The order in which Moses is told about the various elements and furnishings of the tabernacle is important. We find that he begins with the ark, and then he moves on to the table and the lamp, after which he tells him how to make the tent. There is an object that is left out and explained later: the small altar of incense. That is not explained till after the great bronze altar and the tabernacle’s perimeter are given, and before the bronze laver. What is curious about this is that the small altar, which is placed inside the tent, is not described when all the rest of the objects in the tent are.
The reason for this is that the objects that come together are the furnishings for God’s dwelling, and the altar is not a furnishing. It is not one of the things for the home, but rather is a function of something else. What we have in the ark, is a footstool, and then we get a table and a lamp.
God has no bed in his house, in fact, the lamp is lit all night long. Why? He who keeps Israel never slumbers or sleeps.
So why, then, does God have a table and a lamp?
We can understand the table better if we look at the four things it says were on it. Exodus 25:29 You shall make its dishes, its pans, its pitchers, and its bowls for pouring.
The dishes are that on which the showbread was displayed: two rows of six loaves. This is what we associate with this table, but that’s not all that was placed on this table. What are the pans, the pitchers and the bowls? Is this God’s holy cupboard? Not quite.
The pans are for incense. The showbread was offered with incense, and incense is symbolic of prayer offered up. So you have a table with bread and prayer. What about the pitchers? For the wine, which was poured out as a drink offering. When they poured out the wine, it was poured into the bowls, or cups, because that must be done decently and in order. Everything is done decently and in order in God’s house.
What do you get? You have a table with bread, wine, and prayer constantly laid out in God’s dwelling place. You have no doubt heard of something similar elsewhere!
It is the table of the Lord.
We also have a lamp. If you look at the description of this lamp you will realize that it is a stylized almond tree. So why an almond tree? Why not an olive tree? Why a tree at all? Why a tree of light?
Almond trees were the first to blossom in the spring. They were for that reason known as watchers. It was a watching tree. The lamp, then, was intended to suggest a watching tree, a watching thing, an illuminator that watched as well, that saw, that understood. The lamps were set into that gleaming, elaborate golden lampstand so that the light would fall directly on the table. It illumined the table of the Lord. As you probably know, oil is a picture of the Spirit, and the light of this illumination that falls on the table of the Lord is representative of the Spirit’s accompanying the words of Scripture, the words of promise, making them effectual to those who receive them with faith.
It is the lamp of the Holy Spirit, shedding attentive light, making all things in God’s dwelling place clear and bright.
And so you have in God’s house, a picture of the Holy Trinity. The Father, monarchial, is enthroned above the cherubim who keep watch at his footstool. From the Father two proceed from all eternity, the Son and the Spirit. The Son is seen in the table, he approaches his people on a mission, giving us true nourishment. And the Spirit illumines it, so that when the sustenance to be had in the Lord’s house is received by faith, it nourishes eternal life. The pattern that Moses saw on the mountain spoke to this spiritual truth: when we come to God’s presence by faith, having access through the merits of Jesus Christ, we are caught up into the life of the Blessed Trinity. There we dwell in God's house. There we can live in communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
“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.
Having loaded his people down with the treasures of Egypt, and having entered into covenant with them at Sinai, the Lord spoke to Moses and told him to take up an offering.
What was the purpose of the offering?
To build a holy place where God himself would dwell with his people. That was the purpose, and that would be the motivation. God who had shown his mighty arm, who had fought for his people and delivered them would live with them. God with them, or God with us, leading to the climactic end of the book of Exodus.
The offering was not compulsory, but voluntary. They had a new master, a good master, one unlike Pharaoh and the taskmasters of Egypt. He would be served by sincere desires and willing sacrifice.
The offering was not to be anything at all, but specifically what God wanted in order to build and furnish his house. This may seem capricious, but only if we do not understand God’s being and character. As meditate your way through the furnishings and structures and the meanings of all they will build, you will understand that God is not doing this in order to have a house according to his arbitrary tastes, but to set up a system of meanings about himself, ourselves, what separates us, and the solution that is coming in Jesus Christ.
