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GOD'S PROVIDENTIAL CARE
HON. AND REV. B. W. NOEL, A.M.
ST. JOHN'S CHAPEL, BEDFORD ROW, MARCH 6, 1836.
"And on the day that the tabernacle was reared up the cloud covered the tabernacle, namely, the tent of the testimony: and at even there was upon the tabernacle as it were the appearance of fire, until the morning. So it was alway: the cloud covered it by day, and the appearance of fire by night. And when the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, then after that the children of Israel journeyed: and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel pitched their tents. At the commandment of the Lord the children of Israel journeyed, and at the commandment of the Lord they pitched: as long as the cloud abode upon the tabernacle they rested in their tents. And when the cloud tarried long upon the tabernacle many days, then the children of Israel kept the charge of the Lord, and journeyed not. And so it was, when the cloud was a few days upon the tabernacle; according to the commandment of the Lord they abode in their tents, and according to the commandment of the Lord they journeyed. And so it was, when the cloud abode from even unto the morning, and that the cloud was taken up in the morning, then they journeyed: whether it was by day or by night that the cloud was taken up, they journeyed. Or whether it were two days, or a month, or a year, that the cloud tarried upon the tabernacle, remaining thereon, the children of Israel abode in their tents, and journeyed not: but when it was taken up, they journeyed. At the commandment of the Lord they rested in the tents and at the commandment of the Lord they journeyed: they kept the charge of the Lord, at the commandment of the Lord by the hand of Moses."-NUMBERS, ix. 15-23.
We have now come to the last of those types which I proposed to illustrate, as serving to mark out Gospel truth. Enough has been said to shew how the Gospel lay, as it were, hidden under Jewish ordinances and events. We have seen how the work of our redemption is prefigured by the different sacrifices. The guilt of man, the curse that lay upon him by sin, the pollution of his nature, the great work of atonement by a divine sacrifice, were all prefigured by the various victims which were offered. The acceptableness of that sacrifice was then shewn by the incense which accompanied the Jewish sacrifices: the work of the Holy Spirit was prefigured by the holy anointing oil which was used on all occasions: and the enlightening influence of the Spirit, as contrasted with the obscurity of the law, was marked out by the rending of the veil. The mediation of the Saviour was manifested before hand by the high-priest passing into the holy of holies with the blood of the victim; thereby foreshewing our Lord as entering into heaven to mediate on our behalf. The great duties of Christian life were prefigured by the shew-bread, and by the candlestick, which marked the burning of the Christian profession before God.
We have seen the great privileges of the Christian life prefigured by the water bursting out of the rock in the desert; shewing us how the truths of the Gospel should prove the refreshment and the solace of our spirits, and how the grace which descends from the Lord, our riven rock, is to refresh the soul in its journey towards heaven.
The cloudy pillar which guided the Israelites through the wilderness is partly typical, but may rather be viewed as a visible sign of the divine providence ever watching over his people. It may mark divine providence under the Gospel dispensation, and is in some sort a type; but it should rather be viewed as a sign of the providence which in all ages has watched over the people of God: and it is rather in that light we have now to consider it than the former.
This wonderful guide, thus provided for the Israelites from the time they left the house of bondage, after having had the blood of the paschal lamb sprinkled on their door-posts, and had been brought out in haste from the land of Egypt, then began to guide them to the promised land. We find it thus stated immediately after their departure from Egypt, in Exodus, xiii.: "The Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people." Throughout their journeys, after the rearing of the tabernacle, this pillar of cloud continually rested upon it: "On the day that the tabernacle was reared up the cloud covered the tabernacle, namely, the tent of the testimony: and at even there was upon the tabernacle as it were the appearance of fire, until the morning. So it was alway: the cloud covered it by day, and the appearance of fire by night." As it rested always on the tabernacle, so this became their guide in all their journeys: it directed them whither they were to go; it preceded them in their march, and pointed out the proper resting-places. We find that when they left Mount Sinai it was this which was their guide in the wilderness. In Numbers, x. 33, it is said, "And they departed from the mount of the Lord three days' journey: and the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting-place for them." On some occasions it was, by divine appointment, a defence to them against their enemies. When they came to the brink of the Red Sea, and were oppressed by the armies of Egypt, we find in Exodus, xiv. that "the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them: and it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night." When it was no defence against their enemies, it appears to have been a defence against the fierceness of the elements, The cloud not only rested on the tabernacle, but it likewise extended itself and formed a shelter for the people generally: for we find, in Numbers, x. 34, not that the cloud of the Lord rested on the tabernacle only, but "the cloud of the Lord was upon them by day when they went out of the camp." And so says St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians, x. 1, that "all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea;" an expression which would scarcely be used if it
had been limited to the spot occupied by the tabernacle. It appears to have been a defence from the solar heat in their passage through the wilderness. This defence never left them till they reached Canaan. It is distinctly said in Exodus, xl. that "the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys."
