Chapter 11: The Ark and Mercy Seat

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by Malcolm Radcliffe, N. Ireland






The subject of the Tabernacle is one of the most thrilling and interesting subjects in our Bible.  Two chapters suffice for God’s work of creation, but there are approximately fifty chapters taken up to tell us about the Tabernacle: Exodus chapters 25 to 40, the entire Book of Leviticus and many chapters in Numbers.

We also find its truth in the New Testament.  It is not possible to come to a proper understanding of the Letter to the Hebrews without a working knowledge of the Tabernacle.  We notice that the writer of that letter does not draw attention to the Temple that was then standing in Jerusalem, or even to the wonder of Solomon’s Temple, but he continually alludes to God’s first dwelling place amongst His people: the Tabernacle in the wilderness.  It will also be in God’s final thoughts, as we see in Rev.21.3: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God.”

Another book in the New Testament where this truth is brought before us is the Gospel of John, which some call ‘The Tabernacle Gospel’.  John tells us, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt [‘tabernacled’] among us”.  John is telling us that, just as there was a Tabernacle in this wilderness scene, so there was One here on earth, the blessed Son of God.  He has fulfilled every picture that we see in the Tabernacle.  Every vessel in the Tabernacle can be found in this beautiful Gospel, and as we view them may we acknowledge like John, “We beheld His glory” Jn.1.14.

When God in His Word brings before us the subject of the Tabernacle, He commences with the ark of the covenant.  It is the first item to be mentioned, Ex.25.10, but it was the last to be approached, being in the innermost compartment of the Tabernacle, the Holiest of all.  This reminds us of the One Who revealed Himself to John in Rev.1.11 as “Alpha and Omega, the first and the last”.  The Christian life commenced with Christ, and how good it is to know that it will all end with Christ: “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” Heb.12.2.

We shall consider this subject of the ark under five headings:

  • Its Construction
  • Its Covering
  • Its Contents
  • Its Carrying
  • Its Course


In Exodus chapters 25-27, where we read God’s instructions regarding the construction of the Tabernacle, the words “thou shalt make” occur repeatedly.  Then, when we come to another three chapters, Exodus chapters 36-38, we often read, “and he made”.  It is interesting to note that in the first three chapters there are ninety-eight verses, which have clear, implicit instructions, where God is telling them what He wanted to be done; and in the latter three chapters there are also ninety-eight verses, indicating that the people carried out the commands that God gave.

Two master workmen, Bezaleel and Aholiab, were equipped by God for the making of the Tabernacle and its vessels.  The work of the construction of the ark was the responsibility of Bezaleel.  Ex.37.1 begins, “And Bezaleel made the ark”.  In the ensuing verses we read phrases concerning this same man, including: “and he overlaid …” v.2; “and he cast …” v.3; “and he made …” vv.4,6,7; “and he put …” v.5.

The Materials of the Ark

Shittim Wood

The ark was to be made of shittim wood, Ex.25.10.  This typifies the humanity of our Saviour.  Isa.53.2 speaks of Him as “a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground”.  The Septuagint translates “shittim wood” as “incorruptible wood”, reminding us of Christ’s sinless humanity: “And ye know that He was manifested to take away our sins; and in Him is no sin” 1Jn.3.5.  Begotten of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin, His immaculate humanity was pronounced: “that holy thing which shall be born” Lk.1.35.  Disease and death had no claim upon Him.

Pure Gold

The ark was overlaid within and without with pure gold, Ex.25.11.  This speaks of the Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The gold within would remind us of His essential glory, that which is eternally His, of which He speaks to His Father in Jn.17.5: “the glory which I had with Thee before the world was”.  The gold without reminds us of His acquired glory, that which is His as a result of all that He accomplished in His work here on earth.  Peter writes of “God, that raised Him up from the dead, and gave Him glory” 1Pet.1.21.

In the wood and the gold together forming the ark we see the great mystery of godliness, God manifest in flesh: “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh” 1Tim.3.16.  The Lord Jesus was not two persons, nor did He have two personalities.  He was one blessed Person.  God could speak of Him as “the man [answering to the wood] that is My fellow [answering to the pure gold]” Zech 13.7.  In Heb.4.14, we read of Him as “Jesus [wood] the Son of God [pure gold]”.

