The doctrine of the ark of the covenant is basic to the doctrine of the church, but, unfortunately is very much neglected and by-passed. This neglect is due in large part to controversy, hostility, and ill-will between Christians and Jews over the centuries. At the beginning, Judea was hostile to Christianity as a schismatic group of Jews; during the first century, the church was overwhelmingly Jewish. The fall of Jerusalem intensified that hostility. After the fall of Rome, Christian missionaries and Jewish merchants tended to work together among the barbarians as common forces for civilization. With the Crusades, hostility towards and persecution of Jews for religious reasons began. Both the earlier Jewish hostility and the later Christian hostility had far-reaching effects on both groups. After the apostolic age, Jewish scholars re-interpreted the Old Testament to down-grade everything which pointed to Christ; the doctrine of the atonement was one of the casualties, so that the basic fact of the covenant ceased to have its earlier meaning. In the Christian Church, the Old Testament was down-graded after c. 1000 A.D. out of hostility to the Jews, and the slow but steady attrition led to modern antinomianism; here also the doctrine of the covenant suffered.
One consequence of this development in the church has been the absence of any great interest in the ark of the covenant. The result is an anemia in Christendom.
First of all, before discussing the significance of the ark, let us follow Oehler in his summary of what the ark was. It was "the symbol and vehicle of the presence of the revelation of Jehovah among his people." We can be more specific than Oehler is: the ark of the covenant set forth the real presence of God among His covenant people. The doctrine of the real presence is basic to Scripture. Most Protestants are fearful of the doctrine, because it seems to point to Rome, or at the least to Lutheranism. On the contrary, it points to the Bible and to the ark of the covenant. The Roman Catholic doctrine, as well as the Lutheran version, points to Greek philosophy, as do various doctrines of Eastern churches. My hostility to Greek premises is very great; this should not blind one, however, to the fact that the doctrine of the real presence is not tied to this philosophy.
The ark is called the throne of God; Jeremiah says that in time the new Jerusalem, God's people, shall instead become God's throne (Jer. 3:16-17). The ark is also described as God's footstool (I Chron. 28:2; Ps. 99:5; Ps. 132:7).
There were three parts to the ark: The mercy seat on the ark, the tables of the law in it, and the cherubim over it. Since the cherubim were the most dramatically visible aspects of the ark, we should consider them first. We meet them in Scripture in Genesis 3:24, barring the entrance to the Garden of Eden. Next, in Exodus 25:20, the cherubim protect and shade the ark. Again, in Psalm 18:11, we meet the cherubim as the cloudy chariots on which the Lord rides. In Ezekiel 10:1ff., and Revelation 4:6-11., the cherubim are called living creatures. When God manifests Himself to the world, the cherubim reflect His glory to make God accessible to man's eyes. God's real presence is veiled as well as marked by the cherubim. In their appearance, they evoke many natural phenomena, indicating that this world itself reveals God to us, and God's real presence in it transfigures things around Him. The cherubim signify the presence of God, and, because God in His majesty is beyond the grasp of man's mind, so too the very beings of His presence are beyond our ability to comprehend.
Next, we have the mercy seat, the throne. God says, "There will I meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat" (Ex. 25:22). The mercy seat represents atonement, which alone makes communion possible. A cloud of darkness, like the cloud in the wilderness, veiled the glory or presence of God on the mercy seat (Lev. 16:2; Ex. 13:21; Ex. 40:34-38). The atonement makes communion possible between God and man, but, until the Lamb of God comes and makes that atonement in fact, replacing symbol, man could not see the unveiled glory of God, His real presence (Heb. 9:8).
In the ark were the tables of the law, the testimony. Oehler's comment here is excellent:
This means that God sits enthroned in Israel on the ground of the covenant of law which he has made with Israel. The testimony is preserved in the ark as a treasure, a jewel. But with this goes a second consideration; while the law is certainly, in the first place, a testimony to the will of God toward the people, it is also (comp. what is said in Deut. xxxi. 26f. of the roll of the law deposited beside the ark of the covenant) a testimony against the sinful people,-a continual record of accusation, so to speak, against their sins in the sight of the holy God. And now when the kapporeth is over the tables, it is declared that God's grace, which provides an atonement or covering for the iniquity of the people, stands above His penal justice.1
The ark of the covenant thus represents an awe-inspiring fact: the real presence of God was in the holy of holies. We are, however, given an even more startling fact in Jeremiah 3:16-17. In the Messianic age, the real presence of God will no longer be in the ark but will be so much among God's people that the glory of the ark will be forgotten and not missed.
Very plainly, we are told that the real presence is a fact of the Christian era. If Christians are not mindful of the real presence, it is because of blindness, and it is a judgment against them. The prophet Ezekiel tells us that, because of the sins of Jerusalem and Judea, the glory of the Lord, His presence, left the Temple and Jerusalem (Ezek. 11:22-23). Only Ezekiel, God's faithful man, saw it. Will not this generation, which does not even recognize the real presence, lose it also? Can we dare neglect the real presence? Over the generations, the church has erred in neglecting this fact. The real presence in communion is only one facet of this doctrine.
To deny this doctrine is to court disaster. It leaves the Christian alone before the world. For the modern Christian, the triune God is very remote. Even those churches holding to the real presence in communion now show a very real attrition of this faith. The charismatics have insisted on the real presence of the third person of the Trinity, and while I cannot see tongues as a valid fact, very clearly charismatic churches have an advantage in faith and power in seeing the reality of the divine presence in various ways.
