Though the tabernacle as a whole was God’s house, his proper dwelling place was the holiest—the seat and throne of His kingdom. Here therefore occurred the highest and most distinct revelations of Himself as Israel’s redeemer God. And as these revelations were made through the things that were found in this place, it is to these things that regard must be had.
The only furniture of the holiest place was the ark. The instructions for its making are contained in Ex. 25:9-16, “And they shall make an ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof. And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, within and without shalt thou overlay it, and shalt make upon it a crown of gold round about. And thou shalt cast four rings of gold for it and put them in the four feet thereof; and two rings shall be on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it. And thou shalt make staves of shittim wood and overlay them with gold. The staves shall be in the rings by the sides of the ark, that the ark may be borne with them. The staves shall be in the rings of the ark: they shall not be taken from it.”
These instructions tell us the following. The ark was a chest, in length three and three-fourths feet and having the same dimensions in breadth and height, namely, two and one-fourth feet (providing a cubit measured eighteen inches which in all likelihood it did). Its materials were boards of shittim wood and gold— the gold overlaying the boards. Around its top was wrought an ornamental crown or border of gold. This it had in common with the table of shew-bread and the altar of incense. Above it and resting on its top was what in our version is called the mercy seat. The latter was made of solid gold and was of the same dimensions in length and breadth as the ark. In the two ends of it were ordered to be made two cherubim of gold, one on the one end, with wings stretching forth on high and covering it, and with faces looking one to another toward it (Ex. 25:18-20).
In ascertaining the symbolical-typical import of the ark, regard must be had to this that it was made for holding the testimony. Said the Lord to Moses, “And thou shalt put into the ark the testimony which I shall give thee” (Ex. 25:16). In obedience to this command, Moses “took and put the testimony into the ark. . . .” (Ex. 40:20). What is to be understood by the testimony, we learn from Ex. 31:17, “And He gave unto Moses when He had made an end of communing with him upon Mt. Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.” The testimony, it is evident, was the law of the ten commandments. It was on account of its containing this law, that the ark was called “the ark of the testimony.” It is not true, as some writers have averred, that afterwards the entire book of the law was lodged in the ark. This mistaken view sprang from a wrong interpretation of Deut. 31:26, “Take the book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God. . . .” That the original text should have been rendered by (and thus not in) the side of the ark” we learn from this that at the time of the dedication of Solomon’s temple there was, according to I Kings 8:9, “nothing in the ark save the two tables of stone, which Moses put there at Horeb, when the Lord made a covenant with the children of Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt.”
Why was this honor of being stored in the ark conferred upon the law of the ten commandments? The reason was the singular significance of this law. It reveals God’s holy nature and denounces every species of sin as inconsistent with His character. It sets forth the great principles of religious and moral duties in the covenant. Hence, the despising of this law rendered the entire symbolical-typical service a vain show. “To what purpose,” asked the Lord of His people, of the idolaters, the murderers, and the thieves in Israel, thus of those who, hating this law, walked and lived in gross sins, “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? . . . .I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of rams, or of he goats. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. . . .: your hands are full of blood” (Isa. 1).
The meaning of the lodging of this law in the ark, must be contemplated, in order to be fully understood, in connection with the mercy seat. From the various passages in the Pentateuch it appears that this article had a symbolical significance of its own apart from the ark to which it was attached as a lid. So in Lev. 16:2, where Moses is commanded to caution Aaron against “coming at all times into the holy place within the vail before the mercy seat, which is upon the ark; that he die not. . . .” According to this notice it is more particularly the mercy seat that renders the holy place, if entered out of season, a region of death. In I Chron. 28:2, the Holiest is simply designated “the place of the mercy seat.” There is more evidence that this article occupied a place of its own among the typical things of the law. It is never referred to as precisely the lid of the ark; and, finally, in all the descriptions and enumerations of the holy things in the tabernacle, it is always mentioned separately.