The Measurements of the Ark

The ark was two and a half cubits long, one and a half cubits broad and one and a half cubits high, Ex.25.10.  Whatever way we look at this ark, there is always the half cubit.  I think of the words of the Queen of Sheba when she saw something of the glory of Solomon: “Behold, the one half … was not told me: for thou exceedest the fame that I heard” 2Chr.9.6.  How much more is this so as we consider Him, Who is “a greater than Solomon” Matt.12.42.  We say, like Paul, “Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift” 2Cor.9.15.  The phrase “His unspeakable gift” has been rendered as ‘His not yet fully expounded gift’.  Christ is not only incomparable; He is inexhaustible.  There is always more to be learnt about Him.  When John closed his lovely Gospel, in which he presented the glories of the Son of God, he wrote, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen” Jn.21.25.  This is the Christ we have come to know.  Whatever way we look at Him, we think of the half cubit: there is always something more.


The ark was always covered: when it was at rest in the Holiest of all, and when it was on its journeys.  We will look at this twofold covering:

In the Holiest of All

In the Holiest of all the ark was covered with a golden mercy seat, as described in Ex.25.17-22.  The Lord told Moses, “And thou shalt put the mercy seat above upon the ark” v.21.  Upon the ark there was a “crown of gold round about” Ex.25.11, which was such that the mercy seat rested on top of the ark.

In the ark we see the Person of Christ; in the mercy seat we see His work.  Just as the mercy seat rested on the ark, so His work rests upon His Person.  We can think of the words of John the Baptist in Jn.1.29: “Behold the Lamb of God [His Person], which taketh away the sin of the world [His work].”

The Meaning of the Mercy Seat

The meaning of the mercy seat is set forth in Rom.3.25: “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood”.  The word translated “propitiation” in Rom.3.25 is the same word as that translated “mercy seat” in Heb.9.5: “And over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercy seat”.  Thus, the mercy seat in the Tabernacle is a beautiful picture of the work of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross.  Heaven demanded that a price had to be paid, and He paid the price in full, with His own precious blood.

A similar word is found twice in John’s First Epistle: “And He
is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” 1Jn.2.2; “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” 1Jn.4.10.  Just as the mercy seat rested exactly on the ark, and one
was in keeping with the other, so to limit the work of Christ is to
limit the Person of Christ.  Even if there were ten thousand worlds
needing to be saved, there is enough in the death of Christ to meet the need of all.

The Material of the Mercy Seat

The mercy seat is one of only three vessels in the Tabernacle that contained no wood.  It is the first of the three to be mentioned.  Its material was all of pure gold, reminding us that the work of Christ was a Divine work.  In Heb.9.14 we read concerning our Lord Jesus Christ: “who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God”.  It calls to mind the words of Abraham to Isaac in Gen.22.8: “God will provide Himself”.  If he had said, ‘God Himself will provide’, that would have been true; or, if he had said, ‘God will provide for Himself’, that would also have been correct.  However, he said, “God will provide Himself”.  This is Calvary, in all its fulness.  Only God can satisfy God.  Only a Divine Person could pay the price.

No angel could my place have taken,
Highest of the high though he;
Nailed to the cross, despised, forsaken,
Was one of the Godhead three!
       (James M. Gray)

The Measurements of the Mercy Seat

We are given some of the measurements of the mercy seat, but not all.  We are told that the length and breadth are the same as those of the ark, but no dimensions are given as to its height or its depth.  There is a height to the work of Christ that we will never scale and a depth that we will never plumb.

Calvary! O Calvary!
Mercy’s vast unfathomed sea,
Love, eternal love to me:
Saviour, we adore Thee.
       (Samuel T. Francis)

On its Journeys

The ark was also covered on its journeys.  Priestly men had to keep their eyes on the glory cloud, for it could be taken up from the Tabernacle at any time.  When this happened, the congregation must move.  The vessels of the Tabernacle were to be covered in preparation for the journey.  The words of the Lord to Moses and Aaron concerning the covering of the ark were: “And when the camp setteth forward, Aaron shall come, and his sons, and they shall take down the covering vail, and cover the ark of 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 ark was first of all wrapped in the covering vail, then on the top of the vail was a covering of badgers’ skins and then an external covering of a cloth wholly of blue.  The ark was the only vessel that had an outward covering wholly of blue on its journey.  When the Israelites were travelling, six tribes went before the vessels, and six followed after, so the vessels were given the central place on the journey.  However, of all the vessels, God wanted one to stand out, and that was the ark, whose covering wholly of blue set it apart from all the others.  Blue is the colour of the heavens, and reminds us of the One, our Lord Jesus Christ, of Whom Paul wrote in 1Cor.15.47: “the second man is the Lord from [‘out of’] heaven”.  As the ark stood out, unique and different, so God’s Son stands out: “that in all things He might have the pre-eminence” Col.1.18.


