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire that we could follow?
We believed in the principle of open and closed doors and moved forward when a door opened unexpectedly. We sent out our résumés and finished our education. We listened to counsel and spoke with people who had clearly followed the cloud. We wanted to be open to God’s leading and make ourselves available.
We waited for what felt like a long time (most likely about six months)—and then, in the middle of the night, we received a fax with an invitation to serve on the other side of the world. We knew little about Peru, but after many discussions, much prayer, and putting out our fleece, we decided to go.
Looking back, I now realize that this was the most transformational decision of our lives. We had seen the cloud; we had looked at the fire, and decided to follow. We immersed ourselves into a new culture. We learned a new language from scratch. We experienced hardship and cried our tears—and yet we never doubted the cloud or the pillar of fire. God had called us. God had guided us. God was working—even if His workings were veiled at times and not always immediately recognizable.
After six years of teaching in Peru, we followed the cloud to Argentina and spent five important years at River Plate Adventist University. Our three daughters were born in South America and, like us, had become global citizens. I’ll never forget the day I saw them playing “airport security” at home using a wooden spoon as a portable metal-detecting wand.
From Argentina we followed the cloud to the Philippines and spent four wonderful years on the campus of the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS). This was a place we could grow and expand, together with our children and as a family. It was also a place where we recognized that we serve a global church.
The call to serve at the Adventist Review came unexpectedly. We had just arrived at AIIAS when I received the first feeler—and we felt that this was neither cloud nor fire. We were in the process of adapting culturally from a Spanish-speaking country to an English-speaking campus.
Two and a half years later the call came again—and this time we accepted after lots of prayer and hours of seeking to hear God’s gentle voice. It wasn’t an easy decision. We loved raising our children in an environment that didn’t suffer from plenty and the drive for always more. The transition wasn’t always easy, but we saw God’s leading in the big and small things—and moved forward.
Fourteen years later we see the cloud move again. Before our move to the United States we had never lived in one home for 14 years; we had never worked at one place for 14 years. But we clearly heard the call to care for family and decided to dare to jump. “Transitions are often challenging,” I wrote in my first editorial in the Adventist Review in 2009.6 That’s still true today. But when we follow the cloud, when we track the fire, we know ourselves to be in the right place. The past months have been full of goodbyes and change. Selling a home, furniture, cars; sifting through what has been accumulated over 14 years; saying goodbye to wonderful neighbors, dear colleagues, and a special home congregation is not for the faint-hearted. It’s heart work and involves difficult decisions and sometimes painful moments. Yet amid all this we have seen the cloud and the fire. And like ancient Israel, we trust that He who never sleeps nor slumbers will continue to walk ahead of us and use us to bless people in another part of His world. We trust Him in that—and we follow.
1 Gregory K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), pp. 632, 633.
2 Walter A. Maier III, “The Divine Presence Within the Cloud,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 79 (2015): 101, 102.
3 See Carey Ellen Walsh, “Where Did God Go? Theophanic Shift in Exodus,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 43 (2013): 115-123.
4 Ibid., p. 122.
5 You can read the full story in Gerald A. Klingbeil, “Life Maps: Remembering the Reality of God’s Call,” Adventist World, July 2013, pp. 24-27, at https://www.adventistworld.org/nad-july-2013/.6 Gerald A. Klingbeil, “Transitions,” Adventist Review, May 28, 2009, p. 6.