The real presence must be seen, however, as a total fact. The ark of the covenant moved with Israel, and, in fact, led the way, protecting, guiding, and leading the covenant people. We are told that we have this same invisible but real presence now and throughout life. According to Hebrews 13:5-6,
5. Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee,
6. So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.
This is simply the repetition of a promise made repeatedly in Scripture, as witness these verses:
And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. (Gen. 28:15)
6. Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them; for the LORD thy God, he it is that doth go with thee: he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.
8. And the LORD, he it is that doth go before thee: he will be with thee, he will not fail thee, neither forsake thee: fear not, neither be dismayed. (Deut. 31: 6,8)
There shall not any man be able to stand before thee all the days of thy life: as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee (Josh. 1:5)
The LORD is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear? the LORD is the strength of my life: of whom shall I be afraid? (Ps. 27:1)
4. In God I will praise his word, in God I have put my trust; I will not fear what flesh can do unto me.
11. In God have I put my trust: I will not be afraid what man can do unto me.
12. Thy vows are upon me, O God: I will render praises unto thee. (Ps. 56:4,11,12)
The Lord is on my side: I will not fear: what can man do unto me? (Ps. 118:6)
If we try to weaken the force of these words from the Old Testament by saying they were promises to very great saints, we cannot alter the fact that Paul applies these promises to all of us. The truth is that in both Testaments we have the same God and the same real presence. He is the Lord: "the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever" (Heb. 13:8).
The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter I, "Of the Holy Scripture," says plainly that, as the believer reads the Bible, he has "the inward illumination of the Spirit of God." Biblical texts in confirmation of this are cited. But why limit this instance of the real presence to Bible study? Or why limit it to the communion elements? Is it not rather a basic fact in the life of the church, and in the life of the faithful?
It is a serious offense against God to limit the scope of His real presence. The denial of this doctrine also makes a eunuch out of the church and the believer.
In 451 A.D., when the Armenian hostages were before the Persian court, most of the religious leaders of Armenia were there facing death. These included Sahag or Isaac, the Rushdoony bishop. The nakharars or nobility declared there that the church was not man's creation nor stood in man's power. The church, they declared, is the gift of God, established upon the rock, unmovable and unshakable.2 The priest, Ghevont, declared: "We are not alone as you suppose." "There is no empty space where Christ our King is not revealed."3
The real presence is a fact of church history. To deny it is to invite disaster. It means separating Christ from the believer, and Christ from the church. A church without the real presence cannot long endure. To disregard the presence of a friend at a gathering leads to trouble; how much more so to disregard the presence of the Lord? When Israel did so, God abandoned them to their enemies, and the ark was taken by the Philistines (I Sam. 4:11). This judgment brought disaster to the Philistines, but even more to Israel. Asaph tells us:
56. Yet they tempted and provoked the most high God, and kept not his testimonies:
57. But turned back, and dealt unfaithfully like their fathers: they were turned aside like a deceitful bow.
58. For they provoked him to anger with their high places, and moved him to jealousy with their graven images.
59. When God heard this, he was wroth, and greatly abhorred Israel:
60. So that he forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which he placed among men;
61. And delivered his strength (ark) into captivity, and his glory into the enemy's hand.
62. He gave his people over also unto the sword; and was wroth with his inheritance.
63. The fire consumed their young men, and their maidens were not given to marriage.
64. Their priests fell by the sword; and their widows made no lamentation. (Ps. 78:56-64)
It is clear from Scripture that God's judgment is most obviously severe on His own people, who, having enjoyed His providential care and mercy, despise Him and His presence. As Peter declares, "For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be, of them that obey not the gospel of God?" (I Peter 4:17).
Note that Asaph speaks of the ark as the "strength" (or might, oz in the Hebrew) of God. Jesus Christ is the manifest power of God incarnate. To deny His real presence with His church is to insist on powerlessness.
In The Foundations of Social Order, I discussed and summarized the meaning of the iconoclastic controversy.4 This struggle had roots in Greek philosophy, but it also had a premise very important to us. The issue was the incarnation: does the state manifest the visible power of whatever gods may be, or does Christ's real presence govern history? Today, in the current war of the state against Christian schools and churches, we have a like battle. The state insists on its sovereignty or lordship, and the church, either denying or having a weak doctrine of the real presence of the Lord, is faltering in that battle. In the course of that battle, the church must remember that it takes more than a mere affirmation of the real presence to ensure victory; faithfulness is required. Israel, facing the Philistines, sought to gain an advantage by bringing the ark into the battle (I Sam. 4:1-11). Because of their sins, the presence of God brought judgment upon Israel.
1. Gustave F. Oehler: Theology of the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan). p. 258. cf. 257-261.
2. Yeghisheh: 451 A.D. (Chronicles). (New York, N.Y.: The Delphic Press, 1952). Translators: H. Zovickian, D. Boyajian. p. 53.
3. Ibid., p. 203.
4. R. J. Rushdoony: The Foundations of Social Order. (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, (1968) 1972, etc), pp. 148-160.
Taken from Systematic Theology in Two Volumes, pgs. 740-744
Topics: Reformed Thought, Statism, Theology, Culture , Biblical Commentary, Epistles, The, Major Prophets, Pentateuch, Poetry & Wisdom Literature, Church History, Old Testament History, Church, The, World History, New Testament History