They Shall Make an Ark
They Shall Make an Ark
Exodus 25:10-40 & 37:1-24
By William Klock
We’ve walked with Israel out of Egypt, into the wilderness, and as the Lord met them at Mt. Sinai. We’ve read how the Lord established a covenant with Israel. He has named Israel his son and has declared, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” He has promised to take them to a land he has claimed for himself and he has promised to live—to tabernacle—in their midst. This is how they will be a blessing, a light, a revelation to the Gentiles—as Simeon put it that day in the temple when he met the infant Jesus, come to fulfil Israel’s mission to the world.
And that’s the heart to of Exodus. I will be your God and you will be my people. The first part of Exodus tells us the story of how this all happened. The second half of Exodus tells us what life as the community with the Lord in its midst looks like. This is why Exodus doesn’t climax with the Red Sea and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army. That’s where we might end the story. But that’s really just the beginning. No, the heart of Exodus is here in the second half, the part where we read about the giving of the torah and the building of the tabernacle. The covenant is the centre and here’s what the covenant looks like. The tabernacle is the dwelling place of the Lord. That’s literally what “tabernacle” means—to dwell, to live. The Lord gives these instructions to Moses so that the people can build him a dwelling. We’re not quite there yet. We’ll be looking at the rest of Exodus 25 today, which is focused on the furnishings in the heart of the tabernacle: the ark of the covenant, the mercy seat, the table for the bread of the presence, and the lampstand. But the instructions the Lord gives Moses start with these furnishings, particularly with the ark and the mercy seat, because they serve as the footstool, the place where the presence of the Lord will be enthroned. The whole tabernacle and everything about it will revolve around his enthroned presence.
I think, too, this is the context we need to remember for the torah. We get ourselves into all sorts of trouble when we take the torah out of this context of Israel’s covenant with the Lord. The point of the covenant was that the Lord would dwell in the midst of his people. For their part, the people were to bring honour to the Lord’s name. Israel was to be, in a sense, a microcosm of Creation set to rights. A place for the nations to see humanity living as it was meant to in fellowship with our Creator. This was the purpose of the torah—it was Israel’s end of the covenant. It came with a promise of the Lord’s presence in return for Israel’s obedience, but it also came with a promise of the Lord’s departure and of Israel’s exile from the Lord’s land should she fail, should she bring dishonour on the Lord’s name and reputation.
Lord willing, we’ll begin our look at the tabernacle structure itself next week. Today, however, we’ll make our way into the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, to see what was there and then to the outer, holy place. Look with me at Exodus 25:10-16
“They shall make an ark of acacia wood. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and you shall make on it a molding of gold around it. You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it. You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark by them. The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. And you shall put into the ark the testimony that I shall give you.
Jumping ahead to Exodus 37:1 we’re told that Bezalel, the man whom the Spirit inspired or empowered to bring Moses’ vision of the tabernacle to life, made the ark just as the Lord’s instructions explained. The description of the ark is reproduced there nearly word for word. The same goes for Bezalel’s making of the other items we’ll look at here: the mercy seat, the table, and the lampstand.
So the ark is basically a box about three-and-a-half feet long and two-and-a-half feet wide and high. A cubit was the distance from the elbow to the end of the middle finger. Of course, we don’t know whose elbow to middle finger, so our translation of these measurements isn’t precise. But for simplicity sake, you can think of a cubit as something like 18” or a half a metre. The box was made of acacia wood. Remember last week, in the first part of the chapter, the Lord told Moses to ask the people for all these precious items that would be used to build the tabernacle and its furnishing. Well, acacia wood—which is known for its resistance to rot and decay—was use to underlay the gold on some of the tabernacle’s furnishings. So the ark was a wooden box, overlaid with sheets of gold inside and out. We’re not sure—it depends on how we read the text—but it seems that it had a foot at each corner so that it didn’t sit directly on the ground. And at each corner there was a ring. Again, it’s not clear whether these rings were at the top corners or at the bottom, sort of attached to the feet—if there were feet. But the key was that the rings were used for carrying the ark. Wooden poles, covered in gold, were inserted through the rings and used to lift and carry the ark. No one was allowed to touch it. Once the poles were put in place, they were never removed.
You’ll remember that story of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6. David commanded the ark to be brought to Jerusalem. Instead of carrying it with the poles as the Lord had commanded, David’s men put in on an ox-cart. At one point, one of the oxen stumbled, the cart tipped, and the ark started to slide into the mud. Uzzah reach out to steady the ark and was instantaneously struck dead. It’s a frightening story. First, if they’d obeyed the Lord’s command and carried the ark as he had said, this wouldn’t have happened. But, too, it was a reminder of the holiness of God and the fact that sinful humans cannot survive a direct encounter with the holy.
