READ: Exodus 25-26
THINK: The Ark of the Covenant is one of the most important and incredible parts of the religious life of God’s people between the exodus from Egypt and the issuing of the New Covenant by Jesus. It was a golden box that contained the stone tablets upon which God himself engraved the 10 Commandments, the staff of Aaron that had blossomed, and a golden jar full of manna. For the nation of Israel the Ark was representative of the very presence of God here on earth. God’s holiness was so manifest in the Ark that it could not be touched without death, and only priests could carry it using the poles attached to the bottom. It was kept in the Tabernacle – which literally means “dwelling place” – the portable tent that served as a temple before the permanent one was built. And, within the Tabernacle, the Ark was kept in the Holy of Holies. On one, and only one, day each year, the High Priest of Israel was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of a bull upon the Ark of the Covenant as a sacrifice for the sins of the entire nation. That day, the most holy day of the year for Israel, was Yom Kippur or The Day of Atonement.
Atonement. That’s the thing that jumps off the page to me as I read these chapters. It’s the thing that really overwhelms me as I consider the incredible holiness of God and the incredible sinfulness of me. But what is atonement all about? What does it even mean? Well, Exodus 25 gives us a really cool word picture with the Ark itself. After God gave the instructions for building the Ark he continued in verse 17 by instructing Moses to make a “cover.” And the word for cover is translated very differently in the many English translations we have. It ranges from cover to lid to atonement cover to mercy seat. The word in Hebrew is kapporeth and very woodenly it means atonement cover. Which leads us back to the question: what does atonement mean? Well, kapporeth is derived from the Hebrew word kaphar which is a verb that means to cover or to wipe out. And so a kapporeth is a cover upon the Ark which signifies a wiping out completely or a total cleansing. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek and then into Latin the word kapporeth was translated hilasterion and propitiatorium respectively. Each of these words means place of propitiation.
I know that’s a lot of linguistic mumbo-jumbo, but here is the big idea: God instructed Moses to build a cover upon the Ark, the cover upon which the blood of the sacrifice would be sprinkled, to symbolize atonement and propitiation. Atonement is the complete and total satisfaction of a debt and reparation of a wrong and propitiation is the decision to wipe all wrongs and debts away and count a person completely whole and right. This symbol of God’s very presence on the earth, the Ark of the Covenant, was ultimately about God’s redemptive mercy towards humans. It was the place where God totally cleansed people of the guilt they carried. It was the place of his mercy! 1 Samuel 4:4 says that the winged cherubim on the kapporeth provide a seat for God. And so, taking the whole image together, many translations and traditions refer to this cover on the Ark as God’s mercy seat.
What an incredible image! That the God of the universe loves us enough and cares enough to sit on his mercy seat and wipe away all of our sins totally floors me! I know I don’t deserve it, and I am in awe of the faithfulness and lovingkindness that God has extended in my direction. And I am even more overwhelmed by the knowledge that after making the symbol of his presence a symbol marked by mercy, he went even further as Christ came and lived out the merciful presence of God, ultimately by shedding his own blood as a propitiation for the atonement of our sins. The story is so familiar that we can gloss over it without thinking critically sometimes. I encourage you today to, for lack of a better term, wallow in the splendor of it. Be overwhelmed by God’s mercy and what it has meant for you.
PRAY: Have a time of deep confession and brokenness before God today, and spend some time thanking him for forgiving you and basking in his mercy.