I am not a fan of change. I like a set routine. Yet God has other plans.
Let’s look at what it was like to be an Israelite, travelling in the desert for 40 years. They had no map and no idea of where they were going. They were told that it was somewhere good, but they didn’t know how to get there because they didn’t know where it was. They were led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
15 On the day the tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the testimony, and it appeared like fire above the tabernacle from evening until morning. 16 It remained that way continuously: the cloud would cover it, appearing like fire at night. 17 Whenever the cloud was lifted up above the tent, the Israelites would set out; at the place where the cloud stopped, there the Israelites camped. 18 At the LORD’s command the Israelites set out, and at the LORD’s command they camped. As long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle, they camped. 19 Even when the cloud stayed over the tabernacle many days, the Israelites carried out the LORD’s requirement and did not set out. 20 Sometimes the cloud remained over the tabernacle for only a few days. They would camp at the LORD’s command and set out at the LORD’s command. 21 Sometimes the cloud remained only from evening until morning; when the cloud lifted in the morning, they set out. Or if it remained a day and a night, they moved out when the cloud lifted. 22 Whether it was two days, a month, or longer, the Israelites camped and did not set out as long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle. But when it was lifted, they set out. 23 They camped at the LORD’s command, and they set out at the LORD’s command. They carried out the LORD’s requirement according to His command through Moses.
Look at line 20 – sometimes they were there only a few days. Sometimes change came often. They never knew when it was going to happen. The most important part is that “They would camp at the LORD’s command and set out at the LORD’s command.” This is repeated in line 23. Anything that is repeated requires special notice. The Lord would command, and they would go – again, with no idea where they were going. They just followed the Lord.
We don’t hear any complaining from the Israelites about having to move so often and apparently so randomly. Sure, there was plenty of complaining about not having enough food that they liked.
4 Contemptible people among them had a strong craving for other food. The Israelites cried again and said, “Who will feed us meat? 5 We remember the free fish we ate in Egypt, along with the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. 6 But now our appetite is gone; there’s nothing to look at but this manna!”
They’ve forgotten about how hard it was being slaves in Egypt. Now that they aren’t slaves, all they can think about is the great food that they ate – such variety, and free! They’ve forgotten that here in the middle of the desert, God is giving them food day by day.
Yet they don’t complain at all about having to pick up everything at a moment’s notice.
22 Whether it was two days, a month, or longer, the Israelites camped and did not set out as long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle. But when it was lifted, they set out.
I find it significant not only that they stayed for as long as the Lord commanded them, but that they got up and moved immediately when the Lord commanded them as well. This is no simple task, remember. Not only did were they carrying everything they owned with them – there were no Winnebagos on this trip – but they also had to dismantle and carry the portable Temple – no simple feat. That was huge, and had heavy equipment. They had to carry all their clothing, their tents, their cookware – everything.
Anyone who didn’t follow immediately, who was slow in breaking down camp, would have been left behind. They had to move together in order to survive together. Every person was necessary.
Also, if they didn’t all move at the same time they would have missed the cloud or pillar of flame. It would have gone on ahead of them, not waiting for them to catch up. If they didn’t follow it, they would have most certainly been lost in the desert. They’d be on their own, without God, and that is truly lost.
Compare this unswerving obedience to the Lord in the story when Jesus called his first disciples to him, in Mark 2:16-20:
16 As He was passing along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, Simon’s brother. They were casting a net into the sea, since they were fishermen. 17 “Follow Me,” Jesus told them, “and I will make you fish for people!”18 Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. 19 Going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in their boat mending their nets. 20 Immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed Him.
Note that Simon, Andrew, James and John left everything – their boats, their possessions, and their families – and followed Jesus “immediately”. He didn’t have to convince them. They didn’t have to think about it.
This kind of obedience is what is required. Some other followers of the Lord were hesitant, and they were told they weren’t fit for the journey. Pay special attention starting with verse 59 in the following section:
57 As they were traveling on the road someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go!” 58 Jesus told him, “Foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” 59 Then He said to another, “Follow Me.” “Lord,” he said, “first let me go bury my father.” 60 But He told him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.” 61 Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord, but first let me go and say good-bye to those at my house.” 62 But Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
When the Lord calls, we are to answer immediately, without question.
Change is hard, sure, but being left behind is harder. It is better to follow the Lord than be lost and on your own.
(All Bible translations are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible)