Tabernacle Studies: The Ark and the Mercy Seat

Edited by Eugene Higgins. The primary passage on this subject is Exodus 25:10-22.

The ark with its cover, the mercy seat, ranked the highest of all the vessels of the Tabernacle. It was placed alone in the Holy of Holies and was the one vessel to which all the services and ritual of the Tabernacle were ultimately directed. Indeed, without it, all the other vessels of the Sanctuary and all the service of the priests would have been completely useless, because it was over the mercy seat that Jehovah dwelt and all worship was directed to Him. In the directions given concerning the Tabernacle, the ark and the mercy seat – God’s throne in the midst of His people – is first described. Subsequently, directions are given concerning the other vessels. It seems as though God would lead us to the great object that was before Him, namely, to establish a place for Himself in the midst of His people where He could meet with their representatives and give directions regarding their walk and work.

Specifications of the ark

1. Its size – 2 cubits long x 1 cubits wide x 1 cubits high.

2. Its materials – acacia wood overlaid within and without with gold.

3. Its ornamentation – a crown of gold around the top, four rings, and two staves which were never removed.

4. Its use – originally it contained the Law written on two tables of stone; later, a golden pot of manna and Aaron’s rod that budded were placed in it.

Specifications of the mercy seat

1. Its size – 2 cubits long x 1 cubits wide. This formed the lid of the ark.

2. Its materials – pure gold.

3. Its ornamentation – two cherubim – one at each end of the mercy seat, beaten out of the same piece as the mercy seat.

4. Its use – Jehovah’s throne in the midst of His people.

Names given to the ark

The ark of the testimony, Ex 25:22

The ark of the covenant, Num 10:33

The ark of the Lord, Josh 3:13

The ark of God, 1 Sam 3:3

The ark of the Lord God, 1 Kings 2:26

The holy ark, 2 Chron 35:3

The ark of Thy strength, Ps 132:8

Typical significance (Ps 40:8)

1. The construction of the ark

The ark was made from acacia wood in the shape of a box or chest, and overlaid completely with gold so that no wood was visible. These two materials – wood and gold – as always, speak of the perfect Humanity and absolute Deity of Him who was God manifest in the flesh – our Lord Jesus Christ. While the wood gave the ark its form, it was the gold which gave it its value. The ark presents the Person of Christ, while the other vessels present the Work of Christ either on earth or in heaven. One interesting point about the shape of the ark is the fact that it measured the same in height as in width. The “height” would suggest Christ’s dealings with God heavenward, and the “width” would suggest His dealings with man around Him. These are both equal. In other words, the measure of the former was also the measure of the latter. How perfect He was in all His ways!

2. The contents of the ark

a) The two tables: The prime use of the ark was to contain the two tables of the covenant which were delivered to Moses at Sinai (Ex 25:16, 21; 40:20). Here was the expression of God’s righteous demands upon man, and in response to these demands Israel had said “All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Ex 19:8, 24:3, 7). This was the covenant which bound Israel to obedience, and bound God to punish disobedience. Did Israel keep the Law? Of course not! In Exodus 32 we see the Israelites breaking the first commandment, and, in spite of having said that they would obey, their whole national history is marked by disobedience. But, thank God, there was one true Israelite who could truthfully say in the words of Psalm 40:8, “I delight to do Thy will, O My God; yea Thy Law is within My heart.” Thus Christ the Ark “contained” the Law – He magnified it and made it honorable (John 4:34; 6:38; Rom 10:4).

b) The golden pot that had manna (Ex 16:33; Heb 9:4). The manna shows us the grace of God in meeting the needs of His people in the wilderness. In Exodus 16 God said, “Take a pot.” In Hebrews 9 it says “a golden pot.” And so it is in the New Testament where we learn that only a vessel which was holy and divine could hold what God had for meeting the needs of sinners, and that vessel was the Son of God incarnate.

c) Aaron’s rod that budded (Num 17:10; Heb 9:4). Aaron’s rod that budded takes us to Numbers 17 where we have the historical account of how this came about. The previous chapter records a rebellion prompted by jealousy and led by Korah against Moses and Aaron who were exercising the authority delegated to them by God. God judged the rebels and then proceeded to vindicate Aaron by permitting his tribal rod of authority to bud, blossom, and yield fruit while the rods of the heads of the other tribes did not. Thus God established that Aaron was His chosen one. So in a scene of disobedience and rebellion which culminated in the crucifixion and death of Christ, God vindicated His beloved Son by raising Him from the dead, typified by the bud, blossom, and fruit (1Cor 15:6; Acts 2:22-24, 31-33). But more, the resurrection of Christ was the prelude to His priestly service in heaven as typified by Aaron’s priestly ministry to preserve God’s people before Him while they passed through the wilderness (Heb 7:22-28).

3. The cover of the ark 

This was called the mercy seat. It was a slab of pure gold (2 cubits long x 1 cubits wide) with cherubim positioned at both ends, beaten out of the same piece as the mercy seat. The word for “mercy seat” means “propitiatory,” and is the place where a Holy God and a sinful people (represented by Aaron) could meet. The place where propitiation was made was at the brazen altar but the value of that propitiation was ever before Jehovah in the sprinkled blood. The verb “to propitiate,” means to appease, to placate, to make satisfaction. The great propitiation which Christ made through His death is enough to satisfy the throne of God and permit Him to meet poor sinners in all the fulness of His grace (Rom 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 4:10).

The mercy seat was God’s throne on earth (1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15). It rested on the ark and thus typified the rest and satisfaction which God now enjoys in His Son in heaven as the result of His finished work and shed blood (Heb 9:14; 13:11-12). God’s throne in heaven is now called a throne of grace.

On the mercy seat, the two cherubim stood facing each other, attracted by a common object, heads bowed as in adoration. Their number speaks of competent witness. As earlier pointed out in connection with the veil, the cherubim, especially in the Psalms and Ezekiel, as well as the living creatures in Revelation, are closely associated with God’s throne, and are often seen in connection with acts of justice and government. They uphold God’s judicial authority. Isn’t it fitting that they should gaze on blood of victim slain? Here is the evidence that judgment has done its work – justice is satisfied.

4. The carrying of the ark

The fact that the staves were fixed in the rings – “they shall not be taken from it” – would indicate that this vessel was to be carried with Israel during all the wilderness journey. No matter what type of terrain they crossed, the golden crown would keep the mercy seat in place and retain God’s throne amongst them. In Numbers 10:33, the ark went before them on the march, thus moving from its customary place in the midst of the camp. Moses was tempted to use Hobab’s knowledge of the desert to assist him in the wilderness, but he had to learn that “it is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man” (Ps 118:8). (This is the middle verse in the Bible). Christ is before His people in their walk and in the midst of His people in their worship.

5. The counterpart of the ark

In Numbers 7:89, we are told how and when God communicated His mind and will to Moses. Apparently Moses had access to God’s presence at all times. By contrast, Aaron the High Priest could approach the mercy seat only once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:26-32). No one else was admitted to the Holy of Holies. But what a change when in the New Testament we read, “Let us therefore come boldly (with confidence) unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). This is possible because our Great High Priest is in the presence of God continually. Not once a year, but in every time of need the believer is able to resort to the presence of God for solace, succor, and support.