As you may remember, it can be argued that the book of Exodus properly ends at 24:11. There are three more chapters of historical narrative in 32-34, but almost all the remainder of the book consists of liturgical regulations such as continue in the book of Leviticus. In that sense these chapters belong more with Leviticus than they do with Exodus. The chapter divisions themselves and the divisions between the books are artificial in any case, so it matters little where one book ends and another begins.
Be that as it may, we begin tonight what is officially known in the Christian church as “the boring part of the Bible.” That’s how unnumbered generations of Christians have thought of these chapters and it is here that they are so often bogged down when trying to read through the Bible. It is not only that we have chapter after chapter devoted to the precise details of the plan for the construction of the tabernacle and its furniture, but then, these chapters are then repeated again later when the account of the actual building of the tabernacle and its furniture is given. You will notice, under the paragraph headings, that the NIV editors have supplied you with the parallel text for each as it is found later in Exodus. Not only do we have to wade through these boring details, but we have to wade through them twice!
So let me say something about this material in general before we descend into the particulars.
First, as we know from the rest of the Bible, the tabernacle, the building itself, its furniture, and the acts performed in it, were symbolic and prophetic. There is more here than meets the eye. As we can gather from this material in Exodus itself but as we learn in Hebrews, for example, the tabernacle was a symbol of heaven, of God’s presence with his people, and of the work of the Messiah, the Savior of the world. We read in Hebrews 8 that it was constructed after the pattern of the Lord’s sanctuary in heaven. The cherubim who sat above the ark of the covenant were heavenly creatures, and so on. In some ways the tabernacle was an embodiment of God himself, or, if not of God, of important truth about God. So the tabernacle spoke of God and heaven. We read in John 1 that the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us and we know in how many ways the sacrifices that were offered in the tabernacle foreshadowed the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. So the tabernacle was an enacted prophecy, a type, of Jesus Christ. For believers prior to the incarnation the tabernacle and its successor, the temple, were dramatic embodiments of the true faith. Listen to this from Vern Poythress’ book, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses: [p. 9]
“Near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the Mennonites own and maintain a strange-looking building. It is a full-scale replica of the tabernacle of God, a special tent-like building described in Exodus 25-30. God commanded the Israelites to make just such a building as His dwelling place among them. The modern Mennonite replica also has within it a mannequin wearing robes like the garments of the high priest of Israel. People come to tour the Mennonites’ building, and as they do, tour guides explain the significance of the various furnishings. People who have read the Bible and go on the tour almost always come away excited. They say, ‘I never understood those Old Testament passages about the tabernacle and the priests. But now that I have seen how it all fits together, and now that I have had some things explained to me, I want to go back and read the passages in the Bible and see how they symbolize who Christ was and what He did.’”
We have to visualize the tabernacle. The Israelites could see it and could observe at least many of the operations performed in it. It shaped their understanding of God and salvation. And it continues to shape ours as the New Testament looks back to the tabernacle and the temple for the terms and concepts with which to explain the work of Christ.
I have told some of you before that my very first trip to Europe started very badly. After graduation from college, two college friends and I left Chattanooga and drove through the night to New York. We caught our plane at JFK and arrived in Luxembourg where we were to rent the car that we would keep for the next four weeks. As it happened we couldn’t get that car in Luxembourg so we took the train to Paris arriving late at night, after all the currency exchange kiosks were closed. To make a long story short, we were tired, hadn’t slept for two nights, and in an effort to find some French money – you will find this amazing young people – but this was before anyone had ever thought of an ATM – I got separated from my fellows and found myself in the middle of the night, alone in a strange city, wondering what had happened to my friends. I spent the night sitting alternately on a table of a deserted sidewalk café and in a bar where it was warmer. Early in the morning I found my friends – they had been locked into the train station – and we made our way as quickly as we could to the airport to rent a car. We were so tired and so disgusted with Paris that we shook the dust of our feet off against it, left the city, and drove out to Chartres to see the famous cathedral. But when we walked into that magnificent church – also intended to be a symbol of heaven and of God’s presence with his people – all our frustration and weariness instantly disappeared. We spent several hours touring that building, climbing its spires, and basking in the spiritual realities so powerfully communicated by that medieval gothic architecture.