These are described in Heb.9.4: “the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant”.  There is a difference in 1Kgs.8.9: “There was nothing in the ark save the two tables of stone.”  However, there is no contradiction between the two passages.  They are not dealing with the same time.  Heb.9.4 is dealing with the ark in the Tabernacle in the wilderness, whereas 1Kgs.8.9 is speaking of the ark when it came to rest in the Temple built by Solomon, many years later.

The three articles named in Heb.9.4 tell us of God’s provision in Christ for the wilderness journey:

  • In the golden pot of manna, I see the grace of God;
  • In Aaron’s rod that budded, I see the glory of God;
  • In the tables of the Law, I see the government of God.

These three items tell of the failure of God’s people.  They broke the Law, even while Moses was up on the mountain receiving it, Exodus chapter 32; a day came when they despised the manna, Numbers chapter 21; and Aaron’s rod that budded was evidence of their rebellion against the priesthood, Numbers chapters 16 and 17.  It was good that there was the covering of a mercy seat.

However, although these three items remind us of the failure of the nation, they also present the glories of an unfailing Christ: He is the answer to the manna, as He says in Jn.6.48-51: “I am that bread of life.  Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead.  This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die.  I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” 

The manna was “a small round thing” Ex.16.14.  “When the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, ‘It is manna [‘What is it?’]:’ for they wist not what it was” Ex.16.15.  It was a mystery to them.  What a picture of our blessed Lord!  He was small, a baby in a manger, dependent on an earthly mother.  Yet God carefully guards the Person of Christ.  Having said that the manna was “small”, He immediately says it was “round”: it had no beginning and no ending.  The One Who lay in the manger was ‘small’, but He was ‘round’: “having neither beginning of days, nor end of life” Heb.7.3.

He answers to the rod that budded.  In Numbers chapter 17, twelve dead rods were laid up before the Lord, but on the morrow there were only eleven dead rods, for “the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds” Num.17.8.  It once had life, and died, but then it lived again, and the buds, blossoms and almonds were the fruit of that.  This is a lovely picture of Christ in resurrection.  He presented Himself to John on the isle of Patmos, and said, “Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am He that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen” Rev.1.17,18.

He also answers to the tables of the Law.  It was a wonderful thing for God to come down on Sinai and give the Law.  But there was a greater thing than that: fifteen hundred years after the Law was given, the Christ of God came from heaven and lived it out, as Ps.40.6-8 shows: “Sacrifice and offering Thou didst not desire; Mine ears hast Thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast Thou not required.  Then said I, ‘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.’”  Just as the tables of the Law were within the ark, so the Law was within His heart.  He truly fulfilled the words of Isa.42.21: “The Lord is well pleased for His righteousness’ sake; He will magnify the law, and make it honourable.”  He lived it out in a way that no-one else ever did, or ever could.  He loved the Lord His God with all His heart, and with all His soul, and with all His strength, and with all His mind; and He loved His neighbour as Himself, Lk.10.27.


This was the responsibility of the Kohathites.  The families of three sons of Levi (Gershon, Kohath and Merari) had the work of carrying the Tabernacle and its contents on its journeys, and the particular items carried by each are detailed in Numbers chapter 4.  To the Kohathites was allocated the bearing of the vessels, including the ark, which had rings and staves that enabled it to be carried.

Aaron’s family prepared the vessels for carrying: “And when the camp setteth forward, Aaron shall come, and his sons, and they shall take down the covering vail, and cover the ark of 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 … And when Aaron and his sons have made an end of covering the sanctuary, and all the vessels of the sanctuary, as the camp is to set forward; after that, the sons of Kohath shall come to bear it: but they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die.  These things are the burden of the sons of Kohath in the tabernacle of the congregation” Num.4.5,6,15.  Thus, the Kohathites never saw the ark, for it would have been covered before they went in to carry it.  We have never seen the One of Whom the ark speaks, but we rejoice in the words of Peter: “Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see Him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory” 1Pet.1.8.

