34 Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 35 And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 36 And when the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward in all their journeys: 37 But if the cloud were not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up. 38 For the cloud of the LORD was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.
As when, in the creation, God had finished this earth, which he designed for man’s habitation, he made man, and put him in possession of it, so when Moses had finished the tabernacle, which was designed for God’s dwelling-place among men, God came and took possession of it. The shechinah, the divine eternal Word, though not yet made flesh, yet, as a prelude to that event, came and dwelt among them, John i. 14. This was henceforward the place of his throne, and the place of the soles of his feet (Ezek. xliii. 7); here he resided, here he ruled. By the visible tokens of God’s coming among them to take possession of the tabernacle he testified both the return of his favour to them, which they had forfeited by the golden calf (ch. xxxiii. 7), and his gracious acceptance of all the expense they had been at, and all the care and pains they had taken about the tabernacle. Thus God owned them, showed himself well pleased with what they had done, and abundantly rewarded them. Note, God will dwell with those that prepare him a habitation. The broken and contrite heart, the clean and holy heart, that is furnished for his service, and devoted to his honour, shall be his rest for ever; here will Christ dwell by faith, Eph. iii. 17. Where God has a throne and an altar in the soul, there is a living temple. And God will be sure to own and crown the operations of his own grace and the observance of his own appointments.
As God had manifested himself upon mount Sinai, so he did now in this newly-erected tabernacle. We read (ch. xxiv. 16) that the glory of the Lord abode upon mount Sinai, which is said to be like devouring fire (v. 17), and that the cloud covered it on the outside, and the glory of the Lord filled it within, to which, probably there is an allusion in Zech. ii. 5, where God promises to be a wall of fire round about Jerusalem (and the pillar of cloud was by night a pillar of fire) and the glory in the midst of her.
I. The cloud covered the tent. That same cloud which, as the chariot or pavilion of the shechinah, had come up before them out of Egypt and led them hither, now settled upon the tabernacle and hovered over it, even in the hottest and clearest day; for it was none of those clouds which the sun scatters. This cloud was intended to be,
1. A token of God’s presence constantly visible day and night (v. 38) to all Israel, even to those that lay in the remotest corners of the camp, that they might never again make a question of it, Is the Lord among us, or is he not? That very cloud which had already been so pregnant with wonders in the Red Sea, and on mount Sinai, sufficient to prove God in it of a truth, was continually in sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys; so that they were inexcusable if they believed not their own eyes.
2. A concealment of the tabernacle, and the glory of God in it. God did indeed dwell among them, but he dwelt in a cloud: Verily thou art a God that hidest, thyself. Blessed be God for the gospel of Christ, in which we all with open face behold as in a glass, not in a cloud, the glory of the Lord.
3. A protection of the tabernacle. They had sheltered it with one covering upon another, but, after all, the cloud that covered it was its best guard. Those that dwell in the house of the Lord are hidden there, and are safe under the divine protection, Ps. xxvii. 4, 5. Yet this, which was then a peculiar favour to the tabernacle, is promised to every dwelling-place of mount Zion (Isa. iv. 5); for upon all the glory shall be a defence. 4. A guide to the camp of Israel in their march through the wilderness, v. 36, 37. While the cloud continued on the tabernacle, they rested; when it removed, they removed and followed it, as being purely under divine direction. This is spoken of more fully, Num. ix. 19; Ps. lxxviii. 14; cv. 39. As before the tabernacle was set up the Israelites had the cloud for their guide, which appeared sometimes in one place and sometimes in another, but henceforward rested on the tabernacle and was to be found there only, so the church had divine revelation for its guide from the first, before the scriptures were written, but since the making up of that canon it rests in that as its tabernacle, and there only it is to be found, as in the creation the light which was made the first day, centered in the sun the fourth day. Blessed be God for the law and the testimony!
II. The glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle, v. 34, 35. The shechinah now made an awful and pompous entry into the tabernacle, through the outer part of which it passed into the most holy place, as the presence-chamber, and there seated itself between the cherubim. It was in light and fire, and (for aught we know) no otherwise, that the shechinah made itself visible; for God is light; our God is a consuming fire. With these the tabernacle was now filled, yet, as before the bush was not consumed, so now the curtains were not so much as singed by this fire; for to those that have received the anointing the terrible majesty of God is not destroying. Yet so dazzling was the light, and so dreadful was the fire, that Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, at the door of which he attended, till the splendour had a little abated, and the glory of the Lord retired within the veil, v. 35. This shows how terrible the glory and majesty of God are, and how unable the greatest and best of men are to stand before him. The divine light and fire, let forth in their full strength, will overpower the strongest heads and the purest hearts. But what Moses could not do, in that he was weak through the flesh, has been done by our Lord Jesus, whom God caused to draw near and approach, and who, as the forerunner, has for us entered, and has invited us to come boldly even to the mercy-seat. He was able to enter into the holy place not made with hands (Heb. ix. 24); nay, he is himself the true tabernacle, filled with the glory of God (John i. 14), even with the divine grace and truth prefigured by this fire and light. In him the shechinah took up its rest for ever, for in him dwells all the fulness of the godhead bodily. Blessed be God for Jesus Christ!
– Matthew Henry Commentary