The Ark of the Covenant was built at the command of God. God commanded it to be built as a safe repository for the second set of stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were divinely inscribed (Deuteronomy 10:1-5). The original stone tablets were broken by Moses as a symbol of the people’s breaking of God’s Law. Before Moses could even descend from atop Mount Sinai with the Decalogue, the children of Israel managed to break God’s Law prior to receiving it by replacing God with a golden calf (Exodus 32:1-20).
That Israel’s worship of the golden calf had left them in the precarious predicament of all breakers of divine law was symbolized by Moses throwing down the original tablets of stone and breaking them to pieces. It was Moses’ curious and subsequent actions, however, that symbolized the only hope of divine pardon for all transgressors of God’s Law.
We are told that Moses burned and ground the golden calf to powder. Afterward, he strew the powder upon a stream flowing down the mountain. Finally, he forced all of the Israelites to drink from the stream. In his classic book, The Chemistry of the Blood, the late Dr. M.R. DeHaan explains how scattering gold dust on water turns the water blood-red. Here, in the ancient laboratory of Sinai, Moses depicted the sinner’s only cure.
To be pardoned from our breaking of the divine law and to be forgiven of our sins against God we must drink of a blood-red stream running down a mountain. The mountain of which we speak is not Mount Sinai, however, but Mount Calvary, where the Son of God shed His precious blood for the sins of the world. All who drink from this stream will live forever (John 6:53-58).
Following these events at the foot of Sinai, God instructed Moses to return to the top of the mount with a couple of stone tablets that Moses had chiseled out (Exodus 34:1). Notice, the first tablets were provided by God (Exodus 24:12; 31:18), but the second tablets were provided by Moses. In the Old Covenant, God wrote His Law on stone tablets, but in the New Covenant, we provide the tablets, for God writes His Law on the fleshly tablets of our hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34; 2 Corinthians 3:3). It was for the safekeeping of this second set of stone tablets that God commanded Moses to build an ark.
The Ark of the Covenant, like everything else in the tabernacle or temple, symbolized the coming Christ. It was meant to: (1) picture Christ (2) point men to Christ, and (3) prepare men for Christ. In the ark, we have a picture of Christ as the sinless Savior; He within whom God’s law was safely kept. Far from violating or destroying God’s Law, Christ came into the world to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).
1. Sometimes the Ark of the Covenant was simply referred to as “the ark” (Exodus 37:1; Numbers 3:31).
2. At other times, it was called the “ark of the testimony” (Exodus 25:22; 26:33-34; 30:6, 26; 31:7; 39:35; 40:3, 5, 21; Joshua 4:16). This name for the ark was attributable to the fact that it contained the tablets of stone upon which the Ten Commandments had been divinely inscribed. The stone tablets or, more precisely, the Ten Commandments that were inscribed upon them, were known to the Hebrew people as “the testimony,” since they served as “the testimony” between God and Israel in the establishment of the Old Covenant.
This name for the ark also made it clear to the people that the ark’s holiness had nothing to do with “magical powers” that it possessed. Instead, it was simply due to the holy Law of God that it contained.
3. The ark was also referred to as “the ark of God” or “the ark of the Lord”. (1 Samuel 3:3; 4:11, 13, 17-19, 21-22; 5:1-2, 10; 14:18; 2 Samuel 6:2-4, 6-7, 12; 7:2; 15:24-25, 29; 13:5-7, 12, 14; 15:1-2, 15, 24; 16:1, 4; Joshua 3:13; 4:5, 11; 6:6-7, 11-13; 7:6; 1 Samuel 4:6; 5:3-4; 6;1-2, 8, 11, 15, 18-19, 21; 7:1; 2 Samuel 6:10-11, 13, 15-17; 1 Kings 2;26; 8:4; 1 Chronicles 15:3, 12, 14; 1 Chronicles 16:4; 2 Chronicles 8:11)
As “the ark of God” or “the ark of the Lord,” the ark symbolized the presence of God in the midst of His people. Unfortunately, Israel eventually mistook the ark for that which it symbolized, coming to believe that God was with them as long as the ark was with them. It was this turning of the ark into a fetish, a fetish that the Hebrews believed automatically ensured success and victory, that resulted in God permitting the Philistines to capture the ark during their routing of Israel on the battlefield (1 Samuel 4:1-11).
