The Court of the Tabernacle

“You shall make the court of the tabernacle. On the south side the court shall have hangings of fine twined linen a hundred cubits long for one side. 10 Its twenty pillars and their twenty bases shall be of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their fillets shall be of silver. 11 And likewise for its length on the north side there shall be hangings a hundred cubits long, its pillars twenty and their bases twenty, of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their fillets shall be of silver. 12 And for the breadth of the court on the west side there shall be hangings for fifty cubits, with ten pillars and ten bases. 13 The breadth of the court on the front to the east shall be fifty cubits. 14 The hangings for the one side of the gate shall be fifteen cubits, with their three pillars and three bases. 15 On the other side the hangings shall be fifteen cubits, with their three pillars and three bases. 16 For the gate of the court there shall be a screen twenty cubits long, of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, embroidered with needlework. It shall have four pillars and with them four bases. 17 All the pillars around the court shall be filleted with silver. Their hooks shall be of silver, and their bases of bronze. 18 The length of the court shall be a hundred cubits, the breadth fifty, and the height five cubits, with hangings of fine twined linen and bases of bronze. 19 All the utensils of the tabernacle for every use, and all its pegs and all the pegs of the court, shall be of bronze. – Exodus 27:9-19 ESV

The Tabernacle was meant to function as the house of God in the wilderness. But despite His willingness to dwell among them, God would not allow the Israelites to have free and open access to His presence. When God was preparing to appear on Mount Sinai to give the Law to Moses, He instructed Moses to put a barrier around the base of the mountain.

“…the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death…’” – Exodus 19:11-12 ESV

In the same way, God placed barriers around the Tabernacle so that the people would not be tempted to enter His presence. The Ark of the Covenant, upon which the Mercy Seat was located, was placed in the innermost section of the Tabernacle, in the Holy of Holies. It was in this secret and secluded area of the Tabernacle that God’s glory would reside and only the high priest was allowed to enter once a year on the Day of Atonement. And even he had to go through an intense purification process before he could come before Yahweh.

The Holy of Holies was separated from the Holy Place by a thick veil. This handcrafted curtain was made from  “finely woven linen” and decorated “with blue, purple, and scarlet thread and with skillfully embroidered cherubim” (Exodus 26:31 NLT). The curtain was hung from gold hooks attached to four posts of acacia wood. The posts were overlaid with and set in four silver bases. And God made it clear that this curtain was to “separate the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place” (Exodus 26:33 NLT).

But the curtain was also designed to prevent anyone from viewing God’s glory. The Ark of the Covenant and Mercy Seat were considered holy and set apart entirely for God’s use. No human being was to touch them. That is why the Ark was made with poles designed for carrying it. Whenever it came time to break camp and move, the Tabernacle had to be deconstructed and transported to the next location. The Kohathites were responsible for carrying the Ark and the poles were there to protect them from touching the Ark as they moved it to the new campsite. And before the Ark could leave the inner recesses of the Holy of Holies, it had to be covered so that the Israelites would be prevented from seeing it.

“The duties of the Kohathites at the Tabernacle will relate to the most sacred objects. When the camp moves, Aaron and his sons must enter the Tabernacle first to take down the inner curtain and cover the Ark of the Covenant with it. Then they must cover the inner curtain with fine goatskin leather and spread over that a single piece of blue cloth. Finally, they must put the carrying poles of the Ark in place.” – Numbers 4:4-6 NLT

There is a story in the book of 1 Chronicles that reveals why God placed such stringent rules around the transportation of this one piece of furniture.

David summoned all Israel, from the Shihor Brook of Egypt in the south all the way to the town of Lebo-hamath in the north, to join in bringing the Ark of God from Kiriath-jearim. Then David and all Israel went to Baalah of Judah (also called Kiriath-jearim) to bring back the Ark of God, which bears the name of the Lord who is enthroned between the cherubim. They placed the Ark of God on a new cart and brought it from Abinadab’s house. Uzzah and Ahio were guiding the cart. David and all Israel were celebrating before God with all their might, singing songs and playing all kinds of musical instruments—lyres, harps, tambourines, cymbals, and trumpets.

