I am not alone. You will go before me. You will never leave me.
– Kari Jobe, “I Am Not Alone”
This morning I was listening to K-Love and this song was on the radio. The passage that struck me the most was, “You will go before me. You will never leave me.” I had been thinking about the passage in Exodus 13:21-22:
And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.
Exodus 13:21-22 (ESV)
Several things resonate with me about this passage with regard to Kari’s song. First, the people of Israel were never alone in the wilderness. God went before them in the pillars of cloud and fire, and He never departed from them. The second is that God never promised to go before them in the cloud and fire, He just did it. God’s presence is such a permanent part of our lives that we could no more remove the pillars of cloud and fire in our own lives than God could remove His presence from the people of Israel.
But the third and most important thing I see about this passage is God’s purpose behind each pillar. Israel’s physical journey as a people and later a nation (and later two nations) acts as an important parallel for the faith journey of those who follow Jesus. In many ways—both as a group and individually—Christians echo the progression that Israel took as it walked with God and drew closer to the coming of the Messiah. God had a purpose for the pillars of cloud and fire while Israel walked through the wilderness. He has a purpose for the storm clouds and the fiery trials that we endure in our own lives as well.
God set himself before Israel in a cloud during the day to “lead them along the way.” While it does not specifically mention a stormcloud, it can be safely assumed that, since clouds are often associated with rain, rain and storm are association God is trying to make by His presence. God could have chosen anything to lead Israel by day. He chose to go before them in a cloud. That has meaning. God chose to lead us by the storms in our lives. He goes before you, preparing your way through each storm, so that when you reach the other side you are exactly where He wants you to be. Much like a rough stone becomes smooth over time as a river current polishes its surface, the Christian is perfected in her love toward God and others by the daily trials God has predestined for us.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Paul of Tarsus (Romans 8:28-30, ESV)
Consider it a great joy, my brothers [and sisters], whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.
James, the brother of Jesus (James 1:2-4, HCSB)
God chose to go before Israel in the fire by night as well. He didn’t have to manifest Himself at night. He could have chosen to do so only during the day and allowed the people to rest at night. But that is not what God chose. He chose to manifest another sign, the pillar of fire, so that Israel could “travel by day and by night.” Not only did God expect them to go at whatever moment he chose for their travel, day or night, but he used fire to emphasize His presence. It’s already night time. Night has its own connotations for danger and clandestine behaviors. In the midst of this darkness, God chose to manifest himself as a pillar of fire; not as a soft, bright light, not as a beacon on a hill, but as a pillar of fire right outside of Israel’s camp. I see two important reasons for this. One, testing “as by fire” is common in the believer’s life. She will doubtless face many such trials in her faith journey. Two, the constant presence of fire, cloud, and sacrifice (in the form of ritual animal sacrifices inside the tent) were a constant reminder of the sufferings of the coming Messiah.
Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses,
and He carried our pains;
but we in turn regarded Him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced because of our transgressions,
crushed because of our iniquities;
punishment for our peace was on Him,
and we are healed by His wounds.
We all went astray like sheep;
we all have turned to our own way;
and the Lord has punished Him
for the iniquity of us all.
Isaiah, the prophet (Isaiah 53:4-6, HCSB)
Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory. If you are ridiculed for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. None of you, however, should suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or a meddler. But if anyone suffers as a “Christian,” he should not be ashamed but should glorify God in having that name. For the time has come for judgment to begin with God’s household, and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God?
Simon Peter (1 Peter 4:12-17, HCSB)
Given this overwhelmingly gracious promise from God, to be with us always and to go before us, how could we possibly seek anything other than the pillars of God’s presence? Lord, I will seek the storms, because You are in the clouds. I will seek the trials, because You are in the fire. I will seek to be where Jesus is, because, “If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me. Where I am, there My servant also will be. If anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.“ (Jesus in John 12:26, HCSB)
If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.
Jesus of Nazareth (John 14:15-21, NIV)
Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments: “Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not covet”—and whatever other commandment—all are summed up by this: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law.
Paul of Tarsus (Romans 13:8-10, HCSB)
The daily, abiding presence of Jesus in my life is inextricably linked to the trials and sorrows I must endure for God to perfect me in His love. Far be it from me to tell God how to do His job or to deny that He could perfect me in whatever way He pleases. Not only is he able, but everything is for His glory and His name regardless. So, if God wants to do it this way, then I will trust Him that it is the best way, and I will seek Him out in the trials that are ahead of me. Because, He goes before me in the cloud and the fire.