4. Finally, the name by which the ark was most commonly known was “the ark of the covenant” (Numbers 10:33; 14:44; Deuteronomy 10:8; 31:9, 25-26; Joshua 3:3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17; 4:7, 9, 18; 6:6, 8; 8:33; 20:27; 1 Samuel 4:3-5; 2 Samuel 15:24; 1 Kings 3:15; 6:19; 8:1, 6; 1 Chronicles 15:25- 26, 28-29; 16:6, 37; 17:1; 22:19; 28:2, 18; 2 Chronicles 5:2, 7; Jeremiah 3:16; Hebrews 9:4).
Sometimes this most popular name for the ark was expanded to “the ark of the covenant of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 28:18) or to “the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth” (Joshua 3:11).
As the safe repository of the Ten Commandments, which served as the testimony upon which God’s covenant with Israel was established, and as the centerpiece of the tabernacle in the wilderness and later temple in Jerusalem, both of which served as the center of religious life in the Old Covenant, it is easy to understand why the ark became best known as “the ark of the covenant.”
It may be, as some rabbinical expositors suggest, that the original ark was a simple wooden container prepared by Moses as a temporary safety deposit box for the second set of stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were divinely inscribed (Deuteronomy 10:1-5). If so, then this ark was either altered to conform to the divine specifications received by Moses on top of Mount Sinai or replaced by another ark built according to those God-given specifications. (Exodus 25:10-22) One thing for sure, the ark that occupied the tabernacle’s Holy of Holies was built by Bezalel—the tabernacle’s chief artisan—in perfect accordance with the pattern prescribed by God atop Mount Sinai (Exodus 37:1-9).
The ark was an oblong chest made of wood from the acacia tree. It was approximately 45 inches long and 27 inches broad and high. Both the inside and outside of the ark were overlaid with gold. On each side of the ark there were two golden rings through which wooden poles were inserted. These poles were used to transport the ark upon the sanctified shoulders of the priests. Also, it appears that the wooden poles were not to be removed from their golden rings, which explains their protrusion from behind the veil and consequent visibility from the holy place of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 8:8).
The ark had a gold molding or crown around its top edge. Fitting exactly within the gold crown was a gold slab that served as a cover and was called the “mercy seat.” The top of the mercy seat was adorned with two gold cherubim. Although the two cherubim faced each other from opposite ends of the lid, their faces were actually bowed down toward the ark, while their wings were outstretched toward each other overshadowing the cover.
The cover of the ark was called the “mercy seat” because it was upon it that Israel’s high priest sprinkled the blood of bulls and goats on the annual Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1-34; 23:26-32; Numbers 29:7-11). It was this annual sprinkling of the ark’s cover with blood by the high priest that atoned for the sins of the people and made the mercy of God accessible to the repentant.
Since the work of the Old Testament priest was never done, there was no actual seat in the tabernacle or in the temple. Still, the ark’s cover was called a “seat” because God was believed to be enthroned between the cherubim (1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2; Psalm 80:1; 99:1). This belief stemmed from the fact that God’s Shekinah glory came down to rest above the mercy seat whenever God met with Moses and spoke to him from between the cherubim (Exodus 25:22; Numbers 7:89).
Both the gold crown and cherubim on top of the mercy seat speak to us symbolically of the throne of God. The cherubim, God’s highest order of angels and those assigned as guardians of the divine throne, speak to us of the indestructible throne of God. The gold crown, which firmly held the mercy seat in place while the ark was being transported, speaks to us of the immoveable throne of God. In light of these spectacular truths communicated to us through the symbolism of the ark, we should all join in chorus with the ancient Psalmist in exclaiming: “The LORD shall reign forever, even thy God, O Zion, unto all generations. Praise ye the LORD.”
