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Scripture Readings: Numbers 9:15-10:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Text: Numbers 9:15-10:10
June 14, 2009
Chapter 9 of the Book of Numbers begins with the first anniversary celebration of the Passover in Egypt when the firstborn of Israel were spared by the Destroyer from God (vv 1-14). They had been preparing for their departure towards the Promised Land for a year, and now they were ready. But before they set out from Sinai towards the Promised Land, they were to commemorate their redemption from Egypt with the Passover service.
Numbers 9:15-23 tell us about a cloud over the tabernacle that guided Israelâ€™s travels in the wilderness. Numbers 10:1-10 explain how God used two silver trumpets to signal when the people or the elders should gather for worship or for battle.
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How would this account of the cloud over the Tabernacle and the two silver trumpets 3,500 years ago among a small nation of former slaves traveling in a desert in the Middle East have any significance to us today? It seems pointless at first glance. To many preachers, this story is a cute story for little childrenâ€™s Sunday school, or worse, a part of the Bible that will put a congregation to sleep. What should they do to make it relevant and interesting to the people?
Some preach this text as a sermon on how a person is to find purpose in life, telling the congregation that God would lead them like the Tabernacle cloud to their promised land of success. I even read a sermon by a Reverend Doctorâ€”in his infatuation with UFOsâ€”who thinks that the pillar of cloud and of fire as the â€œExodus UFO.â€ He theorizes that this â€œExodus UFOâ€ was the power behind the burning bush, killed all the firstborn of Egypt, and parted the Red Sea! And this Exodus UFO called Israel to follow him, the same call that Jesus made to the apostles, and to us today.
We might consider this Reverendâ€™s interpretation as the â€œExodus UFOâ€ to be â€œlooney,â€ but how are we to faithfully interpret this text? What then did the cloud and the trumpets symbolize? Sound interpretation would conclude that they symbolized the presence of God with his people Israel.
This afternoon, we will consider the theme, â€œGod with His People in the Cloud and Trumpetsâ€
- The Cloud of His Presence
- The Trumpet Call to Gather
- Christ in the Cloud and Trumpets
The Cloud of His Presence
In verses 15-23, how did God signal the people when to march out and when to settle down in a camp? God signaled them through a cloud that hovered over the Tabernacle in the wilderness. After the Tabernacle was finished, the cloud of God covered it. At night, the cloud became like a cloud of fire until the light of morning appeared. Exodus 40:36-38 summarizes how God guided them throughout their wilderness wanderings:
Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.
Wherever and whenever the cloud moved, the people followed. What can we learn from this cloud?
Obedience and Patience
By watching the cloud, the people knew what God wanted them to do. But maybe at times, they had to march for many days, and they would be very tired, â€œWhen would this cloud stop? Weâ€™re tired. The children are crying. We need rest.â€
But when the cloud settled down, they settled in a camp. They would wait at camp for a day, a week, a month, or even longer before the cloud lifted up and moved. They had to be patient when they were in a camp in the wilderness for a long time, probably getting anxious, â€œIf God wanted us to reach the Promised Land, why are we settled here in camp for a long time? What is he waiting for?â€
Continual and patient obedience to God is always required for success. This is why in these nine verses, the phrase â€œat the command of the Lordâ€ was repeated five times: â€œAt the command of the Lord they camped, and at the command of the Lord they set outâ€ (v 23). A successful march to the Promised Land requires complete obedience to Godâ€™s commands.
But right in the next chapterâ€”Chapter 11â€”we read about the people already complaining about their hardship and their foodâ€”the manna from heavenâ€”in the wilderness, and they started craving for meat. Their craving made them long for their lives in Egypt, â€œWould that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hungerâ€ (Exod 16:3). For sure, Moses did not anticipate that this people would prefer to exchange their redemption from oppression and slavery for good food. Because of this rebellion, Godâ€™s anger was kindled against them, and his consuming fire burned many people (Num 11:1-6).
And just four chapters later, as Israel was on the gates of the Promised Land, they refused to follow Godâ€™s signal to go into the land and conquer it. Why? They were afraid of the mighty people in it. Chapter 14 of Numbers tell us about the disastrous consequences of Israelâ€™s disobedience. None of them, except for Joshua and Caleb, will be able to enter the Promised Land. Only those two men trusted Godâ€™s word that they would defeat the people in the land.
