THE GOSPEL IN SIX OBJECTS: (2) THE ARK OF THE COVENANT
Last week I started a series of six sermons on some of the important objects in the Bible. These objects each have an important role in the biblical story – the story of God’s relationship with his people.
We began last week by looking at the tablets of stone described in the book of Exodus – the tablets on which God wrote the Ten Commandments. These commandments provided the framework for God’s relationship with Israel. They listed Israel’s obligations under their covenant with God. Being obedient to these commandments was the way Israel was to display faithfulness to the covenant.
Today we’re going to look at another object that first appears in the book of Exodus. This object is what we call the ark of the covenant. This is not Noah’s ark. That’s an entirely different object. The ark of covenant, in practical terms, was the container which held the tablets of stone that God had given Moses on Mount Sinai. The tablets of stone represented the covenant between God and Israel. That’s why it’s called the ark of the covenant. “Ark” was just another word for “a box for keeping things safe in.” But the ark was not just any old container. It was the holiest object Israel possessed.
The holiness of the ark becomes apparent when we learn that it was built at God’s command. And God gave very specific instructions on what it was to be like. It was a box made out of acacia wood, and it was fairly large as boxes go. It was about the size of a 19th century sailor’s chest. The wood was overlaid completely with gold, inside and out. Two poles for carrying the ark were attached permanently to it. There was a lid, or cover, that was made of pure gold. On this cover were two cherubim, or angels. These cherubim were placed at either end of the cover, facing each other, with their wings spread out in such a way as to create a canopy over the cover.
This extremely ornate chest was built immediately after Moses received the stone tablets on Mount Sinai. As the Israelites moved about on the way to the Promised Land, they carried the stone tablets with them in the ark. Whenever they stopped, they put up the tent of meeting, which was like a portable place of worship. In the tent of meeting - the tabernacle, as it’s also called – the ark of the covenant was placed behind a special curtain.
According to Exodus, God told Moses that the ark would be the place where he would meet him. God said to Moses, “There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give all my commands for the Israelites.”
The ark, then, became the place where God’s presence was experienced in a special way. The ark was not God, although sometimes the Israelites had trouble distinguishing between them. And of course the ark did not confine God to a three by two foot space. God’s infinite being couldn’t possibly be limited in such a way. But the ark was unique all the same. Even though the ark did not box God in, it was the vehicle through which God made his presence known among his people. It was there, between the cherubim, that God met Moses.
Because God was present in a special way through the ark, the Israelites saw it not just as an object of reverence, but as a source of power. They carried the ark ahead of them when they came to Jordan River, and the waters parted, just as they had at the Red Sea. They carried the ark when then came to the city of Jericho. They marched with it around the city for seven days, blowing their trumpets, and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down.
Once they had settled in the Promised Land, the Israelites placed the ark in the sanctuary at Shiloh. But the power they had seen displayed in the ark proved to be a source of temptation for them. When they suffered defeat at the hands of the Philistines, they decided to fetch the ark from Shiloh and carry it into battle with them. They were convinced that the ark would bring them victory. But the unexpected happened. Even though the Philistines were afraid when they saw the ark, they still managed to defeat the Israelites; and what was even worse, they actually captured the ark and took it back to their own land.
It’s a strange episode in the story of God’s people. The ark of God, the meeting place between God and his people, is kidnapped and taken to a foreign land. This was a sign that God was not happy with Israel. It was a sign that the Israelites had misused the ark. They had taken the ark and tried to use it for their own purposes.
If the ark represents the presence of God, then this was a very serious offense. The Israelites weren’t just trying to use the ark. They were trying to use God.
It’s said that during the U.S. Civil War, someone remarked to President Abraham Lincoln, “We should pray that God is on our side.” Lincoln replied, “It would be much better to pray that we are on God’s side.”
This was a distinction that the Israelites had missed. They had wanted God on their side. They had forgotten that it was much more important that they be on God’s side – doing God’s will; following God’s commands; serving the God who had saved them.
We too can easily fall into the trap of inverting our relationship with God. We can forget that God is not here to serve us; we are here to serve him. God is not here to be used by us; we are here to be used by him.