I suspect that many an Israelite had the very same kind of experience when he or she came to the tabernacle. They found themselves carried up to heaven and they understood their relationship to God in new and wonderful ways. So remember, what is only a description in words to us, became an experience of power to them. And what the tabernacle provided them visually was the same understanding of salvation and eternity that the New Testament provides for us.
v.12 The tablets of stone apparently held only the Ten Words or Ten Commandments inscribed on them. They are later referred to as the tablets of the testimony and the tablets of the covenant (Ex. 31:18; Deut. 9:9).
v.14 Moses knows that he will be gone long enough to make necessary some provision for the ruling of the people during his absence.
v.16 The verb the NIV translates “covered” is literally the verb שכן)) “dwelt.” The glory of the Lord dwelt upon the mountain. It will be used later in a technical sense of God’s shekinah, the outward manifestation of his presence to men. From this we get the idea of the God “tabernacling” with men in John 1:14. “We have seen his glory,” John says, when the Word dwelt among men.
v.17 God remains a “consuming fire” as we are told at the end of Hebrews chapter 12 and its recollection of this episode of Israel’s history.
v.18 Moses and Joshua – whom, I gather we are to think stayed at some point on the slope of the mountain, perhaps to keep any others from approaching – would not return to the base until chapter 32. Meantime Moses received all the instruction concerning the tabernacle, the priesthood, and Israel’s worship that we are given in chapters 25-31.
The author of Hebrews in his chapter 12 will make a point of the fact that while Israel quailed in fear before the demonstration of God’s glory – the consuming fire – Moses went right up into the cloud to speak with God. It provides a contrast between Moses’ faith and Israel’s unbelief.
25:1 In this introductory section, vv. 1-9, we are told whence came the materials with which the tabernacle and its furnishings were constructed. The first principle of giving is that it must come from the heart, be voluntary and unconstrained. That is a point that will be made to the end of the Bible. The Lord loves a cheerful giver and his work can proceed on the resources supplied only by those who want to give.
v.7 And when men give from their heart to God, they will give the best. One scholar describes the list of materials as a “catalog of opulence.” [Durham, 354] Gold was mined in the Sinai peninsula but probably most will have come from the plundering of the Egyptians. In any case, all of this material was expensive.
v.8 The Lord’s intention is that his presence should be known to his people. A sanctuary is a holy place, a place where God is thought to be present in a special way. That is why it is right for us to call this room a sanctuary, because we meet with God here. His presence is made known to us in a special way in this place.
v.9 Man is not free to make the sanctuary of God according to his own lights. He must follow precisely the instructions God gives him and later Moses will be commended for doing just that. In other words, there is a reality that is being represented here and, as God alone knows that reality, he alone can tell us how it is to be represented. There is an anti-type to this type.
The word “tabernacle” is used in the NIV because it is a term hallowed by long use in English Bible versions (something like the word “ark” for Noah’s barge). The Hebrew word means “dwelling place” and comes from the same root as “dwelt” in 24:16.
v.10 The ark is the foremost symbol of God’s presence in Israel and so its design and specifications are given first. The editors use the term “ark” in their heading, so that no one will misunderstand what is being spoken of, but use the more prosaic “chest” in their translation. As we will see, the ark or chest is in two parts. The chest itself was approximately 3 ¾ feet x 2 ¼ feet x 2 ¼ feet. It was made of the readily available acacia wood and overlaid with gold. The reason it was not made of pure gold was perhaps the weight that would have been involved for a chest that had to be regularly moved. The second part of the chest was its elaborate cover; best translated “the atonement cover.” The cherubs at either end spread their wings over the cover and thus represent the ark as the visible throne of the invisible God. When the ark was moved it was covered and remained unseen (Num. 4:5-6). We learn in 36:35 that cherubim were embroidered into the inner curtain of the temple so there were many more represented than just the two on the ark’s cover. The Bible never describes a cherub explicitly but the visions in Ezekiel 1 and Rev. 4 and other artistic representations from the ANE suggest that they were represented as human faced, winged, sphinxes. [Cole, 191] Solomon’s temple had two enormous cherubim, fifteen feet high, free-standing from the chest, made of gilded olive wood (2 Chron. 3:10) This is one of many ways in which the temple was more elaborate and grander than the tabernacle even though it was built on its basic plan. In any case we understand why later the Lord would be referred to as “the one enthroned between the cherubim.” [1 Sam. 4:4]
v.15 The importance of the poles is that, in this way, the ark may be moved without being touched by human hands. Touching it would, in a later instance, bring disaster.
