The Ark of the Covenant
Its origin, purpose and destiny
It was in the mid-1980’s, and I was hosting a pilgrimage group on a tour of the Holy Land. We had made the long drive from the Sea of Galilee to Jerusalem and had arrived in “the city of the Great King” exhausted.
It seemed like I had hardly gone to sleep when I was jolted awake by the telephone. Assuming it was my wake up call, I lifted the receiver and mumbled, “Thank you.”
I was surprised to hear a familiar voice on the other end. “Hello, David, I’m calling from Texas!”
“From Texas!” I replied. “All the way from Texas?”
“Yep,” answered my friend, “and guess what? They’ve found the ark!”
“No, dummy, the Ark of the Covenant.”
Needless to say, that statement really woke me up.
A Startling Discovery
My friend proceeded to explain that he had just read in the Dallas Morning News about the discovery of the lost Ark of the Covenant. It had supposedly been found on Mount Pisgah (Mt. Nebo) in Jordan by a religious group from Kansas.
It all sounded a little far out to me. I suspected that someone had lost touch with reality after having seen the currently popular movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Nonetheless, I rushed down to the hotel lobby to get the latest copy of The Jerusalem Post. Sure enough, there on the first page was the story. The writer evidently shared my skepticism because the headline read: “Thar’s an Ark in Them Thar Hills!”
A Suspect Discovery
The story was right out of Alice in Wonderland. Some end-time sect from Winfield, Kansas, calling itself the Institute for Restoring Ancient History International, had issued a statement claiming to have discovered the Ark in a sealed passageway inside Mt. Pisgah.
They offered no evidence, even though they claimed to have taken photographs. They also refused to reveal the exact location of their find.
The leader of the group, who had a reputation for being anti-Semitic, said he was going to prove his good will toward the Jews by turning all his evidence over to David Rothschild.
When asked why he had selected Rothschild, he replied that he considered Rothschild to be the leader of the Jews (an old anti-Semitic attitude!). He also explained that he felt Rothschild had the power to help his group in dealing with the Jordanian government and the Vatican.
A Provocative Discovery
The headlines have since subsided. The Kansas group has returned to its anonymity in the wheat fields. And the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, has become an adventure classic.
But the incident and movie motivated a lot of questions, some of which relate to end time events. What was the Ark of the Covenant? Why was it so important to the Jews? What happened to it? Will it be found again? Is it essential for the rebuilding of the Jewish temple?
The Bible and the Ark
The origin of the Ark is to be found in Exodus 25:10-22. God ordered Moses to build the Ark to house the tablets of stone on which He had written the Ten Commandments. The Ark was a box approximately 4 feet long, 2 1/2 feet wide, and 2 1/2 feet high. It was made of acacia wood and was overlaid with gold inside and out.
The lid that covered the box was called the “mercy seat.” It was made of pure gold. Two gold cherubim were mounted on the lid, one on each end. The cherubim faced each other, and their wings were spread out toward each other, overshadowing the mercy seat.
According to Hebrews 9:4, two other items were later added to the contents of the Ark. One of these was a pot of manna, the miraculous food that God supplied the children of Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 16). The other item was Aaron’s rod that budded (Numbers 17). And according to Deuteronomy 31:24-26, the Ark also contained the Pentateuch of Moses (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.)
Later, these additional items must have been removed from the Ark, because when the Temple of Solomon was dedicated, the Ark contained only the tablets of stone with the ten commandments engraved upon them (2 Chronicles 5:7-10).
The Ark was housed in the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Temple. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest entered that Holy of Holies and sprinkled blood on the mercy seat to atone for his sins and the sins of the nation of Israel (Leviticus 16 and Hebrews 9). Because God had promised Moses that He would commune with Israel “from above the mercy seat” (Exodus 25:22), the concept developed that the Lord of Hosts was enthroned on the cherubim of the Ark (see 1 Samuel 4:4 and Isaiah 37:16).
The Symbolism of the Ark
Much has been made of the symbolism of the Ark, and rightfully so. Suffice it to say that every aspect of the Ark pointed to Jesus.
The acacia wood symbolized our Lord’s humanity. The gold overlay denoted His deity. The Ten Commandments and the Pentateuch inside the Ark pictured Jesus with the Law of God in His heart, living in perfect obedience to it. The pot of manna spoke of Jesus as the Bread of Life or our life sustainer. Aaron’s rod that budded obviously prophesied the resurrection.
The mercy seat was also a symbol that pointed to the Messiah. It was representative of the fact that the work of Jesus on the Cross would cover the Law of God with His mercy, making it possible for those who put their faith in Jesus to be reconciled to God. It is an illustration of how the divine throne was transformed from a throne of judgment into a throne of grace by the atoning blood that was sprinkled on it.
