When the Lord led the people of Israel out of Egypt, he went before them in a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. (See Exodus 13:21-22) When the chariots of Egypt met up with the Israelites at the Red Sea, the cloud changed into position and stood between the Israelites and the Egyptians in such a way that the Egyptians were unable to come after the Israelites. (See Exodus 14:19-20) The Lord divided the waters of the Red Sea, and when Pharaoh’s soldiers tried to follow, the Lord looked through the pillar of cloud and “troubled the army of the Egyptians.” (Exodus 14:24) This cloud was the leading factor in the lives of the Israelites. It led them to Sinai. It was present when Israel tragically put herself under the Law, when the Israelites made and worshipped the golden calf, when the original tables of stone were broken by Moses, and during the building of the Tabernacle. When the tabernacle was finished, the “cloud covered the tabernacle of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (Exodus 40:34)
When we read these passages about the presence of the cloud, we can understand it as the presence of the Lord, but the pillar of cloud was also a symbol of the Holy Spirit. By the Holy Spirit, the Lord manifests himself to, in, on, and with the church, God’s people, during her journey through the world during the present age. Jesus promises His followers, “And I will pray to the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16-17) In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus sends out his disciples, promising them the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives, saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” We can compare the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the church to what the cloudy pillar represented to the people of Israel. It was the medium of God’s presence with them, and the seal showing that they were His. So likewise is the Spirit to the people of God now. While the pillar of fire was the light of the people of Israel, so the Holy Spirit is our light as we walk through our lives as Christians. As Paul warns in Romans 13:12, “The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.” The church must have spiritual light that comes from the Spirit, because the Holy Spirit is here and present with us for that very purpose - to give that light through the Word. Paul shares his insight into the power of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 2:4: “And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
With the Israelites, the cloud became the guide of the Israelites throughout the perplexities of their journey, guiding them both by day and by night. In this same way, the Spirit guides and leads us now. In John 16:13, Jesus tells us, “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.” Similarly, the cloud that guided the Israelites also regulated all their movements, deciding where and when they would encamp, and when and where they would travel. See Numbers 9:17-23.
On the one hand, we see with the presence of the pillar that there is evident supremacy, authority and power in God’s leading of the Israelites. Yet on the other hand, the Israelites also were compelled to obedience and had a responsibility for discipline in following God’s guidance through the pillar and Moses’ leadership. There was no room for liberal thought and independence in this community, as the people had no choice as to when and where they would march or stop, whether they should march at sunrise, or break camp at the midnight hour. They had no choice at all in any these matters - when it moved, they moved, when it stopped, they stopped. They were not consulted whether they should stay in one place for a day, month or year. The cloud regulated everything, and their lives and survival depended on it, so the Israelites recognized its authority. There was unity, harmony and precision among the people because they acknowledged their dependence on the cloud.
Accompanying the movement of the cloud there was the word from God as commanded to Moses. The cloud and the Word, therefore, operated together, much like the Holy Spirit and the Word work together in the church’s life today. The Holy Spirit regulates the movements of the church just as the cloud regulated the Israelites’ movements. He is here to operate, not through sentiment, feeling, or the judgment of man, but through the written Word and its illumination to God’s people as He guides them. He also directs the church in the selection of its elders and deacons, giving energy and zeal, without which there can be no spiritual efficiency. He is present here in this age to be the supreme power in the Church. Jesus says continually, “Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit saith the Lord.” (Zechariah 4:6)
We must wait for the Spirit’s leading, just as Jesus’ followers waited at Pentecost. The Israelites waited for the movement of the cloud, and we must wait for the leading and movement of the Spirit too. Individuals and assemblies have suffered much by not waiting on the Spirit and thinking they can act on their own in their own wisdom and power, without seeking the guidance of the Spirit. In our impatience, we fail to wait on the Spirit’s guidance, and then embrace the flesh, which leads to defeat, overthrow and disaster. While the cloud was the evidence of the Lord’s presence with the Israelites and separated them from the nations around, so should the Holy Spirit’s presence within us and the fruit of the Spirit set us apart from others around us. (See Exodus 33:14-16.) The presence of the Lord with the people was not only the seal that they were His, but it indicated that they were a separated people. Just as the pillar of cloud separated God’s people from the Egyptians pursuing them, if you have His presence in a real way through the Holy Spirit, it will separate you from those who do not have Him. (See Exodus 14:19-20)
We are also the only beings in which the Holy Spirit dwells. He does not dwell in natural men, nor in angels, but only in those who have been redeemed by the blood of the cross, whom the Son of God has given His life and nature. (See 1 Corinthians 2:14) He dwells in us in order to seal us; He is our pledge and guarantee of a glorious immortality in the Lord. Just as the cloud never left the children of Israel during their wilderness journey, the Holy Spirit will not leave us either. Before the resurrection, the Holy Spirit came upon men and used them for specific tasks, leaving them shortly thereafter without taking up permanent abode in them. For example, David was used by the Spirit to be a man after God’s own heart, leading the people of Israel as their king. He speaks of the Spirit in Psalm 51:11, exclaiming, “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.” No believer can pray this prayer expecting God to take the Spirit from us, because the Holy Spirit will never leave the believer and the true regenerated church. He will be her guide until the Lord comes and establishes His reign on earth. Even though we may grieve Him, quench Him, and resent Him, He will never leave us. We are called to not give the Spirit any reason to “grieve” for us, as Paul warns in Ephesians 4:30, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” The Spirit and the written Word shall be our cloudy, fiery pillar until the journey is over, the day dawns and the shadows flee away!