From the moment the Israelites left Egypt, danger followed them all the way. Between the Egyptian army pursuing them and the dangers in the wilderness, the Israelites were a crowd of scared, tired people. They had seen God’s power in Egypt, but they were walking into the unknown. Seeing the cloud during the day and the column of fire during the night was probably a great comfort. The pillar of cloud and fire functioned as a reminder of God’s guiding and protective care, shown in Exodus 14:19, the pillar interposed between Israel and the pursuing Egyptian army, striking fear into the camp of Egypt and encouraging the Israelites.
God promised to be present upon the mercy seat (Exodus 25:22; see also 30:6, 36). The mercy seat was a kind of portable throne, carried along the poles of the ark and complete with an canopy of angel wings. The cherubim faced the center of the seat while their wings overspread if. The picture of God as King of Israel enthroned on the mercy seat is clear no matter where the ark might be: in the wilderness, in battle, or in his tent (the Tabernacle).
When contemporary hikers traveling the backcountry encounter places where the well-worn path gives way to solid rock, they often find cairns to guide their footsteps on an otherwise invisible path. Cairns are made from natural stones that have been stacked on top of one another in an unnatural way to catch the hiker’s eye. The ancient world had something similar, but it had nothing to do with hiking.