What was the symbolical import of the mercy seat? This is known from the action with the blood in respect to it on the great day of atonement and from the reference to it in Ex. 30:6 as “the mercy seat that is over the testimony.” On the great day of atonement the blood of the sacrificial animal was sprinkled upon it. Through this action atonement was made for the whole congregation in respect to all its sins. Now the Hebrew verb for atone is to cover. Thus to atone sin was to provide for it a covering for the holy eye of God to rest upon. And the covering provided was the blood of the people’s innocent substitute. But what now was the distinctive significance of the mercy seat? This is suggested by its Hebrew name, which is not mercy seat as in our version, but capporeth or covering. And the reason it bore this name is not that it covered the ark but that, as sprinkled with the blood of the sacrificial victim, it covered the sins of the people. There is no room to doubt this, as the word is never used for a covering in the ordinary sense, but always for a covering in the sense of atonement. The mercy seat was, of course, not a covering added to the blood. It is to be regarded as forming with the blood the one covering.
Being what it was, a covering for sin, the mercy seat was ordered to be put upon and above the ark of the testimony. As the expression “ark of the testimony” signifies, the reason that it was ordered to be put upon the ark, is that in the latter was deposited the testimony, that is, the two tables of the law. This is especially evident from the following expressions, “before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, (Ex. 30:6),” “that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony” (Lev. 16:13). These Scriptures prove that the mercy seat had respect to the law rather than to the ark upon which it rested. But why to the law? The answer is contained in Deut. 31:24-27, “And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished, that Moses commanded the Levites, which bare the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying, Take the book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee. For I know thy rebellion, and thy stiff neck: behold, while I am yet alive with you this day, ye have been rebellious against the Lord; and how much more after my death.”
The book of the law and thus also the two tables of the testimony lodged in the ark witnessed against God’s people on account of their transgressing the law. It witnessed against them: it accused them, declared them guilty, and thus placed them under the necessity of suffering the punishment of their sins. And to impress upon the people that God took judicial notice of the witnessing of the law and thus of their sins, Moses was ordered to put it by the side of the ark. But why was this people not consumed? The reason is that the law, covered as it was by an atonement-covering, could lay nothing to the charge of that people. But this covering was but shadow, designed to suggest what was required. The true atonement-covering is Christ, the human nature in which He expiated the sins of His people. Beholding Him, God sees the blood of reconciliation, and therefore sees no sin in His people.
On both ends of the mercy seat were two cherubim, made of beaten gold, with wings “stretched forth on high and covering the mercy seat,” and with faces looking one to another and towards the mercy seat. The fullest description of these creatures is given by the prophet Ezekiel. He first sees four living creatures with the general appearance of a man, but each with four faces and four wings, and straight legs with the feet of an ox. Under their wings are human hands; and their wings are so joined that they never require to turn. The front face is that of a man; right and left of this are the faces of a lion and an ox, and, behind that, of an eagle. The wings partly cover the body and are partly used for flying, and when the creatures stand still, they let their wings droop; out of the midst of them gleam fire and lightnings; and connected with them are four wheels that can turn in every direction, called whirling wheels. Their whole body, and their backs, and their hands and their wings and their wheels are full of eyes round about, even the wheels that the four had. They are called cherubim and more often the living ones, or the living creatures. The latter name is expressive of that property of which these creatures were the possessors in a marked degree. They were incessantly active, resting neither day nor night, saying, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty, which was and is and is to come” (Rev. 4:8).
The eyes of which these creatures were full before and behind and within signify that the life which they so abundantly possessed was light, holy intelligence. They were pre-eminently creatures of the light.
The cherubim became the residents of God’s sanctuary after man’s expulsion from it. They appear in Scripture as the friends and allies of God, as His ministering servants especially in the execution of His judgment. As the occupants of the garden of Eden, their task is to keep the way of the tree of life. In Ps. 18 the statement occurs that God rode upon a cherub and did fly. The cherubim seen by Ezekiel in the first vision were supporting the firmament with their wings. Above the firmament was the likeness of a throne—the throne of Jehovah. From the chapter that follows it appears that the throne is one of judgment. In the book of the Revelation of John, one of the four living creatures is seen giving unto the seven angels seven golden vials full of God’s wrath. In this same vision they also appear in the midst and round about the throne, giving honor and glory and thanks to Him that sat on the throne, Who liveth forever and ever.
As their component parts indicate, the cherubim were the representatives of redeemed and glorified humanity, and thus also of the whole redeemed creation of which this humanity is the crown. The cherubim, then, had to do not with angels but with men on this earth in need of redemption. And how God’s heart goes out to these ideal creatures! With their forms He surrounded His throne. The whole interior of the tabernacle was throughout inwrought with their forms. Thus not only the throne but the whole house of God was in their midst. And this creature, the redeemed church of God, looks and will everlastingly look toward Christ the true atonement-covering with holy wonder and veneration; for Christ showeth forth the praises of God, being, as He is, the sanctification and the justification, the wisdom and redemption of God’s children, their atonement-covering and thus their everlasting expectation. Toward Him therefore do and will they everlastingly direct their gaze.
But what may have been the design of these representative creatures as connected with the mercy seat? This has been correctly stated thus, “Placed as they were with their outstretched wings rising aloft and overshadowing the mercy seat, they gave to this the appearance of a glorious seat or throne, suited for the occupation or residence of God in the symbolic cloud as the King of Israel.”
Besides the articles now described, three other things were placed in the Holiest before the face of God—the pot of manna, the rod of Aaron, and the entire book of the law. All three were lodged in the immediate presence of God as memorials of the past and as signs and witnesses of the future.
As to the manna, though it was not essentially a new creature, it was nevertheless a food that had been specially prepared by the Lord for His people during the period of their wanderings in the desert. It was thus indeed the product of His wonder-working power. It testified of God’s power and faithfulness to care for His people in the most destitute circumstances and thus was ready to witness against them in all the future, if they should forsake Him and trust in the creature.
As to the budding rod of Aaron, the event that occasioned its appearing was the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes against Moses and Aaron. Their grievance was, that the two took too much upon them, seeing that all the congregation was holy. Why did they then lift up themselves above the congregation? It was plainly a protest against the divine ordinance, whereby the people had access to God solely through the new priesthood and thus a demand for the restoration of the old order of things. When Moses heard of it, he fell on his face. The next day would shew which side was right in the sight of God. Let them present themselves with lighted censers. The man whom the Lord would choose would be holy. Dismissing them for the time being, Moses summoned Dathan and Abiram to appear before him. Instead of obeying, they repelled the command with reproaching Moses, “It is a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land that flowed with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, except thou make thyself altogether a prince over us? Moreover, thou hast not brought us into a land that floweth with milk and honey, or given us inheritance of fields and vineyards;
wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? We will not come.” Then the ground clave asunder and swallowed them up and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah and all their goods. As to the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense, fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them.
But the danger was not yet over. Those who sympathized with the mutineers, and their number was great, now accused Moses of having killed the people of God. Then wrath went out from the Lord and a plague broke out in the camp, which was stayed only by Aaron running in the midst of the congregation with his censer, thus making atonement for the sins of the rebels. The crisis, however, was not permitted to pass away without a memorial which should keep it from being forgotten. The heads of the tribe, including Levi, carried a rod or scepter of office. These were now ordered to be laid up in the tabernacle of the congregation before the testimony that it might be shown by a miraculous sign in connection with them, whom the Lord had chosen to perform the priestly service. On the morrow Moses found the rod of Aaron “for the house of Levi budding and bringing forth buds, and blossoms, and yielding almonds.” Then was Aaron’s rod brought again before the testimony to be kept for a token against the sinners. By itself this rod was dry and lifeless as the rods of the other tribes. This being true, it could bear fruit only through the grace of God, so that its fruitfulness testified of the appointment of Aaron to the priesthood—and of him alone. It therefore through the ages speaks against all those who despise Christ—God’s appointed channel of grace—to choose for themselves other modes of access to God.
As to the book of the law, it contained all the statutes and ordinances, the precepts and judgments, the threatenings and promises, delivered by the hand of Moses, and thus testified of God’s care to provide His people with a full revelation of His will.
