What was the Ark of the Covenant?

The Ark of the Covenant was recently in the news with reports of a claim the Ark is being kept by Ethiopian priests in a church in Africa. This claim has not been proven, but it does cause many to wonder what it would be like if the actual Ark of the Covenant was found. Many people know of the Ark because of the Ark to the Indiana Jones movies. In “Raiders of the Lost Ark” Indiana discovers the Ark in a long lost Egyptian city and then rescues the Ark from Nazis who were attempting to tap into its power to gain a military advantage during the second World War. The movie climaxes when a German officer opens the Ark and brings destruction upon everyone present (except the hero and heroine). The movie ends with the Ark being encased in a crate and stored away in a massive warehouse somewhere in Washington, D.C. While the movie is obviously fictional, the Ark of the Covenant was a real thing that remained at the center of Jewish worship for nearly one thousand years.

The ark of the covenant was built at the command of God. Through Moses God instructed the Israelites to build a tabernacle where He would be worshiped. His instructions included furniture for the tabernacle: altars, tables, candlesticks and the ark of the covenant. God gave precise instructions about to Israel about the tabernacle and all its furnishings.

The Ark was a simple wooden box about 4 feet long and 2 feet wide. The wood was overlaid inside and out with gold. A gold moulding went around the top of the Ark and a gold ring was set in each corner. Golden staffs were made to fit inside the rings and were to be used by the Levites to carry the Ark. The lid of the Ark of the Covenant was also covered in gold and at each end of the lid was placed a statue of an angel. The angels faced one another and their outstretched wings covered the top of the Ark. This lid was known as the mercy seat, and it was the place where the presence of God dwelled. God instructed Israel to place three things inside the Ark: the copy of the law written on Mt. Sinai, a pot of manna and the staff of Aaron. (Hebrews 9:4) These three items served as reminders of the covenant God had made with Israel and evidences of His fulfillment of that covenant.

The Ark of the Covenant with the mercy seat was placed in the Holy of Holies where they remained unseen by any but the High Priest of Israel. When King Solomon built the temple, the Ark of the Covenant was transferred into the temple where it remained for the next several hundred years. When the temple was destroyed by the armies of Babylon all the furniture was taken out and shipped to Babylon. The Bible says nothing about the ark after the destruction of Jerusalem.

The Ark of the Covenant was not a supernatural box and it did not give supernatural power to armies carrying it. In fact, the Israelites came to believe the Ark would save them from defeat in battle. They carried it into conflict with the Philistines, lost the battle and the Philistines captured the Ark. No ghosts flew out of the Ark and soldiers did not melt. After the Philistines captured the Ark many Philistines died and others suffered unpleasant diseases. When the Ark was sent back to Israel, a group of Israelites looked inside it. God killed thousands of men in that town because they opened the Ark of the Covenant. However, the Bible never describes the Ark as having supernatural powers, or as striking down armies of men. God punished those who violated the holiness of the Ark of the Covenant, but most of these punishments were not dramatic or obviously supernatural. The ark of the covenant was never a magic box. It was a constant reminder of the covenant of God with Israel and the seat of God’s presence in the midst of His people.

Why did King David take the Ark of the Covenant away from the Tabernacle?

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.