Monday 24th August 2020 Cloud and Fire
Exodus 13: 17 – 22
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, ‘God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.’ They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
Writing this reflection I’ve had one of those moments when I suddenly appreciate an allusion that has probably been obvious to everyone else all along – in this case, that the ‘fiery, cloudy pillar’ of Guide me, O thou great Jehovah (R&S 345) is a reference to the pillar that guided the Israelites out of Egypt. As Homer Simpson would say: “Doh!”.
If you’ve ever watched a documentary about tornados in the US, you’ll remember that while they might travel in a straight line for a while, they suddenly change direction, sending the watchers scrabbling for safety (or gunning their vehicles to follow the new track). If the Israelites’ pillar behaved similarly, you can see why they might end up wandering in the desert for 40 years!
The writer of Exodus is clear that God had a plan, and that wasn’t going to be delivered by the Israelites marching in a straight line across Sinai to the promised land. Rather, they would have many diversions and obstacles on the way. Perhaps this should reassure us when we feel we don’t have a plan for our life, or that the unexpected diverts us away from the course we thought we would follow. To be honest, I’m not sure that I know anyone whose life has actually unfolded as they might have planned when they were a child – events happen to us all!
The Israelites had the comfort of that fiery, cloudy pillar to guide them across the desert. But what are the pillars in our lives? Do we allow our faith to guide our choices? Do we listen for God as we make those choices? I’ve always found William Williams’ hymn of prayer for guidance and succour resonates with me, and I invite you to pray it too.
Guide me, O my great Jehovah,
pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
hold me with your powerful hand:
Bread of heaven,
feed me now and evermore.
Open now the crystal fountain,
whence the healing stream doth flow;
let the fiery, cloudy pillar
lead me all my journey through:
be thou still my strength and shield.
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
bid my anxious fears subside;
death of death, and hell’s destruction,
land me safe on Canaan’s side:
songs of praises,
I will ever give to thee.