But these things—the pot of manna, the budding rod, and the whole book of the law—were no essential parts of the furniture of the Holiest place. The sacred things for which this place was properly set apart were the ark of the covenant, with the tables of testimony within, and the mercy seat with the cherubim above. How marvelously these things revealed to the Israelites the spiritual and holy nature of God! How they shewed forth His praises and perfections! How immeasurable the chasm between the religion of Israel and that of Egypt and the other nations of heathen antiquity! Looking into the innermost apartment of an Egyptian temple, what do we see? A beast—a cat, a crocodile, a serpent, or some other dangerous animal—tumbling about on a carpet of purple. It is the god of the Egyptian. To it divine honors are paid. The land of Egypt from which Israel had been brought up was remarkable for its idolatry. The serpent was the public and well-known Egyptian emblem. Offerings were presented to animals held sacred; a priesthood maintained to their honor; temples built for their reception; festivals held in their praise, and lamentations made at their death. The Egyptian bent the knee before the host of heaven. He said to the Nile, to the frog, to the soil, to the fly, to the ox and the cow, to evil, to the elements—“ye are my gods”. Thus had Egypt changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like unto corruptible man and to the beast. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through their lusts. The Egyptians gave the reigns to the base passions, for why should they be better than their gods? Unnatural vice prevailed on every side. Universal and open corruption marked their great yearly religious festivals.
Direct now our gaze away from these debasing superstitions to the holiest place of the tabernacle, and what do we perceive? No creatures or figures of creatures of any kind to which one could point and say, “That is God.” The cherubim were not representatives of God but of the creature. But did not the Lord go against His own command when He ordered to be made the likenesses of these creatures?,—the command, “Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above or in the earth beneath or in the water under the earth”? The sin that this prohibition strikes at is exactly the deification of the creature. What is here forbidden is to be expressed thus, “Thou shalt not make unto thyself any likeness of the creature and, beholding that likeness, say in thy heart that it is the similitude of a creature who is God.” And this is what the idolater does. He says to the creature and its image, “Thou art my God.”
What was to be found in the holiest place were instruments through which God revealed, showed forth, His perfections. The law, which is “holy, just, and good” was there, disclosing to the people of Israel their religious and moral duties toward God,—duties in the face of which God was to be seen as being worthy of the praise and adoration of His creatures. That this law, the whole book of the law, was placed by the ark had a significance other than the one already delineated upon. The ark, now taken as representative of the whole furniture and of all the articles in the tabernacle, was but a symbol. Now the symbol is by itself meaningless. It can serve as a vehicle of truth only when contemplated in the light shed upon it by the spoken word of God. To the symbol therefore must be added the word, a revelation by word of mouth. The book of the law was this revelation. Being what it was, it was placed beside the ark. Hence it is to this book, to the Scriptures of God, that regard must be had, if our eyes are to open to the thoughts of God of which the things in the worldly tabernacle were, so to say, the crystallization. In the light of the Scriptures, the things of the Holiest present views of God, of the fellowship between God and His people, wonderfully elevating. The mercy seat was God’s throne. We learn this from such Scriptures as, “The Lord reigneth; let the people tremble: he sitteth between the cherubim; let the earth be moved” (Ps. 99:1). And the throne was placed over and upon the testimony. Righteousness was thus its foundation. How well God’s believing people of the Old Covenant understood this. The prophet, speaking of the majesty of God’s kingdom, declares, “righteousness and judgment are the foundation of his throne” (Ps. 97:2). However, if there were nothing for the eye of God to rest upon but His law, no man could stand before Him and live. For “a fire goeth out before him, and burneth up his enemies round about” (Ps. 97:3). But there are men who do live—live with Him in His house as His sons. Men they are whom He forgives and receives back into His favor, yet not without law but with law, in the way of right. Here we stand before the mystery “which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to the saints: . . . . which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The mystery is Christ, satisfying the demands of the law through His suffering and death. It is Christ entering in by His own blood once into the Holy place, entering in as the atonement-covering of His people. They therefore draw near to Him and live. Thus the throne of God is the dwelling-place alike of righteousness and mercy—righteousness upholding the claims of the law, and mercy bridging for God’s people the immeasurable gulf between the sanctuary of God and hell.
(to be continued)