v.16 The closer to the presence of God, the more expensive the metal. All of this is overlaid with gold. You will notice now the NIV translators have returned to “ark” instead of “chest,” and will through the remainder of the paragraph.
v.17 “Atonement cover” is an interpretation. The word can mean either and the NIV is making it mean both, which is probably the idea. The word is used in atonement contexts, when sin is covered. And it was here that the high priest, once a year, would sprinkle blood to atone for the sins of Israel.
v.21 The testimony is the Ten Words, the ethical demands of the covenant. God’s presence with his people and their worship of him depended upon their living before him lives of goodness and purity. The ANE pagan worship did not have this ethical base. But here, the main function of the chest we know as the ark is to hold the law of God. We cannot know God’s presence apart from submission to his law.
v.22 It is here, before the symbol of God’s presence, his throne in a representative form, that Moses would go to receive the Word of God for Israel and from here he would withdraw with his face shining with the divine glory.
v.27 This table also was to be moved without contact with human hands.
v.30 The bread of the presence or the showbread as the KJV has it, was located in the Holy Place, not the Most Holy place where the ark alone was placed. The regulations regarding the bread of the presence are found in Lev. 24:5-9. Twelve flat cakes, arranged in two rows, were put out fresh-baked every day or week and were to be eaten by the priests only. It is widely thought that this custom of putting out the bread of the presence every day is the origin of the idea of our “daily bread.” There was incense placed on this table as well.
v.31 There is a carved representation in the Arch of Titus in Rome both of the table just described and of this lamp stand or, as it used to be called, candlestick. These items were, of course, from Herod’s temple, but they seem to be quite similar to what is described here. Remember, Titus destroyed that temple and plundered its treasure and these were things that he carried away. This is the famous menorah that has become symbolic of Israel in the modern world. The lamp stand was designed to look like a tree.
It, of course, had a practical function as there was otherwise no source of light in the holy place. He who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. Solomon had ten of these in his great temple. It should be pointed out that the terms that the NIV translates in the description of both the lamp stand and the table are technical terms and are uncertain of translation. The representation on the Arch of Titus has had a great influence on what we think the lamp looked like: a solid gold, seven-branched lamp stand.
The Lord had appeared to Israel on Mount Sinai in the cloud, thunder, and fire. But Israel was to move on from there in due time. Would she lose therefore the privilege of being near to God? No, it would be the function of the tabernacle to serve as a tangible symbol of the Lord’s presence with his people. There is a reason why this legislation about building the tabernacle and furnishing it with furniture that was symbolic of God’s presence and which would be the means of communicating that presence comes right after the account of Yahweh making his covenant with Israel. The relationship between the Lord and Israel, established or, better, renewed in the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai, would be expressed and confirmed in the Tabernacle and its worship. It would sit in the middle of Israel’s camp, visible from all sides. This is the point that explicit attention is drawn to as the rationale for such a structure in 24:8: “have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.” What follows in these instructions about furniture and sanctuary has to do with the dwelling of God in the midst of his people, with his presence in Israel. The light of the lamp stand is, whatever its practical purpose in illuminating the room, a reminder of light as a symbol of Yahweh’s presence. How often we have light in some way representing God and his grace. Jesus is the light of the world and the light illuminating every man. The bread of the presence which is placed on the table is also representing the Lord’s presence with his people, the one who provides food for his children and welcomes them to share a meal with them. And the ark, supremely, as a representation of Yahweh’s throne and of the presence of the law-giver, was a demonstration of the presence of God with his people and what sort of God he was.