It is easy for us to condemn these Israelites in their disobedience. But arenâ€™t we like these people? Do we have enough faith in God when things are not going well, when trials and sufferings come? Or do we become bitter and rebel against him? Do you have enough patience to wait on God in prayer when nothing seems to be happening? How long will I wait for a job? How long will I pray for my husband, wife, or children to be saved? How long will I pray for healing from my affliction? How long can I stand my oppressive boss?
In the Exodus story, we read about what this cloud over the Tabernacle was all about. It symbolized Godâ€™s presence with the people. Because the Tabernacle was situated at the very center of the camp, all the people can see it. The cloud also was visible to all of them. And at night, it was even more visible because it gave them light as a fire. The cloud assured the people that God was always with them wherever they went.
We all have heard the words â€œShekinah,â€and â€œGlory-Cloud,â€ two words familiar to many Christians. But what do they really mean? Shekinah is not found in Scripture, but used by Jews to refer to the cloud over the Tabernacle and later over Solomonâ€™s Temple. On the other hand, Professor Meredith Kline of Westminster Theological Seminary coined the word Glory-Cloud to refer to the Shekinah.
Shekinah is derived from a Hebrew verb which means literally to settle, inhabit, or dwell, Exodus 40:35, â€œAnd Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.â€ (See also e.g. Gen 9:27, 14:13, Psa 37:3, Jer 33:16). Shekinah is also the origin of the Hebrew word for tabernacle and the Greek word for dwelling-place in the Bible, as in our Call to Worship: â€œHow lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!â€ (Psa 84:1) (all emphasis added).
The Shekinah cloud is an indication of Godâ€™s presence throughout the Bible. And often, when the cloud is present, the glory of God is also present, and this is why Kline called it the Glory-Cloud. When Moses went up Mount Sinai, â€œthe cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six daysâ€ (Exod 24:15-16). After the Tabernacle was completed, â€œthe cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacleâ€ (Exod 40:34-35). At the dedication of the temple of Solomon, â€œa cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lordâ€ (1 Ki 8:10-11).
Israel had Godâ€™s presence and glory dwelling with them, but because of their disobedience, God sent the Babylonians to conquer them and exile them from the land. At the same time, Godâ€™s presence and glory left them. Ezekiel saw the Glory-Cloud lifting out of the Temple and leaving, â€œThen the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim. And the cherubim lifted up their wings and mounted up from the earth before my eyes as they went outâ€ (Ezek 10:18-19). Ezekielâ€™s eyewitness account is very similar to the time when the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines during the time of Samuel, â€œThe glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been capturedâ€ (1 Sam 4:22).
Godâ€™s presence means that his glory and his Spirit is present with his people. When the Glory-Cloud departed, the Spirit of the Lord also departed, and this is why Kline also called the Shekinah â€œGlory-Spirit.â€ This is true, obviously, because God is a Spirit, and when he was present with Israel, he was with them with his Spirit.
Again, in many places in Scripture, we see this Glory-Spirit â€œovershadowingâ€ his people like a bird overshadowing her young to protect them. At the very beginning of the creation of the world, when the world was still formless and empty, â€œthe Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the watersâ€ (Gen 1:2). Mosesâ€™ song at the end of their journey to the Promised Land refers to God as an eagleâ€”protecting and guiding Israelâ€”â€œthat flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the Lord alone guided himâ€ (Deut 32:11-12a).
This same Glory-Spirit overshadowing the primitive creation and the people of Israel continued his work in the New Testament. He â€œovershadowedâ€ the virgin Mary to create the God-Man Jesus in her womb, â€œThe Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow youâ€ (Luke 1:35). And on the Mount of Transfiguration, as Jesus, Moses and Elijah were shown in their glory to the frightened disciples, â€œa cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, â€˜This is my Son, my Chosen One;Â listen to him!â€™â€ (Luke 9:34-35) And because Peter knew how Ezekiel was brought by the Spirit to the Temple where he saw the glory of the Spirit filling the Temple (Ezek 43:5), the apostle calls the Spirit as â€œthe Spirit of gloryâ€ (1 Pet 4:14).
But God was not only present with Israel in the wilderness as the Glory-Cloud and the Glory-Spirit. He was also present with them in the trumpets.
The Trumpet Call to Gather
Before they set out to the Promised Land, they not only had the Glory-Cloud to be with them and to guide them. God also commanded Moses to first make two silver trumpets. What were these trumpets for? Numbers 10:1-10 tells us how Israel was to use them.
