Thoughts on the Ark

Mankind has a strange fascination with what it refers to the Lost Ark of the Covenant—even Hollywood has got in on the act. Yet this interest is all the stranger when one considers that this holiest of Israel’s treasures was only a picture. Along with the rest of the tabernacle and its contents, the ark was simply a figurative representation (see Heb. 8: 5; 9: 23) of that which is far greater and far higher. In his obsession with what happened to the ark, man appears oblivious to the fact that he has lost Christ—for the ark is clearly an exact type of Christ. Other types of the Lord are human, and even the best of them, such as Joseph, have recorded flaws, but the ark, as an inanimate object, could not fail. Yet this perfection holds no attraction for man: “He is despised and left alone of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, and like one from whom [men] hide their faces;—despised, and we esteemed him not” (Is. 53: 3).

   The word ark simply means a chest or box. In Hebrew it is the same word as used for Joseph’s coffin (see Gen. 50: 26—a different Hebrew word is used for Noah’s ark). Of the components of the tabernacle the ark is the first described (see Exod. 25: 10)—God begins with Christ, and works outwards. Furthermore, the normal position of the ark was in the holiest of all (see Exod. 26: 34), surely suggesting that Christ can only be properly contemplated when we are in the presence of God. The ark was made to contain the two tables of the law on which were written the ten commandments, the foundation of the Mosaic law (see Exod. 25: 16, 21; 40: 20; Deut. 10: 1–5). As containing the ten words it typifies Christ: “Then said I, Behold, I come, in the volume of the book it is written of me—To do thy good pleasure, my God, is my delight, and thy law is within my heart” (Ps. 40: 7, 8, my emphasis). The book of the law kept at the side (not inside) of the ark (see Deut. 31: 26), was distinct from the two tables of the law. Thus “when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, come of woman, come under law” (Gal. 4: 4, my emphasis). Christ was no revolutionary—the law was ever by Him. His “delight” was “in Jehovah’s law” (Ps. 1: 2), and He came not to destroy but to fulfil it (see Matt. 5: 17).

   From Hebrews 9: 4 we learn that the ark also contained the golden pot of manna and Aaron’s rod that budded (although Exod. 16: 34 and Num. 17: 10 only say that they were laid up “before the testimony”). 1 Kings 8: 9 and 2 Chron. 5: 10 are emphatic that when Solomon was on the throne there was nothing in the ark except the two tables of stone which Moses placed there at Horeb. Both the manna and Aaron’s rod were divine provision for the wilderness, but they were not needed in the kingdom—when the Man of God’s choosing is publicly acknowledged. The manna typifies our feeding on Christ as a perfect man in this scene, while the dry wood of Aaron’s rod that burst into life speaks of God’s vindication of the man the world had rejected—the man He has brought out of death by resurrection. It is likely that the reference to the “hidden manna” in Rev. 2: 17 is an allusion to the wilderness food preserved and kept in the ark.

   The ark was made of acacia­–wood, a type of the Lord’s manhood. This wood is said not to decay, speaking of how the Lord remained uncorrupted and uncontaminated by this world: “For such a high priest became us, holy, harmless, undefiled, separated from sinners” (Heb. 7: 26). Truly, a perfect man. The ark was also overlaid both inside and outside in pure gold—the gold referring to the deity of Christ. It was not simply a question of God coming upon a man. The Lord Jesus was (and is) God. Yes, the wood was in intimate contact with the gold, but it was also distinct. The Lord is one Person, but at the same time we can see two very distinct aspects of that Person – that He is both God and man. The term God–man, implying He was a hybrid, is not the truth. However, those who rightly reject the idea that Christ was half God sometimes come out with nonsensical expressions of their own. Thus to say that the Lord was possessed of full deity as some would have it is absurd. Anything less than ‘full’ deity is not deity at all!

   The ark was two and a half cubits long, one and a half cubits high and one and a half cubits wide. The spiritual lesson of these dimensions seems never to have been established. However, the fact that the dimensions are given is in itself suggestive of the limited conditions into which the Lord entered on becoming man (see Phil. 2: 7). As God, the Heavens cannot contain Him (see 2 Chron. 6: 18), but as man He partook of “blood and flesh” (Heb. 2: 14). The ark also had a border or rim of gold—apparently to hold its lid in place. To remove the lid to look into the ark meant certain death (see 1 Sam. 6: 19). Thus we do not speculate about the Lord’s person—we go no further than what is revealed to us in the Scriptures (see Matt. 11: 27).

