“And the cheribum shall stretch out their wings above, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and they shall face one another; the faces of the cherubim shall be toward the mercy seat.” Exodus 25:20
Last month we saw that the ark of the covenant was located in the Holy of Holies. It was the only piece of furniture there. It was shaped like a small chest, and inside the chest were the Ten Commandments. Covering the ark was what God called the mercy seat. In Exodus 25:17, God commanded that this mercy seat be made of pure gold. It had a greater value than all the other furniture in the tabernacle. Its value at today’s gold prices would be enormous. You may recall that all the furniture in the outer court was made of bronze. In the Holy Place, only the lampstand was made of pure gold, but it was smaller than the ark. All the other furniture was made of acacia wood overlaid with gold.
The value of the mercy seat, however, did not come from the fact that it was pure gold. The value came from the blood that was placed upon it. One day out of the year, on the great Day of Atonement, blood from a sacrificial lamb, sacrificed at the bronze altar, would be sprinkled upon the mercy seat.
The first thing a person would notice about the mercy seat would be the two cherubim that were part of the mercy seat—one at each end. The wings of these cherubim stretched out and upward to the point where they almost touched one another at the top. Cherubim are powerful beings created by God. Throughout Scripture they show forth the glorious power of God. The very first place in the Bible where we meet these powerful creatures is in Genesis 3:24. There we read that the cherubim stood at the gate of the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword. It was the sword of vengeance and judgment. The cherubim were witnesses to the great majesty, power, and holiness of God. They were also witnesses of how mankind had insulted the majesty, power, and holiness of God.
In Genesis 3, God used the cherubim to seal up the entrance of the garden, that is, to close up the avenue for mankind ever to return to his original happy state. The word and majesty of God had been trifled with and despised. The human race, represented by Adam, had given credence to the lie of Satan. By his unbelief, man had called God a liar. The cherubim took their place at the entrance of the garden of Eden as avengers of God’s majesty. They stand there as stern proof that mankind was an outcast, banished by God from Paradise itself. In no way is the human race permitted to return to eat from the Tree of Life.
The cherubim guarding the entry of the garden of Eden are put there to show to us the hopelessness and the helplessness of any attempt on the part of the human race to regain life by his own efforts. Unless the glory of God can be met, unless the flaming sword of vengeance can be satisfied, it is vain for mankind even to hope of returning. All we can hope for is to work by the sweat of our brow and in the end, to die. The cherubim were put there to make certain of that!
Notice, however, where the cherubim upon the mercy seat have set their gaze. The guardians of the holiness of God upon the ark of the covenant held their gaze not upon the gold of mercy seat, but upon the shed blood that was sprinkled on it. The place the cherubim has changed. No longer do they stand at the gate barring man’s approach to God and to life; they stand with outstretched wings over the place of mercy. No longer are they connected with the flaming sword. Their faces are permanently fixed on the place of mercy and grace.
Full propitiation has taken place for our sins. It has taken place in the very site where we behold the majesty, power, and glory of God—the Holy of Holies. That which contains the terms of the covenant, the ark of the covenant—that which stood to condemn—now is in our favor because it is covered by the mercy seat of God!
Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would sprinkle blood on the lid of the ark of the covenant. That blood, only a few moments earlier, had been sacrificed at the bronze altar. That blood had been shed for the sins of the people. The sin of the people would be confessed over the head of an animal and it would be killed in the place of the people. The people had committed the sin; they deserved to die because of their sin. Instead, the animal was slain. The blood of that animal was carried into the holiest part of the tabernacle and sprinkled on the mercy seat—the lid of the ark. It would be sprinkled between that which represented the presence of the holy God, above the ark of the covenant, and that which was inside the ark of the covenant, the Law of God. In a very symbolic way, God would look upon His law through the shed blood of the innocent animal upon the mercy seat sacrificed on behalf of the sinful people.
The ark of the covenant was a constant reminder and testimony to the people of Israel of the principle of substitutionary atonement—an innocent victim dying in the place of sinful man. This principle of substitutionary atonement can be traced all the way back to Genesis 3 in the garden of Eden. There God Himself killed an innocent animal for Adam and Eve and covered them with its skin. It culminated at the cross in the death of Jesus Christ on Calvary. There the innocent Son of God died for the sins of His people, covering our sin with His blood.
The New Testament tells us that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Christ. Jesus Christ uses that power and authority for one purpose: to preserve a place of mercy and grace for His saints. Above ark of the covenant, with its terms of the covenant that could not be kept, is the mercy seat. The ark itself pointed to God’s unchanging character, His sovereignty, holiness and justice. The lid to the ark, the mercy seat, pointed to His love, mercy, and grace. The cherubim above the mercy seat teach us that we are not redeemed by corruptible things, like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ (I Peter 1:18, 19).
A Propitiatory Covering
The covering of the ark was a propitiatory covering. It covered that which was in the ark of the covenant. As we saw last month, inside the ark were the terms of the covenant that God had made with mankind, the Ten Commandments. God has wrath against sinful mankind because we have transgressed the terms of the covenant that were in the ark of the covenant. We have gone against God’s standard of righteousness. Because of that, we are children of wrath by our very nature (Ephesians 2:3). If the way of salvation is living up to God’s standard of righteousness, there would be no hope for us. We would be lost in our sin. Adam and Eve could not keep the terms of the covenant. The Israelites could not keep the terms of the covenant. We cannot keep the terms of the covenant.
But there is One who has! God has provided a propitiatory covering for our sins—One whose shed blood propitiates the wrath of the Almighty God against us. Propitiation means changing the way God looks at us. God once looked upon us in His wrath. Now, through Christ, He looks upon us in His mercy and love.
In the parable of the publican we read of a self-righteous Pharisee who had the audacity to think that he had lived up to all of God’s standards. We also read of the poor publican, who with deep humility, would not so much as lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast and cried out: “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18). That word “merciful” comes from the very same word as “mercy seat” or “propitiatory covering.” What the publican meant in his prayer was: “God be a propitiatory covering for me, a sinner.”
In Romans 3:25 we are told that God sent forth His Son to be the propitiatory covering so that no person needs to face the eternal wrath of God. How beautifully Romans uses the mercy seat to point us to Christ. Romans 3 begins by stating that no one can be justified in the sight of God through the Law. All the Law could do was to give to us a knowledge of how we have not kept the terms of the covenant set forth by God. It gave us knowledge of sin but could not put away sin. It certainly could not give us the power over sin.
But now, God’s righteousness in justifying the sinner comes to us independent of the Law. It is through belief in Jesus Christ. The paradise of God is opened up to us once more. The cherubim no longer hold the sword barring our entrance. They look upon the blood on the mercy seat of God.
Eternal life, hidden with Christ in God, is ours through faith in Jesus. Jesus is not only the blood on the mercy seat, He is the mercy seat. He not only covers our sin with His blood, He covers the Law by having kept it perfectly. When the Spirit applies Christ’s blood and His obedience to us—when we confess our sin and seek a righteousness apart from ourselves—we are clothed in His righteousness.
God, through Jesus, can now act according to His own love and grace and at the very same time be consistent with His righteousness and justice. He can do so because the Law has been vindicated. Its righteous vengeance has been poured out upon Christ. God’s justice has been satisfied. His full and eternal love now flows freely toward the sinner. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). God has provided the propitiatory covering for your sin in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. The door of salvation has been opened; the sword of the cherubim removed.
Rev. Wybren H. Oord is the pastor of the Covenant United Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is also the editor of The Outlook.