Their first function was to call the whole congregation of Israel to come and counsel with God or to worship him, â€œwhen both are blown, all the congregation shall gather themselves to you at the entrance of the tent of meetingâ€ (v 3). God showed them an example of the use of trumpets for this purpose a year earlier when they arrived at Mount Sinai from Egypt, â€œOn the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembledâ€ (Exod 19:16). The loud trumpet blast was a summons to the people to assemble and worship the Lord.
Second, when only one trumpet is blown, God is calling only the chiefs of the tribes of Israel to come and talk with Him. â€œBut if they blow only one, then the chiefs, the heads of the tribes of Israel, shall gather themselves to youâ€ (v 4).
Third, to call the whole congregation of Israel to set out, â€œan alarm is to be blownâ€ (vv 5-7). Apparently, blowing an alarm is different from blowing for assembly. According to Jewish tradition, an alarm consists of short staccato notes, while an assembly call is a long sustained sound.
Fourth, the trumpets were used to call the whole of Israel to war. When Israel was on the fringes of Canaan, they battled the Midianites who seduced the people to worship Baal at Peor. The call to arms for this battle was made by blowing the two trumpets to sound an alarm (Num 31:6). The trumpet sound also serves as a call to God, so that â€œyou may be remembered before the Lord your God, and you shall be saved from your enemiesâ€ (v 9). It is a reminder to the people that God vowed to fight for them in their battles against their enemies.
Related to this use of trumpets to prepare for battle is the sounding of the trumpets to warn the people against impending disaster. For example, if the watchman of Israel sees a coming invasion, he has the responsibility to â€œ[blow] the trumpet and [warn] the peopleâ€ (Ezek 33:3).
Fifth and last, the trumpet sound was used to call the Israelites to their appointed feasts, â€œOn the day of your gladness also, and at your appointed feasts and at the beginnings of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace offeringsâ€ (v 10; see also Psa 81:3).
One of Israelâ€™s annual festivals is called the Feast of Trumpets, also known as the Jewish New Year. This festival continues on to another feast called the Feast of Tabernacles, also called the Feast of Ingathering. Unlike our New Year, the Feast of Trumpets is not joyous, so there is no merrymaking. It is observed on the first and second day of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar (about September or October), and on the 10th day is the Day of Atonement, Israelâ€™s holiest day of the year.
This period, called the Ten Days of Awe, are the most solemn days of the Jewish yearâ€”days of penitence, fasting, and sorrow for sin. This is why it is â€œa day of solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with blast of trumpets, a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work, and you shall present a food offering to the Lordâ€ (Lev 23:23-25). Again, the trumpet call serves as an invocation of Godâ€™s presence with them in their appointed festivals.
Notice two other significant things in the Bible concerning the sounding of trumpets during Israelâ€™s festivals. One is that during their worship services, trumpets, other instruments and singing accompanied the sacrifices:
The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded that the burnt offering be offered on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song to the Lord began also, and the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David king of Israel. The whole assembly worshiped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded. All this continued until the burnt offering was finished (2 Chr 29:26-28).
Those who say that the Old Testament worship services are models for our worship services today argue for the use of different instruments, including trumpets, based on the above text and many other texts.
Many Reformed churches agree that the regulative principle and pattern of worship are based on all of Scripture. But if we are to regulate our use of instruments and singing based on the above text, are we to sing and use instruments only during our time of confession of sin, declaration of pardon, and giving thanksâ€”that portion which is equivalent to the Old Testament ceremonial sacrifices? And since confession of sin is not a part of the worship services of most other churches today, should they then abandon instruments and singing altogether?
Another thing worthy of note here is that the Feast of Trumpets continue with the Feast of Tabernacles or Ingathering on the 15th day of the month (Exod 23:16; 34:22). This festival consists of two celebrations: (1) living in booths, commemorating their wilderness wanderings for 40 years; and (2) a harvest festival, celebrating and giving thanks to God for a bountiful harvest of their fields.
This leads to the last point of this sermon. Granted that God was present with the old covenant Israel in the Glory-Cloud and trumpets, how do the these two things have any significance for us who belong to the new covenant people of God?
Christ in the Cloud and Trumpets
After the Glory-Cloud left the people of Israel, what happened to his people? They were exiled to Babylon, but God returned them to the Promised Land after 70 years. But soon after their restoration to the land, they returned to their rebellion, and God forsook them for 400 years. They had no prophet from Malachi all the way to John the Baptist.
Finally, after 400 hundred years, God returned to them. This time, he came back not in a Glory-Cloud manifestation, but as the God-Man Jesus Christ.