And the offering was to be then turned into a sanctuary, a set apart place made not according to their best ingenuity, but according to a pattern that God would show them. It was a place revealed, and a place of revelation: the tabernacle itself revealed God’s purposes for his people.
This collection was the reverse of a bazaar, where all kinds of goods are displayed and the consumer comes and gets and takes away. What God had given them in Egypt, the Israelites now brought together and collected. They gave it to God and used it for God, so that God might have a place to live among them.
And that is a pattern for how we serve the Lord: from the heart, bringing what he requires, and using it as he directs. We find that when we do, just like the tabernacle did of old, we also accomplish God’s own purposes in the best way possible.
Having heard the cry of his people in Egypt, having come down to the burning bush on the mountain, having sent Moses—however reluctantly—having done wonders in Egypt so that his people were begged at last to leave, plundering the Egyptians, having drowned his enemies in the sea, having made the water sweet, provided bread from heaven, given victory over Amalek, poured water out of the rock, and brought them at last to Sinai, God thunders his terms to the people till they can stand no more.
They beg Moses to deal directly with God instead. Moses is the intermediary.
Which makes for a lot of work for Moses.
He goes up and down the mountain some seven times. He writes the book of the covenant. On the day he ratifies the treaty he gets up early and builds an altar. God had specified that the altar had to be made of earth or of uncut stones. One of the reasons for this is that the altar is a mountain: it evokes a mountain. The mountain with fire and smoking before which this altar is, is where God is. In the treaty they are about to make, the altar represents God. The pillars that Moses then raises, represent the people, the twelve tribes of Israel.
What is interesting is that Moses then has young men do the slaughtering of animals. We might think he should get help building altars and raising up memorial stones, and then do the priestly slaughtering himself. Why doesn’t he?
Because he is the mediator, he’s the intermediary: he brings the people and God together, so he has to be the one who builds the representative objects. When it comes to the slaughter, he has something more important to do as mediator: he handles the precious blood.
Half of the blood he splashes on the altar he’s made. He soaks the thing in blood probably—we don’t know how many animals were slaughtered, but if each tribe contributes just one to each kind of sacrifice, we get 24 total. Half of that precious and costly life goes to the altar. When you make a covenant it is solemnized with something serious, something to do with life and death. Hence the blood.
The other half of the blood is collected in pans. It says he ‘sprinkled’ it, but what is more likely here is that he hurled it out in an arc over the people in an attempt to get blood on as many of them as possible. It was probably more than one pan he had on hand, and though not everybody could have been in range, no doubt many were thus spattered. And knowing what it represented, they received it willingly.
Blood is a cleanser, and that is what these people who have purified themselves, used up precious water in the desert washing their clothes to stand in them clean and receive the blood, that is what they needed: cleansing. They were owning the covenant verbally and now through the cleansing and solemnizing that this ‘sprinkling’ involved. You can’t approach a holy God without cleansing, and that is driven home again and again. This sprinkling is a culminative moment for that.
That is why, when the 70 representatives of the people went up the mountain to eat the fellowship sacrifice—half of which was burn on the altar, as God consumed his part of the meal, and then half of which was eaten by the human participants—it says that they saw God and he did not lay hand on them. Who can approach God and not die? They were cleansed, they had a kind of access to him, they saw a vision of God and did not die.
They are in a way returning to Eden. The Garden of Eden, you remember, had four mighty rivers coming out of it. It is hard to picture what exactly the layout was, but one thing is certain about running water, it flows downhill. Which means that Eden was a mountain, the mountain where God came down to and communed with his people. Sinai is a similar mountain, but the access is restricted, mediated, temporary, and partial. It is a picture of what they want to return to, but not the whole way back.
The whole way back is with better blood, blood that truly cleanses us from sin, blood which obtains real pardon. The way back is through the offering of a better sacrifice, one that was obedient as no animal can be, perfectly willing always to do what God required, and whose obedience can be imputed to us. It is only through these merits we can approach God. Jesus Christ came down from heaven and he took up humanity. He is the mountain of the Lord, where God dwells with his people and they with him. Where he is, there is Zion, where God has determined to dwell among his people forever. Moses was the mediator of the old covenant, Jesus Christ mediates the new covenant, uniting God and man, bringing heaven to earth, sprinkling us clean forever.