The Ark of the Covenant

The Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt was intended to illustrate God’s active role in divine redemption and to reveal the individual’s need for a relationship with Christ in order to be released from the power of sin and death. In the Apostle Paul’s testimony of his conversion, he shared with King Agrippa the conversation that he had with Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul said:

“And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’” (Acts 26:14-18)

Paul concluded his testimony with an explanation of his arrest in Jerusalem. Paul said, “For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:21-23).

Paul indicated that nothing had changed since Moses and the prophets revealed God’s plan of salvation to the people of Israel. Exodus 19:1-6 tells us:

On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’”

The Apostle Peter made a reference to God’s promise to Israel in his first letter and talked about Jesus as the living stone that was rejected by men (1 Peter 2:4). Peter said that believers are “like living stones” that “are being built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Referring to the unbelieving nation of Israel, Peter said, “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do” (1 Peter 2:8) and then, he went on to say, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

The primary focus of the covenant that God made with the nation of Israel was the Ten Commandments which were personally spoken to them by God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17). When the covenant was ratified, “all the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.’ And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD” (Exodus 24:3-4). Later, the LORD told Moses to take a contribution, “From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me…And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:2, 8). “The Lord commanded Moses to build a sanctuary in which he would dwell among his people. It was to be a tabernacle or moveable tent that would be suitable for the Israelites’ nomadic lifestyle. The Levites would have responsibility for it (Numbers 18:1-7). Its general designation was ‘the house of the LORD’ (Exodus 34:26), but it was also known as “the tabernacle of the testimony’ (Exodus 38:21) because is served as a depository for the tables of the law or testimony. Another designation was the ‘Tent of Meeting’ because the Lord met his people there and the sanctuary was filled with his glory and presence (Exodus 40:34-38). From this tent, God would lead the Israelites on their journey” (note on Exodus 25:8, 9).

A key feature of the sanctuary that the Israelites were instructed to build was the Ark of the Covenant. The ark was made of acacia wood, but it was overlaid with pure gold. The ark was symbolic of Christ and depicted him as the God/man through the gold/wood construction which did not mingle with each other. God told Moses:

 “You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel. (Exodus 25:17-22)

The mercy seat functioned as a lid for the ark, but its meaning was much more significant. “On the Day of Atonement, the high priest made atonement for himself, the tabernacle, and the people by a sin offering, which included sprinkling blood on this lid (Leviticus 16:13-15)” (H3727). The Hebrew word that is translated mercy seat, kapporeth (kap-poˊ-reth) is derived from the word kaphar (kaw-farˊ), “A verb meaning to cover, to forgive, to expiate, to reconcile. This word is of supreme theological importance in the Old Testament as it is central to an Old Testament understanding of the remission of sin. At its most basic level, the word conveys the notion of covering but not in the sense of merely concealing. Rather, it suggests the imposing of something to change its appearance or nature. It is therefore employed to signify the cancellation or ‘writing over’ of a contract (Isaiah 28:18); the appeasing of anger (Genesis 32:20[21]; Proverbs 16:14); and the overlaying of wood with pitch so as to make it waterproof (Genesis 6:14). The word also communicates God’s covering of sin. Persons made reconciliation with God for their sins by imposing something that would appease the offended party (in this case the Lord) and cover sinners with righteousness (Exodus 32:30; Ezekiel 45:17; cf. Daniel 9:24). In the Old Testament, the blood of sacrifices was most notably imposed (Exodus 30:10). By this imposition, sin was purged (Psalm 79:9; Isaiah 6:7) and forgiven (Psalm 78:38). The offences were removed, leaving the sinners clothed in righteousness (cf. Zechariah 3:3, 4). Of course, the imposition of the blood of bulls and of goats could never fully cover our sin (see Hebrews 10:4), but with the coming of Christ and the imposition of His shed blood, a perfect atonement was made (Romans 5:9-11)” (H3722).  

The concept and process of propitiation are discussed in the ninth chapter of the book of Hebrews. After describing in detail the tabernacle and the Most Holy Place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, the author states:

These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing(which is symbolic for the present age).According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. (Hebrews 9:6-10)

The author of Hebrews indicated that the gifts and sacrifices that were offered under the Old Covenant could not perfect the conscience, but were imposed until the time of reformation. The reformation that he was referring to was the new covenant that was enacted by Jesus on the night of his crucifixion (Matthew 26:26-29). Matthew’s gospel tells us that during the Last Supper, Jesus “took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27-28).