Christ came down from his heavenly dwelling-place to dwellâ€”tabernacleâ€”with his earthly people, â€œAnd the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truthâ€ (John 1:14). This time, God would not be seen in a cloud; he was with us in the flesh, dwelling with his people, full of glory, grace and truth. He is Immanuel, God with us.
This time, his appearing was not only in a Temple in Jerusalem. It was for the whole world. Wherever and whenever two or three people are gathered in Christâ€™s name, God is present with them. The people of God has become his Temple, not an earthly temple that could be burned by powerful armies, but a heavenly one that would stand forever. Not made by human hands, it has now become an eternal tabernacle whose designer and builder is God.
In his first appearing, Jesus came as a baby in a lowly manger. Although he showed his glory in his miracles and in his Transfiguration, his life on earth was full of humiliation and suffering. His glory then was only a promise. In the garden of Gethsemane, he prayed that God would glorify him. And God did, as he was raised from the dead, ascended into heaven, and now is seated at Godâ€™s right hand, ruler of the universe.
When he ascended into heaven, he â€œhe was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sightâ€ (Acts 1:9), the same Glory-Cloud that covered Mount Sinai, the Temple and Tabernacle. And the two angels that appeared to the disciples at his ascension promised that Jesus will return in the same way: in the Glory-Cloud.
But not only in a cloud of glory, but with a loud trumpet blast! Jesus prophesied his own return in power and great glory:
Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (Matt 24:30-31).
The loud trumpet sound will be the universal call to the electâ€”from all nations and all ages, living or in their gravesâ€”to gather to the Glory-Cloud of Christ. This is the final Feast of Trumpets and Feast of Ingathering, when the harvest is full and the time has come to separate the wheat from the weeds, the good fish from the bad, the sheep from the goats.
In 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, Paul says that both dead and alive in Christ will hear the trumpet call and be gathered together:
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.
He repeats his prophecy in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17:
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
John himself heard this trumpet call when he was taken by the Spirit of God to see how creation worshiped God in heaven, â€œI was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpetâ€ (Rev 1:10). He even saw Jesus â€œcoming in the cloudsâ€ (Rev 1:7).
John also tells us about Godâ€™s judgment of wicked people on earth with the blowing of Seven Trumpets, recalling the Ten Plagues on Egypt: hail, fire, blood, water turned into blood, darkness, plagues, pestilences and war (Rev 8:6-11:19). When the Last Trumpet, the seventh, is blown, it ushers in the end of the world, â€œThen the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, â€œThe kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and everâ€ (Rev 11:15).
Note the common thread in all of these texts about the Second Coming: a loud trumpet and a loud voice, and the appearing of the Glory-Cloud. Do not be deceived by those who have popularized the Secret Rapture! All the descriptions of his return in the Bible describe a fearful, noisy, awesome coming, hardly secret and silent. And not just believers will see him in a secret coming, but all the people of the earth, â€œEvery eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of himâ€ (Rev 1:7). They will be terrified because they will hear the terrible voice of God and will watch all believers, those who are alive and those who have been raised from the grave, going up to heaven in a cloud (Rev 11:12). They will know that the terrible Day of Judgment has come, and there is no escape or second chances.
This Last Trumpet also announces the final judgment on the wicked. But it also announces the eternal blessedness of Godâ€™s people, â€œBehold, the dwelling placeÂ of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people,Â and God himself will be with them as their Godâ€ (Rev 21:3).
This is a fulfillment of Christâ€™s promise to us in John 14:2-3: â€œIn my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?Â And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.â€
Dear friends, as a believer, you may be sure that God is present with you. He calls you with the trumpet call of his Holy Spirit. He calls you to speak to you, comfort you, and guide you. He calls you to spiritual battle against trials and temptations. Whether you are at home, office, school, or marketplace, Christ is with you through his Holy Spirit. He has promised never to forsake you nor leave you, till the end of the world.
And on every Lordâ€™s Day like today, he calls you to assemble together to worship, praise and give him thanks.
And when the Last Trumpet sounds, he will gather you from where you are, and take you to the clouds of heaven to be with him forever and ever, where you will sing, â€œSurelyÂ goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord foreverâ€ (Psa 23:6).
Rejoice in glorious hope! Jesus the Judge shall come,
And take his servants up to their eternal home.
We soon shall hear th’archangel’s voice;
The trump of God shall sound, rejoice. (“Rejoice, the Lord is King”)