But what was the purpose of the ark? The Lord says, in verse 16, that the testimony he was going to give Moses was to be placed in the ark. These are the stone tablets written by God’s own hand. What’s the significance of that, especially when we consider that no one would have access to the ark once the tabernacle was built and the ark was inside. Only the high priest could enter the holy of holies—the inner sanctum of the tabernacle that contained only the ark—and even then he only went in once a year.
Well, we’re told elsewhere that the ark is the Lord’s footstool. When David was preparing to build a permanent temple for the Lord, he said to the people, “I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord and for the footstool of our God” (1 Chron 28:2). A number of the psalms speak of bowing before the Lord’s footstool with pretty clear reference to the ark. So the testimony of the covenant is placed in this golden box, under the Lord’s feet. This was a common thing for kings to do. They would establish covenants and then place the terms of those covenants in their temples, under the feet of their gods. The Lord takes his covenant with his people seriously, is what this says. God’s people may be fickle, but the Lord is always and eternally faithful. He keeps his promises.
But when we think of the ark of the covenant, the box itself probably isn’t what we think of first. We think of the cover, what the ESV calls the “mercy seat”. This is what made the ark so distinctive. Look at verses 17-22:
“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.
The mercy seat is the lid covering the golden box. It’s the same width and depth. Unlike the ark, the mercy seat is made of hammered gold, presumably one piece. I imagine it took quite some skill to make such a thing. You’ve all seen pictures of the ark, I’m sure, maybe in your Bibles or you’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark. The main feature of the mercy seat was these two golden cherubim, these two golden angelic figures with their wings outstretched over the ark. It’s hard to say exactly what this looked like. At least in terms of the style of the artwork, it mostly likely had a distinctly Egyptian look to it. These weren’t the cute, fat little baby cherubs of a lot of Christian artwork. The idea of the cherub was pretty common across the Ancient Near East. They were usually depicted as some kind of human-animal hybrid, like the sphynx in Egypt.
The Jewish historian, Josephus, writes centuries later that no description of the cherubim had been preserved. The consensus is that they were probably human in form. They may have had four faces each as Ezekiel describes the cherubim in his vision—each with the face of a human, an ox, a lion, and an eagle. But the most prominent feature of the cherubim was their outstretched wings covering the ark. If the box itself was the Lord’s footstool, the mercy seat was his throne, with two angels standing guard, just as they did at the entrance to the garden. Again, no sinner may approach the holy and live. When the work of building the tabernacle and its furnishings was complete, the cloud representing the Lord’s glory descended into the most holy place to rest on the mercy seat, enthroned there. This was the place of the Lord’s presence in the midst of his people.
But why was it called the “mercy seat”? “Atonement seat” might be the best translation of the Hebrew, because it was here that the high priest made annual atonement for the sins of the people. The day of atonement was sort an annual reset button for Israel. Despite their best efforts, everyone sinned. On the day of atonement the high priest would sacrifice a bull and a goat. Going alone into the presence of the ark, he would sprinkle the blood, first of the bull and then of the goat, on the mercy or atonement seat to make atonement for himself, for his fellow priests, and for the people. I’ve often wondered what that was like. There was something awesome about it simply because of the fact that it meant entering that most holy place—the inner sanctum, off limits even to the high priest except on that one day of the year. Not knowing exactly what the ark looked like, it’s hard to picture the scene, but then consider that in the days of the tabernacle and the first temple, the ark was the second most awe-inspiring thing in the room. Resting under the wings of the cherubim was the shekinah, the cloud of glory, the Lord’s visible presence. I can’t even begin to picture what that looked like. But after lengthy personal preparation to cleanse himself, the high priest would enter that awesome presence to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifices, to make atonement for his people. This is why in Greek and Latin it was called the “mercy seat”. It was here that atonement was made for a sinful people so that the Lord could continue to dwell, to tabernacle in their midst. It was here that the Lord’s mercy towards sinners was sought. And it was here that assurance of his mercy was found. Later, a jar of manna, another of incense, and Aaron’s rod that budded were placed before the ark as reminders of the Lord’s past faithfulness to Israel. They were token of the love and mercy he had for his people.
Now, the ark and the mercy seat with its poles for carrying were the only objects in the most holy place. The outer sanctum, if you will, of the tabernacle, the holy place, lay on the other side of a heavy curtain. There were three objects in the holy place: the table for the bread of the presence, the altar of incense, and the lampstand. The instructions for the altar of incense are given in Chapter 30 and at this point I can’t tell you why. The instructions for the table and the lampstand, however, are here in Chapter 25.
