Numbers 9:15-10:36

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“…the day the tabernacle was set up” was the first day of the second year, that is, the second year after the exodus from Egypt (Ex 40:2). In Exodus 40:34-38 we have the same material as we are given in Numbers 9:15-23 but in a shorter, terser form. The two accounts of the same moment, the covering of the sanctuary by the cloud, form an inclusio with all the material from Lev. 1:1 to Numbers 9:14 contained within.

“At the Lord’s command” is the theme of this passage and its repetition in the following verses emphasizes it. They made their journey “at the Lord’s command” as it was expressed by the movement of the cloud, starting when it lifted from the sanctuary and stopping when it settled over it again and enveloped it. Israel’s march was directed by God, not man; not even by Moses. [Milgrom, 72]

The last instructions Israel received at Sinai concerned the manufacture of two silver trumpets. The nation would know that it was to move when the cloud lifted, but the trumpets allowed for more precise control of the movement of the tribes as envisioned in chapters 2 and 3, certain tribes setting out first, others at the rear and so on. The trumpets will provide the signals. They will have other uses than those signaling Israel on the march and these are detailed at the end of the paragraph. Josephus describes these trumpets and they are pictured on the Arch of Titus in Rome. They were straight pipes, approximately a foot or more in length, with a flared bell.

We will find mention of the use of these trumpets throughout the OT in coronations, the dedication of Solomon’s temple, the rededication of the temple in Asa’s reign, the laying of the foundation of the second temple after the exile, and so on.

It is interesting that Israel would be summoned to worship by the same instrument by which she was summoned to war. It will be a trumpet, we are told in the New Testament, that will summon the dead to the resurrection and the church militant to take their place behind the King of Kings as he returns to the earth.

There is some debate about precisely what Paran refers to. Most think it indicates the northern half of the Sinai peninsula, the identification reflected in the map in the back of NIV and ESV Bibles.

The tribes began to move in the order specified in chapter 2 and under the commands of the chieftains named in chapter 2.

The tabernacle, that is, the structure itself went first so that it could be set up at the next stopping place and so be ready when the sacred objects carried by the Kohathites arrived. These included the table for the bread, the lampstand, the incense altar, and the altar of burnt offering. The ark of the covenant, as we will read in v. 17, went first, leading the nation on the march.

In Exodus 2:18 Moses’ father-in-law is said to be Reuel, who gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses for a wife. In Exodus 18 Zipporah’s father and Moses’ father-in-law is named Jethro. Jethro there, you remember, gave Moses some very good advice about his oversight of the people. Hobab appears here for the first time and would appear to be Moses’ brother-in-law, another son of Reuel who was also called Jethro.

Hobab’s response is not recorded but we learn in Judges 1:16 that he acceded to Moses’ request and accompanied the people of Israel. In this entire dialogue it is clear that Moses and Israel expected that the march would be a short one and that they would soon find themselves in the Promised Land. No one was anticipating another 40 years in the wilderness.

Whatever failures of faith may follow, Israel set out in faith that the Lord was with them and would lead them to victory.

The first verse is found almost verbatim in Psalm 68:1, the famous “Protestant Psalm of Battles” that we sing from in worship from time to time.

Israel was finally on the march again. And at that moment great stress was placed upon the fact that Yahweh himself would direct the march. This section begins with that thought: the glory cloud signifying the Lord’s presence, would pick up and move and the nation would move behind it. The cloud would settle again upon the sanctuary and the nation would come to a halt. And so it would continue: whenever and wherever the cloud moved the people would move; whenever it stopped, the people would stop.

The movement of the cloud as directing Israel’s march is stated again in 10:11-12 and again in v. 34. Then the section concludes emphatically with the same thought. Moses’ habit was to call out “Rise up, O Lord!’ when the people set out and “Return, O Lord” when they came to a stop. Once again the point was to reinforce in everyone’s mind the fact that they were under the Lord’s guidance and protection; they were following him. He was at the head of their columns, the commander of his host.

In other words, this passage is about the Lord’s guidance of his people; the Lord’s direction of his people’s pilgrimage. Israel needed to know where to go, what route to take, how best to get through the wilderness to the Promised Land and we need to know the same things today. You are well aware that this history of Israel’s pilgrimage in the wilderness becomes in the Bible an image of the Christian life. We are on pilgrimage from this world to the next. We must travel through a hostile wilderness. We also live in tents. Both Paul and Peter refer to our earthly bodies as tents, temporary dwellings. And we have the promise, as Israel did in the wilderness, that the Lord will be our guide even to the end (Ps. 48:14). Our subject tonight is the Lord’s guidance of his people. It is a large subject; we can only speak to one aspect of it this evening, but our text is very illuminating in respect to that one aspect.