   The lid of the ark was known as the mercy–seat, and this consisted of the lid proper, and the two cherubim. It was two and a half cubits long, and one and a half cubits wide—the dimensions of the lid of the ark thus matched the dimensions of the ark itself. As for the cherubim, they were not cast separately from the lid and then attached, but everything was beaten out of the same piece of gold. Thus: “out of the mercy–seat shall ye make the cherubim at the two ends thereof” (Exod. 25: 19). The function of the Cherubim was to ensure that absolute righteousness was upheld. Thus they guarded the way to the tree of life preventing sinful man living forever, and escaping the penalty of death (see Gen. 3: 24). Satan himself was God’s “anointed covering cherub” (Ezek. 28: 14), and he still acts out his former role by questioning God’s righteousness in blessing sinners, accusing them “before our God day and night” (Rev. 12: 10; see also Job 1: 6–12). Underneath the mercy–seat (that is, in the ark itself) were the two tables of the law, setting out what God demanded from man, but which he could never meet. On the mercy seat was sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice, the death of which met the righteous claims of a broken law. The cherubim gazed down at that blood, testifying that God’s righteous claims have been met in the death of Christ and that His people are free from the penalty of sin. The wings of the cherubim were extended protectively, guarding the holy scene where God has been glorified (see Heb. 9: 5).

   God is able to take up an attitude of mercy and blessing towards the whole world, because Christ “is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2: 2). It does not mean all will be blessed, but that He is able to bless all, for Christ has been “set forth a mercy–seat” (Rom. 3: 25)—the means by which the claims of a holy God against sinful man have been met, and whereby man can be blessed if he has faith in Christ’s blood (see Rom. 3: 25; see also Lev. 16: 14, 15). Because of Christ’s work at Calvary, God can now act in mercy without compromising His righteousness and holiness.

   The mercy–seat is also connected with the thought of God’s dwelling place. Many have the misconception that God dwelt in the ark, but Scripture presents God as sitting upon it. In one sense, the ark was thus God’s throne. There are numerous references to God as the One who sits between the cherubim that overshadowed the ark (see 1 Sam. 4: 4; 2 Sam. 6: 2; 2 Kings 19: 15; 1 Chron. 13: 6; Ps. 80: 1; 99: 1). In Lev. 16: 2, God said “I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy–seat”.

   The mercy–seat was also where God had said He would meet with Moses and speak to him “everything that I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel” (Exod. 25: 22). Thus God spoke to Moses from “off the mercy–seat which was upon the ark of testimony, from between the two cherubim” (Num. 7: 89). The type finds its answer in Hebrews where we are told that God has now spoken in the Son (see Heb. 1: 2)—the One who has “made [by himself] the purification of sins” (v3). As the Lord Himself said, “an hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that have heard shall live” (John 5: 25).

   The ark was designed to be carried (for it was constructed with rings in which to take staves), reminding us that we must take Christ with us as we journey through this world. The staves were not to be removed from the ark (see Exod. 25: 15). Even when the ark reached its resting place in Solomon’s Temple, the staves were still there (see 1 Kings 8: 8), indicating that when we reach glory, our journeying here with Christ will not be forgotten (see also Ps. 132: 8). The staves were made of acacia wood overlaid with gold, the same materials as those of the ark, thus indicating that what bears the testimony must be in keeping with the testimony—if Christ is to be borne, then Christ must be “in you” (Gal. 4: 19; Col. 1: 27). 1 Cor. 2: 13 may be relevant here as well, for it speaks of the necessity of “communicating spiritual [things] by spiritual [means]”. Hence the testimony in this scene is to be ‘carried’ by spiritual persons. The staves were also “long” (2 Chron. 5: 9)—but we are not told how long. The implication, perhaps, is that there is room enough for all who would carry the testimony of Christ through this scene.

   Putting the ark on a “new cart” (2 Sam. 6: 3) ignored the divine instruction that the ark was to be carried by staves. Like all religious innovations that depart from God’s Word it led to disaster. Uzzah thought to steady the ark with his hand (v 6), as if what is human can be brought in to support what is of God, and paid for his error with his life. Furthermore, the ark was only to be carried by those of the tribe of Levi. Generally, the responsibility for the sanctuary during Israel’s travels fell to the Kohathites (see Num. 3: 27–32; 4: 1–20; 10: 21)—though they only carried the holy vessels after they had been covered by the priests (see Num. 4: 15). However, on certain specific occasions, such as when the Jordan was crossed, the ark was carried by the priests themselves (see Josh. 3: 3; see also Deut. 31: 9). All Christians are priests (see Rev. 1: 6) and are thus able to journey with Christ through this world, and bear His testimony. However, our state must also be in accord with our standing, hence “be ye clean, that bear the vessels of Jehovah” (Is. 52: 11). If we defile ourselves through sin, then we cannot expect to have the privilege of travelling with Christ. We must put ourselves right first.