This is, briefly, the history of that miraculous cloud which the Lord appointed as the sign of his own immediate presence, and by which, in sight of all the people, he guided them to the promised land. In this there is much that may illustrate the doctrine of divine providence; much that may shew us in what manner the Lord guides his people now. That it was intended to shew us: this is obvious from various passages of Scripture. In Psalm lxxvii. 20, the Psalmist speaks of this pillar as the shepherd's guidance of his flock: “Thou leddest thy people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron." And as the Psalmist there refers to the guidance in the wilderness, so he points in the same image, and evidently with reference to the same fact, to the general providence of God over his people. In Psalm lxxx. we have it thus applied: "Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock; thou that dwellest between the cherubim, shine forth." That which God did to his people by a visible sign of a cloud in the wilderness, was only typical and illustrative of what he does for his people always. And as that cloud rested on the tabernacle night and day, having the appearance of a refreshing shadow by day, and by night of an equally cheering fire, so is this image employed to designate the protection which God promises to his New Testament Church, as we may find in Isaiah, iv. It is there said, in a passage, the context of which marks the Gospel times," The Lord will create upon every dwelling-place of mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night: for upon all the glory shall be a defence." The difference between the type and the antitype, between the cloud that rested on the tabernacle and the blessing that was now promised to the Church, was, that the cloud rested on the tabernacle only in general; whereas here the promise is, that a corresponding protection should rest on every dwellingplace of Mount Zion, and on her assemblies generally. The cloud by day, and the fire by night, are spoken of as a defence: "For upon all the glory there shall be a defence." Just as this had rested on the tabernacle, in which was the shekinah, the glorious emblem of the divine presence; so in that church, filled with the Holy Spirit who forms it into his temple, there should be this providential care, answering to the cloudy pillar by day, and the fire by night; and this providential care should be the defence of that people in whom His Spirit should reside.
We have therefore to notice how the guidance of the pillar of cloud and fire may illustrate the way in which the Lord now leads his people like a flock. We may observe, in the first place, that as the guidance of the cloud commenced from the moment of their leaving the house of bondage, after their door-posts had been sprinkled with the blood of the lamb; so the covenant promise of God surrounds a person from the moment of his being brought out of the bondage of sin, to serve God in liberty and love; the moment he is sprinkled by the blood of the atoning sacrifice by faith, and has become the child of the Most High. Till then, it is true, there is much for which he ought
to be grateful, and much which ought to guide him to God: but still the promises of God are in him "yea and amen;" that is, they only belong to those who are in Christ, having faith in his blood. Thus as the cloud became the guide of the Israelites from the moment of their leaving Egypt, so does the providence of God afford a support and a guidance to his people, from the moment that he makes them his own in Christ.
Again, as this cloud never left the tabernacle, from the day that it first descended on and covered it, till the time they entered Canaan in triumph; so the providence of God never forsakes his people from the beginning of their religious course to the end. It is said, "Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall never slumber nor sleep:" "The eye of the Lord is on them that fear him, upon them that hope in his mercy." There is no cessation of his gracious care; but throughout all the vicissitudes of life that gracious protection is afforded and this will be to the end; for he hath said, "I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee." So that the Apostle says, We may boldly say, the Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me." This gracious promise is secure to the believer from the moment he puts off this tabernacle and enters into glory.