All of us are intensely interested in the question of guidance because we want to know what road to take. Christians have always wanted to know this. And a great deal of nuttiness has often been the result. We come to some fork in the road in our lives and we think we need to learn and ought to be able to learn what direction the Lord wants us to take. So we devise ways to discern his will. We want to know what job he wants us to take, what woman he wants us to marry, what house he wants us to buy, what medical treatment he wants us to choose. And Christians, from time immemorial, have supposed that God would surely give us that information. That is, we have expected some form of the glory cloud to guide us as it guided Israel in the wilderness. We know there is no longer an actual cloud, but surely the Lord can and will direct us by other means. The world is dark and so much is unknown; it is natural for us to feel that we need help in knowing what step to take. The Lord gave that help to Israel; why not to us?

So appealing is this prospect of receiving such direct guidance from heaven that Christians of all theological stripes have been tempted to think that such guidance must be still available. I hear believers talk all the time as if the Lord directed them to do this or told them to do that or pointed them in that direction as obviously and as unmistakably as if there had been the pillar of cloud moving before them. They believe that the Lord has guided them in much the same immediate and obvious way as he guided Israel through the desert. I heard a fine Christian a few weeks ago speak just this way. The Lord directed him here and there to do this and that. Oh that it were so! A college friend of mine chose to attend Covenant College because, finding herself unsure where she ought to go to college, musing over the question while lying on the dock behind her home, she seemed to see a “C” formed by the clouds above her. Of course, it might have meant Clemson, or Cornell, or Community College, or, for that matter, “cooking.” But she took it as a sign; the Lord was directing her as if the glory cloud were picking up and moving ahead of her to Chattanooga, TN.

I have told you before that when I was growing up it was common even in our circles to seek the guidance of the Lord by laying out a fleece. I look back with some wonder that it was so, but it was. So sure were we that God would give us the direction we needed, Christians in large numbers, even in our circles, never stopped seriously to question the practice. Gideon laid out a fleece, remember, He shouldn’t have; but he did and the Lord generously accommodated his lack of faith. Gideon, in order to be sure he had heard the Lord correctly and was actually supposed to lead Israel in battle against her enemies, asked for a sign, some confirmation that he was doing the right thing. He put some wool on the threshing floor one night and asked God to put all the morning dew on the wool and none on the floor. If that happened, a genuine miracle, Gideon thought, he would know for sure that Yahweh actually was going to save Israel by Gideon’s hand. When it happened precisely as Gideon had requested, with much greater effrontery, doubting Gideon asked God to do it once more, this time reversing the result: all the dew on the floor and none on the wool. And God did so. Now that is supernatural guidance! Thatis a way of being sure of what direction to take, of what God wants you to do.

But, of course, that is not what we did when we laid out a fleece. We would devise some test, we would request some sign and we simply assumed the Lord would agree to grant us the sign we asked for. We needed direction and surely he would provide it. But our tests or signs were not like Gideon’s. In our case the outcome was always inevitable. We would say, “Lord, if Sally comes to the youth group meeting, then she is the girl I should ask out.” And if we were really cowardly, like Gideon, we would say, “Lord, if I should ask out Sally, have her come up and talk to me.” But, of course, one or the other of those outcomes was inevitable. Sally either would or would not come to the meeting, would or would not come up to talk to me. What we should have done, if we really intended to lay out a fleece, was to ask God to do what Gideon asked him to do. “Lord, if Sally is the girl for me, put all the dew on the piece of cotton I’m going to put in the backyard tonight, all the dew on the cotton and none on the ground. And tomorrow night put all the dew on the ground and none on the cotton.” That is laying out a fleece! And, of course, the reason we didn’t do that was because down deep we knew full well that the dew would be on both the wool and the ground two nights running. We were as much as picking the petals off a flower intending to take seriously the final message: she loved me, or she loved me not. This wasn’t the Lord’s guidance; we were pretending to be guided by the Lord.

What we were doing was, in fact, a form of divination, a practice sternly forbidden in the Bible. Divination is an attempt by some form of manipulation to discover what the will of God is so that we can line up our plans with his purposes. It was a very common practice in the ANE. Eighty per cent of the library of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal was found to consist of divination texts. And common as the practice was Israel was tempted to employ the widely accepted devices of divination: the study of animal organs early on and later the study of the stars. But God never said that his people, in general and for all time, would require that sort of information and certainly never promised to provide that sort of information. In fact, he told his people to get their guidance in another way. And that other way is anticipated here in a passage that focuses primarily on the movement of the glory cloud and the immediate guidance that Yahweh provided that generation of his people in the wilderness. There are other means of guidance here too and these are the ones that would prove most important for us.

