Pillars of Cloud and Fire

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto, February 9, 2009

And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so as to go by day and night. He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night from before the people. (Exodus 13:21,22)

The children of Israel entered Egypt as a small clan; Abraham’s grandson Jacob (whose name was changed to “Israel” by God) his twelve sons, their families and servants, and all their possessions. Literally they were the children of the man Israel, and altogether there were 70 people. They stayed in Egypt for 430 years, and when they left, there were 600,000 men on foot plus women and children. Truly, the Lord’s promise that they would become a great nation, and that Abraham’s descendants would become as numerous as the grains of sand by the sea was well on the way to coming true. The Lord was upholding His part of the covenant. It remained to be seen if the children of Israel would uphold theirs.

The covenant between the Lord and the children of Israel is a recurrent theme throughout the scriptures. The covenant, simply stated, was that as long as Abraham or his descendants obeyed the Lord’s commandments, the Lord would protect them from their enemies, help them in times of trouble, lead them to a land to be their own, and make them into a great nation.

Frequently, the stories of scripture revolve around various men doing things to remind themselves and God of the terms of the covenant. Frequently, a pillar would be set up to be a memorial, to show that the covenant had been confirmed at that time and in that place. The Heavenly Doctrines tell us that in the days of the Most Ancient church, stone pillars were placed to mark the boundaries between land holdings. In the absence of deeds and other written documents, such pillars served as a sign and a witness that the boundaries were in that particular place. Because of the importance of the use, the stones were highly regarded.

They knew that the stones represented holy truth which is the ultimate of order, and the eventually began to account the stones themselves as holy. They called them “pillars”, and because of this confusion, the pillars were eventually introduced into their worship (see AC 3727). At first the worship of the pillars was genuine, and so “pillars” in the Word represent the worship of the Lord from truths because pillars were stones, and a stone signifies truth. This is also why the Lord is sometimes called in the Word “the Stone of Israel” (see AC 10643:1). Later, when the Ancient church began to fall because it lost sight of what the objects of its worship represented and began to worship the objects themselves, many of the things of that church were turned into things like idolatry and magic. This is why “pillars” sometimes stand for idolatrous worship from falsities in the Word.

Such matters are not in the Word just to satisfy idle curiosity, for the worship of any church can become external and idolatrous when the man of the church regards himself and the things of the world as an end or goal, and the Divine things of the church only as the means to that natural goal. When this happens all the things of worship become nothing more than idols, because it is the external, worldly things that are really being worshiped, and this apart from anything internal (see AC 10643:2).

This tells us why the Lord chose to appear to the children of Israel during their escape from Egypt as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night: He wished to use the imagery of a pillar to show His relationship to His people; first as a boundary marker that said “these are My people” to all who saw it, and especially to reassure the terrified Jews themselves; and also as a constantly visible sign of His covenant with them that if they would only obey Him, He would take care of them and protect them in all ways.

We need to remember how timid and fearful those people must have been after their lifetime of slavery, their whole lives spent depending on others to make their decisions for them – and now they were suddenly being forced to go forth on their own into the unknown. It must have been unnerving. Perhaps they would have been reassured if they could have seen Moses and Aaron, but the camp was too big for that, so instead, the Lord provided a tangible sign of His presence with them that was simply too big for anyone to miss. Everyone in the mob that left Egypt could lift their eyes up above the dust and see the miracle of the pillar that was like a beacon to them, showing them their place in a featureless wilderness, a tangible sign of God’s presence and protection.

This image of the Lord’s presence with the children of Israel must also give us comfort, especially if we remember it when we are frightened and unsure of what the future will bring. The Lord has made a covenant with all people, that He will be with us and protect us from the spiritual dangers of life if we will only do our part, if we will only do our best to obey His commandments and to flee from evils. The sign of His presence was huge and obvious to the children of Israel. It is more subtle for us, but it is still there, as the internal sense of the Word reveals.

In our lesson we read how when the Egyptians were chasing the children of Israel, the cloud interposed itself between them and their enemies, and when it did so it brought darkness upon the Egyptians, but brought light to the children of Israel. Further, we learned that when Jehovah looked forth from it to the Egyptians, they were then drowned in the sea. The pillar stands for the Lord’s presence with men, as we have seen. The fact that in this passage the pillar stands between the Egyptians and the camp of Israel tells us that the Lord is present with those in evil and falsity as well as with those who are in good and truth (see AC 7989:2).

However, it also tells us that the Lord’s presence is different with the evil and the good, for the pillar brought darkness to the Egyptians and gave light to the Israelites, and this is because the pillar was heavenly light itself. Heavenly light is a thousand times brighter than the noonday light of the world, but the same light becomes thick darkness with the evil, even when they are in that light itself, and it becomes thicker darkness with them in proportion as the falsity of evil is denser with them. In other words, the Lord appears to everyone in a form consistent with that person’s own spiritual quality (see AC 8197).

