Peeking inside the Tabernacle door and after getting over the glimpse of the Golden Candlestick, a peculiar sight would come into view - a table of gold containing dishes, utensils, and bread. Why would we find such a table in the dwelling place of God? Surely there is something wonderful to learn from this about life in the presence of God!
The Table of Shewbread sat against the north wall of the Tabernacle directly across from the Golden Candlestick. Here are some of the particulars concerning this interesting piece of furniture:
The table was made of shittim wood overlaid with gold as most of the other furniture in the Tabernacle. It was 2 cubits long (3 feet), 1 cubit wide (1½ feet), and 1½ cubits high (2¼ feet) with a raised border around the top perhaps to protect the dishes and other vessels. The priests would spread a cloth of blue over the table (Numbers 4:7) before the children of Kohath would transport it using staves overlaid with gold and inserted into golden rings attached to the legs.
Every Sabbath the priests were to set the table with 12 cakes of unleavened bread ordered into 2 piles of 6 cakes. God called this bread the "shewbread" or literally the "bread of presence". As the Golden Candlestick remained lit continuously through the evening, this bread was to always be on the table before the face or presence of God.
The bread was made of fine flour provided for by the whole congregation of Israel. The amount of flour for each cake was two "tenth deals". A "tenth deal" refers to one tenth of an ephah (about ½ of a gallon) which was equivalent (Exodus 16:36) to one omer (a handful). One omer of manna was the daily portion of bread which God allocated per person in Exodus 16:16. Since each cake contained 2 omers of flour, it should have been a sufficient amount of bread for 2 men. In other words, the Table of Shewbread contained enough bread for one person for 24 days.
Each Sabbath when the new shewbread was put on the table, the old bread was given to the priests who were to eat it in the Holy Place since the bread itself was holy being dedicated to God. However, on at least one occasion this commandment was broken. While David was fleeing from Saul, he stopped by the place where the priests were and being very hungry asked for bread. Because there was nothing but the shewbread, the high priest gave it to David and his men (1 Samuel 21:6).
Upon each pile of bread, the priest would set some amount of pure frankincense. Probably this was set in a bowl and placed upon the pile rather than directly upon the top cake. Since no part of the bread was offered by fire, it must be that the frankincense was the memorial referred to in Leviticus 24:7. It was probably burned upon the Altar of Incense at the time the bread was replaced. This would make the frankincense not a memorial to God but a memorial to the bread. In other words, the frankincense was offered to God by fire in place of the bread so that it could be enjoyed by the priests.
Before we consider what lessons Israel might have gleaned from the Table of Shewbread, we need to remember that the furniture in the Holy Place pictured life with God. As the priests set the Lord's table, ate the bread, and observed it daily we should consider what they might have reasoned about life in the presence of God. We should note too how that God used very simple objects which touched all the senses. In the outer court we saw fire and water, and now in the Holy Place God used light and bread thus using common everyday things to help the children of Israel learn some deep truths.
As bread is so universally known throughout Scripture to represent nourishment (see Genesis 21:14, 47:15), the sustaining power and nature of God should have been very evident to the Israelites. Bread is one of the most basic needs of man and one that we must have in order to live. The unbelieving Israelites concerned with how they would be sustained in the wilderness foolishly questioned, "Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?" (Psalm 78:19, see also Mark 8:4). The Table of Shewbread, set perpetually with bread, reveals that life with God means continual sustenance and nourishment. From bread we derive strength, thus life with God provides everlasting strength to live and serve Him.
When God cursed the ground at the fall of man, He said "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread" (Genesis 3:19). Within the Tabernacle, life was restored to the state before the curse. David promised Mephibosheth that he could eat bread always at his table for the rest of his life (2 Samuel 9:10). The King of Babylon brought Jehoiachin king of Judah out of prison and gave him a continual allowance of bread, "a daily rate for every day, all the days of his life" (2 Kings 25:30). This is the kind of life with God which the Table of Shewbread represented - a continual supply of nourishment for ever. If the Golden Candlestick pictured life itself, surely the Table of Shewbread pictured abundant life where every need would be met.
Eating is one of the simplest forms of pleasure which most people enjoy all too well. The shewbread was made of fine flour and was no doubt very good to eat. Each time the priests sat down to eat it, perhaps they were reminded that life with God meant true satisfaction. Scripture is full of promises such as Psalm 132:15, "I will satisfy her poor with bread". Often we look for satisfaction elsewhere or perhaps we worry whether heaven will really satisfy. Yet, the Psalmist wrote, "a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness" (Psalm 84:10). At the Table of Shewbread, we may see a life of contentment and bliss with God.
Eating is typically done in the company of friends and family (see Psalm 41:9). Since the priests were to eat the bread within the dwelling place of God, surely they must have understood that life with God also meant fellowship with God. The priests enjoyed sweet communion with the God of heaven at His table as the apostle John did leaning upon the breast of Jesus (John 13:25). The Table of Shewbread pictured a life with the ability to speak with God and enjoy His presence as Adam must have had before he sinned.
Friends often share food with one another in an act of kindness and love. With the Table of Shewbread we can see that God not only wanted to dwell with His people, He also wanted to share His life with them. All that would take place at the Brazen Altar and the Laver was for this end.
God never says exactly why the priests were to set out 12 cakes. Perhaps they represented the 12 tribes of Israel who were God's covenant people. Some believe the number 12 was used because of the number of months in a year. Probably they were divided into 2 piles because 12 cakes would have been too high. Whatever the number of cakes and piles signified, there is one fact that cannot be dismissed and certainly would not have been overlooked by the Israelites. There are certain numbers which show up frequently in Scripture (such as 3, 7, 10, and 12) and we see them used throughout the Tabernacle as well. There was also an order to the way things were built and the way service was done.
All of this points to the fact that God is a God of structure and order. The 12 cakes were not just laid out randomly upon the table, but rather they were organized into two equal piles. The old bread was replaced with new bread on a weekly schedule. Thus life with God has structure and order to it. This kind of life has a purpose, is more efficient, and best meets our needs.
In John 6:35, Jesus had just fed the 5,000 with bread and fish, and they had come the next day for another free meal when He said, "I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger". These Jews were looking to satisfy their physical need for nourishment and strength. As the Bread of Life, Jesus was claiming to be all that they needed for eternal life. Though He was specifically referring to the typology of manna, any Jew could have understood from this that the shewbread was also a type of Christ. All that we have seen from the Table of Shewbread, can be seen in the Messiah.
Jesus said, "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly ". In Christ we find eternal life in the presence of God where all of our needs can be provided for and sustained. In Christ we find true satisfaction and a purpose for living. In Christ we have the opportunity to fellowship with God and share in His life.