The Glory of the Lord Filled the Tabernacle
The Glory of the Lord Filled the Tabernacle
by William Klock
When we were last in Exodus before All Saints, we saw the Lord renew his covenant with Israel. They had broken it. Their lives were spared, but for a while there, everything was off. The Lord would fulfil his promise to give them Canaan, but he wouldn’t go with them himself. He’d send an angel. No torah. And no tabernacle. He would not be dwelling in midst of this adulterous and siff-necked people. But Moses stepped in as mediator and pleaded on their behalf. The Lord forgave and we saw the covenant renews. As we come to Chapter 35 this morning, it the text picks up right where it left off before the golden calf incident:
Moses assembled all the congregation of the people of Israel and said to them, “These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do. Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.”
The very structure of the narrative highlights God’s forgiveness. The last instructions he gave before the raucous idolatrous worship of the Israelites reached them on the mountain were for the Sabbath. And now, the covenant renewed, the Lord picks at the same place: the Sabbath. The Sabbath was the sacred time of the people of God. The tabernacle was their sacred space and that’s what fills the next six chapters of Exodus. I want to skip through those six chapters this morning. Six chapters is lot, but if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll remember that we’ve already covered most of it. As we covered the instructions for the tabernacle in earlier chapters, remember that I repeatedly pointed out that we see those instructions carried out. And the text stresses that they were carried out faithfully, exactly as given, by repeating the details of the instructions word for word in most cases. So there’s not as much to cover here as you might think at first glance.
So the instructions have been given and in 35:4 Moses we read:
Moses said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “This is the thing that the Lord has commanded. Take from among you a contribution to the Lord. Whoever is of a generous heart, let him bring the Lord’s contribution… (Exodus 35:34-35)
It’s time for the people to bring their gold and silver, their linen and the leather, their gemstones and their incense. And, too, the work of the people is needed. Verse 10:
“Let every skillful craftsman among you come and make all that the Lord has commanded…
The conventional wisdom these days in churches is that ten per cent of the people contribute ninety per cent of the money and do ninety per cent of the work. That wasn’t the case in Israel—at least not at this point. I expect they were feeling a lot of gratitude at the moment. They’d not only been spared a death sentence, but just when they thought they had lost the Lord, he’d forgiven them and reestablished the covenant. They’re enthusiasm for the Lord was at its peak. If John Newton had been writing hymns in those days, they’d have been singing “Amazing Grace”. Brothers and Sisters, this is why we Christians need to spend time contemplating the cross of Christ, remembering out sinfulness, remembering that the wages of sin is separation from God and the death that ensues, and then glorying in the gracious and merciful love he has poured in giving himself for the sake of our sins. If we are not motivated to give and to serve and to do so with enthusiasm and joy, we have not grasped the depths of God’s grace towards us. Look at verse 20:
Then all the congregation of the people of Israel departed from the presence of Moses. And they came, everyone whose heart stirred him, and everyone whose spirit moved him, and brought the Lord’s contribution to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments. So they came, both men and women. All who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and armlets, all sorts of gold objects, every man dedicating an offering of gold to the Lord. And every one who possessed blue or purple or scarlet yarns or fine linen or goats’ hair or tanned rams’ skins or goatskins brought them. Everyone who could make a contribution of silver or bronze brought it as the Lord’s contribution. And every one who possessed acacia wood of any use in the work brought it. And every skillful woman spun with her hands, and they all brought what they had spun in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. All the women whose hearts stirred them to use their skill spun the goats’ hair. And the leaders brought onyx stones and stones to be set, for the ephod and for the breastpiece, and spices and oil for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the fragrant incense. All the men and women, the people of Israel, whose heart moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord. (Exodus 35:20-29)
The Lord had commanded Moses to gather these things from the people, but in the end, they brought them not out of obligation, but because their hearts moved them. They brought them as a freewill offering to the Lord. They brought them in gratitude. And I think we get here as well a sense of just how important the tabernacle is going to be for Israel. The tabernacle was the means by which the Lord dwelt in their midst—and the presence of the Lord was what the people do desperately wanted. They wanted it so badly, that when they Moses had died, they made the golden calf as a sort of throne for the Lord, to summon him down into their midst. And now, couple with their desire for the Lord, they’ve also got a very definite understanding that both to honour him and to protect themselves from his holy presence, the Lord will only dwell in their midst on his terms. With that in mind, they throw themselves into this project.
