“Have the people make an Ark of acacia wood—a sacred chest 45 inches long, 27 inches wide, and 27 inches high.” – NLT
The first thing God tells Moses to build is this chest. The movement is from the most holy object outward to the perimeter fence, in chapters 25-27.
I find the NLT helpful in providing measurements we can understand. The downside is that it gives us a sense of precision which ancient measurements did not have. There was no standard that we know of. The unit of measure was the forearm, which we usually translate with the term ‘cubit’. But whose forearm?
Still, the guess is accurate enough. Here is the point of the measurements: they were all based on human proportions. This chest is measured to human proportions.
We read that once the wooden box is made, it is covered over in gold, into which are set four gold rings. These rings have gold-covered wooden poles set through them. This is like putting handles on a trunk: they make it portable, and they are never removed. It is a chest that can be moved.
Then they make a cover of solid gold. This is the lid to the chest. It is often called the ‘mercy seat’, and it is not wrong to do so. But the lid is called a cover, and the Hebrew word is one that includes a covering for sin, or an atonement. That is the point of this chest: it is a place for atonement, and in that sense a locus of mercy. Nobody physically sits on the mercy seat.
What the cover has are two cherubs. Cherubs, or cherubim if you use the Hebrew plural, are composite beings. They are the beings that guard the way back to Eden, and here they are guarding the place of God’s presence in the Tabernacle. These are images, images of beings with wings, that could be human in shape, or could be quadrupeds (it appears that scholarly opinion inclines to the latter—google an Assyrian cherub and see what you get). They were meant to be fierce and intimidating, not reassuring. They are not worshipped, however. These are images of guardians, they restrict access, they are God’s security detail.
And that, God says, is where I will be.
What does all this represent?
This chest at the heart of the Tabernacle and at the heart of old covenant worship is a picture of the believer’s heart in the New Covenant. Where does God write his law, where is it treasured up and stored? What is the receptacle? The human heart. What is sprinkled clean by the blood of Christ’s atonement? The human heart is where his blood is applied as a cleansing, to cover our sins and to purify our desires. The old covenant chest was built to human proportions, and it was such a thing as could be moved whenever God desired it. That is the regenerate heart: responsive, moved to ready and eager service of God. In the New Covenant God is enthroned in his gathered people, they are the Tabernacle in whose midst God dwells, and the innermost thing of the innermost place is the individual human heart: where God is enthroned, where access is no longer jealously prevented by fearsome cherubim.