The Holy Vessels and Furniture of the Tabernacle
Henry W. Soltau
The chief objects of the present Work are to give what is believed to be a more correct delineation, from Scripture, of the Tabernacle and its vessels, than has as yet appeared; and to draw the attention of believers to a part of the word so eminently typical of the Lord Jesus, and which has hitherto been but little investigated, and feebly appreciated. The writer does not pretend to offer a full exposition of these types; neither does he desire that his interpretation of them should be implicitly relied on, as if it must needs be the true one; he is conscious of the vast depth of the subject, and of his own inability to grasp its extent: all he wishes is, to submit what he has written to the spiritual judgment of the saints of God, trusting there may be found in it that which shall, to some extent, interest or refresh; and that there are not any fundamental errors touching the person or work of the blessed Lord; though, doubtless, there may be mistakes as to the application of truth to the types sought to be illustrated.
The drawings of the vessels, contained in this first portion of the work, are executed on the scale of an inch to a cubit (except in the case of the Brazen Altar, the scale of which is half an inch to a cubit); they are the result of a careful and protracted investigation of the descriptions recorded in the Word of God. It will be perceived at once, that they differ in many respects from all other plates of the holy vessels hitherto published; this arises chiefly from their having been, as far as was possible, exclusively designed from the Scripture itself,—all Jewish tradition having been studiously avoided, and no pictorial representation that has hitherto appeared having been resorted to as authority. The absence of all ornament, and consequent simplicity and plainness, will at once strike the eye, in contrast with what has usually been represented. Where the definite shape of any of the vessels is not recorded in the word, but only their uses, as is the case with the Laver, and minor instruments of service attached to the Shew-bread-table, Candlestick, and Brazen Altar, very ancient patterns have been adopted, in order that there might not be any glaring anachronisms in the designs. They are drawn partly covered as well as uncovered, as it is believed much of a typical import is intended to be conveyed in the various coverings directed to be used, in Num. 4; the illustration of which will be attempted in a subsequent portion of this work. The vessels are not drawn as arranged in their places in the Tabernacle, but as they may be supposed to have appeared when finished, and separately presented to Moses. (Ex. 39:35-39.)
It may be asked by some, what definite authority there is for taking the Tabernacle and its vessels for types. In reply to this, two passages in the Epistle to the Hebrews may be quoted, as distinctly affixing a typical meaning to all that Moses constructed at the command of God. Heb. 8:1-5: “Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an High Priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man. For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer. For if He were on earth, He should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law: who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith He, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount.” And Heb. 9:21-24: “Moreover he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle, and all the vessels of the ministry. And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.” The first of these two quotations states, that the priests on earth “ministered an example and shadow of heavenly things; “and that God gave the express injunction to Moses, “See that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount,” when he was about to make the Tabernacle, because the type foreshadowed heavenly things. In the other passage we are told that the Tabernacle and vessels of the ministry were patterns of things in the heavens, and also that the holy places of the Tabernacle were figures of the true into which Christ has now entered. Thus, then, the service of the priests, the Tabernacle with its holy places, and the vessels of ministry, were respectively types of a service, places, and things in the heavens.
The order which is followed in the present work is one that results from that partly adopted in Scripture; for three of the principal holy vessels are first described in Ex. 25, before directions are given respecting the building in which they were to stand. The following pages will first treat of the typical import of the vessels: should this portion of the work (which is complete in itself) be favourably received, the author hopes, with the Lord’s blessing, to proceed with the Tabernacle, tracing out the minute details of its construction, together with the form of encampment: the dresses and ministrations of the priesthood will complete the third and concluding portion of the series.
Previously to entering upon the subject immediately before us, it may be well briefly to point out three subdivisions into which the whole type of the Tabernacle is portioned out in the Word of God.
Levi, the third son of Jacob, had himself three sons, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari (Num. 3:17); from these descended three distinct families of Levites,—Gershonites, Kohathites, and Merarites. They were numbered separately, and encamped on a side of the Tabernacle definitely appropriated to each; to them also was assigned a distinct portion of the holy building as a charge and burthen. Thus the Merarites pitched their tents on the north, and to them was apportioned the charge, custody, and burthen of the boards, bars, pillars, and sockets: the Gershonites, who encamped west, had the charge of the curtains, hangings, and coverings: while to the Kohathites, whose position was on the south, belonged the care of the holy vessels. Here, therefore, we find three principal divisions of the subject. The heavy foundations of silver and brass, and the massive frame-work of wood and gold, with the connecting bars and pillars, was a burthen appropriated to the Merarites: the charge of the beautiful embroidered curtains and hangings, with the other draperies and coverings, formed the Gershonite sphere of service: and to the Kohathites was alloted the guardianship of the various vessels of ministry. Separate branches of truth seem to be typified under these three portions of the subject. All that solid foundation truth respecting the Lord Jesus, as God and man in one person, upon the right faith in whom depends the soul’s appreciation of all other verities, is typified by the Merarite burthen: the whole superstructure depended upon the solid frame-work and foundations borne by them. The beautiful and costly curtains and hangings, which were the charge of the Gershonites, picture to us the beauty, grace, and holiness, which ever attract the eye of faith, displayed in the manifested character, ways, and words of the Lord Jesus—that “grace and truth” which was exhibited in all the varied development of His character here. While the holy vessels, borne by the Kohathites, are types of those offices of Christ, which He holds and exercises as our great High Priest—the one Mediator between God and men. Nature, character, office, are thus the subjects mainly embodied, as well as separately displayed, in this type of the Tabernacle.
