Here we have one of the classic summary passages describing how God led the Israelites through the wilderness. There is a certain drama in the process, because the means of God’s leading was grand and very public. There was no indication that discerning God’s leading in this process was at all difficult. The cloud and the fire were very visible to everyone, and their movements were, therefore, plain and obvious.
So, in terms of application this passage may not seem to have much to teach us about the process of discerning God’s leading today. It does, however, have something to say to us about the experience of following God’s leading as he gives it to us.
One of the most striking aspects of God’s leading of the people was that, from the perspective of the people, God’s directions either to move or to stay put were issued without explanation. They would, it seems to me, have seemed arbitrary or even capricious to the people. There is no indication from the text that God offered any explanation for why he was moving them or why he was keeping them stationary.
The people’s obedience was not contingent on their understanding of God’s reasons for his actions. Their responsibility was to obey whether they understood God’s reasons or not, to obey whether God offered an explanation of not.
We should not underestimate the hardship involved in moving the camp. Such a move involved enormous effort. Most of the time, it seems, that effort had to be undertaken simply because God said so.
Likewise, we shouldn’t assume that staying in one place was always a desirable option for the people either. A traveling metropolis of more than a million people represented a huge demand on the local resources of water, grazing land, and simple space. Staying in one place too long could also have become a considerable hardship over time. Yet, regardless of the hardships involved, the people were required to obey God’s leading without understanding his reasons.
How often do we refuse God’s leading simply because we don’t understand his reasons, because his leading doesn’t make sense in our eyes. We are, by virtue of the fall, always inclined to try to replace God’s wisdom with our own or to measure God’s leading and instruction by the yardstick of our own understanding. Yet, the Scriptures are filled with examples of God instructing his people to do things that certainly seemed incomprehensible and even downright crazy.
Joshua and his generals knew the standard approach to capturing a fortified city. Marching around it daily for six days and seven times on the seventh day then shouting and blowing trumpets was not in any of the standard textbooks of military strategy. Yet, that was God’s way. Borrowing a little boys lunch box in order to feed thousand people in the middle of nowhere was not standard food service practice even in the first century.
John Calvin wisely warns us about this kind of threat to our obedience. “Oh, how greatly has the man advanced who has learned not to be his own, not to be governed by his own reason, but to surrender to the mind of God!”
 John Calvin, Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004, page 26.