The Ark of the Covenant was the most important piece of furniture in the wilderness tabernacle. The tabernacle was the tent or meeting place between God and man. The Lord told Moses to build it (Exodus 25:10-22). The word for ark can also mean “chest” (2 Kings 12:9-10) or “coffin” (Genesis 50:26). It is not the same word used for Noah’s ark. The ark that Moses had Bezalel make was a chest made of acacia wood (Exodus 31:1-5; Exodus 37:1-9 ). The chest measured approximately 45 by 27 by 27 inches (114 by 69 by 69 centimeters). It was covered inside and out with gold. Poles were slid through its two pairs of rings to make it portable. The ark also served as a container for the two tablets of the covenant given to Moses (Exodus 25:16). The tablets were also called the “testimony.” That is why the ark was sometimes called the “ark of the testimony.” A pot of manna was placed in the ark. Manna was the miraculous food provided by God (Exodus 16:33). The ark also contained Aaron’s rod that had sprouted (Numbers 17:10; Hebrews 9:4).
The lid of the ark was called the “mercy seat” or “place of mercy” (Exodus 25:17). It was a piece of gold fitting over the top of the ark. It held its own importance. Once a year the high priest was to make atonement (the covering over of sin) for the people of Israel. He would sprinkle the mercy seat with the blood of bulls and goats (Leviticus 16:2-16). In fact, the English expression “mercy seat” is related to the word for “atone.” The lid was called a “seat” because the Lord was considered as enthroned between two cherubim (winged creatures; Psalm 99:1). The Lord spoke to Moses from between the cherubim (Numbers 7:89).
The ark was sometimes referred to simply as the ark (Exodus 37:1; Numbers 3:31). At other times it was called the “ark of the covenant” (Numbers 4:5; Joshua 4:16). The Israelites were thus reminded that the ark’s holiness derived from the holy law of God contained inside it. That name also showed the Israelites that they needed to follow the commands God had given in his “covenant.”
Those commands were given by the God of the covenant (or promise). He had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt and had promised to be the ever-present God of his people (Exodus 6:6-7). Hence the ark was most widely known as the “ark of the covenant.” Sometimes that name was extended to “the Ark of the LORD’s covenant” (1 Chronicles 28:18, NLT).
At times the ark was called “the Ark of God.” It was a visible sign that the invisible God was dwelling in Israel’s midst. It had a devastating and often deadly “holiness.” The people of Beth-shemesh were severely punished after they had treated the ark without proper respect (1 Samuel 6:19). A man named Uzzah was killed by the Lord when he touched it with his hand to keep it from tumbling to the ground from a cart (2 Samuel 6:6-9). The ark was dangerous to touch because it was the very symbol of God’s presence. For this reason God commanded that the ark be placed in the Holy of Holies. It was to be separated from the rest of the tabernacle (and later the temple) by a heavy veil (Exodus 26:31-33; Hebrews 9:3-5). No sinful person could look upon the glory of God above the ark and live (Leviticus 16:2).
When the Israelites traveled from Matthew Sinai to Canaan, the ark accompanied them in their journey through the desert. It was to be a constant reminder of the holy presence of their God. The methods for wrapping and carrying the sacred objects were carefully described (Numbers 4). God’s relationship with the ark was so close that the ark seemed to be “alive.” It was if it had personal features (Numbers 10:33-36).
The ark clearly played an important role during the desert journey. A group of Israelites rebelled and tried to invade Canaan on their own. Neither the ark nor Moses went with them (Numbers 14:44). The result was defeat at the hands of their enemies (Numbers 14:45). The ark played a significant role in the crossing of the Jordan (Joshua 3:13-17; Joshua 4:9-10), the conquest of Jericho (Joshua 6:6-11), and the life of the Israelites in their new land (Joshua 8:33; Judges 20:27). There is no hint of superstitious or magical use of the ark. Instead, it signified awe. It was the container of God’s “testimony” and the pledge of his presence.
A sharp contrast to the role of the ark in Joshua’s day is found in later times. Religious life in Israel was at a low point in the days of Eli and his sons. This was at the end of the period of the judges. The ark was still respected but looked upon as a magical power to ensure automatic success or victory. When losing a battle with the Philistines, the Israelites rushed the sacred chest to the battlefield. They hoped to gain a victory (1 Samuel 4:1-10). But the Lord did not allow tolerate such obvious misuse of the ark. He allowed it to be captured by the uncircumcised Philistines (1 Samuel 4:11). They inflicted defeat on Israel and death on the house of the high priest Eli (1 Samuel 4:13-22).
At the same time, God defended the honor of the ark when it was offered to Dagon, the god of the Philistines. The account of the efforts of the pagan Philistines to get rid of the ark is humorous (1 Samuel 5–6). This story dramatically illustrated that the Holy Ark could neither be treated superstitiously by God’s people nor mocked by his enemies.
Samuel, a great reformer and prophet, made no attempt to restore the ark to its rightful place after it was returned to Israel. He allowed it to remain in Kiriath-jearim (1 Samuel 6:21; 1 Samuel 7:2). Samuel first had to get Israel to obey God’s covenant before the Ark of the Covenant could be of any use. David, who was called a king after God’s own heart, made efforts to bring the ark back to a prominent place (2 Samuel 6:1-17). It may have been to David’s political advantage to add prestige to his newly established capital, Jerusalem. But Psalm 132 describes David’s concern for the honor of God and for the ark. In a moment of great religious joy and enthusiasm he addressed God directly: “Arise, O LORD, and go to thy resting place, thou and the ark of thy might” (verse 8, RSV). To David, the ark had been “restless” as long as Israel had not yet obtained its “rest.” That is, Canaan had not been completely conquered. By conquering Jerusalem, David virtually completed the conquest of the Promised Land. Finally the land had rest and the Lord could then “dwell” in his temple, the suitable resting place for the ark. Nevertheless, David’s desire to build a temple for the ark was not granted (2 Samuel 7:1-17). He was told that his son Solomon would build a home for the ark and for the Lord. Solomon built a magnificent temple with a place for the ark in the most holy part, behind the curtains (1 Kings 8:1-11).