In attempting to traverse such a wide and blessed field of truth, well may we exclaim, “And who is sufficient for these things!” May “the good Lord pardon” all that is faulty and defective, and by His Holy Spirit direct and assist the heart and understanding both of him who writes and those who read the following pages.
The first holy vessel described, and commanded by the Lord to be made, was the Ark, with its cover—the Mercy Seat. It ranked the highest of all the vessels of the Tabernacle, was alone placed in the Holy of Holies, and was the one vessel with reference to which all the ministrations and ritual of the Tabernacle service were conducted. Before this vessel the holy perfume yielded its perpetual fragrance; the incense altar was placed also with direct reference to it; the blood of the sin-offering of atonements was annually sprinkled on it and before it; and the costly vail was its covering. Indeed, without it all the other vessels of the Sanctuary, and all the service of the priests, would have been comparatively useless and powerless; because it was over the Mercy Seat that Jehovah dwelt, and manifested His glory; and all worship, and every act of devotion, must be conducted alone with reference to Him, and derives its blessing alone from the sanction and power of His presence.
The Ark and Mercy Seat
It might have been expected that the Ark, being the most holy and important vessel of the Sanctuary, would have been described last in order, and would have been deposited last in the Tabernacle itself, after the court around had been reared up, and the other vessels had been arranged in their places. Such, however, is not the order of God. His way is to lead first and at once direct to the highest and holiest thing, and into the highest and holiest place. To make Himself known, and to bring into His own presence and glory, has ever been His purpose; and faith has ever had no lower object, has expected no lesser end. So in the very earliest revelations of Himself, and in the very first promises, we find truths still of the most strengthening nature, and assurances of future blessings that are still before us.
The very first promise in the garden given after the fall of man, namely, the bruising of the serpent’s head by the seed of the woman, is that which contains, as in a nucleus, every subsequent blessing. Christ, as made of the woman, was there foretold. His mysterious conception was therein involved; for it was to be the woman’s seed, and not the man’s. His death—his subsequent triumph in resurrection—the spoiling of principalities and powers—the exaltation of the woman’s seed above the highest created being—all this, and all that was dependent on it, and resulted from it—was, as in a bud, involved in that short and yet all-significant promise. And this very promise remains the last to be fully accomplished. For the final triumph of the seed of the woman over the serpent will not be manifested till the very close of all revealed dispensations, when at the last Satan and death and hades are finally, and for ever, cast into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:10-14.) Again, we find the hope that sustained the early saints in their path of sorrow, and trial, and suffering, was that which still animates the Church of God in its pilgrimage. They looked for a heavenly city and a heavenly country. (Heb. 11:10-16.) They were heirs of the same promise with ourselves. And though, indeed, their view of that city that hath foundations was, as compared with ours, but indistinct and distant, and though many a glorious mystery now revealed to us by the Spirit was entirely unknown to them, yet they afford us bright examples of faith, and of the pilgrim and stranger character, resulting from their steadfast gaze upon that country which they sought, and for the sake of which they were content to leave home and kindred here, and to wander almost as strangers and sojourners in a strange land.
God has ever presented Himself as the object of faith; and though each dispensation, as it has rolled on, has brought with it some fresh and clearer manifestations of Him, and has added thus some further truth and fuller revelation to what has gone before; yet from the first to the last it has been, and still will be, God alone who is the object on which the soul rests for its salvation, its peace, its joy. And whether as “the Almighty God,” as “Jehovah,” or as “the Father,” still it has been the same unchanged and eternal God, on whom the saints have ever by faith rested, and who has been ever their hope, their shield, and their exceeding great reward.
Thus it is in the directions given concerning the Tabernacle: The Ark and Mercy Seat—the throne of God’s glory and power in the midst of Israel—is first described; and we subsequently get directions for the making other dependent and subordinate vessels of ministry, and the courts of the Tabernacle itself in which they were to be placed. It seems as if the Lord would lead at once to the great object that was before Him, namely, to establish a place for Himself in the midst of His people; and where He might meet Israel’s lawgiver and Israel’s priest; and from whence He might give directions and commandments for their guidance and blessing. And all the laboured and varied services of the Tabernacle had for their end the preserving the people and the place of meeting clean, so that God might be able uninterruptedly thus to dwell among them, to be their defence, their help, and their guide.
