When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.” 18 But God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle. 19 Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph[a] had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones with you from here.” 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. (Exodus 13:17-22)
The Passover night has come. The Exodus event is here. The angel of death has struck Egypt, and great cries are heard throughout the land. Pharaoh has finally had enough. He sends the people out. The Hebrews ask their Egyptian neighbors for gold, silver, clothing, and jewelry, and so plunder the Egyptians on their way out of Egypt. They march out, having eaten the Passover meal in haste, with their belt fastened and sandals on, waiting for the word to go. The word comes, it is time to go. But once they have exited Egypt, the reality hits – where will they go? Most of them know nothing other than the land of Egypt. They have no other home. They know nothing else. Where will they go? How will they know how to get there? We read in our text today the most beautiful answer to these questions. God Himself comes to lead His people, not just out of Egypt, but throughout the wilderness, day and night. He leads them not by some abstract spiritual intuition, but in a most gracious, literal, and visible way. He comes to His people in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Not only to lead them, but to protect them, shelter them, give them light, provide them heat, and we even learn later on that the pillar of cloud and fire remained with them the entire 40 years of wandering in the wilderness during their rebellion. Oh what an amazing gracious God the Lord is!
There are three themes which we will see in our text today: God’s Plan, God’s Promise, and God’s Presence. First we see God’s plan, verse 17-18.
God’s Plan (v. 17-18)
Upon leading the people out of Egypt, God could have directly taken His people into the promised land, flowing with milk and honey, yet He does not. Instead of taking them the direct route, God has determined to take them the long way around. You can imagine the confusion and frustration that some Israelites may have at such a plan. You can imagine the temptation to immediately begin to doubt that this God has your good in mind or will do what He has said. But why does God do this? It is not for arbitrary or cruel reasons. The text tells us and it is amazing. God took them the long way around because He did not want the people to have to see war yet. He knew they were not yet ready for it. The promised land was not an empty resort just waiting for them. It was the land of Canaan, filled with wicked and evil people, filled with giants and spiritual principalities that they would have to drive out, fight, and kill, to take this land. But God knew they were not ready yet. They were a mere slave people, just having left the only home they knew. Most of them would not have been at all trained for battle and fighting, they were slaves. God knew that if they saw the difficulty of war and the size of the enemy, they would want to turn back and go to Egypt right away, even after all the plagues they witnessed. And even though they go the long way, this is exactly what they end up wanting to do anyway. The 12 spies spy out the land and 10 come back and say, the enemy is too big, there’s giants, no way can we take ‘em. So God says, “you need 40 more years of training.” They needed a new generation to be raised up who are not raised as slaves.
Their future disobedience aside, I just want to dwell for a moment on the love and care that God displays for His people here. He knew their weaknesses and their condition. He knew they were not ready to fight, mentally, physically, or spiritually. And God did not want these infants in faith to be destroyed. He did not want them to be obliterated because they simply could not handle the fight yet. God was mindful of them. I think of Psalm 103:13-14, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” Yahweh God was not a slave driver like Pharaoh demanding bricks without straw. He is a compassionate Father to His children. Even us sinful fathers know that we don’t just throw our young sons out to the wolves and tell them to adapt or die. We care for them. We know that they need training and instruction and equipping; and those things take time. So how much more our perfect Heavenly Father is compassionate and patient in our weakness and infirmities.
Or even more, I think about Isaiah 42:3 which is speaking about the Messianic Servant of the LORD, and says about Him, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench…” Oh how the Lord does not crush the weak. He does not desire to destroy His small children. God knows His people better than they know themselves and so He knows exactly what it is that we need. Untrained soldiers are not just thrown out into battle. Such a tactic would be foolish and would be asking for defeat. God takes time to train and prepare His people, so that they are ready, so that they can actually fight and have success and win. God is a God victory, and He knows how to win. All throughout the Bible God tells His men, “wait, wait, wait, wait, okay go.” Abraham finally had the child of promise when He was as good as dead. Moses 40 years in the wilderness before returning to Egypt; returns to Egypt to lead the people out and spends 40 more years in the wilderness with an ungrateful people and dies there. David is anointed by Samuel but he has to wait and wait and wait on God to remove Saul and not take Saul’s life himself. Throughout the Psalms the question is asked, “How long O Lord? How long O Lord?”
Think about this in your own life. How often has the providence of God seemed so strange to you? Has there been times in which you did not understand why God was doing things the way that He was, and you thought you knew better than Him? Anytime you are tempted to think, “If I were God, I would do it this way…” just stop. If left to ourselves we would destroy ourselves for we do not know what is best for us; but God has entrusted us to His dear Son Jesus Christ to care for us, to make sure that our faintly burning wicks will not be quenched.