It is very interesting that this sanctuary is both like and unlike other ANE sanctuaries. For example, in one temple of Baal, the articles of furniture were: a throne, a footstool, a lamp, a chest of drawers, a table with its utensils, and a bed. The bed and the chest of drawers are necessary according to the pagan theory because the gods are like human beings in their requirements. Baal needs a bed to lie on and needs a place to put his clothes. There is nothing like that in Yahweh’s sanctuary, Yahweh is not like and is far above his creatures, but it did have a throne of a kind, the ark, a table with bread, and a lamp. The Lord has accommodated himself to the times of his people, but his sanctuary reflects his true nature as the one, living God, who has brought his people into fellowship with himself and gives his presence to them.
Now, I want to return to the fact that we find chapters like these the “boring parts of the Bible.” It is difficult for us to see the relevance and, frankly, we get bogged down in the details.
Part of that is the fact that modern Western culture is much less oriented to symbols than was the culture of the ANE (and, for that matter, than many other cultures in the world today). Our modern, industrialized culture is dominated by scientific and technological forms of knowledge. “Such knowledge minimizes the play of metaphor and the personal depth dimensions of human living.” [Poythress, 38] It is not entirely true that modern life is not oriented to symbol, but it is much more true than once it was. Symbols now are more likely to be found in advertising and commerce than as serious conveyers of fundamentally important reality. Ancient Israelites, in any case, were much more familiar with this form of knowledge and understood it much more intuitively and easily. If the tabernacle were symbolic of God’s presence with his people, as we read it was in 25:8, then there is much to learn here: of God and his nature, of heaven itself, and of the way of salvation. The rest of the Bible tells us that these are precisely the things revealed in the tabernacle, its furniture, its officers, and its activities and in the beauty and extravagance of its construction. One has to be attuned to the symbols to learn this way.
But symbols function in a different way and at a different level than straightforward statements of truth. God is holy is a true statement and a very important proposition. However, the tabernacle’s elaborate rules governing access, the necessity of atonement for access to God and peace with God, the fact that only the high priest and he only once a year was able to enter the most holy place, the fact that angels guard the Lord’s throne, all of these things and others like them teach us something about God’s transcendence and holiness that lies deeper than simply the statement of the fact. With such symbols comes not only the knowledge but the force of that truth.
We recognize this in other ways. I have now, as a father, paid more than $100 twice to have dry-cleaned and packed for permanent storage a very expensive dress that was worn for only four or five hours! Why do we do this except that at a very deep level such symbols as a wedding dress convey great and precious meaning? It is right that it should be expensive and right that such care should be taken of it afterward, even if it is never worn again. And, as we are talking about the tabernacle, we might say the same thing with regard to church architecture through the ages. From the gothic cathedral to the English parish church to American colonial churches Christians have instinctively chosen architecture that at a deep level conveyed something of God, of his presence, his glory, his beauty, the order of his cosmos, and the right way of approach to him. The fact that a young college student can walk into the cathedral in Chartres and find his spirit overcome by the unspoken message of that church is proof of the power of symbol to convey propositional truth together with its emotive power. Well, such was the tabernacle.
God was with his people and the tabernacle demonstrated that and conveyed a living sense of that in a most profound and happy way. And, remember, all of this was done according to a template, a pattern, architectural drawings based on a anti-type, an archetype, a sanctuary in heaven of which all human sanctuaries are at best copies, even shadows. There is a throne of the invisible God of which the atonement cover is but a symbol; there is a divine footstool of which the chest itself is but a representation. (By the way, the ark, that is the chest itself, is referred to as the Lord’s footstool on a number of occasions in the OT.)
And so it is when we come to this sanctuary to worship of a Lord’s Day. Now, I made the point last time and will not repeat it every Sunday night as we make our way through this material, that the worship here described in Exodus and our worship of a Lord’s Day in this place, is the same worship. It too is primarily a two-fold liturgy of word and sacrament. It too is a ceremony of covenant renewal. The outward forms have changed, but the thing itself, its nature, its principle, even its forms are, at bottom, alike. So when we talk about the worship of the tabernacle we are talking about our own worship as well, necessary changes – outward changes – being made.