The Ark is thus described:—
Exod. 25:10, 2.—And they shall make an Ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof. And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold; within and without shalt thou overlay it.
Exod. 37:1, 2.—And Bezaleel made the Ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half was the length of it, and a cubit and a half the breadth of it, and a cubit and a half the height of it. And he overlaid it with pure gold within and without.
Thus the Ark was a chest or coffer, as to its chief substance made of wood; the gold being its casing within and without. The Hebrew word in our translation called “shittim wood” is in the Septuagint always translated ξυλον ἀσηπτον, “incorruptible wood.”
In seeking to understand this type, our thoughts will naturally be directed first to the materials of which this holy vessel was formed. The wood is generally, and I believe rightly, held to be a type of the Lord as to His human nature. Though truly man, yet in blessed contrast with all other men, the Lord was one whom neither the temptations of Satan could seduce, nor the evil around Him defile—one who, pure and spotless at His birth, withstood unmoved every (to us attractive) form of evil; and though, like the shittim wood, planted and nurtured in this earth, yet abode uncorrupted and incorruptible in the midst of all the sin, defilement, and corruptions of man around, and attacks of the enemy with which He was assaulted. The shittim or incorruptible wood seems to be, therefore, a fitting emblem of that distinguishing characteristic of His humanity, its unstained spotlessness, its incorruptibility—that which nothing could taint or defile; and yet, by reason of which, He is able to have all sympathy and fellow-feeling for the weak and tempted, and to stand as their fitting and glorious representative before God in heaven.
It was needful that He who was to sustain the place of mediation between God and men should be able, on the one hand, truly to represent those for whom He thus stood, should thoroughly understand their need, should be able to feel for them and with them in their various temptations; at the same time that He must also be fit for the most holy and glorious presence of God, must know and be acquainted with God as well as men, must be the “fellow” of God as well as of men (Zech. 13:7; Ps. 45:7); must Himself be as competent to be made the depositary of the thoughts and feelings and power of God, as of the need and weakness and wants of men; and thus might be the channel of blessing from God to men, and the way of approach of men to God. The wood is then that material which shadows forth the nature of Christ as man, whereby He is able to take this place on behalf of men, for that He Himself truly is a man in glory; whilst the gold which overlaid the wood within and without added its strength, its value, its brilliancy and glory to the wood, even so the blessed Lord, because He is Himself God, stands in His office of mediator in all His own divine and eternal power, glory, and preciousness, in the presence of God.
The use of the Ark was to contain the two tables of the Covenant, which were delivered to Moses at Sinai. “And thou shalt put into the Ark the testimony which I shall give thee.” (Exod. 25:16, 21.) “And Moses took and put the testimony into the Ark.” (Exod. 40:20.)
The tables of stone thus put into the Ark, written on by the finger of God, were the expression of God’s righteous demands of man, but they only ended in the ministration of death. For the law found man a sinner by nature, and it had no power to alter that nature. It found him dead, and it could not give life. It promised life indeed upon its terms being fulfilled, but it could not give life as a matter of grace. It declared the righteous requirements of God, both as regards what man ought to be towards Him, and also towards his neighbour. It declared what man ought to be, but it communicated no power to enable him to be what it required. It demanded, and threatened, and denounced, but it could not give. It could condemn, but it could not save. It presupposed some power in man, but it found him impotent. In short, the law, though an expression of what God demanded, was not God Himself; neither did it manifest God in the grace of His heart: it did not describe God, so that it could neither communicate life—for God alone can do that—neither did it direct the soul to the source of life: all that it really effected was to sentence to death. “The commandment” was found by the apostle “to be unto death.” (Rom. 7:10.)
Moreover, the law came in and interfered with the manifest actings of grace. It, as it were, stopped up for a while the wide outflowings of mercy. God had dealt with Abraham upon the sure ground of unconditional promise, therefore on the sure ground of grace; for unconditional promise and grace ever go together. Promise is the simple expression of God’s own will and intentions, and its accomplishment rests alone upon God’s own ability and unchangeableness: it requires, therefore, nothing on man’s part. God had also begun to deal with Israel upon the same gracious ground, up to their arrival at Mount Sinai. “He smote also all the firstborn in their land, the chief of all their strength. He brought them forth also with silver and gold; and there was not one feeble person among their tribes. Egypt was glad when they departed; for the fear of them fell upon them. He spread a cloud for a covering, and fire to give light in the night. The people asked, and he brought quails, and satisfied them with the bread of heaven. He opened the rock, and the waters gushed out; they ran in the dry places like a river. For He remembered his holy promise, and Abraham his servant.” (Psalm 105:36-42.)
