Henry Law, one time Dean of Gloucester
`The Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night.’ Exodus 13.21.
The children of Israel are about to tread an unknown path. A desert is before them, wide, and waste, and trackless. They have no chart to pilot. There are no friendly lips to counsel or to warn. They must proceed, and yet they fear to stir.
This is a common need. Perhaps you who read discern your very case. You have left Egypt. The hated bonds are burst. But Canaan’s rest is far away. An intervening wilderness extends. Hence the sigh rises in your breast, Oh! that some guide were near! How can the distant end be safely reached’?
Israel’s story gives the glad reply. Were they allowed to wander without beckoning succour? Oh! no. Whose hand, then, waved them forward? Did the Lord send some natives of the waste to teach where paths were safe’? No. Did He inspire their ruler’s mind with instinct of the untrodden land’? No. He comes Himself. He stoops to take the office of their guide.
But by what method is His directing aid made clear? A visible form, which every eye might see, reveals the wondrous guide. A pillar descends, and rests upon the camp. When the day shines, it is a cloudy column. When darkness comes, its mass is fire. Its presence never is withdrawn. It moves, a signal for advance. It rests, to bid them pause. Such is the safeguard of the desert-march.
Do you now ask, what is the Gospel of this sign? The type distinctly shows, that no believer ever moves unled. The prophet proves this, when he selects this emblem to portray Christ’s care, – `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’ (Isaiah 4.5). The conclusion, then, is sound. The Pillar preaches Christ, – the Shepherd of His flock. Faith gazes on it, and drinks in the comfort of an ever-leading, never-leaving God.
Reader, come now, and seek some comfort for your pilgrim-days, from Israel’s Pillar.
Especial circumstances marked it. It was but one. In mid-day brightness, and in night’s deep gloom, the substance was the same. Thus Christ is ever one. He, who was shadowed out in Eden: He, to whom Abel looked: He, who was Abraham’s seed, and David’s offspring, and the sweet theme of every prophet’s harp: He, who was pierced on Calvary, and laid in the grave, is the same Jesus, who shall shortly come again. No sinner escapes death, but through one victim, one righteousness, one faith, one hope, one clinging to one cross, one cleaving to one Lord, one journeying in one blood-stained path. There is one only Saviour of all the saved – one only door of heaven – one only plea before the judgment seat – one only ransom of a guilty soul. If Israel had turned to other guidance, they would have rushed to sure destruction.
Reader, deluded men, with Cain-like pride, frame other saviours, and find no Saviour. Take heed. Look only to the one Christ of God, and of the Bible, and of the true church. He is not divided. Be not divided from Him.
The Pillar ever rose in firm solidity. Cloudy masses bend quickly before a driving breath. The storm beats on them, and they vanish. But this Pillar mocked the lash of hurricanes, and watery floods. Amidst the roar of elements, it smiled unmoved, immovable. It was quiet, as a rock among unquiet waves.
Thus no assaults can shake salvation’s column. Satan has done his worst. Each weapon, which hell can point, has been hurled at Him. The might and craft of man have marshalled all their forces. But every shaft of shrewdness, ridicule, and wit: the strong man’s strength: the great man’s greatness: the prince’s power, and all plotting wiles, have fallen baffled at His feet. Reader, you may have confidence in your Guide’s strength. The heavens may crumble into dust. But He cannot be shaken.
But the Pillar, in unchanging form, yet changed its aspect. In day its look was dark. In night it shone in brilliant blaze. It put on the fittest garb to gain observance. Here is the tender grace of Jesus. Mark His unwearied efforts to draw minds towards Himself. It is with this design that every Bible-page proclaims some feature of His saving truth. For this, heaven-born, heaven-taught, heaven-sent heralds in pulpits, and by dying-beds, in public teaching, and in private converse, call and beseech men to behold Him, as the only way of life. What more can Jesus do to cause His mercy to be fully seen?
Reader, if your eyes turn elsewhere, the blame is not with the conspicuous Pillar.
When night’s mantle wrapt the earth, the Pillar clad itself in robes of fire. It shone, that all might see. It shone, that all in seeing might rejoice. Such is the love of Jesus. When is His presence most clear, most cheering’? Surely in the dark hour of need. When gloom oppresses, when mists of horror rise, when prospects blacken, when the beclouded eye discerns no safety and no peace in earth, then Jesu’s smile gives light. Unwonted glories then illumine the road.
The Pillar had an upraised arm. Its ascending spire directed to the skies. So Jesus calls us to an upward flight. How solemnly He warns to rise above the mire and filth of a soul-murdering world! How faithfully He tells, that all its baits are poison, its touch pollution, and its wages death! How tenderly He cries, Come unto Me, and leave such vanities below:- lean on My arm, and climb the hill of peace:- mount by My side, and I will bring you to a reconciled Father’s throne, and the high mansions of your God! Thus Jesus points. Reader, be wise. To look to Jesus is to soar to heaven.
