The ark of the covenant has a long, noble, and important heritage. Instructions for its construction and explanations for a meeting place between God and humans are given first in Exodus 25:20–22. There are more than twenty different designations given to the ark in the Bible. This rectangular chest of acacia wood was gold-plated and capped with two outstretched winged cherubim facing one another. Under those wings was the mercy seat. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest sprinkled the blood of sacrifices there for the propitiation and expiation of sins.
The ark contained three items: the Ten Commandments written on two tablets (Ex. 25:16; 40:20; 1 Kings 8:9), Aaron’s rod (Num. 17), and a bowl of manna (Ex. 16:33). Since the words and phrases covenant(Deut. 4:13), the words of the covenant (Ex. 34:28), and testimony(Ex. 25:16, 21; 40:20; 2 Kings 17:15) are all alternative terminology for the Ten Commandments, it may be that the two tablets placed in the ark contained duplicate copies of the terms of the covenant for the two parties: God and Israel.
Most importantly, the ark of God symbolized the presence of God for the Israelites. The ark was a kind of virtual temple that was placed in the tabernacle.
Most importantly, the ark of God symbolized the presence of God for the Israelites.
In Israel’s earliest history, the ark served as a palladium—a sacred object guaranteeing the safety of the people of Israel, especially in war. God’s presence as a divine warrior on behalf of His people is represented in various ways throughout the Old Testament. A martial song accompanied its movement:
And whenever the ark set out, Moses said, “Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you.” And when it rested, he said, “Return, O Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel.” (Num. 10:35–36)
This song closely identifies Yahweh with the ark. The ark symbolized God’s presence in the midst of His people when they went to battle against the inhabitants of Jericho and against the Philistines, and the ark was even taken into battle by David. It also became a mobile sanctuary.
The climactic importance of the ark in the redemptive history of the Old Testament came when David brought the ark to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:12–19; Pss. 24:7–10; 132). David wanted to build a temple in which the ark would be placed; however, that duty fell to his son. When Solomon built the temple, he placed the ark in the Holy of Holies (1 Kings 8; 2 Chron. 5). At that point, the temple received pride of place in the rituals of Israel, and the ark receded in its importance.
The ark presumably disappeared when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem. However, Jeremiah the prophet told the people not to despair even though the ark would not be remade; rather, Jerusalem would become the place of God’s throne and presence, the new center where a great flow of worshipers and vassals would come in the future to the footstool of Jesus Christ, their King.
The ark of the covenant, and more particularly, the mercy seat, was the location where Moses received God’s word and “all that I [God] will give you in commandment for the people of Israel” (Ex. 25:22). It was also the place where Moses could pray to God on behalf of the people (33:7–11; 34:34; Num. 12:4–8). Samuel heard God’s word when he was lying down in the temple in front of the ark (1 Sam. 3:3). This was a place of prayer (1:9), and presumably it was before the ark that David prayed as recorded in 2 Samuel 7:18. It may even have been in front of the ark that Isaiah received his call (Isa. 6).
The Hebrews were not inclined to represent God in visual form; rather, they painted in words. What better way to do this than to represent a spiritual portrait of their God by His own testimony of “words”? For it was in “testimony” on the stone tablets that God’s very ethical character was known. When Christ arrived, these types and shadows passed away. All these shadows gave way to the true temple (John 2:19–22). Jesus, who was the Word of God without flesh in the Old Testament, became the Word of God who tabernacles among humans (John 1:14; Col. 2:9).
Now Jesus, the true Divine Warrior, acts effectively on behalf of His people through His Word (1 Thess. 2:13). Jesus is now our light and guide (John 8:12). Turning to what one author has called the “Acropolis of the Christian faith” (Rom. 3:25), we observe that the Apostle Paul declares that Christ has now performed a wrath-averting sacrifice, a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of His people. The type has given way to the antitype.
Dr. Bryan D. Estelle is professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary California. He is author of several books, including Echoes of Exodus.