The Ark’s Pilgrimage
As the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, the Ark was carried before them on golden poles by the priests, following “the cloud of the Lord” in order “to seek out a resting place for them” (Numbers 10:33). The Ark was carried into Canaan when the Israelites crossed the Jordan, and it was instrumental in their victory over Jericho (Joshua 6). During the 400 year period of the Judges, the Ark was housed in the Holy of Holies at the Tabernacle that was erected at the religious center of Shiloh (Judges 18:31 & 1 Samuel 1:3).
During the latter part of the period of the Judges, when apostasy was rampant in Israel, the decision was made to carry the Ark into a battle against the Philistines as a good luck charm (1 Samuel 4:1-4). This desecration of the sacred Ark enraged the Lord, and He allowed the Philistines to win the battle and capture the Ark (1 Samuel 4:5-11).
The Philistines took the Ark to Ashdod where they placed it in the Temple of Dagon. But the Ark proved to be a hot box for the Philistines. When all sorts of calamities began to afflict them, they decided to return the Ark (1 Samuel 5 & 6).
It was first taken to Gath, but when the men of the city were afflicted with tumors, it was sent to Ekron where similar afflictions broke out. At that point it was loaded onto a cart pulled by two cows and pointed in the direction of Israel. The cows wandered about until they arrived at the village called Bethshemesh. When the people of that town ventured out of curiosity to look inside the Ark, a great number were struck dead (1 Samuel 6:19-21). They quickly decided to allow the Ark to continue its journey. It ended up at the village of Kiriath-jearim, located just a few miles northwest of Jerusalem (1 Samuel 7:1-2). It remained there for almost 70 years in the house of Abinadab. (The 70 years were the last 20 years of Samuel’s judgeship, the 40 years of Saul’s kingship, and the first seven years of David’s reign in Hebron, before he moved to Jerusalem).
When David arrived in Jerusalem, the first priority of his administration was to provide the Ark a proper resting place because He was anxious to bring the symbol of the presence of God back into the life of the nation (Psalm 132: 1-5). The Ark’s return was an occasion for great rejoicing (1 Chronicles 15:25-29). David placed it in a tent on Mount Moriah (today’s Temple Mount) where it remained until his son Solomon built the Temple. The Holy of Holies in that Temple became the final resting place of the Ark (1 Kings 8 and 2 Chronicles 5).
The Lost Ark
No one knows for sure what happened to the Ark. The last time it is mentioned in Scripture is in 2 Chronicles 35:3. That passage makes it clear that the Ark was still in existence at the time of the spiritual revival led by the boy king, Josiah. Within 22 years after Josiah died, Judah fell to the Babylonians (586 B.C.), and the Ark disappeared.
The majority of scholars believe it was simply destroyed when the Temple was burned. Others believe it was captured as a prize of war, taken to Babylon, and probably melted down for its gold. But many believe it survived and is hidden somewhere today.
The Destruction Theory
Those who believe the Ark was lost when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple point to 2 Kings 24:13 and the parallel passage in 2 Chronicles 36:18. Both assert that “all the articles of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the Lord” were taken to Babylon. But the Jewish sages have always argued that King Solomon anticipated attacks on Jerusalem and the Temple and that he therefore constructed a vault for the Ark that was located deep within the Temple Mount and protected by mazes and false passageways.1 Further, they point out that when the Jews were released from Babylonian captivity by Cyrus, the Ark is not mentioned in the list of Temple treasures that were given to those who were returning to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:5-11).
The idea of a secret vault beneath the Temple Mount is certainly plausible. Furthermore, the existence of such a hiding place is implied in 2 Chronicles 35 where we are told that King Josiah ordered the Levitical priests to restore the Ark to the Temple. It had evidently been removed during the reign of the evil King Manasseh who desecrated the Temple with altars devoted to foreign gods (2 Chronicles 33:1-5).
Further evidence that the Ark may have been destroyed by the Babylonians is the fact that the Ark was never restored to the Holy of Holies when the Second Temple was built after the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity. Each year at Yom Kippur when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, he would sprinkle the blood on a portion of bedrock that protruded from the floor — supposedly the rock on which the Ark had traditionally rested. This rock was called “the foundation stone.”2 The fact that the Holy of Holies remained barren of the Ark is attested to by the Roman historian, Tacitus. He states that when the Roman general, Pompey, conquered Judah in 63 BC, he entered the Holy of Holies and found it completely empty.3
The Jewish sages counter-argue that the reason the Ark was never restored to the Holy of Holies in the Second Temple is because the Jews were never independent after they returned to their land. First they were under Persian control, and then they were conquered by the Romans. They maintain that because of this foreign domination, the Ark was left in its hiding place during the Second Temple period (516 BC to 70 AD).