God could thus deliver, and bless, and act in uninterrupted grace, though they from the first were a murmuring and stiff-necked people; because they simply stood in dependence on Him, and He was dealing with them on the ground of His own promise. But now at Sinai all was changed; thrice had Israel, in their own ignorant self-confidence, uttered those fearful words, “All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient.” (Ex. 19:8, 24:3, 7.) And then Moses sprinkled both the book and all the people, and the covenant was confirmed, so that no one could disannul it; a covenant which bound them to obedience, and bound God to punish disobedience; a covenant that rested for the performance of its terms on their own faithfulness and strength; and in which God had, so to speak, nothing to do Himself, but to watch the results of their actings, and to deal with them accordingly. And what were they? Poor lost sinners at their very birth, children of wrath by nature—without strength at the very outset, save that they had the strength of the flesh, which could only act in the way of sin. Doubtless, it sounded well in the ears of men when they uttered the resolution to obey God. It doubtless gratified their own hearts, and seemed like humble obedience; but what was it in reality but the expression of their own ignorance of God’s righteousness, and of their own helpless and ruined condition. What was it but a proof that sin had so blinded their eyes that they were unable to discern their own state, and supposed themselves competent to obedience, when in reality they were in the helplessness of death. And does not many a good resolution, even at the present day, manifest the same ignorance of self—the same dream of strength when there is really none—the same thoughtlessness as to God’s holiness and man’s incompetence?
But though Israel proved themselves thus ignorant of their own lost condition, yet God, who searcheth the heart, knew it well; and He commanded this golden depository to be formed, in order that it might shut up out of sight the very ministration of death, to which they had so eagerly and inconsiderately bound themselves. And thus did He shadow forth the necessity of the law being removed out of the way, and point onward in this scene to Christ.
It is blessed thus to trace in Scripture intimations, again and again, of God’s thoughts, and purposes of mercy and grace, in the midst of the disclosures of man’s folly, failure, and sin. It had been so before in Eden after the fall. There stood the woman who had given credit to Satan’s lie; had sinned against the majesty, and truth, and love of God; had ruined Adam and the whole human race, and all creation besides, through her transgression; but when to the eyes of all others she only exhibited a miserable spectacle of degradation, and ruin, and sin, to God she presented not only a fit object for mercy and grace, but the very one by means of whom He would effect His own most blessed joy and triumph. He spoke of her, not as the mother of the helpless and lost millions that were to spring from her, but as the mother of the seed that was to bruise the head of the enemy of God and man. He locked at the fallen woman, and He thought of Christ He saw His own joy, His own triumph over Satan, to be effected by the seed of the very woman who had so dishonoured, so wronged His majesty and love.
How quick, how skilful, is love in discovering expedients to remedy the failure of those on whom it is set! So was it at Sinai: there was Israel binding judgment and ruin upon themselves, exposing themselves willingly to all the righteous vengeance of God; but God looked onward to one who would be able, and whose delight it would be to fulfil that very covenant on behalf of Israel, and who would thereby become the means and channel of blessing, mercy, and salvation from God to a lost and ruined world.
There was, however, but one mode by means of which the law could be moved out of the way, and whereby also God’s righteousness and truth could at the same time be preserved, and even vindicated; for the law was a fit expression of righteousness, such as God might justly demand of man. God could not lower this standard, and man had no power to attain to it. Moreover, the covenant had been confirmed with blood, so that neither party could set it aside. It could not be disannulled or rent in twain, as a worthless thing; it was holy, just, and good; it was given by God Himself. There, therefore, it remained as the solemn witness of unapproachable righteousness in God, and of distance, and ruin, and helplessness in man. What, then, could be done? There was but one hope of deliverance, and the God of hope alone foreknew and foreordained, and in this type foreshadowed, that way of deliverance. Let one be found, a man made under the law, who should fulfil all its requirements; who, placing himself in the sphere and circumstances of the guilty and impotent, should yet walk with unwavering perfectness along the prescribed path of strict, unerring righteousness; who, amongst the disobedient, should prove himself obedient; amongst the unholy, should prove himself spotless; amongst the froward, should exhibit humble, patient dependence on God: one who should love when others hated; should requite blessing for others’ curses; should, in one word, “love the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his strength, and with all his mind, and his neighbour as himself.” Let such an one be found, who should fulfil all righteousness, not only as to the letter, but spirit of the law. Hut even more than this was needed; for Israel was not only impotent, and therefore incompetent to accomplish human righteousness—Israel had done worse, for it had broken the law, and had incurred its fearful curse. Before the very tables of the testimony were brought down from God, Israel was found revelling in sin around the golden calf, and the law was broken at its very commencement; sure and sad presage of what should afterwards be manifested by that law-bound people. Moses seems to have felt the uselessness, as well as danger, of bringing the tables of the covenant into the camp; and, hopeless as to the people, and but partially acquainted with God’s resources in grace, he dashed the tables to pieces out of his hands at the bottom of the Mount. The curse of the broken law had therefore to be borne, its vengeance had been incurred, and there was no provision of mercy, and indeed there could not be, in its requirements that could arrest its vengeance; grace could not mingle with it; so that judgment once incurred must find its path unobstructed, and must roll on unhindered and unarrested to its awful consummation. Some one had then to be found, who, while able to fulfil all righteousness, should also endure on behalf of others the deadly penalty incurred. And such was Christ, foreseen in the counsels of God, yea, foreordained before the foundation of the world, and in the fulness of time sent forth by God, “made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law.” (Gal. 4:4, 5.) He “magnified the law, and made it honourable.” (Isa. 42:21.) He “is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.” (Rom. 10:4.) He has also borne the curse of the broken law; “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.” (Gal. 3:13.)
