By Edward Dennett
THE ark and the mercy-seat are in one sense two distinct things, though in another they form a complete whole. They are described as distinct and separate, and it will thus be best to follow, in our exposition, the order of Scripture:
"And they shall make an ark of shittim-wood two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof. And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold; within and without shalt thou overlay it, and shalt make upon it a crown of gold round about. And thou shalt cast four rings of gold for it, and put them in the four corners thereof; and two rings shall be in the one side of it, and two rings in the other side of it. And thou shalt make staves of shittim-wood, and overlay them with gold. And thou shalt put the staves into the rings by the sides of the ark, that the ark may be borne with them. The staves shall be in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. And thou shalt put into the ark the testimony which I shall give thee. And thou shalt make a mercy-seat of pure gold: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof. And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy-seat. And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end; even of the mercy-seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof. And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy-seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy-seat shall the faces of the cherubims be. And thou shalt put the mercy-seat above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee. And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy-seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel." (vv. 10-22.)
There are several things to be considered in connection with the typical significance of the ark. It was on the one hand a manifestation of God in Christ, and on the other the place of His throne and government in Israel.
First, then, the ark may be viewed as a figure of the person of Christ. This is seen from its composition. It was made of shittim-wood, overlaid with pure gold. The shittim was a kind of acacia, a wood said by some to be imperishable. Be this as it may, it is a type of what is human; and if a wood, as some affirm, that would not rot, incorruptible, it was a most suitable emblem of the humanity of our Lord. The gold is always a symbol of what is divine. The structure of the ark, therefore, figures the union of the two natures in the person of Christ. He was "very God, and very man." "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Thereafter we read, "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." (John 1: 1-14.) He was thus God and man, God manifest in flesh. The contents of the ark are also significant in this connection: "And thou shalt put into the ark the testimony which I shall give thee." (v. 16.) That is, the two tables of stone, with the ten commandments written thereon, were deposited in the ark, and hence it is frequently termed the ark of the covenant (Num. 10: 33; Deut. 31: 26, etc.), because it contained the law on which the covenant was founded. But it points in a marked way to Christ. Speaking thus in the Spirit in the Psalms, He says, "Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of Me, I delight to do Thy will, O My God: yea, Thy Law is within My heart." (Ps. 40: 7, 8.) The testimony in the ark, therefore, exhibits the law of God in the heart of Christ; setting forth, first, that as born into this world, being of the seed of David according to the flesh, He was "made under the law" (Gal. 4: 4); and secondly, that He obeyed it perfectly. The law within the heart, indeed, brings before us the perfection of His obedience — the fact that God found in Him, and in Him alone, truth in the inward parts, a full and complete answer to all the requirements of His holiness, so that he could ever rest in Him with perfect complacency, and, as He beheld Him always doing the things that pleased Him, expressing the delight of His own heart in the words, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." (Matt. 3: 17.)
The rings and the staves (vv. 19 — 15) have also a voice. The object of these was "that the ark may be borne with them." (v. 14.) This shows that God's people were pilgrims in the wilderness, journeying on to the place which God had prepared for them. But the time would come when the inheritance should be possessed, and when the temple, suited in magnificence to the glory of the king of Israel, should be built. The staves, which in the desert were no to be taken from the rings of the ark (v. 15), should then be withdrawn (2 Chr. 5: 9), because, the pilgrimage past. the ark would, with the people, have entered into its rest. (Ps. 132: 8.) The staves therefore in the rings speak of Christ, with His pilgrim host, as being Himself with them in wilderness circumstances. It is Christ in this world, Christ in all His own perfectness as man — Christ, in a word in all that He was as the revealer of God; for in truth, He was the perfect presentation of God to man. "No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal Him." (Matt. 11: 27.)
Secondly, the ark, with the mercy-seat and its cherubim formed God's throne on earth, in the midst of Israel. "The ark of the covenant," says one, "was the throne where God manifested Himself, if any could go in in righteousness (not, I think, separate from holiness, or taking merely duty as the measure of what was accepted), and as the seat of His sovereignty over every living man — the God of the whole earth. The law — the testimony of what He required of men — was to be placed there. Over it was the mercy-seat, which covered it in, which formed the throne, as the cherubim (formed of the same piece), which were its supporters, did its sides." God is thus spoken of in the Scriptures as dwelling between the cherubim. The cherubim are perhaps symbols of God's attributes; and hence the throne of God is sustained by all that He is. For this reason they are throughout the Old Testament connected with judicial power, because since God had to do with sinners His throne was ever judicial in its aspect. God may thus be viewed as sitting on His righteous throne between the cherubim. If it be asked, Why then, since Israel continually broke His law, were they not instantly destroyed? the answer is found (though we are anticipating the truth of the mercy-seat) in the attitude of the cherubim. As executors of the judicial power of God, they would necessarily demand the exaction of the penalty of transgression. But "their faces shall look one to another; towards the mercy-seat shall the faces of the cherubim be" (v. 20.) They thus saw the sprinkled blood on the mercy-seat, the blood that was annually put upon it on the great day of atonement (Lev. 16), whereby the claims of the throne were adequately met, and itself rendered favourable to the transgressor. Otherwise God, governing in righteousness, must have visited destruction upon His people.
