Surprising Stories of the Tabernacle: The Lampstand

The Flavian Amphitheater – the mighty Colosseum – stands as a monument to the violence and power of the Roman Empire. Just 300 yards to the west rests the Arch of Titus, celebrating the destruction of Jerusalem and the sacking of its temple. On the southern panel of the arch, the tabernacle’s lampstand is clearly identifiable, carved from enduring white marble. It is in the hands of victorious Roman soldiers, carting it off to Rome as the spoils of war. Today we lift the lampstand and it speaks to every believer, not from pure gold or pristine ancient stone but from the light of Scripture.

Interestingly, in ancient Israel a priest also traveled in a westward direction as he left the tabernacle court, passing through the veil and into the tent of God’s presence. No doubt, his attention would be drawn to one vibrant golden object on the southern side of the holy place. There stood the lampstand, with its seven lamps blazing forth to the glory and service of the Lord. It was likely the tallest item in the room. Some have suggested that with its pure gold it was also the costliest object within the sanctuary. If it were to be removed from the tabernacle, the source of light would be lost and priestly function in the presence of God would cease. And still today, as Revelation chapter 1 indicates, “lampstands” denote the light of testimony for God.

Apart from the early record of its construction and consecration, the lampstand of the tabernacle makes only one appearance on the historical pages of Scripture. “And it came to pass at that time, when Eli was laid down in his place, and his eyes began to wax dim, that he could not see; and ere the lamp of God went out in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was, and Samuel was laid down to sleep; that the LORD called Samuel: and he answered, Here am I” (1Sa 3:2-4).1  Much discussion could be had on whether the lamps were to be kept burning at all times and whether Eli was negligent in his priestly duty to care for the lamps. However, what is clear is that the “lamp of God” is being used here metaphorically to emphasize the feeble and fading state of testimony for God in Israel. As you move through the early chapters of 1 Samuel, there are so many depressing details emphasizing this sad reality. Consider Eli’s spiritual insensitivity to Hannah (1:14), priests who did not know the Lord (2:12), sacrifices stolen from the Lord (2:17), fornication on tabernacle grounds (2:22), and a high priest too feeble to deal with sin (2:25). From a practical viewpoint, it seemed that very shortly the light of testimony for God would be snuffed out.

The conditions of that day are enough to make one weep. We live in a day when, indeed, many do weep over failing and flickering testimony. However, in 1 Samuel chapter 1, God was beginning a work to restore testimony. That work began in the heart of one desperate, childless woman who wept before the Lord. Verse 10 relates, “And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the LORD, and wept sore.” Not only did she weep, but she also worshipped: “The LORD maketh poor, and maketh rich: he bringeth low, and lifteth up,” and, “He will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness” (2:7,9). Did you catch the two critical points that Hannah grasped and expressed? Firstly, the raising of testimony begins with the Lord lifting up those who will honor His name. Secondly, darkness is for the unbelieving, uncaring world, but the Lord intends for His people to dwell in the light of truth and testimony.

The promise of Isaiah 55:11 was lived out in Hannah’s life: “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.” What began in her heart led to a Samuel who was dedicated to the Lord, to a David who was devoted to a house for the Lord, and to a Solomon who determined to see the work completed and the ark and lampstand resting within the temple of the Lord. Perhaps at no moment did the light of testimony shine as brilliantly in Israel’s history as on the day when the temple was dedicated and the Shekinah glory filled the house. But to Hannah, all that was future.

Eighty years after Hannah’s prayer, Samuel spent his closing days in Ramah. His life was a personal triumph as a prophet and judge. Yet, in spite of his faithfulness, all was not right in the land. Likely, in those last days he penned the opening words of 1 Samuel. We wonder what the aging prophet thought when he wrote, “ere the lamp of God went out in the temple of the Lord.” Was he confident that the testimony would continue beyond his life? The last story we have from the life of Samuel involves David’s fleeing to him at Ramah. Saul was in hot pursuit and the details recorded for us in 1 Samuel 19 are shocking and surprising. “And he [Saul] stripped off his clothes also, and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked [without his royal outer garments] all that day and all that night. Wherefore they say, Is Saul also among the prophets?” (v24). While this account is very strange to us, we shouldn’t be distracted from the message it proclaims. Just as a blind, feeble priest like Eli could not prevent the purposes of God in Israel, so, too, a proud and vengeful king was unable to triumph over the Lord’s anointed and the desire of God for faithful testimony in Israel.

Whatever the difficulty of testimony today, we can take heart in Paul’s expression to the Philippians: “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Do all things without murmurings and disputings: that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain” (Php 2:13-16).

1 Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV.