God led His people Israel through the wilderness in two forms: smoke and fire. And at one point, in Exodus 14, as the Egyptian army approached in hot pursuit, He stopped leading Israel and came to stand behind them - between them and the approaching Egyptians. When He did this, He did it in smoke.
I probably would have preferred fire.
Because let's face it: smoke doesn't scare too many armies away. They press through and keep pursuing until they come to the battlefield. Smoke may have even looked just like dust kicked up. Not a big deal. Fire, on the other hand. Fire is going to turn those horses back. Fire is going to stop an army dead in its tracks. Nobody can just pass through fire and keep going. At the very worst, it makes the Egyptians pause. At best, it sends them running. So for what it's worth, if the God who comes through smoke and fire decides to stand between me and a pursuing army, I'd rather have Him stand in fire. I'm going to feel safer that way.
But the smoke does something, too, and maybe that was the point. It was never God's intention to turn the Egyptians back. He never says that was His plan. His plan was always to show His glory through the unfolding events, and what greater glory than a thousand drowned chariots? What greater glory than an army who is no longer a threat? What greater glory than real victory? Decided defeat?
In the meantime, however, there's Israel. There's a people on the move, somewhere between here and there. Somewhere between Egypt and Canaan. Unsure of how much further they're going. Unsure of how they're going to get there. Unsure of their ability to encounter other people. And their God, who has been leading them, now stands behind them. The world lies open before them but it's just an expanse. Behind them, the thunder of an approaching army. An intimidating army. Horses, chariots, soldiers. None of which they can see any longer.
Because God in His infinite wisdom has just set up a smokescreen.
His presence in fire may have turned the Egyptians away, but His presence in smoke turns Israel's eyes. Either they look in front of them and see the Promised Land or they look behind them and see the presence of God.
What approaching army?
It's brilliant, really. No matter where the wandering nation looks, they see God. Either in Promise or in Presence. Sure, they probably still hear the thunder. They probably still hear the sound of hooves and chariots. But between those hooves and chariots and the timid nation, there stands a powerful God. A God who is poised in smoke not only to shield His people but to take the breath right out of the approaching army. God before us, God behind us. Whom shall we fear?
I'm prone to want a God in fire who will turn my enemies away. But there's something about a God of smoke, too. He's a God who ensures that no matter where my eyes may look, I can see only Him. Before me. Behind me. In Promise and in Presence. There He is. Wherever I need Him to be. Between me and the approaching armies, in my own in-between from Canaan to Egypt, from here to there. A smokescreen at its finest.