This was the most sacred of all the Tabernacle vessels, because it was the place where Jehovah dwelt. It was a place of government, because it was a throne, a place of grace because of the blood sprinkled on and before it, allowing man to approach, and it was a place of glory because the Shekinah glory hovered over it. It occupied the centre place in the Tabernacle and in the camp.
The Ark was the first of the furnishings of the Tabernacle to be described, confirming its precedence over all other items. It was a box, or chest, which was placed in the Holiest of All. It measured 2.5 cubits long, 1.5 cubits broad, and 1.5 cubits high (114.3cm x 68.6cm x 68.6cm)1 , was made of shittim wood, and was overlaid with pure gold within and without. On each of the four corners there was a ring of gold and through these were fitted the staves, two in number, which were used in the carrying of the Ark. These staves were made like the Ark, shittim wood overlaid with gold. The top of the Ark was uncovered as over this was placed the Mercy Seat. Round the top there was a "crown" or "moulding" or "rim" of gold, the purpose of which was to ensure that the Mercy Seat sat securely and could not be dislodged. Two cherubims were over the Ark facing each other with their wings outstretched.
The contents of the Ark
Into the Ark was placed the two tables of stone containing the Ten Commandments (Ex 40.20). At later stages were added the golden pot of manna and Aarons rod that budded (Heb 9.4).
The location of the Ark
The Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies, where the Lord was pleased to dwell. This innermost shrine was a perfect cube measuring ten cubits (4.57m) square, in which there was no artificial light, no natural light, and no light borrowed from another compartment; the glory of the presence of God lit the place.
The Ark formed the base of the throne of God for the Psalmist writes that "The Lord reigneth: let the people tremble: he sitteth between the cherubims" (Ps 99.1). Into this throne-room Aaron, as a result of the failure of two of his sons on the first day of their service in the Tabernacle, could enter only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16.1-34).
The significance of the Ark
The gold of the Ark signified the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. This gold was as bright inside the Ark as it was outside. That which was inside was only seen by God, teaching that there are aspects of His deity which are even beyond His saints to understand. The two tables of stone contained Gods righteous demands of man, which it was impossible for man to meet. But there was one Man who did keep them!
The command of the Lord to put a pot of manna in the Ark was given by Moses to Aaron (Ex 16.32-36). Although no mention is made there of it being a golden pot, we owe that information to the Epistle to the Hebrews (9.4). Vital truths are represented in this manna. Christ is the bread of God come down from heaven (Jn 6.33) who is the food of His people. To feed on Him is the spiritual privilege available for every Christian, and indeed spiritual health is dependent on doing so.
How remarkable it is that placed within the Ark, resting side by side, were to be found that which brought death to man in his sinful condition - the Law - and that which sustained the spiritual life of man. This food had been provided without any lowering of divine standards. The event that led to Aarons rod budding was the rebellion of Korah (Num 16.1-50). It is a glorious picture of resurrection, the rich fullness of the almond blossom declaring the richness and beauty of resurrection life.
The staves were kept in the golden rings until the Ark was placed in the Temple, when they were drawn out (1 Kings 8.8; 2 Chr 5.9). The presence of the staves indicated that this was a vessel that was to be carried through the wilderness by the Levites.
The Ark, therefore, pictures the Lord Jesus; He who is God and became a man; who lived on earth loving the law of God and perfectly keeping it; who rose from the dead in triumphant power and serves now as Great High Priest. As it was the centre for Israel in their life and worship, so He must be the centre of the life and worship of His people today.
The Mercy Seat
The Mercy Seat was a slab of pure gold measuring 2.5 cubits (114.3cm) long and 1.5 cubits (68.6cm) broad so that it fitted exactly on the top of the Ark. There are no measurements given for the thickness of the slab of pure gold. The Mercy Seat was, therefore, the lid of the Ark. There was no shittim wood used in its construction indicating that the work of which it speaks was carried out by One who is God, the pure gold emphasising the righteousness of God.
The significance of the Mercy Seat
This was the place where God and man met. Of such importance is this that the Holy of Holies is called "the place of the mercy seat" (1 Chr 28.11). On the Day of Atonement, which took place on the 10th day of the 7th month, the High Priest entered the Holiest of All and sprinkled blood, once on and seven times before the Mercy Seat, for his own sins. He re-entered and again sprinkled blood as he had done on his first entrance, but on this occasion it was for the sins of the people (Lev 16.14-15). It is, as the hymn writer has stated, a "blood-stained Mercy Seat".
The blood sprinkled on the Mercy Seat displayed before God that judgment had been carried out on sin. The claims of righteousness had not been compromised but had been met. Sins had not been swept under the carpet or put out of the way to be brought back at a future date; they had been judged. The punishment had been borne, and God was satisfied. His anger against sin had been expressed in the death of the victim.
There were two cherubims, one on either side of the Mercy Seat; "one cherub on the one end and one cherub at the other end" (v.19). Their wings reached upward meeting above the Mercy Seat and their faces were towards each other looking down towards the Mercy Seat (v.20).
The Significance of the Cherubim
After the Fall, the Lord God "drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life" (Gen 3.24). They were there to keep man out of the presence of God, but now, in the Tabernacle, they looked at the Mercy Seat and saw the blood that allowed man to approach God. They are referred to as the "cherubims of glory" (Heb 9.5); they are the cherubims which have to do with His glory.
"There I will meet with thee"
This was where the Lord said that He would "meet with thee, and commune with thee" (Ex 25.22). He decreed that the place from which He would meet with them was "from between the cherubims which are upon the Ark of the testimony". The glory, therefore, resided immediately above the Mercy Seat, between the cherubims. Asaph wrote of this: "thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth" (Ps 80.1); the unknown author of Psalm 99 (whom many consider to be David) rejoiced in it: "he sitteth between the cherubims, let the earth be moved" (v.1). The Ark was known as "the ark of God the Lord, that dwelleth between the cherubims, whose name is called on it" (1 Chr 13.6). There are seven references to this (1 Sam 4.4; 2 Sam 6.2; 1 Kings 19.15; 1 Chr 13.6; Ps 80.1; Ps 99.1; Is 37.16).
The Throne of Grace
For the High Priest, approaching the Ark and Mercy Seat was a solemn, annual event, limited because of the sin of the priestly family. Each year there must have been some fear in the heart of the High Priest. Had all of the commandments of the Lord been carried out? Was everything in order to enable him to approach? Because of failure to do this, would he be exposed to the judgment of God? The people would share this fear until the day was over and all was well. But, if all had been carried out according to the Word of God there would have been no need for fear in their hearts. Christians need have no such anxiety. The throne before which they come is a throne of grace, not a throne of judgment (Heb 4.16), where they "may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need".
1 One cubit is reckoned to be 18 inches. One inch is 2.54 cm.