According to the Bible, the ark contained three items. First, it contained the second set of stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments had been divinely inscribed (Exodus 25:16, 21). Although a Rabbinic tradition teaches that the ark also contained the broken fragments from the first tablets, there is no evidence of this in all of Scripture.
Second, the ark also contained a gold jar of manna (Hebrews 9:4). Manna was the bread from heaven that God miraculously supplied for Israel’s sustenance during the forty years of their wilderness wanderings (Exodus 16:1-36). It symbolized both the truthfulness of God’s Word and the unquestionable trustworthiness of God Himself.
Having failed to take possession of the Promised Land due to their disbelief in God’s promise, God disciplined His people during the forty years of their wilderness wandering (Deuteronomy 8:1-5). For forty years they were miraculously sustained in the wilderness by God’s promised provision—manna. In the end, they had learned that “man doesn’t live by bread (manna) alone, but by every word (promise) that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord.” Consequently, this new generation refused to repeat the sins of their fathers. They, having learned their lesson in the wilderness concerning the reliableness of God’s promises, believed the promise of God and took possession of the Promised Land.
The third and final article contained in the ark was Aaron’s rod that budded (Hebrews 9:4). When the priesthood of Aaron was challenged by other claimants, God had Moses place a rod for each of the tribes of Israel in the tabernacle overnight (Numbers 17:1-11). Each rod had the name of the head of its respective tribe written on it. When the rods were examined in the morning, Aaron’s rod alone had budded, bloomed, blossomed and yielded ripe almonds. Thus, the tribe of Levi alone was proven to be the priestly tribe of God’s choosing.
As we’ve repeatedly emphasized, everything regarding the ark is symbolic of Christ, revealing something about Him of whom the whole Bible is about. In the case of Aaron’s rod, Scripture is painting us a picture of the resurrected Christ as the Priest of God’s own choosing. As the first tree to blossom in the spring, the almond tree speaks to us of Christ as the “first fruits of the resurrection” (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23). It is the resurrected Christ alone who serves as our High Priest and the lone Mediator between God and man (Hebrews 4:14; 1 Timothy 2:5).
Interestingly, neither the gold jar of manna nor the rod of Aaron were still in the ark when Solomon dedicated his temple (1 Kings 8:9). The only thing in the ark at that time was “the two tablets of stone, which Moses put there at Horeb.” Obviously, something had happened to these other two articles in the years prior to Solomon’s building of Jerusalem’s temple.
All during their wilderness wanderings, the ark accompanied Israel, being carried by the sons of Levi from one encampment to the next (Deuteronomy 31:9). The ark played an important role in Israel’s crossing of the Jordan River (Joshua 3:1-17; 4:9-10), in Israel’s conquest of Jericho (Joshua 6:1-21), and in Israel’s early years in Canaan (Joshua 7:6; 8:33; Judges 20:27). It eventually found a home in Shiloh, where the Israelites pitched the tabernacle (Joshua 18:1).
During the days of Eli, Israel’s high priest at Shiloh, the ark became superstitiously seen as some sort of fetish that automatically assured Israel of victory and success (1 Samuel 4:1-11). For this reason, God permitted its capture by the Philistines. When the Philistines offered the ark to their false god Dagon, God vindicated Himself by prostrating the pagan’s idol before the ark and plaguing the pagans with tumors and rats (1 Samuel 5-6). With Dagon decapitated and their land devastated, the Philistines were only too happy to return the ark to Israel.
By the capture of the ark by the Philistines and by the Philistines hasty and somewhat humorous return of the ark to Israel, God had proven that the ark was neither to be treated superstitiously nor sacrilegiously. God further proved the latter when He put to death several men of Beth Shemesh who handled the ark irreverently. Having seen what happened to their townsmen, the men of Beth Shemesh, out of fear for their own lives, requested that the ark be taken from their town and taken to Kiriath Jearim. In Kiriath Jearim, the ark found a home in the house of a man named Abinadab. It was in the house of Abinadab that the ark remained until King David brought it to Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 13:1-14; 15:1-16:43).