The especial use of the Ark was then carefully to preserve the law, but to preserve it out of sight; to remove it out of Israel’s way, and for ever to conceal the ministration of death, and prevent its breaking forth in vengeance. A beautiful type of Him who, having come to do the will of God, and delighted in it, yea, even in His heart, having died also in accomplishment of that will under the curse, now stands before God as the one who has fulfilled all righteousness, and the witness also of vindicated justice; and who has for ever removed the stern barrier that prevented man’s approach to God, namely, the demands against him of an unfulfilled law, so that now righteousness, which was the very hindrance, becomes the very ground of our full and free intercourse with God. Our way to God is not now by the law, but by Christ, by whom it has been taken out of the way and fulfilled; God meets us in Him.
But not only was the testimony placed in the Ark, it was also covered up, and a sure provision made that it should no more be exposed. The Ark had a golden lid, of equal dimensions with itself, so as exactly to cover it; and this lid was called the “Mercy Seat.”
Exod. 25:17-21.—And thou shalt make a Mercy Seat of pure gold: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof. And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the Mercy Seat. And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the Mercy Seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof. And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the Mercy Seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the Mercy Seat shall the faces of the cherubims be. And thou shalt put the Mercy Seat above upon the Ark; and in the Ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee.
Exod. 37:6-9.—And he made the Mercy Seat of pure gold: two cubits and a half was the length thereof, and one cubit and a half the breadth thereof. And he made two cherubims of gold, beaten out of one piece made he them, on the two ends of the Mercy Seat; one cherub on the end on this side, and another cherub on the other end on that side; out of the Mercy Seat made he the cherubims on the two ends thereof. And the cherubims spread out their wings on high, and covered with their wings over the Mercy Seat, with their faces one to another; even to the Mercy Seat-ward were the faces of the cherubims.
The Mercy Seat was thus the cover of the Ark, and both together formed one vessel of the sanctuary. We have to regard it, therefore, as a whole, and as such it typifies the Lord Jesus himself as the one mediator between God and men. For He, having fulfilled all righteousness, and having borne the curse of the law, and thereby having removed for ever the law, with its demands, and requirements, and penalties, out of the way, now stands in the presence of God as our way and place of approach to God; and the one, also, because of and by means of whom God is able to be just, and yet the justifier of him that believeth; “the one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5), combining in Himself righteousness, mercy, and power, and standing in the mediate place, the means and channel of blessing from God to men, and the way of access from men to God.
The first thing to be noticed respecting this Mercy Seat are the two Cherubim, beaten out of its two ends, one Cherub at the one end, and the other Cherub at the other end.
The Cherubim seem, throughout Scripture, to be symbolic figures, shadowing forth the glorious power of God, whereby He accomplishes His purposes by agencies often unseen, and yet sure, and efficient, and overruling. This power of Jehovah is first described minutely under these symbols in the book of Ezekiel; where the Cherubim are represented as four living creatures, having every one four faces—the face of a man, of a lion, of an ox, and of an eagle.
The face of a man seems to be symbolic of mind, reason, intellect, knowledge, discernment, etc And we can easily see how gracious a provision it is of God for us, that He who is our Mercy Seat holds and uses the power of God, guided by a full consciousness of all our need, of all our sorrows, of all our infirmities—having perfect human intelligence as to all these things, and able therefore so skilfully, and yet tenderly, to deal with us, and to accommodate this tremendous power, so that it may find its exercise in gentleness and grace.
