When the children of Israel were delivered from Egyptian servitude, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. There Jehovah gave them a temporary house of worship—the tabernacle (tent).
The tabernacle consisted of two rooms: first, the holy place, in which the priests ministered daily; then, the most holy place, into which the high priest went annually on the day of atonement.
Within this inner compartment was a small chest called the ark of the covenant. Several items connected with this ark provide valuable lessons for the people of God today (cf. Rom. 15:4; Heb. 9:9).
The ark of the covenant housed a small pot of manna (Ex. 16:32-33), Aaron’s staff (Num. 17:10), and the two tables of stone containing the Ten Commandments. See the reference to these items in Hebrews 9:4b.
Covering the ark was a lid designated as the mercy-seat (Ex. 25:17). Above the mercy-seat were two golden cherubim (plural of “cherub”), representing a certain order of angels (vv. 18ff; cf. Gen. 3:24). Let us ponder several of these items.
The God Who Sustains
As the children of Israel wandered in the barren wilderness of Sinai for forty years, the Lord provided the vast multitude (some two million people) with daily food, the main item of which was a “bread from heaven” (Ex. 16:4) called manna (cf. v. 15, ASVfn).
As the tabernacle arrangement was initiated later, a small container of this manna was to be deposited in the ark of the covenant (16:33-34). This was designed to be a reminder of the need to trust God as a provider and to establish Jehovah’s credibility as the only true God (v. 12).
At some point across the years, this container of manna disappeared; when the temple of Solomon was dedicated, there was nothing remaining in the ark except the two tables of stone (1 Kgs. 8:9).
The lesson for us is this. Just as God sustained his people under the former covenant, so he will today as well under the better covenant—not by miraculous means, but through the grace of his providence (cf. Mt. 6:11; Phil. 4:19).
Respect for Authority
Numbers 16 contains the sad narrative regarding Korah, a kinsman of Moses, and his companions. These men resented the authority with which Moses and Aaron had been endowed. They suggested that the two brothers had “taken too much” upon themselves, and that the entire congregation was as “holy” as they (vv. 2-3).
These rebels had ambitions to be priests rather than being content with their lot as Levites (v. 10). But their attempt to overthrow Moses and Aaron was short-lived. Jehovah destroyed those who opposed his delegated leaders (vv. 28-35).
Subsequently, instruction was given that a rod was to be taken from each of the twelve tribes. These were to be placed in the most holy place. God would show by a miracle who his representative was.
The following morning revealed that Aaron’s rod had blossomed and bore ripe almonds; the others had not. A command thus was issued that Aaron’s rod was to be placed in the ark as a warning against further rebellion (17:10).
There are divinely appointed levels of authority today—in society, in the home, and in the church. Aaron’s rod speaks even today, warning those who would flout the authority of those so recognized by the Lord.
During the Patriarchal era of biblical history, God spoke to some via prophets, and the instruction of the divine spokesman constituted a source of moral and religious obligation for those to whom such was revealed.
Apparently others, though, were judged by how they responded to the inner urgings of their conscience. Paul alluded to such in his epistle to the Romans. Therein he argued that the Gentiles, who possessed no written law, had a conscience, which, to a degree, would accuse or excuse them (see Rom. 2:14-15). They were to be sensitive to that divinely designed moral instrument, the soul, that has a sense of right versus wrong.
The Hebrews had a written law (the Ten Commandments of which was the core). The lesson for Christians is that we too have a codified body of sacred law that lifts us to a higher level of religious responsibility than did the pagans of antiquity.
To ignore that law, as many do—under the guise that we are now under grace and not under law—is a fatal mistake (see Rom. 4:15; 8:2; 1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2; Jas. 1:25; 2 Jn. 9).
The Covering of Mercy
As noted earlier, there was a covering over the ark called the mercy-seat. There are several facts relating to this object that are of paramount importance.
First, it was above the mercy-seat that Jehovah promised to focus his presence on behalf of Israel (Ex. 25:22).
Second, it should be remembered that just below were the tables on which the commandments were written.
Third, these tables stood as a constant reminder that no Israelite could be justified by perfectly observing of the law (see Gal. 3:10), thus all stood condemned.
Fourth, in a manner of speaking, the mercy-seat shielded the view of the holy God from the condemnation of the law.
Fifth, the mercy-seat was sprinkled with blood by the high priest yearly on the day of atonement, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the nation (Lev. 16:11ff ). It was this ritual, performed “year by year” (Heb. 10:3), that enabled Jehovah to preserve his justice yet extend his mercy until the death of Christ should occur, thus providing a permanent redemptive system (Heb. 9:24ff ).
This is why the mercy-seat was designated as the “propitiatory” (Heb. 9:5; see ASVfn). It served, in effect, as a visual aid, an object lesson, pointing to the reality of the sacrifice of Jesus, whose blood provides the ultimate and final atonement for sin.
It might be helpful at this point if we would expand somewhat upon the term “propitiation.” Behind the English word is a family of kindred Greek terms. There is, for example, the noun, hilasmos, rendered “propitiation” and applied to the role of Jesus (1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10).
Similarly, the related word, hilasterion, is used by Paul. The apostle declares that Christians have been “justified freely by his [God’s] grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through the faith, in his blood” (Rom. 3:24-25).
When men yield to the conditions of “the faith,” i.e., the gospel system, the atoning effect of Jesus’ blood allows God’s justice to be satisfied (cf. Isa. 53:11) and pardon extended. How wonderful that is!
From this brief survey of the ark of the covenant, valuable lessons relating to God’s care for us, a regard for his authority, and the atoning provision of his love through Christ should find meaning in our hearts.