   The normal position of the ark when Israel was on the move was in the midst of the camp (see Num. 14: 44). How good if God’s people today will not take one step without Christ in their midst! An exception is Num. 10: 33 when the ark led the people—perhaps in answer to Moses’ attempt to procure Reuel as a guide instead of looking to God (see v31). We must ever remember to look to the Lord for direction rather than putting ourselves in the hands of fallible human vessels.

   During the wilderness journey, the ark is frequently referred to as the ark of the testimony (e.g. Exodus 25: 22). The testimony is for the wilderness, a picture of our passage through this world—hence the ark is never spoken of as the ark of the testimony after Israel had entered the land. The testimony then was the tables of stone placed inside the ark (see Exod. 25: 16; 40: 20). The testimony today is “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2: 2; see also v1). The former testimony speaks of what God required, the latter testimony of how that demand has been more than met in the death of Christ.

   The ark is also referred to as the ark of the covenant (see Josh. 3: 6), the ark of the covenant of Jehovah (see Num. 10: 33), and the ark of the covenant of God (see Jud. 20: 27). The covenant (or agreement) refers to God’s promise to be Israel’s God, and Israel’s corresponding oath to obey the law that God delivered to them (see Exod. 19: 5). The ark was a symbol of God’s presence with His people, while the tables of stone within it were a reminder of what the people had said they would do. The death of Christ now forms the basis of the new covenant (see Luke 22: 20), in which God’s law will be written on the hearts of the people of God (see Jer. 31: 33).

   Later on, the ark is spoken of as the holy ark (see 2 Chron. 35: 3)—emphasising its holiness. This is said at a time when the ark appears to have been previously removed from the temple, but Josiah sought to have it put back in its rightful place—in the holy of holies. A solemn lesson to consider in these Laodicean times when the Lord is not welcome in His own Assembly, and He is frequently referred to or addressed using over–familiar, irreverent and disrespectful language. Incidentally, Scripture never refers to the ark as the ‘ark of Israel’. The ark is the ark of God (see 1 Sam. 3: 3)—and may we ever remember it!

   As the ark of Jehovah, the Lord of all the earth (see Josh. 3: 13), and the ark of thy strength (see Ps. 132: 8), the preeminent thought seems to be one of divine power. The same is true of the ark of Jehovah (see Josh. 4: 11), which parted the waters of the Jordan, and also the ark of the God of Israel (see 1 Sam. 5: 7), before whom the God of the Philistines was prostrated and broken. Hence our strength is not our own, for we “more than conquer through him that has loved us” (Rom. 8: 37).

   Despite much speculation (both profane and religious), it is not known what happened to the ark when Jerusalem was taken, and the vessels of the temple were transferred to Babylon. There is no mention of the ark being in the rebuilt temple (see Ezra 3: 8–3) or in Ezekiel’s future temple (see Ezek. 41). Jeremiah (who was present when Jerusalem was taken) implies that the ongoing obsession with the ark’s current location is wrong: “And it shall come to pass, when ye are multiplied in the land and become fruitful, in those days, saith Jehovah, they shall say no more, Ark of the covenant of Jehovah! neither shall it come to mind, nor shall they remember it, nor shall they visit [it]; neither shall it be done any more” (Jer. 3: 16-17). The last reference to the ark is in Rev. 11: 19 where “the temple of God in the heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen in his temple: and there were lightnings, and voices, and thunders, and an earthquake, and great hail”. As Revelation is a book of symbols (see Rev. 1: 1), there is no need to interpret this literally. The meaning seems simply to be that this is a sign of God taking up His earthly people again after a hiatus of many centuries—for the subject of the next chapter in Revelation is clearly Israel (see chapter 12).

   What man needs is not a sensational archaeological discovery like finding the ark of the covenant, but to have his eyes opened to see the substance of which the ark was only a shadow. Man needs Christ. Again, just as Israel losing the ark was, in a sense, only a picture of their losing Christ, so the Church, having left its first love (see Rev. 2: 4), has also lost the One who ought to be its centre. Christians need Christ. May we join with the apostle and have a deep and heart–felt desire “to know him, and the power of his resurrection” (Phil. 3: 10, my emphasis)—get a hold of the substance that is Christ (see Col. 2: 17), of which the ark, wonderful as it was, was only a shadow.