It was also the place where God met and communed with Moses. (v. 22.) The meeting-place of Jehovah with His people was at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. (Ex. 29: 42, 43.) Moses alone (save the high priest exceptionally on the day of atonement) enjoyed the privilege of meeting God, and receiving communications from Him at the mercy-seat. He was, owned in grace as the mediator. All believers now enjoy this privilege in virtue of the efficacy of accomplished redemption. But of all Israel, Moses alone was free to go on all occasions into the very presence-chamber of God. It was there God spake with him (see Num. 7: 89), and entrusted him with His commandments for the guidance of the children of Israel. It is only there that God's voice can be heard, and His mind apprehended; and whoever would become increasingly acquainted with His will must be found continually in retirement from the world, and even from believers, shut in alone with God.
If now we turn to the book of Numbers, we shall find the directions for the transport of the ark through the wilderness. "And when the camp setteth forward, Aaron shall come, and his sons, and they shall take down the covering veil, and cover the ark of the testimony with it; and shall put thereon the covering of badgers' skins, and shall spread over it a cloth wholly of blue, and shall put in the staves thereof." (Num. 4: 5, 6.) The veil, as will be explained in its place, is an emblem of the humanity of Christ — His flesh. (Heb. 10: 20.) We have then, first, the ark; i.e. Christ, covered with the veil of His humanity. Next, came the badgers' skins, expressive of that holy vigilance by which He absolutely protected Himself from evil, as is seen, for example, in the scripture, "By the word of Thy lips I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer." (Ps. 17: 4.) Then came the cloth wholly of blue — symbol of what is heavenly. "The badger's skin was inside in this case, because Christ kept His perfection absolutely free of all evil, and so the heavenly came out manifestly." It is Christ therefore in the wilderness, and while passing through it He was ever characterized by that which is heavenly. As such, be it ever remembered, He is our example. "He that saith he abideth in Him, ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked."
The mercy-seat, while forming the lid, and thus completing the structure of the ark, is in another sense complete in itself, and as such, from its importance, deserving special notice. It was placed "above upon the ark" (v. 21), and was therefore in the holy of holies — the scene of the special manifestation of God, and indeed, as explained, the basis of His throne. God dwells there between the cherubim. It differed from the ark in that no shittim-wood entered into its composition. It was made of pure gold, as also were the two cherubim, which were formed out of the same piece as the mercy-seat. Gold is the emblem of what is divine — of divine righteousness. If then it is considered for a moment in connection with the testimony in the ark, there is the combination of human and divine righteousness, the testimony pointing to the law — human righteousness — which was in the heart of Christ (Psalm 40), and the gold to God's righteousness, which is displayed also in Him. The mercy-seat is therefore in a peculiar manner a type of Christ. The apostle indeed applies the term directly to Him. He says, "Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth a propitiation" (a mercy-seat, literally), "through faith in His blood," etc. (Rom. 3: 24, 25.)
This allusion will be at once understood if reference is made to the action of the priest on the great day of atonement. After putting the incense upon the fire before the Lord, it is said, And he shall take of the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it with his finger upon the mercy-seat eastward; and before the mercy-seat shall he sprinkle of the blood seven times. (Lev. 16: 14.) So also he did with the blood of the goat of the sin-offering for the people. Two questions will elicit the meaning of this act. First, Why was the blood sprinkled on and before the mercy-seat? To make propitiation for the sins of the people. Being sinners they could not stand of themselves in the presence of a holy God. The blood therefore was carried in by divine direction, and sprinkled, in the manner described, on the mercy-seat to make propitiation for the people's sins; and also before the mercy-seat, but here seven times, that when the priest approached he might find a perfect testimony to the efficacy of the work. Once, as is often said, was enough for the eye of God, but in grace He vouchsafed that it should be sprinkled seven times, as a complete assurance for the eye and heart of man. What, then, secondly, did it accomplish? It accomplished atonement, satisfied all God's holy claims as against the people — yea, if we think of the blood of Christ, glorified Him fully in all that He is, and glorified Him for ever concerning the question of sin, so that He who was against us because of our guilt, is now for us because of the blood. The mercy-seat therefore speaks pre-eminently of Christ; for, as John speaks, "He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the whole world." (1 John 2: 2.) The sins of believers are gone, and gone for ever; and such is the value of the propitiation made that God can now righteously send out in His grace the gospel to the whole world, and beseech sinners to be reconciled to Him. (2 Cor. 5: 20.) Christ, we repeat, is figured by the mercy-seat; and hence we learn that God is now only approached through Him, as in the wilderness He could only be approached at the mercy-seat. But, blessed be His name, whoever does now approach to Him through Christ will find the perfect testimony to the value of His atoning work in God's presence. But observe it well, that the blood is the only ground of access. He is set forth a propitiation through faith in His blood. Believing therefore in the value of His blood, according to God's testimony concerning it, whoever comes may come boldly, nothing doubting, in the full confidence that the way is thus opened for the guiltiest and the vilest into the immediate presence of God. For "Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by His own blood, He entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption." (Heb. 9: 11, 12.)
The cherubim formed part of the mercy-seat. These, as already said, are symbols of the divine attributes, and, as such, of judicial power. But since God has been glorified by the blood on the mercy-seat, all His attributes are in harmony, and all are exercised on behalf of believers. In the cross mercy and truth met together, righteousness and peace kissed each other; and therefore justice is satisfied, the claims of righteousness met, so that the cherubim are favourable to the dispensation of mercy to all who approach trusting in the value of the blood. Blessed truth! All that God is, is against sin, and now all that God is, is for the believer. The blood upon the mercy-seat has wrought this mighty change.