But when they arrived at the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen stumbled, and Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the Ark. Then the Lord’s anger was aroused against Uzzah, and he struck him dead because he had laid his hand on the Ark. So Uzzah died there in the presence of God. – 1 Chronicles 13:5-10 NLT

In his zeal, David ignored God’s commands and Uzzah lost his life. These restrictions were real and the consequences for violating them were deadly. Everything about the Tabernacle was meant to convey the holiness of God. His presence among them was not an open invitation to treat Him with brazen familiarity or disrespect. The design of the Tabernacle was intended to be a constant reminder of God’s glory and man’s sinfulness. His “tent” was different than all the rest. It was ordained with precious metals and finely woven fabric. His home did not have a welcome mat outside the front door because sin separated the people of Israel from their God. The presence of the Bronze Altar outside the entrance of the Tabernacle was a vivid reminder that sacrifice was necessary before anyone could enter into God’s presence.

King David would later ask the question: “Who may worship in your sanctuary, Lord? Who may enter your presence on your holy hill?” (Psalm 15:1 NLT). And he would go on to answer his own question.

Those who lead blameless lives and do what is right,
    speaking the truth from sincere hearts.
Those who refuse to gossip
    or harm their neighbors
    or speak evil of their friends.
Those who despise flagrant sinners,
    and honor the faithful followers of the Lord,
    and keep their promises even when it hurts.
Those who lend money without charging interest,
    and who cannot be bribed to lie about the innocent.
Such people will stand firm forever. – Psalm 15:2-5 NLT

David was stating that no one was qualified to enter into God’s presence. Sin created a barrier that prevented anyone from waltzing into the sanctuary of God unannounced, uninvited, and unclean. It was David who also wrote:

The Lord looks down from heaven
    on the entire human race;
he looks to see if anyone is truly wise,
    if anyone seeks God.
But no, all have turned away;
    all have become corrupt.
No one does good,
    not a single one! – Psalm 14:2-3 NLT

This sad reality is the reason God placed so many restrictions and restraints on the Israelite’s interaction with the Tabernacle. He even placed a fence around His house to prevent uninvited intruders or prying eyes.

“This fence marked the tabernacle’s outer boundary. It measured approximately seventy-five feet by 150 feet, for a total area of more than 10,000 square feet. By way of comparison, this is roughly the size of four tennis courts. The Tent of Meeting took up less than 1,000 square feet; so there was plenty of open area. The courtyard fence consisted of sixty pillars set into sixty bases and joined by white linen curtains. The fence was nearly eight feet tall, which permitted the Israelites to see the top of the tabernacle and the smoke rising from the altar, but not what happened inside.” – Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved For God’s Glory

There was only one entrance into the courtyard, and it led straight to the Bronze Altar, where sacrifice for sins was made. That was the key to entering into God’s presence. Sin separates man from God, but atonement restores fellowship. David also wrote of the joy of restored fellowship with God made possible through sacrifice.

Though we are overwhelmed by our sins,
    you forgive them all.
What joy for those you choose to bring near,
    those who live in your holy courts.
What festivities await us
    inside your holy Temple. – Psalm 65:3-4 NLT

Psalm 84 reflects the hope that the Tabernacle provided to the people of Israel. Their God was transcendent and holy, but He had made Himself available and approachable through the Tabernacle and the sacrificial system.

How lovely is your dwelling place,
    O Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
I long, yes, I faint with longing
    to enter the courts of the Lord.
With my whole being, body and soul,
    I will shout joyfully to the living God. – Psalm 84:1-2 NLT

Sin was always the real barrier that prevented mankind from entering into God’s presence. When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, they were cast out and separated from the God with whom they once enjoy unbroken fellowship.

After sending them out, the Lord God stationed mighty cherubim to the east of the Garden of Eden. And he placed a flaming sword that flashed back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. – Genesis 3:24 NLT

And with the Tabernacle, God placed protective barriers around His presence so that His people might not die due to their sinfulness. But He also provided an entrance. There was a way to come into His presence, but it was only through the shedding of blood as atonement for sin. And it was this joyful reality that led the psalmist to write:

A single day in your courts
    is better than a thousand anywhere else!
I would rather be a gatekeeper in the house of my God
    than live the good life in the homes of the wicked.
For the Lord God is our sun and our shield.
    He gives us grace and glory.
The Lord will withhold no good thing
    from those who do what is right.
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies,
    what joy for those who trust in you. – Psalm 84:10-12 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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