I’m going to skip over Chapters 36 and 37 and most of 38 and 39. This is where we see everything build just as the Lord had entrusted from the tent itself, to the ark and mercy seat, the altar, the vessels, and the garments of the priest. Everything just as the Lord said. But I want to pause at the end of Chapter 38. Starting in 38:21 we’re told that the Levites were commanded to record the materials that were given by the people, and here we get a sense of their generosity. In verses 24 and 25 we’re told they gave 29 talents, 730 shekels of gold (that’s almost a thousand kilograms) and 100 talents and 1775 talents of silver (that’s over 3400 kilos), and 70 talents and 2400 shekels of bronze (that’s 2400 kilos). That’s a lot. Because we’re not certain how to read the numbers in Exodus that tell us how many Israelites there were, it’s also hard to say how much this amounted to per person, but I think the generosity is obvious.
Now, let’s jump to Chapter 39:32. This is what we read after all the detailed descriptions of each part of the tabernacle being made:
Thus all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was finished, and the people of Israel did according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses; so they did.
The people made everything exactly as the Lord had told them and they brought it to Moses. Verses 33 to 41 list all the individual parts from the tent to the ark to the garments and everything else. Then, in verse 42, it’s stressed yet again that in all this they were doing just as the Lord had said:
According to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, so the people of Israel had done all the work. And Moses saw all the work, and behold, they had done it; as the Lord had commanded, so had they done it. Then Moses blessed them.
The really important part here is there in verse 43. Moses saw all the work they had done and Moses blessed them. I hope that sounds kind of familiar. It should. This passage is full of allusions to Genesis. First, same word is used in verse 32 of the people “completing” all these things as is used of the Lord in Genesis 2:2. And here, Moses see all they have made, using language drawn from Genesis, where Lord saw all he had made and called it good. And Moses blessing of the people draws on Genesis 1 and 2 and God’s blessing of his new creation. This was important to the author of Exodus. He wanted to stress that the building of the tabernacle wasn’t just an act of building. It was an act of creation that was connected with the Lord himself and that links the tabernacle with creation itself—specifically, we saw in the instructions the Lord gave, the details that made the tabernacle analogous to the garden in Genesis. The garden was the place where human beings lived in the presence of the Lord. Because of our rebellion, we were cast out. But here the tabernacle, hearkening back to the very beginning, becomes the place where the Lord will once again dwell in the midst of his people. It’s a theme of new creation we see developed all the way through the scriptures, right into the gospels—think of St. John writing about the Word becoming flesh and dwelling, literally he writes “tabernacling” amongst us. And from the gospels this them of new creation centred on the tabernacle or temple carries right to the end of the story, except at that point—remember—in the new creation there was no temple. Creation had itself, once again, become the temple, heaven and earth joined back to together, and human beings living in forever in the presence of the Lord. That theme begins here in Exodus.
Now, in Chapter 40, the final chapter in Exodus, we see it all come together:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “On the first day of the first month you shall erect the tabernacle of the tent of meeting. And you shall put in it the ark of the testimony, and you shall screen the ark with the veil. And you shall bring in the table and arrange it, and you shall bring in the lampstand and set up its lamps. And you shall put the golden altar for incense before the ark of the testimony, and set up the screen for the door of the tabernacle. You shall set the altar of burnt offering before the door of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, and place the basin between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it. And you shall set up the court all around, and hang up the screen for the gate of the court. (Exodus 40:1-8)
So the Lord now gives specific instructions for how it’s all to be put together. He also gives Moses instructions for how everything is to be anointed with that special anointing oil we read about a while back. Aaron and his sons are to washed and dressed and anointed as well. And we’re told in verse 19 that Moses did everything that the Lord had commanded. Verses 16 and 17:
This Moses did; according to all that the Lord commanded him, so he did. In the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month, the tabernacle was erected.
What follows from verse 18 to verse 33 are the specifics: the setting up of the tent with its frames and sockets, the placing of the ark and the veil, all the furnishings, the altar, and the outer court. I won’t read all that, but it ends with the words—and they should sound familiar:
So Moses finished the work.
Again, this is the language of creation. The vocabulary is taken straight from Genesis 2:2: So God, on the seventh day, finish his work. Too, we see that the setting up of the tabernacle on the first day of the first month. Israel’s deliverance from Egypt marked a new beginning for the people of God. Israel was a “new creation. I think another thing that comes out—and maybe not so well when we don’t read all those verses giving the detailed instructions first and then the detailed descriptions of how they’re followed out, but there’s a creational element there too. In the details, the tabernacle mirrors the order that the Lord built into his creation. It’s according to his plan. It’s perfectly ordered. There’s no room, no place for disorder or chaos. Everything must be—and everything turn out to be—exactly as God instructed.
All this is why the tabernacle was so central to Israel’s life. There’s a tendency for Christians to think of all of this as tedious and ineffective. People talk about the tabernacle and it’s rituals in a negative light, as if the tabernacle were an attempt by Israel to put God in a box and that what the Israelites did there was just a bunch of dead ritual. But I hope you can see after all of this that this couldn’t be further from the truth. When the prophets, and when later Jesus criticized the priesthood and the temple, it was the priesthood and the temple that they were criticizing; it was what they had become and the way that Israel had come to abuse them.