Such were its peculiar properties. But its main purpose was to lead. When it preceded, the willing host advanced. When it stood still, their camps were fixed. They were not called to reason, or to ask, or doubt. All wish to go or tarry submitted to the ruling column. Their guide was God. His will was love. His way was knowledge. His end was safety. Nothing was left for them, but to observe and follow.
Shall twilight types outshine the Gospel sun? It cannot be. The heirs of grace are cared for, as truly now as then. Their Leader is the same. Be it so, that Christ directs not now by visible display of manifested presence. Be it so, that the eye of nature sees not a moving or a halting mass. Still faith can trace an unseen hand, and the enlightened mind can read the warnings of a heavenly Lord.
Christ guides now by His word. The Book of books is always by our side. It is a present and a perfect chart. The upward path, the downward slopes, the hidden snares, the plains of safety, the meadows of repose, are all here pencilled with inspired skill. This is the blessed handbook of the blessed route. The humble pilgrim meekly prays, `Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth,’ (1 Samuel 3.9). The answer tarries not, `This is the way,walk ye in it,’ (Isaiah 30.21). Is it not pledged, `When thou
goest, it shall lead thee; when thou sleepest it shall keep thee; and when thou awakest, it shall talk with thee; for the commandment is a lamp and the law is light,’ (Proverbs 6.22, 23). The believer’s daily walk attests the truth. When perils have been near, and pitfalls have gaped, and by-ways have enticed the steps, a beacon from the word has warned and saved.
Reader, would you reach Canaan? Then cling to this ever-living guide. Search it day and night. Make it your chosen friend of every hour. Engraft it by prayer into the soul of every thought. Let it direct the helm of each desire. Think, as it thinks – speak, as it speaks – move, as it beckons – rest, as it counsels. Your steps will then be safe and pure. For the light of Scripture is the light of life. It is Christ’s hand, Christ’s heart. What was Israel’s Pillar to our open Bible’s page?
But Jesus multiplies His guiding help. He extends the superadded hand of Providence. He moves the ever-moving wheels of circumstances. No sparrow falls, no leaf decays, but in accordance with His ordering mind. He wills, and things occur. Chance is a figment of a dreaming pillow. It never was. It never can be. Thus to the child of God there is no trifle or unimportant event. Momentous issues often hang on rapid words – on sudden looks – on unintended steps. It is so; because the Lord’s direction plans and overrules life’s every concern. Hear Eliezer’s grateful witness, `I being in the way, the Lord led me to the house of my master’s brethren,’ (Genesis 24.27). When Joseph’s brethren thirsted for his blood, who caused the pit to hold no water’? Who brought the Ishmaelites to bear him into Egypt’? Who gave the sleepless night to Persia’s King? (Esther 6.1). Who brought the aged Simeon, the pious Anna, at the fit moment, to the temple’? (Luke 2.25, 36). Who led Onesimus to hear Paul’s saving words at Rome’? (Philemon l0).
But perhaps some mind may sometimes doubt, is this event the leading of my Lord’? There are sure rules. No opening is safe, which contradicts the word. Christ’s voice abroad, at home, without, within, is always one. It calls to seek God’s glory: to promote redemption’s kingdom: to conquer self: to tread down sloth: to flee the world’s applause and lusts: to lift the standard of the cross: and to march boldly in the path of righteousness. If the path leaves these lines, avoid it. Christ leads not here. Some foe misleads.
But Christ is a Pillar with more than skill to guide. There is a virtue in Him to open eyes, that they may see – to quicken feet, that they may follow – to tear reluctance from reluctant hearts. All this He mightily effects by His almighty Spirit. Without such light, the Bible-page is a dark chaos – and wheels of Providence an intricate confusion. Sin has benumbed right sense in souls. Sin has brought blindness on the inner man. But Jesus speaks. The Spirit heals. Sight is restored. A new creation lives: and new-born powers perceive, and love, and tread the heavenly road.
The Pillar, too, had power to screen. It is written, `He spread a cloud for a covering,’ (Psalm 105.39). The scorching rays of the sandy desert were thus warded from the journeying host.
Reader, I trust that you well know the cool retreat, and sheltering covert, of a Saviour’s wings. The pilgrim’s day is often long and hot; and darts of Satan burn with fiery sting. How soon the heart would faint – how soon the worn-out strength would fail, unless our Pillar cast a grateful shade. But it is true, `The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night,’ (Psalm 121.6).
The Pillar never failed. Provoking sins abounded. Ungrateful murmurs sent forth hateful sound. But still no wrath withdrew the guidance. It only vanished, when Jordan’s stream was reached.
Here is the boundless grace of Jesus. If hard iniquity could quench His love, who would not long ago have mourned His absence, and found life to be a starless night’? But no. He loves, and lovingly He guides, unto the end. The Pillar leaves not, until the full blaze of heaven breaks forth. Like Bethlehem’s star, it brings to the very place where Jesus is. The beacon shines, until the haven be attained. Christ leads to where Christ reigns.
Reader, whom do you follow? Think, Oh! think, whom do you follow? There are hell-ward leaders – not a few. These are downward ways, alas! – too many.