The face of a lion denotes majesty, terribleness, strength, dignity; as it is written, “A lion which is strongest amongst beasts, and turneth not away from any.” (Prov. 30:30.) “The king’s wrath is as the roaring of a lion.” (Prov. 19:12, 20:2.) It is said of David, “And he also is valiant, whose heart is as the heart of a lion.” (2 Sam. 17:10.) Lions were the emblems of the strength and dignity of Judah’s throne (2 Chron. 9:17-19); the name and title of its only true king—”the lion of the tribe of Judah.” (Rev. 5:5.) And even for the maintenance of mercy, this power is needed; for who does not rejoice in Him who has proved His lion-like majesty and power, in the destruction of Satan and of death. And how needful is it that the same kind of power should still shelter and guard the place of mercy for us!
The face of an ox equally expresses power, but used in patient and persevering labour; strength subjected to bear burdens. When spoken of with reference to God, it is expressive of long-suffering, or continued and patient exercise of power in subjection to love; “Much increase is by the strength of the ox” (Prov. 14:4); “able to bear burdens” (Psalm 144:14, marginal reading); used to “tread out the corn.” (Deut. 25:4; Hos. 10:11.) See also the constant use of the bullock in sacrifice, as a type of the blessed Lord in His character of the patient, unwearied servant. This characteristic of strength, thus connected with the Mercy Seat, is held by Him in the glory in order that mercy may still find its unrestrained exercise, in spite of all obstacles; and may be steadily maintained, through the patient and enduring continuance of a power that will never weary nor be exhausted, but will still go on finding rich increase, and making fresh openings for the displays of grace.
The face of an eagle—marking quickness and power of sight, and almost equal rapidity of action. “She seeketh the prey, and her eyes behold afar off, and where the slain are there is she.” (Job 39:29, 30.) “Swifter than eagles,” is used to express rapidity of action. How blessed to know that keenness of sight, and swiftness of execution, are attached also to the place of mercy; so that He who is the Mercy Seat discerns afar off, with eagle eye, the need, and quickly stretches out the hand of power to deliver.
These, then, are some of the attributes of the Cherubim, the executors of God’s will; and here we find them beaten out of one piece with the Mercy Seat. Some have thought these figures betokened angels, and that their bending posture towards the Mercy Seat is explained by that text, “which things the angels desire to look into.” (1 Peter 1:12.) And in many pictorial representations of the Mercy Seat we see them represented in a kneeling posture, as if in adoration. Others have thought that the Cherubim here symbolize the Church. But the construction itself, as well as uses, of the Mercy Seat seem to preclude either of these interpretations of the type. The Cherubim are distinctly stated to be “of the Mercy Seat,” and “out of the Mercy Seat.” (Exod. 25:19, 37:8.) And this is still more apparent in the Hebrew, where the preposition used in the 18th and 19th verses of ch. 25, and the 7th and 8th verses of ch. 37, and translated “on the Mercy Seat,” and “on the two ends,” etc, should properly be translated “from.” Also, as to the word translated in Exod. 25:18, “beaten work,” and Exod. 37:7, “beaten out of one piece,” the meaning seems to be, that the Cherubim were not cast or moulded separately from the Mercy Seat, and then attached to it, but were beaten out of the solid mass of gold which formed the Mercy Seat, the one being beaten from out of the one end, and the other from the other. Angels cannot, then, be typified here by the Cherubim; for, if they were, it would imply that they form part of the seat of God’s mercy, and would thus stand very much in the place in which Popery has set them, as the agents for procuring or exhibiting the mercy of God, derogating thereby from the person and work of the Lord Jesus Himself, who is the only way of approach to God, and the one through whom alone God can show His grace and mercy to us; for “there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12.) The same argument would equally apply, if the Church were symbolized by the Cherubim on the Mercy Seat. The Church would thus become what, indeed, false systems have made it, the platform from whence God dispenses His grace, instead of the body which has received His grace. The Mercy Seat and Cherubim, being all of one piece, represents, it is believed, Christ as the one who holds all the glorious power of God, associated with mercy, and in and through whom God is able to display His power and righteousness, ever inseparably linked on with mercy and grace.
But the attitude of the Cherubim seems also to be significant “The Cherubim shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the Mercy Seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the Mercy Seat shall the faces of the Cherubim be.” (Exod. 25:20, 37:9.)
When first seen on earth, the Cherubim were placed “at the east of the garden of Eden, to keep the way of the tree of life.” (Gen. 3:24.) They then stood associated with “the flaming sword,” the sword of vengeance and judgment; and as witnesses that all the terrible majesty of God’s power and holiness, which had been insulted, was against man, and had closed up every avenue against his return to his original happy state. The word and majesty of God had been trifled with and despised, man had given credit to Satan’s falsehood, and had by his unbelief made God a liar; and the Cherubim then took their stand as the avenger of God’s insulted majesty, and the stern proof that man was an outcast, banished by God from that happy place, and no way allowed for his, return to the tree of life. This significant place of the Cherubim of itself manifested the hopelessness of any attempt on the part of man to regain life by his own efforts; and that, unless the glory of God could be met, and the flaming sword of vengeance and of holiness satisfied, it were vain for man to hope for any way of return to life; but death and the curse were his inalienable portion.
