The Pillars of Cloud and Fire
Nehemiah 9:12
Moreover you led them in the day by a cloudy pillar; and in the night by a pillar of fire…

The people who for forty years followed that fire-cloud have left footprints in the sands of time which serve us as an alphabet of life. The march of the Israelites is an allegory of the life of man. Like a providence palpable to the very eyes of man, the fire-cloud indexed that will of God which it is the longing of true hearts in every age to fulfil. This fire-cloud suggests —

I. THAT MAN'S LIFE ON EARTH IS A DIVINELY-CONDUCTED DISCIPLINE. The Israelites emerged from Egypt a huge bee-swarm of humanity making for another hive. From the dark superstitions of life and the coarse immoralities of antiquity they went into the wilderness to learn the rudiments of life. Outside the sphere of man's natural resources Israel had to learn faith in the supernatural environment of man, Their wilderness journey was the drill of a nation destined to be the vehicle of Divine revelation to a world. Our life on earth is mainly a prolonged and various discipline, and its significance lies in the finally resulting manhood. The main matter is not how long it takes us to cross this strip of earth, or how much we have while we travel, but what the journey makes of us as regards the naked, moral character of us all. Very suggestive, if you will ponder, is Israel's inability to comprehend the meaning of a great deal of their march. Why they should lie still, and why move, were not always plain. We cannot readily comprehend the zigzag ways of life. Looking at our things, and not at our soul, we sometimes seem to be moving in a very resultless way — marking time rather than marching. Said a good and active man whose work is his life, "By this sickness I have lost a month." How so? Through every day of his life henceforth he will carry a reverent thoughtfulness of God, and in all his character there will be the tinge of a mellow tenderness, the results of that "lost month's" meditative realisations. Was the month lost, then? God leads and leaves us not where we would like to be, but where we have need to be. There is wisdom in every stage of life's march and countermarch. Life's roughest mile is "ordered of the Lord," and its darkest place is illuminated by the pillar of fire. It is wisdom to store the lessons of experience. Child-like, we forget the back lessons. The teachings of sorrow's school are forgotten in the playground of our joyfulness.

II. THAT THROUGHOUT OUR LIFE-JOURNEY WE FOLLOW A GOD WE NEVER SEE. That fire-bordered cloud was not God. The cathedral window ablaze with its mingled glories hides the sun, while it is at the same time a many-coloured witness of his living radiance. Life leaves room for doubt, and gives worldliness its chance. Herein lies much of our probation. Those tokens of God which are evidence of things not seen are frequently familiarised into comparative powerlessness over the soul.

1. Some of the Israelites sinned under the very shadow of the pillar of fire. The sentiments of reverence and wonder are in danger of exile from the mind.

2. Nature, with its transformations of the seasons.

3. The Sabbath.

4. The house of God.

5. "Prayer; our prayers may become like the winding of our watches — acts we do, scarcely sure whether they are done or not. We often see most of God' in the night of experience.

III. THAT PROTECTION WHICH GOD'S PRESENCE INSURES TO THOSE THAT FOLLOW HIM. Over the sleeping camp the cloud lay like a golden warrior-shield. Yet how slowly was Israel trained to courage! Every new danger created a coward hubbub in the camp. Their foes could do them no harm; but their imaginations were terrible to them as an army with banners. Their minds were made nervous by their own delusions. The Parisians have exhibited what they call a "Panorama of the War." Climbing what appears to be a kind of tower, you seem to see the country around Paris alive with the grim activities of war. Nearest the spectator are placed real cannon and the like, and these shade off into painted forms beyond so perfectly as to produce an illusion like that of the painter who attracted the quick-eyed birds to his painted grapes. The illusion is wonderful, and you can all but smell the gunpowder. But there is no movement — the soldiers are still as stones, the bursting shell remains in the act of explosion, and the flame-flash continues from the cannon-mouth. That breaks the spell. It is but picture, after all. Thus we go at times up the tower of apprehension, and see besieging armies of trouble. Near to us are some real objects of fear, and from them we go on to paint a long perspective of morbid fancies, until life seems ringed round with innumerable foes. After awhile we find it is mostly picture — "the very painting of our fear." Let the chief anxiety of all be to follow the great Leader of life's pilgrimage.

(Samuel Gregory.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Moreover thou leddest them in the day by a cloudy pillar; and in the night by a pillar of fire, to give them light in the way wherein they should go.

WEB: Moreover, in a pillar of cloud you led them by day; and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light in the way in which they should go.

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