The Tabernacle: The Ark–The Covering above it (Part 3)
In this final instalment of these Tabernacle studies, we reach the Mercy Seat, the covering that sat above the Ark of the Covenant. We have seen already that together they formed the throne of God, the place where God dwelt and communed with His people. As the exact location of God's dwelling place, it is crucial within the Tabernacle, but we will discover that there are multiple layers of truth to this last item.
In this regard, the Mercy Seat is the richest in typology of all the items in the Tabernacle. Yes, it was the lid to the Ark, and thus covered it, and it was its counterpart, and so it completed it. However, it was also the centre point of the Day of Atonement, and it is its role in this focal day of the Hebrew calendar that we will focus our attention.
First, note something of the majesty of the Mercy Seat. Moses informs us of the presence of the Cherubim. Seven times in the Old Testament we are told that God 'dwells between the cherubim' (1 Sa 4:4; 2 Sa 6:2; 2 Ki 19:15; 1 Chr 13:6; Ps 80:1; 99:1; Isa 37:16) and thus we should not be surprised to read of their presence. God told Moses; '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' (Ex 25:19, KJV). So at each end of the mercy seat stood cherubim. It is interesting that the first time we read of cherubim, they are employed by God to guard the way to the presence of God. Now we meet them again safeguarding the presence of God.
Next, note the mystery of the Mercy Seat. While we have the dimensions of the base, matching the size of the Ark, we nothing is reported of the measurements of the cherubim. Unlike the Lampstand, which also had no recorded dimensions, its weight is not stated.
However, the meaning of the Mercy Seat is of the highest importance. It was on the Day of Atonement that the Mercy Seat was prominent, the one day in the year that the High Priest as entitled to enter the Holy of holies. The purpose was so to make an atonement for sins. The Hebrew word for atonement is derived of the same root as the word for Mercy Seat; thus, we learn that a covering for sin was made on the cover of the Ark. This covering was only temporary for it must be repeated the next year and the year after that. It was a gracious ceremony inaugurated by God to allow a representative into His presence to cover over again for sins. Those who warn against the dangers of limited atonement should take note. Atonement is, by nature, limited and was intended by God to be so. It was good only for a year.
The writer to the Hebrews picks up the idea of the Mercy Seat and develops a rich vein of theology. The word he uses for Mercy Seat is the word translated elsewhere as propitiation, or place of propitiation (9:5; Rom 3:25). Propitiation is a very different idea to atonement. Whereas atonement was limited in that it must be repeated, propitiation is the once for all provision made by the death of Christ. It is the aspect of His death that satisfies the eye of God concerning sins, allowing Him to move out in mercy towards sinners. This work was done once and requires no repetition. So while we note that atonement is limited, propitiation is unlimited. It is limited propitiation that should be preached against with enthusiasm, for atonement is not a New Testament doctrine.
Thus, in type, the Mercy Seat is speaking to us of the work of Christ. In those annual spiritual rituals on the Day of Atonement, a foreshadowing of the once for all sacrifice of Calvary was seen. As the blood was applied to the Mercy Seat, the High Priest was looking forward to a day when blood would be forever applied by the death of Christ. This truth is seen in the way the Holy Spirit takes the same concept of the Mercy Seat and translates them with very different Hebrew and Greek words. The former meaning temporary covering, and the latter, total satisfaction.
Let's turn to the hymnwriter to summarise;
In Christ alone! who took on flesh
Fulness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied -
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.