But to us the heaven has been opened, and there, in the holiest on the Mercy Seat, we behold these Cherubim of glory. The earthly garden, with its tree of life, is indeed lost, and lost for ever, but “the paradise of God” is opened to us; and life above, hidden with Christ in God, is ours through faith in Him. The place of life and of the Cherubim is alike changed. They no longer stand to debar man’s approach to life, but they brood with outstretched wings over the place of mercy, whence life and blessings flow. No longer are they connected with the flaming sword; but their faces now intently turn towards the place of grace. For all the power and glory of God is held by one in heaven, who uses it for mercy. “All power in heaven and earth” hath been given to Christ, but He now employs it but for one object, to preserve the place of mercy and of grace for His saints; and the place where we now know the full propitiation for our sins, is the place where we beheld the majesty, power, and glory of God, all now in our favour, because forming part of the Mercy Seat itself. All the intelligence and sympathy expressed in the face of the man; all the majesty, terribleness, and power of the lion; all the patient enduring strength of the ox; all the rapidity and clear-sightedness of the eagle, now stand engaged on the side of mercy. Redemption in Christ has converted the very attributes of God, which were once the most fearful and opposed to us as sinners, to be the very shelter for us, and the power, and assurance, and strength of our blessing.
Well, indeed, is it for the world itself that the faces of the Cherubim are thus turned towards the Mercy Seat, and that, for a while, He who holdeth this power hath retired into His place. For what will it be when again they turn their faces toward the earth? when again they look toward a world where not only the majesty, and glory, and truth of God have been despised, but where even His grace and mercy in Christ have been rejected? What will it be when the power and glory of God are made to test the condition of everything here below, and when Christ will come holding that power, and directing it against man in judgment? The day will ere long be, when “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” will rouse Himself to the prey, and, when riding on the Cherubim of glory, the Lord Himself shall return to avenge His own elect, and to destroy them that corrupt the earth.
The Mercy Seat is only twice distinctly mentioned in the New Testament. Once in Heb. 9:5, where it is enumerated with the other vessels of the Tabernacle; and in Rom. 3:25, where it is in our version translated “propitiation.” This passage in the Romans seems beautifully to allude to the type, and is another warrant for interpreting it as a type of Christ It begins by stating that, by the deeds of the law, no flesh shall be justified in the sight of God; for that all the law could effect was to give the knowledge of sin, and not to put it away, or to give power over it. But now God’s righteousness in justifying a sinner, independently of the law, has been made manifest, and is the portion of all them that believe in Jesus: a righteousness, indeed, to which the law and the prophets witnessed, though it was not then made manifest. And in this respect there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—between one who has been seeking to keep the law and one who has not—for all have sinned, whether Jews or Gentiles, and have come short of the glory of God; but all who believe are justified alike freely by God’s grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God had indeed foreordained, even before He came, to be a Mercy Seat, and, having Him in view, was able to pardon sins committed previously to this Mercy Seat being really established. But now God has openly made manifest His righteousness in remitting sins, through faith in the blood of Christ; for now God proves Himself just at the same time that He justifieth him that believeth. We are here instructed, in these great truths, the incapability of the deeds of the law to justify; the purpose of God to set up a Mercy Seat, even His own blessed Son; and having that in His purpose, He pardoned the saints of old; and now the Mercy Seat actually set up, and God’s righteousness thereby vindicated and manifested when He pardons a sinner through Christ He receives the sinner now as “a just God and a Saviour.” It is not, indeed, that Jesus turned the heart of God towards us, but that now God can act, through Jesus, according to His own heart of grace and love, at the same time consistently with His righteousness and justice. For the law, the expression of God’s just demands, has been vindicated, not a jot or tittle has passed away unfulfilled; its righteous vengeance also, on account of sin, has fallen on the head of Christ; and now God can allow all His own full and eternal love to flow out towards the sinner, for justice has been satisfied, and mercy can rejoice against judgment In Christ, thus prefigured in the Ark and Mercy Seat, we can indeed say, “Justice and judgment are the establishment of thy throne; mercy and truth shall go before thy face. Blessed is the people that know the joyful sound; they shall walk, O Lord, in the light of thy countenance.” (Psalm 89:14, 15.) Here, “mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (Psalm 85:10.) Those principles which seemed to be most opposed to each other—mercy which desired to pardon, and truth which must condemn—meet together in Christ, for in Him the sinner receives pardon by the very means whereby the truth and holiness of God have been vindicated. And the apostle can therefore truly add, that “we establish the law” through faith, instead of making it void. We are not, indeed, saved by law deeds; but our salvation is grounded on the fact, that the righteousness of the law has been vindicated and fulfilled. We establish it not as a means of salvation, not as attempting to save ourselves by fulfilling its demands, not as a covenant of works under which we are placed, but as that which has witnessed to and foreshadowed Christ, and the demands of which Christ has abundantly satisfied, both as to its requirements and its curse. And now no act more displays the righteousness of God than His act of mercy to a sinner; God never proves Himself more holy than when He pardons sin; for that mercy and pardon are ever grounded upon His righteous judgments having been poured out on the head of Christ, on behalf of, and as the substitute for, the sinner. God is “faithful and just” in the forgiveness of sins, and the very attributes of His holiness, which were most against us as sinners, become our surest defence and protection through Christ. The Cherubim of glory have quitted the flaming sword, and taken their place on the Mercy Seat.
