When reading through portions of the Old Testament Scriptures, I try to imagine being a young girl growing up in the nomadic, Israelite culture of the ancient near east. My entire life is lived in a hot, desert wilderness and my home is a portable tent, kept within the respective clan of my ancestors. As I go about my duties throughout the day, and the hot sun beats down on my skin, I relish those moments of rest under the colorful tent coverings. These tents stretch out as far as your eye can see, spreading a myriad of color across the pale desert sands. From among them, my eye catches a glimpse of the direction of the tabernacle. There, God Himself dwells among my people. His presence hovers over the tabernacle like “a cloud” (Numbers 9:15-23)…
Living in Atlantic Canada, a cloud in the sky is not always celebrated. With many months of harsh, snowy winter, the summer sun is a coveted blessing! But in the desert, where heat and sunshine bring both blessing and danger, a cloud is something altogether different. It is covering shade, and a promise of rain – the provision of water, the source of life!
The Hebrew word for cover in Numbers 9:16 means to be hidden or concealed, as in protection, to clothe, spread over, and overwhelm. How amazing it is to wander this desert wilderness of life as the nomadic people of God, knowing that we are covered by the sweet cloud of His love and protection, His grace and guidance.
One of my all-time favorite verses says, “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1). To be in His shadow is to be under the cloud of His covering! In His presence, we are overwhelmed with peace. He has covered us on every side!
This cloud, though, has an unpredictable nature. It moves. It may remain steady for days, weeks, or months on end, but then suddenly, it begins to shift and travel! The whole nation of Israel lived on the ready. The people of God were watchful and prepared. When the cloud moved, the camp moved. The entire nation shifts correspondingly, packing up their tents, gathering their herds, to keep in step with “the cloud.”
Sometimes, though, the cloud moves at night. Suddenly, everything is different for the young Israelite girl! This cloud that hovered gloriously in the heat of the desert sunshine, looks altogether different in the veil of night, against the backdrop of the stars. With arms heavy laden, and little ones underfoot, God’s people push into the darkness as fierce flickers of angry, red light highlight the way before them. Their Guide, the cloud of comfort, now flickers with rage as “the appearance of fire” (Numbers 9:16).
Can this be the same God? Can His presence, once overwhelming them with joy and provision, alter to look like fire? Can the comfort of grace turn into a fierce glory that flickers unpredictably? It sends that eery red glow over the whole camp…
Some words and themes associated with the Biblical usage of fire are flames, supernatural, hot, altar (of sacrifice), and God’s anger. How do we reconcile this shift from the cloud of comfort? Did God change to become a different God at night than he was during the day?
I’m amazed by Numbers 9:16, “So it was always: the cloud covered it by day and the appearance of fire by night.”
The word for appearance means just that, the appearance of the cloud, the people’s vision or perspective, their ability to see and discern…
Their vision changed. How they saw God shifted. Our God, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17), appeared different in the night from how they saw Him in the day.
Following God at Night.
I think believers can lose their way in the darkness of trials and adversity because we look for the cloud. Where is He? Where is that covering of protection and the promise of rain? Where is the water to quench our thirst and the shade or shadow of peace?
The Night can serve as a blanket of divine protection, as well as the cloud. It is another kind of shadow or covering. God calls out to His children, “Follow me” (Matthew 4:19), “Keep in step” with my spirit (Galatians 5:25), but I’m moving in both the day and in the night! His guiding presence shifts from a comforting cloud to a fiery furnace of holy anger. In a heat that threatens to devour and burn, even still, He is there.
The children of God must learn to recognize Him in the both. We must see Him in the day and in the night. We must trust Him in both the covering of the cloud and the unpredictability of the fiery glow.
He is here, beloved. He is with you.
Pray for Night Vision, to see His presence even there. Do you have the courage to see Him in His holiness, and still, follow where He leads?
Father, in the day, under the cloud of your covering, my heart is light! Joy bubbles up from within me! My spirit rejoices and my feet skip to your step! But in the night, my heart beats within me. Fear lurks in the darkness. And Your presence hovers over me in terrifying glory. Give me the courage to trust You here. Give me the strength to know You in the fire. Give me the grace to walk with You when all I see is heavy darkness and unpredictable glory… I remain your humble sheep, and You, my Good Shepherd.