There’s something special about the manner in which the book of Exodus concludes. If you think about it, the Exodus narrative is filled with ups and downs. It begins with Israel down—down in Egypt, oppressed and enslaved by the pharaohs, their burdens increasing and their babies being put to death.
Then God raises up a man who has himself been down for quite a while. Moses is an Israelite but has been living in the land of Midian, herding his father-in law’s sheep. He once had a connection with both Israel and Egypt, but now he has neither. Yahweh appears to him at a bush and changes all of that.
In the rescue that follows, God lifts up Moses so that through him He might lift up Israel. Ten plagues and a Red Sea later, they are out of bondage and on their way to the Promised Land. Israel doesn’t stay up very long. Although they have left Egypt, Egypt hasn’t left them and when Moses goes up on the mountain to receive the law, Israel goes down into the darkness of idolatry with the golden calf.
It’s not just that they’ve broken the law—they’ve broken Yahweh’s heart. It takes Moses stepping up for them not once, but twice (32-33), to assure that they won’t be destroyed and will have God’s presence with them as they head toward Canaan. So off they go, God leading them by a cloud during the day and by fire at night.
When they camp, the cloud sits over the tabernacle, which is filled with the glory of the Lord (40:34). The glory is so great that Moses is unable to enter (v. 35). Whenever the cloud lifts, Israel knows it is time to move— so they must keep their eyes on the tabernacle and God’s glory to know what to do. Keeping our eyes on God and His glory (as opposed to ourselves, others, or all that’s wrong in the world), is still a wise course of action. We’ll find it to be transforming (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Finally, it’s worth noting that God’s presence was through the cloud that was in front of Israel (Deuteronomy 1:32-33). He wasn’t behind them or by their side getting their thoughts and ideas. The cloud rose from the holy place (the tabernacle), which was in the center of Israel’s camp and they were to fall in behind it as it moved. If God is at the center of our life, then we will make sure we fall in behind Him as He leads us.
The book ends with a penitent Israel falling in behind God. For all of their ups and downs, they are finally where they need to be—following behind Yahweh. It’s sad that they don’t remain there, but nonetheless it is a nice close to the book that tells of their going out. And it’s so like our Father to let us know that for all of their failings, there was at least one moment when they were where they should be.