The ark was placed in the tabernacle of David in Jerusalem until it was finally moved into the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8:1-21). It was in Solomon’s temple that the ark remained until the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. After the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the ark simply disappears from the pages of Scripture. For instance, there is no mention of the ark when the temple was rebuilt subsequent to the Babylonian Captivity, neither was there an ark in the temple that stood in Jerusalem in the days of Jesus.
Today, Jewish synagogues throughout the world keep the Torah—scrolls of the Law—in a chest that commemorates the long lost Ark of the Covenant. The best answer to the question of what happened to the ark is probably that it was destroyed along with the temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. Although the Apocrypha, 2 Maccabees 2:4-10, contains a legend alleging that Jeremiah hid the ark in a cave on Mount Nebo, the legend is highly suspect, being without any substantiation.
Although fanciful tales of the ark being hidden in secret tunnels under the temple mound in Jerusalem or in some secret location in Ethiopia, France, England or the Dumghe Mountain in Zimbabwe make for entertaining “Indiana Jones” movies, they do not make for spiritually edifying studies. The saints are far better served, in my opinion, leaving such speculative fables to the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Even if the lost ark should someday reemerge, what true spiritual significance will it hold, since He (Jesus) who it symbolized has already appeared and become our all in all?
Rather than possessing magical powers or serving as a talisman or fetish, the significance of the Ark of the Covenant is found in its symbolism. Like all of the articles of the tabernacle or temple, as well as the tabernacle and temple themselves, the ark symbolized Christ, in particularly our salvation in Christ.
To begin with, God commanded the ark to be built as a safe repository for His Law—the Ten Commandments. It was only by keeping the second set of stone tablets in the ark that they were spared from the fate of the original stone tablets. Herein, the ark served as a symbol of the sinless Savior who would come into the world to fulfill both the law and all righteousness (Matthew 5:17; 3:15).
The requirement for righteousness under the law was sinless perfection (see: Galatians 3:10 and James 2:10). Obviously, such a requirement was far beyond the reach of fallen sinners. No wonder the Scripture teaches that none of us have any hope of ever being righteous before God or right with Him by living up to the law (Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16).
Since we could not live a sinless life, Christ came into the world to do it for us. By living His sinless life in our place Christ fulfilled God’s Law so that we don’t have to. All we have to do is accept by faith the sinless life that Christ lived in our stead. When we do, Christ’s righteousness becomes ours and we become right with God because of the righteous life Christ lived, not because of the life we’re living. Christ becomes “our righteousness” and we are no longer required to live up to the law to be right with God, but to simply acquire the righteousness available to us through faith in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30; Philippians 3:9).
Not only was our salvation in Christ beautifully symbolized by the contents of the ark, but also by the ark’s golden cover. It was on the cover of the ark—the mercy seat— that the high priest annually sprinkled the atoning blood on the Day of Atonement. It was this blood that atoned for the sins of the people and made the mercy of God accessible to the repentant.
According to the Book of Hebrews, our High Priest, Jesus Christ, has entered into the heavenly Holy of Holies, of which the tabernacle and temple’s Holy of Holies were mere earthly shadows and patterns (Hebrews 8:1-6). Furthermore, Christ has sprinkled His blood, which was shed on the Cross of Calvary for the sins of the world, on the heavenly mercy seat (Hebrews 9:1-28). Unlike the corruptible blood of goats and bulls, which was repeatedly shed to provide the people with a temporary atonement, the incorruptible blood of Jesus has been shed once and for all to provide the believer with eternal redemption.
We may rest assured that the blood of Jesus will never lose its power to eternally cover sin. Our sins are forever under His blood on the heavenly mercy seat, or as it’s referred to in Hebrews 4:16, heaven’s “throne of grace.” Truly, as John Newton so apply wrote, it is only an “amazing grace” that could save “a wretch like me.”
Our salvation in Christ is so stupendous that even the angels “long to look into these things” (1 Peter 1:12). Is there any wonder, then, that the cherubim on top of the ark were peering down into it? After all, the ark did symbolize our salvation in Christ. It is in this symbolism that the true spiritual significance of the Ark of the Covenant is discovered. A significance that now pales in comparison to the present spiritual substance (Christ) of which it (the ark) was nothing more than a mere shadow.