There is, in fact, a striking juxtaposition of perspectives on guidance here in our text. The Lord’s guidance by means of the cloud is clearly and emphatically the subject. But cheek to jowl with that are two other forms of guidance, two other ways believers are to find their way through the wilderness of this world.

First, there is the Word of God. The fact is the nation had to move according to the commands that the Lord had given in Numbers 2. Certain people had to lead, others had to follow. The cloud lifted but the trumpets still had to blow before anyone actually moved. In the same way, the chieftains must do their part leading out their tribes in the approved order. The cloud may lift and move but Israel must follow, each chieftain and each tribe taking their assigned place in the order of march. Certain assignments had to be fulfilled by those appointed to them. The sanctuary and its furniture had to be moved as the Lord had commanded. There is, in fact, more in this passage about following the commandments of the Lord than there is about following the cloud! And all through the rest of the Bible this is the Bible’s primary teaching regarding guidance or how the Lord leads us. He leads us through his word and we know his will by reading it in the Bible. He may, indeed, order our steps in ways we cannot predict or explain, but so far as we are concerned, the information we need for making decisions and almost all the information we are going to get is what we have been told in Holy Scripture.

Second, there is the advice and counsel of a knowledgeable advisor. In this context, with all the emphasis on the glory cloud, the conversation between Moses and Hobab near the end of chapter 10 is very striking. What a remarkable thing for Moses to say to the man who was apparently his brother-in-law: “You know where we should camp in the desert, and you can be our eyes.” By itself the remark is eminently sensible, but in the context it is surprising, is it not? The reader thinks: “I thought the Lord was going to direct Israel’s way and determine where she would camp. What more could Israel need than a cloud that lifted to signal the march, that moved before the people with the ark, and then settled down again to indicate the place where the nation should rest and camp? But here Moses asks a man familiar with the wilderness to accompany them and give them the benefit of his intimate knowledge of the terrain. By saying that Hobab would be Israel’s “eyes” Moses was saying that he would know as the Israelites did not the location of waterholes, the easiest routes, the danger points and so on. And this information would be critical to the proper guidance of the people.

The perspective of v. 31 seems so different from that of the rest of this material that some commentators have found in it the evidence that the passage is composed of two different sources. In other words the narrative as we have it is a conflation of two different versions of Israel’s passage through the wilderness. In one version Israel received supernatural guidance in the wilderness; in the other the guidance was human and natural. In one Israel moved behind a supernatural cloud; in another she followed sage advice from a man who knew the wilderness like the back of his hand. [cf. Milgrom, 79] Other commentators have seen Moses’ statement to Hobab as evidence of a lack of faith on Moses’ part. What did he need Hobab for if he had the Lord? Perhaps Moses is hedging his bets because he doesn’t entirely trust the Lord to lead the people through the wilderness.

But the text gives no indication of this at all. There is not the slightest suggestion that Moses is at fault in asking for Hobab’s help and there is certainly no evidence that vv. 29-32 are the product of a different source and a different viewpoint than that which underlies the rest of the passage. And the best demonstration of that is the fact that this divine/human causality, this concursus in which both divine work and human work are seen and said to produce a single result is a commonplace of biblical narrative. Concursus is the theological term used to describe this facet of divine providence or God’s rule over this world and all that happens in this world. Concursus means that God so much accomplishes his will through human means that the same event or result can be described as both the work of God and the work of man. In other words, the reader of the Bible doesn’t have to choose between 9:17 and 10:31. Both are true, both perspectives describe real things, and each is consistent with the other. The Lord led his people through the wilderness by the cloud, but he made use of the trumpet blowers, the chieftains, and the knowledge of those who knew the terrain. That is God’s way; it is always his way.

It is not at all hard to come up with other examples of this double perspective, the divine and human together and their cooperation with one another in achieving a result. Yahweh, as you remember, promised to deliver the Canaanites into Israel’s hands, but that did not mean they should not send spies into the land to educate themselves on the military situation. In fact, in Numbers 13:2, the sending of spies into the land was at the explicit instruction of the Lord. What did he need spies for, we might ask? What could they learn that he did not already know? But the Lord used means and it is a great part of what he wants his people to know that he will guide them and bless them using the ordinary means by which wise people come to sound decisions.

