In the days of the judges the nation of Israel abandoned the worship of God to worship idols. When they did worship God they mixed in many idolatrous practices. Finally, the Israelites decided the ark of the covenant was a talisman that would give them victory over the Philistines. This did not work out very well for the Israelites. The army of Israel was defeated and the ark of the covenant captured. Capturing the ark did not work out well for the Philistines. God began to make a mockery of the Philistine god Dagon and to afflict the Philistines with plagues. After 7 months in the cities of the Philistines the ark was returned to Israel and stayed in Gibeon for over 70 years.
After King David secured his kingdom against the Philistines he determined to bring the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. Under the leadership of David, the Levites brought the ark into the city and placed it in a tent near David’s palace. However, the tabernacle, the altars and all the other furnishings for the tabernacle were left in Gibeon.
The ark of the covenant played an important role in the worship of God. When the tabernacle was completed the visible presence of God came to reside on the mercy seat that covered the ark of the covenant. With the ark separated from the tabernacle the presence of God was obviously removed from the place of sacrifice. Without the ark at the tabernacle the priests could not obey God’s commands regarding the most important sacrifice of the year- the day of atonement. Why would King David keep the ark and the tabernacle separate?
Various practical reasons have been offered to explain the King’s actions. The tabernacle was old. Though portions of it had been rebuilt over the 500 years since it was first built, the long neglect of Divine worship during the time of the judges and the kingship of Saul may have left the tabernacle in such a dilapidated state that it could not be moved without severe damage. Also, it appears that while David was hiding from Saul in the wilderness, the duties of the high priest were divided. When David took the throne two men may have been serving as high priests in Israel. David may have chosen to have two places of worship rather than remove one man from the being the high priest.
Though these reasons may be valid, they do not go far enough. Psalm 78:60-68 teaches that God allowed the ark to be captured by the Philistines and then stored in Jerusalem, distant from the tabernacle and altar of burnt offering, as an act of judgment against Israel. God removed His presence from the tabernacle and the Israelites. Their continued idolatry made it impossible for them to worship in His presence. Just like today, sin will hinder the ability of God’s people to come into His presence.
God also chose to make Jerusalem the center of His worship. He determined the temple would be built in Jerusalem. We do not know when God revealed this to David, but God was at work in David’s actions to accomplish His purposes. God’s judgment of the nation prepared the way for His grace. God was working through King David to restore the true worship of Himself in Israel and to return His glorious presence in the midst of His people. Though God had distanced Himself from Israel for a time, He did not completely rejected them. God in His grace was working to bring His people to repentance and restore them to fellowship with Him.