But there are yet other parts of this holy vessel which demand our attention.
“And thou shalt make upon it (the Ark) a crown of gold round about” (Exod. 25:11, 37:2.) The word here translated “crown” occurs only in connexion with the Ark, Shewbread Table, and Incense Altar. The Hebrew word זר (zare) is translated by Gesenius, “border, edge, wreathed work:” he derives it from a root meaning “to bind together.” This word has no reference then apparently to a regal crown, but means a ledge or binding of gold placed around the top of the Ark, the use of which seems to have been to retain the Mercy Seat in its proper place, exactly covering up the Ark.
The Ark had to be borne on the shoulders of the priests, over many a rugged path through the wilderness; and they that bare it might even wander where their feet would be liable to slip or stumble; many a rude shock would thus be given to this holy vessel; and what if the Mercy Seat had been thereby displaced? But this golden crown was the careful provision of God to avoid such a result, and to keep it securely in its proper place. Supposing the Mercy Seat had been displaced even accidentally, and not wilfully, the law, the ministration of death, would have been exposed, and destruction to the thousands of Israel might have been the result. We find one instance on record where this was done, not indeed through accident, for that had been carefully provided against, but from the unholy curiosity of those who lifted the Mercy Seat to look into the Ark. (1 Sam. 6:19, 20.) “And he smote the men of Beth-shemesh because they had looked into the Ark of the Lord, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men. And the people lamented, because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter. And the men of Beth-shemesh said, Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God? And to whom shall he go up from us?” May we not learn from this scene the awful consequences of the Mercy Seat being removed, though but for a little moment? Judgment necessarily then broke forth, and who could stand before the holy Lord God? If mercy is not fixedly retained by divine power covering over the righteous ministration of death, who indeed could stand?
The golden crown seems then to have been the gracious provision against this happening, notwithstanding the waywardness or stumbling of those who bore the Ark; and the Mercy Seat was thus retained unshaken in its position, however the priests might fail or faint by the way.
And so it is with the true Mercy Seat. Not only has God, in his marvellous grace, appointed His Son to be His place of mercy, and our place of access and blessing, but He has provided that, through His divine strength and excellency, the ministration of condemnation shall be for ever closed up, and kept out of sight. So that no wrath shall ever break forth against His people; no shortcomings, no failures, no sins in them shall ever shake the stability of that throne of grace from whence all their blessings are dispensed. The place of mercy and of grace remains ever unshaken and unchanged for them. The ways of the Church of God have indeed been, in many respects, most evil; declension, and backsliding, and failure to a fearful extent have marked their steps; as God’s priests (Rev. 1:6), they have but little remembered the preciousness of the truth committed to their care, but have trodden many a bye-path of evil, and worldliness, and error. But still has the Mercy Seat been retained for them unshaken; still no change has taken place in the position of Christ for them before God; still has the way of access been the same; still has the place of grace remained unaltered; still does the same propitiatory abide; and no intimation of wrath, no thought of any thing but mercy is there in the mind of Him who has taken for ever, as regards His Church, His seat between the Cherubim of glory over the Mercy Seat. The thunders and lightnings of Sinai have been hushed for ever, the law has been for ever taken out of the way, wrath has been appeased for ever. “Mercy that endureth for ever” seems to be the fitting motto for this golden circlet surrounding the Ark. Mercy that endureth for ever has been established on the ground of everlasting righteousness.
The Ark and Mercy Seat Partly Covered
And who has not felt the blessing of this divine power in Him who is our salvation, to retain unchanged his place before God for us, notwithstanding all our failures and haltings on the road? Who has not felt his need of casting himself, again and again, upon the unfailing ability of Christ to maintain his position before God for us, when we have wronged the grace, or trifled with the mercy and truth so richly bestowed? Who has not known the comfort of resting on one who, at the same time that He is plenteous in mercy, is also mighty to save?