Take an example. You remember in the career of Saul, early on when things had not yet reached the eventual low point, when Saul had not yet even been acknowledged as King by all Israel, Saul received news that the Ammonites were besieging the town of Jabesh Gilead. The men of Jabesh sent word to Saul seeking help and we read that when Saul received the news “the Spirit of God came upon him in power…” He mustered Israel and moved to rescue Jabesh Gilead. But at the end of that passage we read that Saul, having divided his force in three, attacked the Ammonites in camp during the last watch of the night and slaughtered them. What is interesting and entirely typical is the juxtaposition of the Spirit of God coming upon him and leading him into battle, on the one hand, and the clever military strategy of dividing his force so as to strike from different directions at once and making his attack when his enemy would be least ready to defend himself, on the other. Which was it: was the Lord leading Saul to victory or was a clever commander stealing the march on his enemy? Well it wasn’t either one or the other; it was both at the same time. Remember Oliver Cromwell’s famous exhortation to his Puritan army during the English civil war: “Trust in God and keep your powder dry!” In the Bible there are examples without number of this double guidance, double direction, and double causation. The Lord directs by using ordinary means.

But how does that guidance come? We would all, of course, love it if there were still a fiery cloud that would lift up and lead us where we were supposed to go and then settle again where we should stop. Then we could follow the cloud to the one we should marry, to the job we should take, to the doctor when we are sick, to the neighbor who is ready to hear the gospel, to the bank, to the store, to the house where we should live. How simple, we think, life would be then. But, though such a thing has happened in the world, it was never the norm and nothing in the Bible leads us to expect that it will be the norm for us.

First, let me remind you that having the cloud didn’t prevent Israel from failing to follow the Lord. We will read that unhappy history in a few weeks. Other things are involved besides knowing where we are supposed to go!

Second, we don’t have a cloud. We have the presence of the Lord to be sure; he is present with us as he promised, but he does not direct us in that direct, immediate, and visible way, no matter how often believers claim that he does. He not only doesn’t direct us this way, he never said that he would direct us this way. Israel knew to follow the cloud because the cloud was there and would lift and settle. But nowhere in the Bible are we told to expect such things ourselves or to gain our guidance from some direction that comes from heaven. The fact is, if you think that the Lord will give you that guidance, at least have the courage of your convictions. Ask for the cloud, insist on the cloud; don’t manufacture some cheap imitation in your mind. We must live by faith not by sight.

Third, and this is the main point, we have today everything but the cloud. We have the other means of seeking direction for our lives. We have the Word of God, which Israel in those days received through Moses who spoke to the Lord in the sanctuary. We have that Word written and it provides us with all the direction we need to order our lives in that way we know is pleasing to God. What does Paul say about the Bible? It thoroughly equips us for every good work. Divine guidance comes most surely, the Bible says, to those who obey the commandments of the Lord. Move forward in obedience and you can be sure you are moving in precisely the direction you are supposed to move.

What is more, we have the good advice and sound counsel of those who know the terrain. At least we should have such people speaking into our lives and helping us find our way on our pilgrimage. The church is full of Hobabs who, having been over the ground before us, can be our eyes as we make the trip ourselves. Do what Moses did and ask for the advice and the direction of those who have the experience and the knowledge to advise you.

We may no longer have the cloud, but we have Hobab and together with the Word of God that is enough. Paul remained in Corinth because the Lord spoke to him in a vision telling him that he had much people in that city to be called to faith in Jesus. Paul had his cloud. Now Paul was an apostle and his experience in that respect is no proof that we will receive the same sort of direct communication from heaven that he did. But Paul had his cloud. But, a bit later in his ministry, when visions were no longer the norm, Paul remained in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:8-9), not because God told him to in some supernatural way but because, as he said, “a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.” In most cases Paul had to figure out for himself what to do next by making prudent choices on the basis of the principles of the Word of God.

The simple fact is that a great many Christians who, with Bible in hand ought to know better, are still looking for the cloud. I hear it all the time: the Lord told me to do this or go there. The Lord led me to do this or that. And, of course, they expect other Christians to accept that the cloud has lifted or settled as they have been told it has. Much of this is simply pious nonsense. The Lord never said anything of the kind in telling us how to live our lives. What is claimed to be the guidance of the Lord is in fact only an impression that the person had or his or her own interpretation placed on events. It is an innocent – and sometimes not so innocent – form of blasphemy, attributing to God one’s own ideas, desires, and decisions. The little voice inside has been taken to be the very voice of God and, in that way, you are making your voice out to be God’s. Is that not a kind of blasphemy? Oh, to be sure, all entirely well-meant, but no less mistaken for that. Christian people want the cloud. But there is no longer a cloud. There simply isn’t.