Brothers and Sisters, the tabernacle was the means and the place of the Lord’s presence with his people. The sacrificial system was a vital means of cleansing and forgiveness that made it possible for the people to live with the Lord in their midst. I think if we read backward from the New Testament it helps to give us a sense of what was going on. As I said earlier, St. John describes the incarnation of Jesus as God dwelling—he uses the Greek word that’s also used of the tabernacle—Jesus is God tabernacling in our midst. Jesus took the place of the temple, but that means that before Jesus, the tabernacle and then the temple were the means by which the people knew the presence of the Lord. Just because Jesus has become the tabernacle for us doesn’t mean that the tabernacle was faulty or ineffective. It was God’s means to be with his people and to prepare them for a day when he would be with them more fully, not only taking on their human nature, but also making them the tabernacle themselves as he filled them with his own Spirit.
But that’s not the end. Exodus 40 has four more chapters. I was going to preach on them next week, but realised that it made more sense to look at them now. What happened once Moses has finished setting up the tabernacle and anointing the priests? Look at verses 34-38. This is the glorious end of Exodus and it’s a shame that all the movies seem to end long before any of this.
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.
The God who had led Israel from Egypt and through the sea, the God who has been up on the mountain, now descends and his presence fills the tabernacle. Specifically, the cloud covered the tent and the Lord’s glory filled it. I can’t tell you exactly what that means or what that looked like. We can only point to Moses’ experience on the mountain when he wanted to know the Lord and his ways, he wanted to understand, and the Lord placed him in a crevice in the rocks and his glory passed by Moses. In that act the Lord made himself known to Moses. It was awesome and holy. It was something no human could bear to see. Moses was given the smallest of glimpses. And yet it left his face radiant. And now, that manifestation of glory fills the tabernacle as the Israelites watch—and I’m sure as they fell to their knees and hid their faces in fear, but sang with joy. The dwelling of God was now with men and his presence in the tabernacle will, through the long centuries, prepare his people for a greater and deeper and more personal dwelling amongst his people and a new creation that reaches beyond Israel to the nations and eventually encompasses all of creation itself. What happens here is amazing, awesome, and faith-inspiring, but we’re a long way from the New Covenant. The glory of the Lord is so great that even Moses is unable to enter the tabernacle. And through the long centuries, even though they are the people who live with the Lord in their midst, the Israelites themselves—apart from the priests—will never get any closer to that presence than the outer court of the tabernacle. The Lord will be with his people, but still distant from them. Not until the Incarnation will this change.
And yet, in the cloud that guides the Israelites, we’re reminded that even with that degree of separation, he really is with them and he will guide them at every step through the wilderness and into the promised land. And I think in this we’re reminded of why God redeems his people. I’ve seen a surge of Liberation Theology amongst Evangelicals these last few years as our culture has become increasingly concerned with and sometimes unhealthily obsessed with issues of race. Liberation Theology, like so many of the popular movies telling this story, stops at the sea or at the mountain. God has set his people free from their Egyptian slavery. But, Brothers and Sisters, God has never redeemed people, he has never set them free to go their own way. He liberates his people from one bondage to another. He liberated Israel from bondage and Egypt that they might serve him instead, and just so in Jesus, he frees his people from our bondage to sin and death that we might serve a new king in a new country and know the glorious life in the presence of God for which we were originally created.
It might seem that Exodus ends on an odd note to us. It’s a preparatory note. This is not the end of the story. It’s the end of this story, but it’s the beginning of another that picks up in the book of Numbers as the Israelites begin their march to the promised land. The way through the wilderness will be long and grueling and the entrance into Canaan will be against great odds, but the events of Exodus assured the people that the Lord was with them and would guide them each step of the way. Exodus establishes the foundation of Israel’s faith: “I will be your God and you will be my people.”
That story will, eventually lead to the greatest story ever told, that began on that night two thousand years ago when the word became flesh and tabernacle amongst us. The gospel story concludes with the Incarnate Word ascending to his throne, but also with his glory descending at Pentecost, giving his own Spirit to indwell his people. He, the cornerstone, has built a new tabernacle, a new dwelling for the Lord, built brick by brick of his own people, redeemed, forgiven, and made holy. And yet even Pentecost is not the end of the story. It’s only the beginning.
I was reminded this week of the ending of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. At the end of The Last Battle, the great lion Aslan, the Christ figure of Narnia, leads the children in his new creation and Lewis writes:
“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
That, Brothers and Sisters, is I think the key message of Exodus, just as it is for the gospel itself.
On that note, I think our collect offers an appropriate closing prayer. Let’s pray. Lord, we beseech thee to keep thy household the Church in continual godliness; that through thy protection it may be free from all adversities, and devoutly given to serve thee in good works, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2010), 767.