The Mercy Seat

10 “They shall make an ark of acacia wood. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. 11 You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and you shall make on it a molding of gold around it. 12 You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it. 13 You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. 14 And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark by them. 15 The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. 16 And you shall put into the ark the testimony that I shall give you.

17 “You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. 18 And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. 19 Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. 20 The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. 21 And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. 22 There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel. – Exodus 25:10-22 ESV

After communicating His command that the people build a sanctuary as His dwelling place on earth, God provided detailed plans for every aspect of its construction, but He didn’t begin with the structure itself. Instead, He focused His attention on the three pieces of furniture that were to occupy the inner recesses of the tabernacle.

The very first item He described was the Ark of the Covenant. This was to be a rectangular box constructed from acacia wood and overlaid with gold. It was to be carried by two gold-covered poles that were inserted into golden rings affixed to its side. Inside this coffin-like container, Moses was to place “the testimony” or stone tablets that God would eventually give him.

But why did God begin with this particular piece of furniture? If the sanctuary was to be His dwelling place, why did He focus His attention on this ornate box? It was because the Ark of the Covenant would be the most important fixture in the entire Tabernacle.

“It was the exact place where God descended to dwell with his people, which of course was the purpose of the building. The very center of God’s presence was the ark of the covenant, which was located in the Holy of Holies – the innermost tent in the tabernacle. By starting with the ark, God was working from the inside out. He was putting first things first, beginning with the holy place of his dwelling.” – Philip Graham Ryken,  Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory

On top of the Ark of the Covenant, Moses was to place the Mercy Seat. This was to serve as the lid for the Ark but, more importantly, as a “throne” for God’s presence. God informed Moses that this “seat” would be the actual place where His presence came to dwell within the Tabernacle.

“…you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.” – Exodus 25:21-22 ESV

“The purpose of the ark was to contain the tables of the law, ‘the Testimony.’ But more than that, it represented the presence of God in a very special way. God promised that He would appear in a cloud upon the mercy seat which was on the ark in the most holy place. Into that place, ‘the Most Holy Place,’ the high priest would enter one a year to sprinkle blood on the mercy seat in order that the sins of the people might be atoned (Lev. 16).” – Maxie D. Duncan, Exodus, The Preacher’s Commentary

Little did Moses know that he was being commanded to construct a miniature replica of God’s throne in heaven. On top of the ark, he was to place two gold Cherubim or ministering angels, whose wings were to spread out over the Mercy Seat. This description matches the one provided by the apostle John in the book of Revelation when he was given a vision of God’s throne room in heaven.

…a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.

And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
    who was and is and is to come!” – Revelation 4:2-8 ESV

And the prophet, Ezekiel, was given a similar glimpse into God’s throne room, where he saw the same scene, complete with Cherubim spreading their wings before God’s presence.

““above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” – Ezekiel 1:26-28 ESV

The Mercy Seat was intended to be God’s throne on earth. It was there that He would come to dwell among His people, sitting above the Law He had given them. And it was there that, once a year on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would come to offer a blood sacrifice for the sins of the people.

“Each year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood of animals sacrificed for the atonement of the sins of God’s people. This blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat. The point conveyed by this imagery is that it is only through the offering of blood that the condemnation of the Law could be taken away and violations of God’s laws covered.” –

The Law, holy and righteous, would condemn the people of their sins. But the blood of the sacrificed animal, when sprinkled on the Mercy Seat, would atone or pay for those sins and purchase the people’s redemption. They would receive mercy rather than wrath. They would enjoy God’s forgiveness rather than condemnation. And all of this was to point to the greater sacrifice to come: Jesus Christ, the sinless Lamb of God. The apostle Paul explains how Jesus became the ultimate expression of God’s gracious gift of redemption from sin and death.

But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus. – Romans 3:21-26 NLT

And the author of Hebrews echoes Paul’s words when he writes of Christ’s atoning work on the cross that secured God’s mercy for sinful mankind once for all time.

So Christ has now become the High Priest over all the good things that have come. He has entered that greater, more perfect Tabernacle in heaven, which was not made by human hands and is not part of this created world. With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever.

Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. That is why he is the one who mediates a new covenant between God and people, so that all who are called can receive the eternal inheritance God has promised them. For Christ died to set them free from the penalty of the sins they had committed under that first covenant. – Hebrews 9:11-15 NLT

The Mercy Seat in the Tabernacle was meant to foreshadow the future sacrifice of Christ that would atone for the sins of mankind. This simple, yet ornate, piece of furniture was to illustrate the unwavering righteousness of God through the presence of the two tablets of the Law. The golden cherubim were to be a reminder of God’s holiness and His worthiness to be worshiped by all His creatures. And the Mercy Seat was to be the very place where God’s presence came to dwell among His people and where their sins would have to be atoned for each year. They were an unworthy people who were incapable of keeping God’s holy law. But, in His grace and mercy, God had provided a means of receiving atonement and forgiveness. Not only would He grace them with His presence, but He would bless them with His merciful and undeserved removal of their guilt and condemnation. And it all pointed to Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

For Christ did not enter into a holy place made with human hands, which was only a copy of the true one in heaven. He entered into heaven itself to appear now before God on our behalf. And he did not enter heaven to offer himself again and again, like the high priest here on earth who enters the Most Holy Place year after year with the blood of an animal. If that had been necessary, Christ would have had to die again and again, ever since the world began. But now, once for all time, he has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice. – Hebrews 9:24-26 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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