“You shall make a table of acacia wood. Two cubits shall be its length, a cubit its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. You shall overlay it with pure gold and make a molding of gold around it. And you shall make a rim around it a handbreadth wide, and a molding of gold around the rim. And you shall make for it four rings of gold, and fasten the rings to the four corners at its four legs. Close to the frame the rings shall lie, as holders for the poles to carry the table. You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold, and the table shall be carried with these. And you shall make its plates and dishes for incense, and its flagons and bowls with which to pour drink offerings; you shall make them of pure gold. And you shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before me regularly. (Exodus 25:23-30)
So, like the ark, the table was made of acacia wood and covered with gold. It had similar rings and poles used for carrying it. There were a number of gold vessels associated with the table: there were flagons, probably used for pouring out drink offerings and bowls, probably used for baking the bread. The bread is the key here. The ESV calls it the “bread of the presence”. The King James called it “shewbread”. The Hebrew word used could also have the sense of “face”. The idea here is that this bread was placed in the presence of the Lord, just outside the most holy place. There were twelve loaves laid out on the table in two rows of six. The instructions are given in Leviticus 24. Each week fresh loaves were baked and placed on the table on the Sabbath. The loaves of the previous week were eaten by the priests. The symbolism is never explained. Presumably it was obvious to the Israelites, but that’s not so much the case for us. The only obvious thing is that the twelve loaves represented the twelve tribes of Israel. Many down through the years attached messianic significance to the bread, but I can’t help making the connection between this table, spread with bread for the people of Israel and flagons of wine, with the meal the elders of Israel ate before the Lord on Mt. Sinai. I could be wrong, but this really seems to me to be another reminder of the Lord’s covenant with his people. Like the bread of the presence, perpetually on the table just outside the place of the Lord’s presence, Israel lives encamped around the tabernacle—the people with the Lord in her midst.
The final bit of tabernacle furniture here is the lampstand. Look at verses 31-40:
“You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The lampstand shall be made of hammered work: its base, its stem, its cups, its calyxes, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it. And there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it; three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on one branch, and three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on the other branch—so for the six branches going out of the lampstand. And on the lampstand itself there shall be four cups made like almond blossoms, with their calyxes and flowers, and a calyx of one piece with it under each pair of the six branches going out from the lampstand. Their calyxes and their branches shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it a single piece of hammered work of pure gold. You shall make seven lamps for it. And the lamps shall be set up so as to give light on the space in front of it. Its tongs and their trays shall be of pure gold. It shall be made, with all these utensils, out of a talent of pure gold. And see that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain.
I bet I lost you somewhere in there. Even Bible scholars aren’t sure exactly what’s being described here. We have a pretty good idea of what the lampstand from Herod’s temple looked like, because an image of it is engraved on the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum, celebrating his victory over the Jews. But that doesn’t help us much with what the original lampstand in the tabernacle looked like. Like the mercy seat, it was made of a solid piece of beaten gold weighing around 40-50 kilograms. That, itself, leaves many scholars stumped. The basic idea is a seven-armed lampstand—this is the basis for the modern Jewish menorah. At the top of each arm an oil-burning lamp was set, either ceramic or metal. It’s likely the style of it was something like the style of Egyptian metalwork of the time. And the description seems to suggest that the lampstand was styled after an almond tree—one of the first plants to bloom every spring in Palestine.
Apparently, even Moses struggled to grasp exactly what these furnishing for the tabernacle were to look like. All we have left to us are these descriptions that are detailed, but still frustratingly vague. The Lord, however, showed Moses some kind of specific pattern. It may have been a vision. John Walton argues that some kind of technical diagrams may have been carved on the stone tablets with the rest of the torah. Whatever the case, the details about what the priests are to do with the lampstand are given in Leviticus 24. They are to tend the lamps “from evening until morning, continually” (24:3).
But what’s the significance? It’s never clearly spelled out in the text, but the most convincing explanation I’ve come across is one put forth by Professor Gregory Beale at Westminster Seminary. I think he’s correct—and we don’t have time this morning to get into all the details—that the lampstand represented both the tree of life in the garden and Israel’s calling to be the light of the world. I think this is confirmed when we look at the lampstand in John’s visions in Revelation. The Ephesians are called to overcome by being God’s faithful lampstand of witness and promised that if they do, he will restore their access to the tree of life in paradise. If John’s word to the Ephesian Christians has anything to say about the lampstand in the tabernacle, then that lampstand represents the Lord’s presence in the midst of Israel, a presence that she was called to witness and to mediate to the nations around her.