When we pray that the Lord would lift us up into the sanctuary of the Most High; when we acknowledge that the Lord is enthroned on the praises of his people; when we confess that Judah has become God’s sanctuary, we are saying also that our worship is representational. It is at the deep level of symbol that we convey this reality and experience. We kneel before the Lord as if we knew that he were sitting enthroned at the front of the church. The kneeling in a sanctuary is symbolic of the nature of our relationship to God. We obviously cannot see the Lord or point ourselves toward him, nor, for that matter did Moses or Israel see the Lord, though they saw visible representations of his glory. We cannot watch our sins being taken off our hearts and away from us. We cannot see the Lord receive our gifts. We must believe that he is with us and that these things occur, but then Israel had to believe that too. But, in fact, we are before the Lord and are gathered in his presence. When we bow before him we are acknowledging that presence and his holiness and majesty. When we confess our sins we acknowledge that we cannot come into his presence except by virtue of the redemption that he supplied in his Son, Jesus Christ. When we hear his Word and hear it preached by one of his ministers, we acknowledge that it is not a man but the Lord himself who is speaking to us. And when we hear ourselves singing amidst the congregation great hymns of praise to God and have a sense of God’s presence with us in that moment, we say with every right that we are anticipating the life of heaven. These things are real, as real as bricks and wood, even though they are still, even in the new epoch, conveyed to us symbolically and representationally in many ways.
Still, how alien this can sound to our so modern ears. We think that if we were to take Moses’ place and ascend to the very footstool of God, there to speak with him, we would ask him – so we think – we would ask him more important things. We would want to know about Iraq and about the war on terror. We would want him to speak about important cultural issues such as abortion or gay marriage. Or we would want to ask him about matters of great consequence to us: our family, our marriage, our work, our relationships, our health, and so on. And, instead, for 40 days Moses remains at the top of Mt. Sinai, in the presence of the living God, in the midst of phenomena that terrify the rest of Israel, and then comes down with…instructions for a chest, a table and a lamp. What? Surely there are more important things than that! But, of course, that is precisely the point. There are no more important things in all the world than that we should know the presence of God and should relate to him according to his holiness and majesty. Nothing bears more mightily on our lives and every aspect of our lives than whether we draw near to God in that way appropriate to our sin and his holiness. Nothing is more important to Iraq or to the world as a whole than that the church draw near to God in that way appropriate to his holiness. Will God remain with us and we with him? That is the question! That is finally the only question. And the answer to that question lies in and is conveyed at the deepest level by that worship that reflects the heavenly realities and represents the nature of God’s covenant with us his people. That was the worship that was taught Moses by Yahweh on the top of the mountain. When Christians nowadays change their worship into something that no longer conveys these eternal realities but rather conforms to a modern culture that feels access to God to be a small and simple thing and wants primarily practical help with life problems, when worship moves away from the tabernacle to the sales meeting, we are in grave danger of losing the divine presence altogether. After all, there are multitudes today who do not know the Lord yet imagine that they worship him. In moribund and unbelieving Christian churches and in the sanctuaries of other religions.
They do not bow at his footstool where his law resides. They do not accept that they can have no relationship with God apart from obedience to his will. Or, they do not accept that the throne of God is reached by atonement, the shed blood of the sacrifice that God provides for the salvation of his people. They do not accept that without Christ there can be no relationship with God. Or they imagine that they are at peace with God but do not look to him for their daily bread or for the light to illumine their path through this world. And, so, though their worship may look like worship in some ways, it is but an imitation, a false worship, displeasing to God because it is not fashioned after the pattern that was shown us on the mount.
The tabernacle and its worship were designed to impress upon the hearts of God’s people in profound ways the truth about God and man and the truth about salvation. Every time God’s people drew near to worship God there those truths were once again impressed on their hearts. And the same is true and must be true of our worship on the Lord’s Day.
These are the boring parts of the Bible only if you think it a small thing to draw near to God’s throne, to find from him the forgiveness of your sins, to reaffirm your commitment to living according to his law, to find yourself already in heaven – at least in anticipation – and to look to him for light and for the provision of your daily bread. That is what the tabernacle was to God’s people and what true worship is for us today.
No wonder the attention paid to it in Holy Scripture!