In some ways this upside down way of thinking is a reflection of what’s at the core of our sinful nature – pride. It’s out of pride that we think God exists solely for our benefit. It’s out of pride that we think we can domesticate God and use him to cater to our whims. It’s out of pride that we think God is only important insofar as he can do something for us.
Such pride is a denial of the utter holiness of God. God is the creator and ruler of the universe. He is not merely an object to be manipulated, or a servant to be summoned. God is the holy one whom we should honour with our complete devotion and our wholehearted praise.
It was David who restored proper respect for the ark in the life of Israel. The ark was recovered from the Philistines, and when David conquered Jerusalem, he brought the ark there and put it in a place of honour. When Solomon built the temple, the ark was placed within the holiest part of the temple: the Holy of Holies. And it was the cover of the ark – also known as the Mercy Seat – that was seen as being at the heart of that holy place. The Mercy Seat was the very throne of God on earth. On one day of the year – the Day of Atonement - the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle blood on the Mercy Seat. Thus was the nation’s sin atoned for for another year.
The ark remained in the temple for several centuries – but then disaster struck. Admittedly it was a disaster the Israelites had brought upon themselves by their persistent sin, but it was a calamity all the same. The Babylonians captured Jerusalem and destroyed the temple – and the ark was never seen again.
There is much speculation about what happened to the ark. Some say the Babylonians took it back to Babylon and melted down the gold. Others say it was hidden before the Babylonians got to it. But whatever happened to it, one thing is clear – it was no longer going to be the object that connected God’s people to God.
The prophet Jeremiah, who witnessed these events, knew that the day of the ark was over. He said, “People will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made.”
The reason for that was that God was going to be present with his people in a completely new way. The ark of the covenant belonged to the old covenant. But God in his grace was going to institute a new covenant. This new covenant would come through Jesus.
When we fast forward to the New Testament, we find a very interesting passage in the Gospel of John. It’s towards the end of the book, in the description of what happens on the first Easter morning. After Peter and the beloved disciple have come to see the empty tomb for themselves, they leave Mary Magdalene there by herself, weeping. She looks into the tomb, and there she sees a remarkable sight. She sees two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
This detail in the Easter story is often overlooked, but we should keep in mind that there is not a single word in John’s gospel that is there accidentally. This description of two angels, one sitting where Jesus’ head had been, the other sitting where his feet had been, is clearly significant. The picture it presents seems awfully familiar. It sounds like the description of the Mercy Seat – the cover on the ark of the covenant. The Mercy Seat had two angels, one at either end. The empty tomb also has two angels, one at either end of the ledge where Jesus’ body lay. It’s here, in the empty tomb, that the true Mercy Seat is to be found. It’s here that God’s presence is made known in a decisive way. It’s here that God comes to be with his people once and for all.
The actual ark of the covenant has now been made redundant by the way God meets us in the person of the Risen Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Risen Christ is with us at all times and in all places. He is present wherever we are. He makes every place a holy place.
There’s an old hymn that expresses this very truth. The words are by William Cowper, and the first verse goes like this:
Jesus, where’er Thy people meet,
As I understand it, every Salvation Army hall has, at the front, a bench that they call the mercy seat. It’s actually a bit of a misnomer, because the Mercy Seat in the Bible was not a bench of any kind. It was the cover on the ark of the covenant. Not that the Salvation Army mercy seat is a bench that you sit on – it’s supposed to be a bench you put your elbows on while you kneel. You come to the mercy seat to publically commit yourself to God, and to seek his mercy. You also come to the mercy seat to rededicate yourself to God, or to pray for God’s guidance, or simply to worship God. In Exeter, England, the Salvation Army temple has a mercy seat that stretches across the whole width of the hall, about 40 feet. Written on it in two foot high gold letters are the words, “HERE BRING ... THY WOUNDED HEART.”
The bench itself is completely symbolic. Because of the Risen Christ, we can now meet God wherever we seek him. Every place is now hallowed ground. In other words, we do not need a piece of furniture to connect us with God. We just need to turn to him and open our wounded hearts to him. If we do that, we will discover the true mercy seat is not an object located in a specific place. Through faith in our risen Saviour, we can now find the mercy seat wherever we happen to be.