How is it that when Christian folk claim to have received guidance from heaven for some project that we think is foolish or certain to fail we have no difficulty doubting that God gave any such guidance? When a Pentecostal brother or sister claims to have been given a vision we don’t take that claim seriously. But, when some Christian like us presumes to say that the Lord guided him in a certain way or led him to do something we nod our heads and accept that the Lord really did direct the man’s steps by a moving cloud or at least its equivalent.

Now, most believers are perhaps ready to admit that there may be problems here. After all, most of us have encountered people, or at least heard of people, who claimed to have been led by the Lord into some business venture that seemed highly risky, even unethical; or to undertake some ministry for which we may feel the person highly unsuited. I have a friend, a minister of my acquaintance, who referred to the married woman with whom he had an affair, as God’s gift to him. God, in other words, had guided him into this relationship and into the betrayal of his own wife and his ministry. A faith healer, exposed on a TV news magazine a few years ago, claimed that the Holy Spirit had told him to pretend that he was getting information about those coming forward to be healed from revelations received directly from the Holy Spirit, when, in fact, his staff had collected the information in “pre-healing interviews” and was communicating it to him by means of radio transmissions to a small receiver in his ear. Well, we know that isn’t right, these are not Christian ethics.

But, then, when a minister says so piously that the Lord led him to preach on a certain text or a missionary explains that he undertook a certain work because the Lord opened the door before him, how do we know that these people got direct guidance from heaven? If we deny the validity of such direct communications or divine leading in the one case how can we validate or prove it in the other?

Donald Macleod, one of the Reformed Church’s very best theologians, professor at the Free Church College in Edinburgh, in his little work on the Holy Spirit, writes this about such ways of speaking about the divine direction of our lives. [The Spirit of Promise, pp. 57-58.]

Young Christians react to this ideology in two ways. Many quickly conclude that because they lack such experiences [i.e. of direct guidance] they are very poor Christians, if indeed they are Christians at all. Others, more impressionable, seek the experiences they hear so much of, adopt the canonical terminology and soon begin, like everyone else, to feel led and spoken to.

We are now so familiar with this thought-world as to be completely unconscious of the staggering claims it involves. In effect, the people concerned are saying that they receive special revelations. God has revealed to them that they should marry or change jobs or become ministers or missionaries.

One problem with this is that it puts pressure on the rest of the Christian community. Revelation cannot bind only the person who receives it. It binds everyone else as well. If God has revealed to someone that he is calling him to be a minister, He is also revealing that He requires the church to recognize, train, license and ordain him. It then becomes sacrilegious to ask questions implying a doubt or a desire to test the call. Who are we to question God’s revelation? This probably explains why in every branch of the church people are admitted to the ministry who are unsuited to the work. How can a mere committee ask mundane questions about health, academic background, spiritual gifts, and working experience of an applicant to whom God has spoken directly?

I believe absolutely that there was a fiery cloud and that it rose and rested and so led Israel through the wilderness. It was an astonishingly, wonderfully direct agency of the presence of God with his people. It was, in fact, miraculous; supernatural. But the cloud did finally disappear and God’s people haven’t been led by that means since.

But we still have a pilgrimage to make through the wilderness just as surely as Israel did. But in our case the Word of God and Hobab will get us to our goal. Hobab in this narrative is the reminder that the ordinary way of pilgrimage is also the way God promises to bless. The fact of the matter is that the cloud didn’t get most of these Israelites to the goal because they lacked true faith in the Lord. If you have his Word and good counsel and are trusting the Lord to guide and preserve you – not by speaking his directions from heaven or giving you signs but in the way of his providence, his ordering of your steps – you will make it when Israel did not.

In this sense you see, it is not the case that we have less than Israel because we don’t have the cloud. We still have the Lord present with us. We still have his Word and commandments to direct our steps. We still have chieftains – elders and pastors and wise Christian friends – to point us in the right direction. And we have the promise that the Lord will see us through to the end. You don’t need the cloud; you have his Word to obey, you have his Spirit in your heart at work to keep you faithful; and you have your Hobabs to be your eyes. That is what virtually all believers have had in the wilderness of this world and not a one of them has failed to make it safely to the Promised Land.

Live in faithfulness to the Word of God in ways both great and small and consult your Hobabs. That is God’s way of guidance now.