Separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place was a thick curtain referred to in Scripture as the Vail. Though we may not consider the Vail to be part of the furniture of the Tabernacle, it played such a significant role and portrayed such striking typology that it must be considered worthy of a lesson of its own. Every time the priests would enter the Tabernacle, this thick curtain would have reminded them of the separation between God and man. Only once a year could the high priest go beyond this vail and enter the Most Holy Place. Certainly all of this would have brought up some questions in the minds of the priests and perhaps even for the common Jew. Our study of the Vail will follow this line of thinking as we look at the answers to four important questions that no doubt would have prevailed especially upon those who spent much time in the dwelling place of God.
Every Israelite knew that beyond the Vail there was a single piece of furniture - The Ark of the Covenant. Though the Most Holy Place would have been visible during the pitching of the Tabernacle, and though the high priest saw the place once every year, there would have naturally been a curiosity about what was on the other side of the Vail. What was it like when God was there? How was it different from the Holy Place? Without going on the other side, it was still possible to gain some knowledge of the Most Holy Place from two visible emblems which God had given them:
The Vail and the covering over the Tabernacle both contained images of Cherubim. The Ark of the Covenant had two Cherubim overlooking the Mercy Seat, and in fact one of the titles for God which appears throughout the Old Testament is the God "that dwellest between the cherubims". The Cherubim are first mentioned in Genesis 3:24, and then they do not appear again until the plans for the Tabernacle. Yet in all of these passages, they are mentioned as if everyone had common knowledge as to what a Cherub was. In fact the passage in Genesis provides no description whatsoever. At least with the design of the Tabernacle we find that they had wings and faces (Exodus 25:20). We must assume that the Israelites somehow had a more fuller understanding of these creatures than we do and therefore we must look elsewhere in Scripture to help with our understanding of them.
The rest of the Old Testament contains plenty of other references to Cherubim but the best is found in Ezekiel 10:1-20. Here again in this passage we find that the Cherubim had wings; but in addition we are told that they had 4 wings with a hand like a man under each wing, and they had 4 faces: a cherub, a man, a lion, and an eagle. In verse 22 they are linked to an earlier vision which Ezekiel had. In this vision, the faces are described as a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle; and they are said to have had the likeness of a man (Ezekiel 1:4-14). Another important detail is that Ezekiel repeatedly calls them a "living creature". This surely links the Cherubim to the 4 beasts or "living beings" found throughout the Book of Revelation beginning in chapter 4.
Since the Cherubim appear quite obviously all over the Most Holy Place we can see how the priests would have easily connected that place with what they knew about those creatures:
It must have been common knowledge among the seed of Abraham that God had put Cherubim and a flaming sword to keep the way to the Tree of Life from man. For Adam, the Cherubim would have been a reminder of the life that he had enjoyed with God in Eden. So Israel could have understood that on the other side of the Vail was life as Adam had known in the garden. That life was one of intimate fellowship with God and nothing to separate God and man.
We can see from Scripture that the Cherubim always appear where God is and usually in very close proximity to His throne. Thus, life on the other side of the Vail was equivalent to living directly before the throne of the Almighty God and the seat of His mighty power. Imagine continual nearness to the throne of the King of Kings and Lord or Lords, the only Potentate.
What may we surmise from the 4 faces of the Cherubim? These creatures had the faces of the some of the greatest forms of creation known to man. Man, of course, is the highest form of creation on earth, the lion is known for its majesty, the eagle is the kings of birds, and the ox represents the perfect beast of burden. Thus on the other side of the Vail were representatives of the highest forms of earthly creation embodied in one creature. Perhaps this suggests a life of perfection - the best of everything.
You will not find the term "Shekinah" in Scripture, but it was used later by the Jews, as well as Christians, to express the visible presence and glory of God. This Shekinah glory was often manifested in the form of a cloud which contained a brilliant and glorious light (Exodus 13:21, 40:34; Numbers 16:42; 1 Kings 8:10-11; Matthew 17:5). The presence of God was so awesome and overwhelming that when the cloud filled the Tabernacle, no man was able to remain inside. If the Jews were at all curious about life on the other side of the Vail, the Skekinah glory of God enveloped in the cloud should have satisfied their curiosity.
What is the Glory of God? Moses once asked God to show him His glory (Exodus 33:18). When Moses next ascended Mt. Sinai, God descended in a cloud and standing there with Moses He made this proclamation: The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation (Exodus 34:6-7). The Glory of God is all His goodness and perfections, and the beauty of His Holiness (Psalm 29:2).
Certainly though the Brazen Altar and the Laver, Israel had come to learn what Adam so clearly knew after he disobeyed God - sin causes separation from God (Isaiah 59:2). Adam was cast out of Eden because of his sin, and the way back to where he had enjoyed the presence of God was kept by the Cherubim and a flaming sword. Everyday that the priests entered the Tabernacle they saw the Vail and were reminded that there was still a separation between God and man. Why was such a separation still necessary though after their sins had been atoned for at the Brazen Altar and their defilement washed at the Laver? Though they were able to enter the Tabernacle of God, they were still not a whole lot better off than Adam.
Obviously there must have yet been something imperfect about the method for atoning for sin. It was to be through the seed of Eve and not through an animal sacrifice that Satan and his works would be destroyed (Genesis 3:15; 1 John 3:8-10). Thus the Vail pointed clearly to the need still for a Messiah to save Israel from their sin. The author of Hebrews plainly indicates that this was the message (from the Holy Spirit) intended by the partitioning of the Most Holy Place: the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest (Hebrews 9:8). Furthermore, the typology between the Vail and Christ is explicitly given in Hebrews 10:19-20 which teaches that the Vail was a type of the Body of Christ.
Perhaps at times the Israelites may have wondered whether the separation from God would be permanent. Yet the Tabernacle was not two buildings but one. If man was to forever be separated from God, there would have been two rooms made with a permanent wall between them; but the Vail being a temporary form of partitioning clearly indicated that the separation from God would not last forever. The Vail was thick (according to Josephus it was four fingers wide) but not permanent; and a vail was certainly better than a flaming sword. The way into the Most Holy Place was "not yet" manifest but it soon would be.
After seeing what things were like on the other side of the Vail, the priests probably longed for the day when their separation from God would be eliminated. When would the day come when the Vail would be removed? No doubt they anxiously looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. This was the state of Simeon who was waiting for the consolation of Israel when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple to present Him to the Lord (Luke 2:25-35). Anna too was one who was looking for salvation from the coming Messiah. Then 33 years later, the Messiah made atonement for the sins of the whole world and on that day the Vail in the Temple was miraculously rent into two pieces from the top to the bottom (Matthew 27:51). The time had finally come when the way into the Most Holy Place was no longer separated by the Vail.
Was the separation between man and God really eliminated? Paul says that now we can enter the Holy of Holies with boldness because of the blood of Christ (Hebrews 10:19). However, this must be understood in a spiritual sense for our condition has not been restored to anything like that which Adam enjoyed in Eden. Jesus made it possible for us to receive salvation and we may now enjoy the regenerating of our spirit, but there still remains a separation between us. We have access by faith into this grace, be we can only rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:2). We might find ourselves like the priests, asking, when will be together?
When Jesus returns, we shall be with Him from then on (1 Thessalonians 4:17), but even then during the Millennium God's plan will not be completed. Not until the new heaven and new earth will we find the separation fully removed. The earth will become all that was on the other side of the Vail. The Shekinah Glory of God will illuminate the new earth and we shall see the face of God (Revelation 21:23, 22:4). Until then we must wait patiently as Paul describes in Romans 8:17-25 for the Glory on the other side of the Vail.