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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
What is the significance of the ark of the covenant?
The ark of the covenant was the most important piece of furniture in the Israelite tabernacle/Temple. It was a wooden box, plated with gold, about four feet two inches long and 30″ x 30″. It originally contained only the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The box was covered by a slab of gold on which two cherubim were carved as one piece with the cover. The ark was a symbol of the presence and power of the Lord. Since it represented the presence of the Lord, the ark came to express several important ideas about the Lord.
1. Place of Revelation: God’s residence among the Israelites was a place from which He communicated with and manifested Himself to His people. He said to Moses, “Above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites” (Ex. 25:22, NIV; cf. Num. 7:89).* In one case the Israelites went to where the ark was located to consult the Lord before going to war, and He answered them (Judges 20:27). It is amazing that our God would make Himself available to His people at a particular space—in this case the tabernacle, and within it the space between the two cherubim on the ark of the covenant.
2. Place of Worship: Since the ark, located in the Most Holy Place of the Temple, was a symbol of the Lord, people worshipped Him in the direction of the tabernacle/Temple: “I lift up my hands toward your Most Holy Place” (Ps. 28:2; cf. 138:2). Joshua fell and prayed before the ark, and the Lord answered him (Joshua 7:6-11). The Israelites did not worship the ark, but they sought the Lord there as the place where He would meet with them, and where they could offer Him their prayers and praises.
3. Place of the King: The Lord was the king of His people, and the ark represented Him as such. The psalmist refers to God as the “Shepherd [King] of Israel” who sits “enthroned between the cherubim” (Ps. 80:1). Hezekiah used the same expression and added, “You alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth” (2 Kings 19:15; cf. 2 Sam. 6:2). This does not mean that the ark was the throne of God, but that it represented Him as king of the earth. As king, the Lord led His people from the ark in military campaigns. When they moved as an army, the ark/Lord led the way (Num. 10:33, 35); when they walked into the Jordan River carrying the ark, the river stopped flowing (Joshua 3:13); and in Jericho the presence of the Lord, represented by the ark, led the people to victory (Joshua 6).
The ark was a symbol, not the Lord Himself. The presence of the ark in war did not necessarily mean that the Lord was present among His people. His presence was directly connected to covenant faithfulness. When the covenant was violated, the presence of the ark was useless, and God’s people were defeated (1 Sam. 4:1-11).
4. Place of Judgment and Mercy: The ark is often called the “ark of the testimony” because the covenant law—the Ten Commandments—was placed inside it as a testimony to the covenant relationship between God and Israel. The law was the rule of life; its violation was a serious matter that had to be addressed by the Covenant Lord. The sacrificial system dealt in different ways with the sin of the people and their need for atonement. But the law inside the ark was covered with the mercy seat, or “atonement cover” (Ex. 25:17), the place of atonement—suggesting that God’s last word for us is mercy in the form of atonement through blood.
The New Testament would identify this blood with the blood of the Son of God. He now intercedes for us before the ark of the Lord in the heavenly temple, in the presence of the King of the universe, leading His people in the final conflict, mediating our worship, and assuring us forgiveness and acquittal in the final judgment during the eschatological day of atonement.