But what is of most consequence to notice is, the moral character of that providence the influence which it is intended to have on the present and the eternal welfare of the child of God. As we have already seen in the passage quoted from Isaiah, iv., the providence of God is meant to be "a defence," to his people from the various evils to which they may be exposed: whether it be the scorching of the sun by day, or evils which arise in the gloom of midnight -however opposite the dangers to which they are exposed, there is " a defence" from all. It must have been a beautiful sight to behold the vast host of the Israelites marching across the trackless wilderness: but it is a far more beautiful sight to see the myriads of God's people invisibly directed through their course to all that is most for their advantage, and preserved from all that might harm them. On "all the glory" there is "a defence:" an Infinite Mind is watching for their safety, and directing them in their course.
As this cloudy pillar guided the people of Israel forty years in the wilderness, by which they were prepared for their entrance into the promised land; just so does the providence of God form a series of measures by which his people may be prepared for eternity. The whole of life, under the providence of God, is meant by him to be a state of discipline preparatory to the eternal world. This seems the great lesson we are to learn from the pillar of the cloud. In the guidance which God vouchsafed to them through the wilderness, he supplied their wants-occasionally he might have granted them abundance. This was calculated, doubtless, to make them serve God with joyfulness, as we know it was the design of those greater providential mercies with which he blessed them till they reached the promised land: then they were called to serve him with joy for the abundance of all things. But during their passage in the wilderness they were subject to much trial, some hardships, and sometimes privations too.
All this was with a moral design. In the first place, it was intended, as it was calculated, to bring out to their observation their real character, and to humble them for that depravity which their conduct too plainly manifested. This intention of the guidance of the pillar is mentioned in Deut. viii.: “Thou
shait remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no. Ana he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live." Thus it appears that the providence of God, of which the guidance of the pillar was the sign, is intended to make manifest what is in the character of his people. When he sends them privations, and conflicts, and trials, and temptations, they are to serve to show them their weakness, the inconstancy of their purpose, and their proneness to unbelief. It is to show them how much of depravity still remains to be subdued, thereby to humble them, and make them see that they deserve from him far severer treatment than they ever have received. The afflictions which he sends, and the privations which he assigns to his people, as their lot, are calculated to humble them by making them feel absolutely in his hands, by bringing them to a sense of dependence, and showing them with what facility the Almighty Disposer of all events might still further diminish their earthly joys, and strip them of those possessions which they may improperly use, or may not praise him for.
Again in all this it is obvious the Lord intended to bring them to an absoate submission to his will. This seems to me strikingly depicted in the passage I read for our text. Occasionally they repined at the divine procedure, and were anxious to return into Egypt: for those repinings they were constantly punished, and at length they were brought to acquiesce in the guidance of his providence: and when they were brought into the wilderness, though they knew not how they were then to be maintained, they quietly acquiesced in the appointment. "When the cloud tarried long upon the tabernacle many days, then the children of Israel kept the charge of the Lord and journeyed not." Whether it was a day, or two days, or a year of its remaining thereon, the children of Israel journeyed not. "And so it was, when the cloud was a few days upon the tabernacle; according to the commandment of the Lord they abode in their tents, and according to the commandment of the Lord they journeyed. And so it was, when the cloud abode from even unto the morning, and that the cloud was taken up in the morning, then they journeyed whether it was by day or by night that the cloud was taken up they journeyed." Whatever was the commandment of God they were brought to acquiesce in it; they had no alternative: and the Lord brought them by this guidance in the wilderness to an absolute submission to his providential arrangements. This seems one of the intentions of his dealings with his people to bring them to bow to his decisions, to acknowledge him as the sovereign disposer of their lot, to submit to every trial, and to bless him for every joy.
But in all this the Lord appears to have had a still further design. The guidance of the cloud was calculated to lead them, in the midst of privations here, to look for better joys, to the rest that remains for the people of God. It was to teach them to find their happiness in him that he thus led them through the wilderness. This is distinctly stated by Moses in Deut. xxxii. 10—12: He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he