In Numbers chapter 7 we read that wagons and oxen were given to the Gershonites and Merarites to assist them in their work of carrying the parts of the structure for which they were responsible, but no wagons or oxen were given to the Kohathites: “And Moses took the wagons and the oxen, and gave them unto the Levites.  Two wagons and four oxen he gave unto the sons of Gershon, according to their service: and four wagons and eight oxen he gave unto the sons of Merari, according unto their service, under the hand of Ithamar the son of Aaron the priest.  But unto the sons of Kohath he gave none: because the service of the sanctuary belonging unto them was that they should bear upon their shoulders” Num.7.6-9.  The sons of Kohath were to feel the full weight of everything that they were carrying.

Although we have never seen the Saviour, I trust that, like the Kohathites, when we hear Him preached, and read that which is written concerning His blessed Person, we will feel the weight of Him.

It was a sad day in the life of David when he put the ark on a new cart, 2Sam.6.1-11, copying the Philistines, who had used a new cart to transport it many years before, 1Sam.6.7-21.  To David’s credit, when he came to the throne, he wanted to honour the ark and give it its rightful place, so he sought to bring it back.  His heart was in the right place and his motive was pure, but he departed from the clear instructions of the Word of God as to how it was to be borne.  The Philistines did not have the Word of God, but David did, and he ought to have known that it was to be carried on the shoulders of the priests.  It is not enough for us to mean well in what we seek to do.  In 1Cor.15.58, Paul writes, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.”  He does not say ‘work for the Lord’, but “the work of the Lord”.  To be doing God’s work we must be working in accordance with God’s Word.

David’s mistake resulted in a bitter experience.  The oxen stumbled, Uzzah put out his hand to steady the ark, and he died.  The ark had been in the home of Uzzah’s father.  Is it possible that Uzzah had become over familiar with it?  Had he forgotten the significance of the ark?  It would be sad if we were to become over familiar with Divine things.


The ark had a history of its own, apart from the Tabernacle.  It affected not only the nation of Israel, but also the nations around.  Before this ark riverbeds will dry up, as we read of Jordan in Joshua chapters 3 and 4.  The ark was the first to enter Jordan and the last to come out of it.  Before this ark, city walls will come down, as we read of Jericho in Joshua chapter 6.  It is a fascinating study to follow this ark until it is finally brought into Solomon’s Temple and the staves are drawn out, 1Kings chapter 8.

In 1Samuel chapter 4, the ark was handled wrongly and brought out to the battlefield.  Two priests, descendants of Levi, dressed in priests’ regalia, were there.  Sadly, the ark was surrendered into the hands of the Gentiles (the Philistines).  On that day Israel’s high priest died and his grandson was born.  His mother “named the child Ichabod, saying, ‘The glory is departed from Israel:’ because the ark of God was taken” 1Sam.4.21.

Many years later, in John chapter 18, we read that two other men of the family of Levi, Annas and Caiaphas, dressed in priestly regalia, handled the One Who is the fulness of the ark in a shameful way, and handed Him over to the Gentiles.  When He was put on the cross, it could be said in an even deeper way that the glory had departed from Israel.

However, that is not the end of the story. The ark returned to the nation.  Solomon built a splendid Temple, to which the ark was brought back and where it was given the honoured place.  So too, the glory that departed when Christ died will return to the nation.  The glorious return of the ark many years ago pictures the return and the Millennial reign of Christ.  He will return to the city of Jerusalem, where He was given the outside place, but then He will be honoured in that city, as the ark was.  Then the words of Psalm 24 will be fulfilled: “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in” Ps.24.7.

In 1Kgs.8.8 we read that, when the ark was brought to rest in the Temple in Jerusalem, “they drew out the staves, that the ends of the staves were seen out in the holy place before the oracle, and they were not seen without: and there they are unto this day”.  The staves remained visible, a reminder of the wilderness journey of the ark.  When our Lord Jesus Christ is honoured in scenes of glory, we will never forget the ‘staves’, and eternally we will be thankful for the pilgrim journey through this wilderness of that blessed One.