The reason the pillar gave forth heavenly light was because it was in reality a society of angels assigned to this important use of leading and protecting the Israelites, similar to the heavenly society that appeared as a star in order to lead the Wise Men to the new born king (see AC 8192:3). The pillar itself was a sign of the Lord’s presence with the children of Israel, and it represented the Lord’s continuous presence with all those in His Kingdom on earth and in the heavens.

It is important that it appeared both as a cloud and as fire, for each is an important symbol that tells us something about the Lord’s relationship with each of us and all those in His church. When it appeared as a cloud, it represented His presence in the letter of the Word, for clouds are a symbol for the literal sense of scripture which is sometimes difficult to understand, and which, in comparison to the internal sense, is relatively clouded and obscure (see AC 8106:2).

That the pillar appear to be a pillar of fire in the night in the natural sense was to make His presence dramatically clear to them. In the internal sense, fire and especially the light from a fire represents the enlightenment that we receive from the Lord when we seriously apply our minds to a subject and bring ourselves into a state of order in relation to it.

An example of this could be the fact that one does not really appreciate or understand the order and delight of marriage until one has done the work of entering into an orderly marriage and shunning those things that are contrary to marriage. In general, once you have shunned an evil and come into the opposite good, you then see that evil in the light of heaven for the first time, and you rejoice that you have left it behind. You only truly understand good when you live your life according to it, when it is no longer an abstraction.

Finally, we are told that the pillar itself represents a prop or support of natural things, for the spiritual rests on the natural in the same sense that the ideas and doctrines of Christianity, which are spiritual things, all rest on the various passages of scripture in the Old and New Testaments, which are natural things (see AC 8106:4). Pillars especially stand for those things which support heaven and the church, which are the goods of love and the goods of faith from the Lord, that is to say, the things that we do in response to the things that we learn from the Word and the affections we have for those truths, the affections that we receive as gifts from the Lord. Someone who does many things to help others, and who had made an effort to learn many things about the doctrines of the church, someone who has worked hard to lead their life by God’s own principles is called a “pillar” of the church for this reason (see AC 9674). A pillar signifies those things which sustain the life of the church and make it firm, and the only thing that truly sustains the life of the Church is a life according to the Divine Truth of the Word (see AR 191).

So when we hear the stories of the Word that tell of the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness, led by a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night, we should feel reassured and comforted, for the Lord is telling us in the Word that He will always be with us, in our bad states and in our good times, ready to lead and help us when we approach through the Word. This is because a pillar stands for natural things which serve as a prop or base for spiritual things, the cloud stands for the sense of the letter of the Word, and the fire stands for enlightenment from the Lord.

When these elements are all brought together, the Lord’s message in the Word becomes clear: If our thinking is supported by truth from the Word, then we will be able to see from heavenly light! And with the sure knowledge of the Lord’s continual presence and protection, we will be able to face the challenges of the wilderness, of the uncertainties of life in this world, with confidence, for we are not alone. Amen.


First Lesson: EXO 13:17 - 14:31

Then it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, “Lest perhaps the people change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt.” {18} So God led the people around by way of the wilderness of the Red Sea. And the children of Israel went up in orderly ranks out of the land of Egypt. {21} And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so as to go by day and night. {22} He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night from before the people.

(EXO 14) … {19} And the Angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them. {20} So it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel. Thus it was a cloud and darkness to the one, and it gave light by night to the other, so that the one did not come near the other all that night. {21} Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. {22} So the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. {23} And the Egyptians pursued and went after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. {24} Now it came to pass, in the morning watch, that the LORD looked down upon the army of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and cloud, and He troubled the army of the Egyptians. {25} And He took off their chariot wheels, so that they drove them with difficulty; and the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the face of Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians.” {26} Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians, on their chariots, and on their horsemen.” {27} And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and when the morning appeared, the sea returned to its full depth, while the Egyptians were fleeing into it. So the LORD overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. {31} Thus Israel saw the great work which the LORD had done in Egypt; so the people feared the LORD, and believed the LORD and His servant Moses. Amen.

Second Lesson: AC 8197:2

8197. [2] In regard to this circumstance, that the pillar brought darkness upon the Egyptians, and gave light to the sons of Israel, the case is as follows. The presence of the Lord, here signified by “the pillar,” is heavenly light itself, from which heaven has its light, and this light is a thousand times brighter than the noonday light of the world. But the same light becomes thick darkness with the evil: even if they are in the light itself, and it becomes thicker darkness in proportion as the falsity from evil is denser with them. The reason is that the truth Divine proceeding from the Lord appears before the eyes of the angels as light, but to those who are in falsities from evil it cannot appear as light, but as thick darkness, for falsity is opposite to truth and extinguishes truth. Hence it is that the pillar, which was the presence of the Lord, brought cloud and darkness on the Egyptians, because by “the Egyptians” are signified those who are in falsities from evil, and that it lighted up the night with the sons of Israel, because by “the sons of Israel” are signified those who are in truth from good. Amen.



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