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God’s Word for You

Numbers 9:18-23 The cloud

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, July 27, 2021

18 At the command of the LORD, the Israelites set out, and at the command of the LORD they set up camp. For the entire time that the cloud settled over the Dwelling, they would keep their camp at that place. 19 When the cloud stayed over the Dwelling for many days, the Israelites would keep the LORD’s order and would not set out. 20 Sometimes the cloud would be over the Dwelling for only a few days. Then according to the command of the LORD the Israelites would remain camped at that place. Then at the command of the LORD they would set out again. 21 Sometimes the cloud was over the Dwelling only from evening until morning. So when the cloud lifted up in the morning, they set out. Whether by day or by night, when the cloud lifted up, they set out. 22 Whether it was two days, a month, or a year that the cloud stayed settled over the Dwelling, the Israelites remained camped at that place and did not set out. But when it lifted up, they set out. 23 At the command of the LORD they camped, and at the command of the LORD they set out. They kept the LORD’s order, following the command of the LORD given through Moses.

Just today I read a review of a Bible commentary that was praised for not finding neat, satisfying bookends or chiasms everywhere in the Bible (a chiasm is an ABBA pattern that is found almost everywhere in the Bible). It’s hard to explain how irritating such an analysis truly is. It’s like hearing someone criticize your favorite song, or question whether your wife is pretty, or finding nothing good in your favorite baseball team. To be blunt: Them’s fightin’ words.

Take this marvelous passage about how often the Israelites set up and took down their camp. Let’s look at verses 18a and 23a in particular:

18a At the command of the LORD, the Israelites set out,
    and at the command of the LORD they set up camp.

23a At the command of the LORD they camped,
    and at the command of the LORD they set out.

There is a perfect inversion here, and it’s perfectly and ideally shown to be “at the command of the LORD.” This is just the kind of satisfying literary detail that makes the Bible so marvelous to read. For those who are watching out for or listening for these kinds of patterns, they can be found all over the place; they can be truly appreciated and applied. When I am not the one standing at the lectern reading a lesson, I can smile and enjoy these patterns as they are laid out before us, one by one, like mom setting out all the marvelous dishes for Sunday dinner. And if I’m privileged to be the one reading aloud, I try to be careful with the cadence of my voice and the annunciation of each syllable so that I don’t hurry too much, so we can all savor the language of the holy Word of God.

Notice how Moses describes the time they spent encamped in decreasing duration: (1) “many days” (typical, verse 19), (2) “only a few days” (“sometimes,” verse 20), (3) only overnight “from evening until morning” (rare, verse 21). Then he repeats the variations, with new possibilities, in reverse order: “two days, a month, or a year” (verse 22). The nomadic lifestyle of living in tents and keeping animals in herds allowed for this mobility. Later in Numbers (33:3-50) Moses will recall the various stages of their journey, the many times (more than forty) that they pulled up stakes, moved several miles, and set up camp once again.

This passage shows how God looked after his people at the moment when they were most vulnerable. Later, God would remember this time the way a husband remembers his honeymoon, but with the added grief of Israel’s later rebellion: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt. You shall acknowledge no God but me, no Savior except me. I cared for you in the desert, in the land of burning heat. When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me” (Hosea 13:4-6). He provided for them and cared for them, for every one of their needs. He was preparing them for the Promised Land. Israel, however, behaved like children do today on long car trips. They weren’t interested much in where they were going or how they could help along the way, but just complained all the while and worried about petty problems. I’m hungry! Are we there yet! He’s looking at me, make him stop! When are we going to eat? Are we there yet? This uncovers the reason for parental supervision for children and the need for God’s supervision and preservation of Israel at this critical moment. Sin is, at its root, “self-deification and unrestrained, immeasurable selfishness” (August Pieper, 1916, “The One Great Sin”). The whole world “is a prisoner of sin” (Galatians 3:22). We are born with it (Psalm 51:5), although some of the largest Christian groups in the world deny or downplay this fact. The Greek and Russian Orthodox churches have no doctrine or insight at all about original sin. The Roman Catholic Church defines original sin as “a minor infirmity.” Baptists, Methodists, Calvinists, Arminians, and the whole gamut of the modern so-called Evangelicals dismiss or deny the root problem of original sin in man, despite God’s booming judgment over the destroyed earth after the flood: “Every inclination of man’s heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21).

Our passage here in Numbers shows that while we constantly show the need for God’s care and salvation, sinful man never realizes this, and the few believing children of God often fall into forgetting it. Instead, we dive headlong into the quicksand of self-indulgence. Yet how merciful is our God! “O Lord, you preserve both man and beast. How priceless is your unfailing love!” (Psalm 36:6-7). “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (Psalm 145:15-16). And the Apostles, who preach Christ so clearly, and the forgiveness of sins so unswervingly, also call on us to rely on God’s preservation: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

The Lord no longer makes it so clear what our daily movements should be. Sometimes it seems like it would be nice to have a giant cloud show us where we’re going. But instead, we’ve been sent out as ambassadors to the lost, to all those who don’t know Christ.

I know someone who volunteers their time to throw a metal ring in the grass and count the varieties of insects and other creatures to be found. The Christian’s life is like that: drawing a ring around this part of my town or city or countryside, finding out what people there are who don’t know about Jesus and the story of God’s love, and sharing it with them. We have become part of the way God preserves his people, acting as God’s tools, for him to use. We are no longer the ones who pull up our stakes when he billows overhead. We are the ones who soar and swoop and proclaim the good news like the flying angel in the Apocalypse (Revelation 14:6-7). We billow at God’s behest for the world to see, pointing to Christ (2 Corinthians 3:3). Always to Christ.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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