And I think that gets at what we can learn from all of this. The tabernacle, its furnishings, Israel’s priesthood, the sacrificial system—the whole of the torah—can often seem weird and esoteric and irrelevant. As I said, all of this was grounded in Israel’s covenant with the Lord. Jesus has established a new covenant. He’s changed everything. So how is any of this relevant to us. Well, I think the key lies in the Lord’s purpose for that covenant. The covenant established a people who lived with the Lord in their midst and as that people, Israel’s mission was to live communally in such a way that she brought glory and honour to the Lord’s name. Think of a well-behaved child who brings praise to his parents. Think of that child as he gets older, taking advantage of the love and care his parents have given him and excelling in life—and bringing honour back on his parents in doing so. Perhaps going on to bring honour to his parents in his choice of a wife, in going on to raise his own godly children, and maybe growing old and becoming a fountain of sage wisdom. And all the while everyone says, “It began with his parents and how they raised him.” He brings honour and glory to his parents. The Lord’s expectations of Israel—his son—were something like that. Through Israel, the nations would see the Lord and be moved to give him glory and honour and praise and one day even to come and bow at his feet. This is the mission of the people of God.
And can you see how that mission is carried on in the new covenant that Jesus has established? Israel failed in her mission, but Jesus picked it up and through his death and resurrection, Jesus created a new people. In fulfilment of what the Lord had promised through the prophets, Jesus gave this new covenant people a distinguishing mark, yet a mark that has continuity with old covenant. As the old Israel was the people who lived with the Lord in her midst, so the new Israel is the people who live with the Lord in their—in our—midst. But whereas the Lord’s presence in the midst of the old Israel was found in the inner sanctum of the tabernacle where only the high priest could go but once a year. Where he could only approach after making blood sacrifices for the atonement of the people, Jesus has baptised his new covenant people in the very Spirit of God. On the cross he made atonement for sin once and for all, he has become the mercy seat of the new covenant, he has drawn us near—into the holy of holies itself—and in the Spirit has indwelt the very hearts of his people.
Brothers and Sisters, as the presence of the Lord tabernacling in the centre of Israel’s camp, was the defining feature of the people of God in the old covenant, a presence reminding them of his mercy and of his calling them to bring honour and glory to his name, the Spirit of God indwelling our hearts is the defining feature of the Lord’s new covenant with us. The gift of the Spirit is not a second blessing, it’s not something we either earn or have to ask for in some post-conversion experience. It can’t be and to make it so horribly undermines the new covenant itself that the Lord has promised and that Jesus has inaugruted. The gift of the Spirit is what makes the people of God the people of God. It’s what transforms our hearts and moves them to faith and to trust in Jesus as both the one who gave his life as a sacrifice for our sins and who, by his resurrection, has been declared the world’s true Lord. It’s the gift of the Spirit, indwelling us, that turns the desires of our hearts to God, giving us love for him and a desire to bring him honour and glory as we walk in holiness and witness the death and resurrection and lordship of Jesus to the world around us. In this new covenant, Jesus has declared us to be the Lord’s temple—not a tent or a building to house the Lord’s presence, but a people—and it is the gift of the Spirit—God dwelling, God tabernacling not just with us, but in us—that makes us the Lord’s temple.
Brothers and Sisters, this is what Exodus reminds us of. It reminds us what it means to be the people of God. It reminds us that the people of God are those called to live with him in their midst. It reminds us that the people of God are those who have known and experienced his faithfulness and his mercy and who are therefore called to bring honour and glory to his name. That mission hasn’t changed. But Exodus also reminds us of what has changed. It reminds us that Jesus is our mercy seat. He is God with us, God become one of us, the God who came into our midst to offer himself as a once and for all atonement for our sins. In that he draws us nearer than even the high priest was drawn near. Jesus pours the very Spirit of God into our hearts and we, his people, become his temple. We are the place where his presence dwells in the midst of the world. We are his light. Let us be faithful in bringing honour and glory to his name.
Let’s pray: Merciful Father, as we think on the glory of the tabernacle built in the days of Moses and the awesome manifestation of your presence in it, give us a greater sense of just what you have done for us in Jesus and the Spirit. As awesome as the tabernacle was, you have done something far greater in us. Give us the grace to appreciate that and move or hearts to gratitude that we might be faithful in carrying out the mission you’ve not only given us, but that you’ve empowered us to do. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.
 Ant. Jud. viii.3.3.
 The Lost World of the Torah (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2019), pp. 116-117.
 The Temple and the Church’s Mission (Leister: Apollos, 2004), p. 325.