The key aspect of propitiation that the author of the book of Hebrews wanted his readers to focus their attention on was the perfecting of the conscience. The Greek word that is translated conscience in Hebrews 9:9, suneidesis (soon-iˊ-day-sis) means “co-perception, i.e. moral consciousness…that faculty of the soul which distinguishes between right and wrong and prompts one to choose the former and avoid the latter” (G4893). Suneidesis is a prolonged form of the word suneido (soon-iˊ-do), which means, “to see completely…to know within oneself, be conscious of.” Suneido is used figuratively, “to see in one’s own mind, to perceive within oneself, to be aware of (Acts 12:12; 14:6)” (G4894). According to Hebrews 9:14 and 10:1, Jesus purified our conscience when he offered himself as a sacrifice to God and is able to perfect those who draw near to him, but that was not the case before his death and resurrection. Hebrews 10:1-4 states:

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

This passage makes it clear that the sacrifices that were made by the high priest every year on the Day of Atonement were not meant to take away the sins of the people of Israel, but merely to remind them on a regular basis that they were sinners in need of a savior.

The Ark of the Covenant’s symbolic meaning seemed to be lost by the time the period of the judges came to a conclusion. 1 Samuel 3:1-2 states, “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD in the presence of Eli. And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place. The lamp of the LORD had not gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD where the ark of God was.” Samuel’s presence was strictly forbidden in the area of the temple where the ark of God was (Leviticus 16:2) and yet, it appears that Eli had intentionally stationed him there so that he could attend to a lamp that was supposed to be kept lit continually. 1 Samuel 3:7 tells us, “Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.” Samuel’s unregenerate state made him oblivious to the voice of the LORD. When God called to Samuel from between the two cherubim that were on the mercy seat of the ark, he thought it was Eli. It says in 1 Samuel 3:8-14:

And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

And the Lord came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.”

The severity of the message that Samuel received from the LORD made him afraid to share it with Eli the next day when he was asked, “What was it that he told you?” (1 Samuel 3:16), but Samuel told Eli everything and didn’t hide anything from him (1 Samuel 3:18). As a result, 1 Samuel 3:19-21 tells us, “Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the LORD. And the LORD appeared again at Shiloh, for the LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD.”

Samuel’s designation as a prophet meant that God spoke to him in the same way that he had Moses. “This word describes one who was raised up by God and, as such, could only proclaim that which the Lord gave him to say. A prophet could not contradict the Law of the Lord or speak from his own mind or heart. To do so was to be a false prophet (Jeremiah 14:14; 23:16, 26, 30). What a prophet declared had to come true, or he was false (Deuteronomy 18:22; Jeremiah 23:9)” (H5030). The first proof of Samuel’s authenticity as a prophet was the message he received from the LORD about Eli’s family. After the Israelites were defeated by the Philistines, the elders of Israel decided to bring the Ark of the Covenant from Shiloh where the tabernacle was located into their camp. “So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God” (1 Samuel 4:4). 1 Samuel 4:10-11 states, “So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.” “The Israelites treated the ark as a kind of magic charm instead of the testimony of God’s presence and power. The mere presence of the ark would not bring victory in the battle” (note on 1 Samuel 4:3). When a messenger came to tell Eli what had happened, “As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died” (1 Samuel 4:18).

1 Samuel 5:1-5 tells us, “When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon. And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place. But when they rose early on the next morning, behold Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him. This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.” The Philistines may have thought that capturing the ark of God meant that they had triumphed over the God of Israel, but the LORD used the situation to teach the Philistines a lesson about his sovereignty. Psalm 97 conveys the reality of God’s dominion over all people and nations. Verses 6-9 state:

The heavens proclaim his righteousness,
    and all the peoples see his glory.
All worshipers of images are put to shame,
    who make their boast in worthless idols;
    worship him, all you gods!

Zion hears and is glad,
    and the daughters of Judah rejoice,
    because of your judgments, O Lord.
For you, O Lord, are most high over all the earth;
    you are exalted far above all gods.

The Hebrew word that is translated most high in Psalm 97:9, ʿelyown (el-yoneˊ) as a title means “the Supreme” and “stands in parallel to the epithet God and Shaddai” (H5945). After God afflicted the Philistines in Ashdod and Gath with tumors, it says in 1 Samuel 5:10-11, “they sent the ark of God to Ekron. But as soon as the ark of God came to Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, ‘They have brought around to us the ark of the God of Israel to kill us and our people.’ They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines and said, ‘Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.’ For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city.” The ark of the LORD was in the country of the Philistines seven months before it was returned to Israel. When the ark was sent back, it was transported on a new cart with two milk cows that had never been yoked pulling it. The two cows were yoked to the cart and their calves taken away from them. “It is normally difficult for even cows who have been trained to be driven straight down a road when their calves have been taken away from them. In this case, the cows did follow a straight line, carrying the ark back to the Israelites, which revealed that their behavior was controlled by God. God is all-powerful and uses even animals to accomplish his will (cf. Numbers 22:21-32)” (note on 1 Samuel 6:7-12).