The ark was made of acacia wood, which was a hard, dense wood that was well suited to resist the kind of rigors that we have in the desert. The ark was about four feet long and two feet wide and deep. We don’t know exactly what a cubit was because it actually had different lengths, depending on whether it was an Egyptian cubit or a Babylonian cubit. The best guess is that the ark’s dimensions were three and three-quarters feet long, and two and one-quarter feet wide and deep.
The ark was covered with gold, and it had a lid that was made out of pure gold. On the ends of this lid there were two cherubim—one on each end. These angels were made out of gold, too. They had wings which went back and they sort of came together over the top of the ark, almost touching. These cherubim faced inward, and in that space between these outstretched wings of the cherubim, God was understood to dwell in a symbolic way. This ark had rings through which poles were put so that it could be carried around when the people were on their march. They covered it up so it couldn’t be seen.
The ark contained a number of things. The first and most important thing it contained was the Ten Commandments, the stone tablets. It also had a gold jar that contained some of the manna that the people got during their years in the wilderness. It also contained Aaron’s rod that had budded. Because it contained the law, the ark was given different names. It was called the ark of the testimony because that referred to the law; the ark of the covenant, since the covenant was established on the basis of the law; or simply the ark of God, or the ark of the Lord Jehovah.
To understand how the ark functioned and what it was meant to teach, we have to see two important things about it. The first I have already mentioned, namely, that God was understood to dwell in a symbolic way between the wings of the cherubim. Now that doesn’t mean that the Jewish people had a kind of low view of God, that somehow He could be confined within a little space between the wings of the angels. They knew perfectly well that God was immaterial and omnipresent. He is not to be confined to any one place. He is the God of the entire universe. But nevertheless, in spite of all of that, what God taught by this ark and His symbolic presence there is that He, the great transcendent, immaterial God of the universe, condescended to dwell among His people. So when the ark was consecrated, you find at the very end of the book of Exodus that this shekinah glory cloud that symbolized the presence of God came over the tabernacle and descended upon it.
The second thing we need to understand about it is that this covering called “the mercy seat” was the place where once a year on the Day of Atonement the high priest brought the blood of the animal that had been killed in the courtyard for the sin of the people. He first of all had to make an offering for his own sin. But then, having done that, he brought this offering that had been made for the sin of the people, and he sprinkled it upon the mercy seat. You have to get that picture in your mind. Here’s this box, and it contains the law. And above its lid is the symbolic presence of the Holy God. God is looking down, and as He looks down, what does He see? He sees the law that everyone has broken. So on the basis of that picture, you see, the ark is a great illustration of the necessity of the divine judgment on human sin. If we understand it at all, we know that we are to be judged by our sin. The Holy God of the universe cannot overlook the law which we have broken.
But once a year, on the Day of Atonement, after the innocent victim has been killed, and its blood shed for the people, the blood is brought into the Most Holy Place where the ark is kept and sprinkled upon the mercy seat. At this point, when God looks down, what He sees is the testimonium. He sees the evidence that an innocent life had been taken in the place of the ones that were guilty. Punishment has been meted out on the innocent victim. The ark teaches the great principle of substitutionary atonement, the very essence of the work of Jesus Christ. Now when God looks down He sees the sacrifice that has been made, and He is able to be merciful. That’s why it’s called the mercy seat. The ark taught the people again and again how salvation is to be found.
The second piece of furniture that is described is the table of showbread. The tabernacle itself is in two parts, as I pointed out. There is the Most Holy Place, the smaller of two rooms where the ark was kept. And the outer room was the Holy Place, and that contained these three objects: the table of showbread, the golden lamp stand, and the altar of incense. Now the first two of these are described at this point in sequence. The last one, the altar of incense, will be discussed later, for reasons we shall see.
This table of showbread was only slightly smaller than the ark. It was about three feet long, one and one-half feet wide, and about two and one-fourth feet high. It was surrounded by a gold molding and it was to hold twelve loaves of bread, always to be kept there, as well as golden plates for the bread and golden ladles and bowls and pitchers for handling the incense and the drink offerings. Now these loaves of bread were twelve in number because they represented the twelve tribes of Israel, and they were what the Bible calls a thank offering. It was a way of saying to God, “We are grateful for your provision for us. You provide us with the manna, the bread we eat that sustains our life and keeps us going. Day by day you give us health. We return this in order to say that we are thankful.” Now it’s hard to think about that without realizing that in some way that points forward to Jesus Christ, who described Himself as the bread of life. The place He does that most clearly is in John 6:32-33. Jesus said, speaking about Himself as the bread of life, “It is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven. It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. The bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives His life to the world.”
Now in that context, when He speaks of Himself as the bread of life, He is really comparing Himself to the manna. We have to remember that before His crucifixion, in the upper room He also took bread and broke it and said, “This is my body which is broken for you.” So when you think of the communion bread and you think back to the Old Testament table of showbread and the bread that is placed there, it is very easy to see the connection. And what it’s teaching us, because it points forward to Jesus Christ, is that Jesus is the One in whom we live and move and have our being. We cannot live spiritually or thrive spiritually apart from feeding on Him.