Of all the furniture in the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant is perhaps the most commonly known about even among the lost. No doubt it was the most important since it was the only object having the supreme position of being located within The Most Holy Place. In addition, when the children of Israel broke camp to march toward their next destination, the entire procession was led by the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant. But what was the real purpose behind this ark and what did it picture? Some of the answers we will find in the next lesson when we study the great Day of Atonement. In this lesson we will focus our study on what we may learn inside the Ark.
A proper understanding of the Ark of the Testimony, as it is also called, begins with knowing its basic structure and contents.
From our text we find that the Ark of the Covenant was made of shittim wood overlaid with gold being 2½ cubits long (3¾ feet), 1½ cubits wide (2¼ feet), and 1½ cubits high. It had gold rings at the corners for transportation using staves and a crown of gold along the top. A special kind of covering was made for the Ark which the Scripture calls the Mercy Seat. It was made of pure gold and matched the dimensions of the top of the Ark. At the two ends of the Mercy Seat were two golden Cherubim whose wings stretched out above the Mercy Seat, and whose faces looked toward each other and upon the Mercy Seat (the importance of the Mercy Seat will become clearer in the next lesson when we look at the Day of Atonement).
The Ark was simply a kind of chest and in fact it was actually made to be a container for the Ten Commandments written of two tables of stone. These two tables of stone are what our text calls the "testimony". Later, a pot of Manna and Aaron's rod which budded were also added to the Ark (Exodus 16:33-34; Numbers 17:10; Hebrews 9:4). Some believe that these items were not place inside but next to the Ark because of 1 Kings 8:9. Some also understand Deuteronomy 31:26 to mean that the entire Pentateuch (Genesis - Deuteronomy) was placed inside the Ark.
The Ark of the Covenant was literally the "container of the Covenant". This covenant or agreement was made between God and Israel at Mt. Sinai as described in Exodus 19:1-8 and Deuteronomy 5:1-5. The words or terms of this covenant were the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; 9:9,11) written on the two tables of stone and placed in the Ark. Since the Ark was designed for the very purpose of holding the words of the covenant, it is critical that we understand a few things about this covenant. The agreement made between Israel and God basically stated that for Israel to be His people (a kingdom of priests) they had to obey His 10 commandments. Yet there has been much confusion over this especially on the part of Israel.
The Jews would later misunderstand this covenant believing that they could inherit eternal life by keeping the 10 commandments (Matthew 19:16-22). God never made such a covenant with them. He had already promised the blessings of eternal life to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; Galatians 3:8) and when He sent Moses to deliver Israel from Egypt He said, "I have remembered my covenant" (Exodus 6:5). The covenant that God made with Israel could not and did not take away the promise already made to Abraham and his seed (Galatians 3:15-18). The promise of eternal life has always been by grace through faith (Galatians 3:6, 11-12) and not by keeping the Law.
The covenant with Israel was an agreement made with His people who had already applied the blood to the doorposts at the first Passover and had left Egypt. It was not a method for becoming a child of God but a requirement for those who were the children of God (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). Thus the contents of the Ark of the Covenant were a testimony of the righteousness required of God's people. Just as the Ark itself was in the Most Holy Place where God was, for one to dwell in the presence of God they must contain the same righteousness revealed in the contents of the Ark. God said in Isaiah 51:7 that those who knew the righteousness of God had His law in their heart. In the heart of the Tabernacle was the requirement for what was to be in the heart of those who were to dwell with God.
With the Ark of the Covenant as the centerpiece for the worship of Jehovah and at the head of any progress made toward the promised land, it must have been a continual reminder to them of the covenant itself. Like a flag that is carried into battle, the Ark of the Covenant symbolized the cause and all that it meant to be an Israelite indeed. Perhaps these might have been some of their corresponding thoughts:
The contents of the Ark of the Covenant could be considered as a transcript of the pure and righteous character of God Himself. If He were to require more righteousness from His people, then He would not be absolutely Holy. If He were to require less righteousness, then He would be allowing a lack of holiness in His presence. Thus Israel could look at the Ark and consider how lofty is the Holiness of God. The furniture in the Outer Court showed the Way to God, the furniture in the Holy Place showed the Way with God, but the furniture in the Most Holy Place revealed the Way of God.
With the consciousness of the righteousness of God would also come the conviction over sin. Not just a remorse for doing wrong, but a true sense of unworthiness as the Psalmist knew when he said, "mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of mine head: therefore my heart faileth me" (Psalm 40:12). Oh to have a pure conscience! The Ark of the Covenant would perpetually keep alive a sense of guilt and serve to awaken in the heart a need for forgiveness and atonement - the need for a Saviour. Paul said, "the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ" (Galatians 3:24). Thus the Ark of the Covenant not only prepared Israel for the Messiah but also showed them their need for His work.
The High Priest was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place only once a year and then not without blood, but he had to make an atonement first for his own sins. For those who saw their need for a Messiah, they should have understood that they needed a High Priest who could enter the Most Holy Place with His own righteousness. Psalm 40 is one of the Psalms known to be about the Messiah. In verse 8 it says of Him, "I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart ". The Messiah would be a man who needed no blood (for Himself) in order to enter the Most Holy Place because He would be Holy. It should also have been apparent that no man of the seed of Adam could be this Messiah - it would take God Himself. They should have been looking for God to be their Messiah rather than trying to establish their own righteousness.
Any Israelite who seriously tried to keep the covenant by obeying the Law of God surely found it impossible. Samson, the strongest man, had a problem with the 7th commandment, "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Judges 16:4); David, the man after God's own heart, had a problem with the 6th commandment "Thou shalt not kill" (2 Samuel 12:9); and Solomon, the wisest man, had a problem with the 1st commandment, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (1 Kings 11:5). Just after making the covenant with Israel, God even said, "O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always" (Deuteronomy 5:29). It is just not in the nature of man to obey the commandments of God.
Thus the Ark of the Covenant must have created, for some, a real longing to have a new nature. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God later revealed His plan for a New Covenant with Israel (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The type of righteousness would not be what was new for it still involved the laws of God. The new aspect was that God promised to put His laws in the heart of man rather than written on tables of stone. This was the promise of a new nature which would give man a heart that would naturally obey the laws of God. That which was contained in the Ark of the Covenant would now be placed inside the heart of man.
This is what we Christians enjoy today as the new birth. It is the new man which Paul says is "created in righteousness and true holiness" (Ephesians 4:24). It is the laws of God written not with ink but by the Holy Spirit upon our heart (2 Corinthians 3:3). Not only did Jesus atone for our sins, He also saved us from our sins giving us His own righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). We should be so thankful for the New Covenant not only because it is something the children of Israel did not have, but also because it is free. We do not have to do anything to become worthy enough to enter the Most Holy Place because God has made us righteous. Through grace God has enabled us to obey the laws which He requires from His covenant people. For the Christian, the Ark of the Covenant ought to thrill our hearts as we consider what great things God has done for us.