If you find yourself not being where you want to be yet, in life, in your career, in having children, single people in longing to be married, whatever it may be, you need to know that God has decided to take you a longer route than you think He should, so you should trust Him. He knows that, despite what you may think, you’re not ready at this point in time. It could be that you need more time in training. It could be that He has other plans for you altogether. You may not understand why God is taking you the long route, but you can believe not only that God is all-knowing and all-wise, but that He is taking you the long route because He loves you, He cares for you as a father, and He is mindful that you are dust. So often we’re not mindful of that. But God always is and He knows how to keep us. Trust the route that God is taking you.
And whenever it is hard for you to trust God’s plan, remember the Lord Jesus. He did not come and simply save His people all at once by directly transferring them to heaven. Instead, by the will of the Father, He put on human flesh. Was born as a baby, grew up as a child in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man. He spent a decade of His adult life working as a carpenter. He spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness and resisting temptation. He spent three years in ministry, patiently teaching His disciples. He endured the unjust trial and treatment He received from wicked men. He endured great suffering and pain, and He endured the cross. He did not bypass the suffering or call down angels to deliver Him from what He had to endure, for He came to do the Father’s will, and all of this was the will of the Father for His glory in our salvation.
God’s Promise (v. 19)
We’ve considered God’s plan, let’s now consider God’s promise. In verse 19 the people take the bones of Joseph with them, according to what Joseph made them swear. Before Joseph died, it says in Genesis 50:25, “Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.”” So when Joseph gives his sons these instructions, Joseph does so in faith, believing the promise of God, that God will bring them out of Egypt, and into the promised land, and that was even during a time when Israel was prosperous in Egypt. Even then Joseph did not fall in love with the riches of the world, but looked to the promise of God. Here we see in Exodus 13, over two centuries later, God’s promise is true, that He does visit His people and bring them up out of Egypt and Joseph’s wish is granted, that his bones would be taken with them.
Now why would Joseph care about this, that his bones go with the people? I’m sure there were a number of reasons, but chiefly, it was because of His faith. Hebrews 11:22 tells us, “By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.” It was his faith in the promise of God. When you think about Joseph’s life, there are so many instances where we can see his faith and patient endurance of suffering, and yet, of all of those things that could’ve been mentioned about his faith in Hebrews 11, this one instance concerning the exodus and his bones is what is mentioned. Now that is fascinating. I think the reason is because belief in the promised exodus was a belief that was particularly in the salvation of God. And Jude tells us that it was Jesus who delivered His people out of Egypt. Thus, this faith was a peculiar faith in The Deliverer, which is to say, in Christ.
Furthermore, I think that his desire for his bones to be buried in the promised land showed a belief in the resurrection, or a belief in trusting God in death. He wanted to be in the promised land, where God was. That was where God would dwell with His people of old, and Joseph entrusted Himself in death to the living God. In a shadowy way, this showed his faith in Christ. For Jesus is the true promised land, in whom the presence of God dwells. Jesus is the true promised land in whom we are to entrust ourselves in death, knowing that to die is to be with Him, which is to trust in His resurrection, that He is the Living God, and the God of the living. Today it doesn’t matter to our faith where we are buried, for wherever that is, we die in Christ, we are buried with Christ, and so raised with Him. Joseph’s faith shows this in a typological way.
I like what A. W. Pink says, “…Joseph had put his dying trust in the Living God, and it was impossible that he should be disappointed.”
Furthermore, we also know that Joseph himself was a type of Christ. I forget which commentator pointed this out, but one said that Joseph’s bones being carried by Israel is typical of 2 Corinthians 4:10. 2 Corinthians 4:7 says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Then verse 10 says, “always caring in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” So if Joseph is a type of Christ, and Israel carried Joseph’s bones with them, we can see this as a picture of how we carry with us the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. What an amazing thought. As Israel carried around the dead bones of Joseph, they carried around an emblem of his faith and life in the promises of God for them. What an encouragement to their faith that could’ve been. Likewise, we carry the death of Jesus in our body, that His life may be manifest in us. His death brings us life. Faith in His death, brings life. Death and resurrection. When we come to the Lord’s Table, we remember His death, we take, eat, and drink, and we are strengthened in life, to live unto Him.
God’s Presence (v. 20-22)
We have considered God’s plan and God’s promise, let us now consider God’s presence. Verse 20-22 we see the miraculous presence of God going before His people and leading them in a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. Imagine the amazing and awe-inspiring sight this was. Now my understanding, based upon further understanding of God’s presence in the glory cloud at Mt. Sinai, then the tabernacle and temple is that this was one pillar coming down from heaven with fire coming out of the cloud, not that this was two separate pillars. In the day it was the cloud that you saw, and at night, the fire was visible in the cloud, flashing forth as light and God’s presence.
Notice that this presence of God going before them and leading them was continual day and night. And we learn later that it remained with them for all 40 years in the wilderness, even through all their rebellion and unbelief. When we consider this, Calvin puts his finger on it when he so simply says, “The flow of God’s grace was continual.”
Just as God Himself visited the land of Egypt in judgment, so God Himself visited His people in salvation, and remained with them to lead and guide them as a shield and light ever about them. Both God’s judgments and God’s grace are seen in His presence visiting a people. God does not stand far off calling His people to make it up to Him by their own power and wisdom, He himself comes to them, as a compassionate Father and loving shepherd. God does not hide His grace from His people for them to search out and achieve. He reveals it to them and gives it to them as a gift. Titus 2:11 says, “For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation for all people.” God comes in judgment, and God comes in grace.
Just as God Himself was present in the pillar of cloud and fire to lead His people into salvation, likewise Christ Himself came down and appeared in the flesh to sinful men to lead us to heaven. But it is not only that “like” God was present with Israel, so Christ is present with us, but I would argue that the preincarnate Christ Himself was present with His Church of old, in a real yet typical way that He is with us. Indeed, the presence of God in the pillar of cloud and fire is the veiled presence of the Triune God. Notice verse 21 says, “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…” God was in the pillar of cloud and fire. Not only this, but Moses says in the next chapter that it was also the angel of God that went before them. Exodus 14:19, “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.” Now we have seen this angel of the Lord before in the burning bush and elsewhere in the Old Testament as the preincarnate Christ. Throughout the Old Testament we see that this pillar of cloud and fire is God’s presence as a canopy over the tabernacle, and Psalm 99:7 and elsewhere says that God spoke to them from the cloud. So by God’s Spirit in the cloud, God leads them and guides them with His presence, that is what His Spirit does, and He speaks to them, that is His Word, and the preincarnate Christ is the Word, as John tells us, the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.
There is a Reformed Baptist pastor named Douglas Van Dorn who says that this presence of God in the pillar is the preincarnate Son shrouded and covered in the Holy Spirit. We see this very theme in the life of Christ. Mark 1:12 says, “The Spirit immediately drove him [Jesus] out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.” This language of being “driven out” by the Spirit, is Exodus language. Exodus, driven out, by the Spirit, in the wilderness, just like Israel, Jesus being True Israel. And He was there tempted for forty days, as Israel was in the wilderness for forty years, ministered to by angels. The presence of God’s Spirit and Word with Israel in the wilderness was God’s presence and was typical of Christ in the wilderness filled with the Spirit.
Indeed, as with Israel by the pillar, it is God’s Word and Spirit that leads and guides and protects His people today. As the Church is true Israel in Christ today, we are also led, guided, and protected by God’s Word and Spirit. He is our light and shield about us, our ever present help in trouble.
Further, John Gill says this, “…this cloud was an emblem of Christ, who has sometimes appeared clothed with a cloud…” And then Gill references Revelation 10:1, which says, “Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire.” This is a vision of Christ in all of this biblical imagery and imagery of the Exodus. He’s an angel of the Lord, wrapped in a cloud, legs are like pillars of fire. Behold the Majesty of Jesus Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the One who is and who was and who is to come, who has always been the salvation and victor for His people and defeater of His enemies. How could we not throw ourselves upon His mercy and trust Him to protect and keep our souls? And oh how you do not want to oppose this mighty Christ!
Christ is a mighty pillar about His people. In it, we see how He is a firm foundation for upholding His people in their weakness. A defender against the enemy. A shelter from the heat of God’s wrath toward our sin. Oh to be hid in Christ who is this mighty one, and yet who loves us and cares for His people in their weakness and infirmities and sins. Simultaneously the most dangerous and most safe place in the wilderness was near to the fiery and cloudy pillar, near to Christ. Simultaneously this is the most dangerous and safe place to be a sinner. Sinners near the presence of God without faith in Christ are destroyed. Sinners near the presence of God in Christ, no place safer.
John Gill says God’s presence of the preincarnate Christ in the form of a pillar was an emblem “…of his uprightness, firmness, stability, and visibility in it, and of the use and benefit he is to his people, partly to shew them the way in which they should go, by his spirit and word, and lead them in it by his own example, whom it becomes them to follow, he being a wise, safe, and constant guide, and partly to shelter and protect them from the heat of a fiery law, from the flaming sword of justice, from the wrath of God, from the fiery darts of Satan, and from the furious persecution of wicked men, sometimes compared to the heat of the sun.”
May Jesus Christ be your pillar, your mediator and protector, and the Spirit be your guide and comforter, and God be your compassionate Father. Trust Him with your life. Trust Him with your plans. Trust His plans. Trust Him in your dying. Look to Christ, to be buried with Him, that His mighty victory over death would be your guide to take you by the hand in death and lead you to Himself, your great pillar of fire for light in the night, through dark trials, and through the darkness of the grave unto eternal life and light in Him. Glory, power, and dominion be His forever, amen.