The Jewish Tradition
As indicated above, the Jewish tradition is that the Ark was placed in an underground vault at the time of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, and it remains there to this day. This tradition is affirmed by several passages in the Talmud. The Jewish sages also believe that entombed with the Ark are other Temple treasures such as the Tabernacle of Moses (the tent temple used during the wilderness wanderings and the period of the Judges), the incense altar, Aaron’s rod, the pot of manna, and the tablets of Moses.4
In 1967 during the Six Day War the Jews regained control of the Old City of Jerusalem for the first time in modern history. Hopes soared among many of the Orthodox Jews that this momentous event would give them the opportunity to explore underneath the Temple Mount to find the vault containing the Ark. However, General Moshe Dayan, acting on his own authority, decided almost immediately to surrender control of the Mount back to the Muslim authorities. He did this to prevent any attempt to destroy the Dome of the Rock. He also felt that such a gesture would indicate to the Arabs that the Israelis wanted to live in peace with them. Dayan was a secular Jew, and the Temple Mount meant little to him.
Ever since that time, Israel has had sovereignty over the Temple Mount, but has relinquished control of it to Muslim authorities. This has made it impossible for the Jews to conduct any archeological excavations on or under the Temple Mount.
In 1981 some Jewish rabbis started clearing debris from an area next to the Wailing Wall area in order to set up a synagogue. In the process they discovered what is called Warren’s Gate. It was a gate that had been discovered a century earlier by the British explorer Charles Warren during an underground probe, but had never been fully excavated. This was believed to be the gate that led to the area closest to the Holy of Holies. The gate was sealed, but the rabbis broke it open and started tunneling under the Temple Mount toward the area that would be beneath the Holy of Holies. But before they could get very far, they were discovered by the Muslim authorities and were forced to stop.
The current Jewish Rabbinate takes the position that the Ark is definitely located in a vault under the Temple Mount but they have ruled that no Jew can enter the vault until the Messiah appears and reveals the exact location of the Holy of Holies.5
One of Christendom’s foremost authorities on the Ark is Randall Price, a Bible prophecy expert and a professor of Judaic Studies at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He has concluded that the Ark is still in existence and is located under the Temple Mount.6
The Jeremiah Tradition
One of the oldest and strongest traditions regarding the fate of the Ark is one that is found in the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees which was written during the inter-Testamental period. It contends that Jeremiah fled Jerusalem with the Ark and buried it in a cave in Mount Nebo which is located in the modern day nation of Jordan.
The narrative in that book says:
“…the prophet, warned by an oracle, gave orders for the tabernacle and the ark to go with him when he set out for the mountain which Moses had climbed to survey God’s heritage. On his arrival, Jeremiah found a cave-dwelling, into which he brought the tabernacle, the ark, and the altar of incense, afterwards blocking up the entrance”
(2 Maccabees 2:4-5).
The two books of Maccabees are not part of the accepted biblical cannon and are therefore not considered to be inspired of God. The story about Jeremiah could be true, or it could simply be a legend.
The Vatican Tradition
There are some people who believe the Ark of the Covenant is in the Vatican. They base this belief on the fact that the arch that was built in Rome to honor Titus’s victory over the Jews contains a frieze that shows Jewish captives carrying a large menorah, which is a seven-branched candelabrum.
Many assume the menorah is the one from the Temple, but that is unlikely for several reasons. First, its base is octagonal in shape with graven images. The Temple menorah is always described in Jewish literature as having a three-legged or triangular base. And no item in the Temple would have had any graven images on it. That would have been considered gross idolatry. Also, the Temple menorah was made of solid gold and would thus have been too heavy for one or two persons to carry it on their shoulders, as the frieze depicts.
The theory is that the Temple treasures, including the Ark, were brought back to Rome and ultimately ended up in the vaults of the Vatican after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Over the years, the Vatican has staunchly denied that it has possession of any of the Temple treasures.
The Ethiopian Tradition
There has been a rumor for many years that the Ark of the Covenant is in the Saint Mary of Zion Church in Axum, Ethiopia. In recent years this idea has been popularized in the writings of Grant Jeffrey, a Canadian Bible prophecy writer.
This rumor is based on a bizarre story that the Ark was smuggled out of Jerusalem by Menelik I, the supposed son of a union between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Supposedly, a replica of the Ark was left in the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem. The motivation for moving the Ark was to protect it from King Manasseh, one of the most ungodly kings in the history of Judah.7
There are all kinds of problems with this legend. For one thing, it is doubtful that the Queen of Sheba ruled over Ethiopia. It is more likely that her realm was modern day Yemen.
Regarding Menelik I, he ruled over Ethiopia around 950 BC, according to tradition. Manasseh did not become king of Judah until 253 years later. Therefore, Menelik’s supposed removal of the Ark from Jerusalem could not have had anything to do with trying to protect it from King Manasseh.
Harry Atkins, an Ethiopian historian, contends that there is no record of this legend in Ethiopian history until the end of the 13th Century. At that time there was a dispute over who should be king, and one of the contenders claimed to be a descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Atkins says it was at that point that the legend of the Ark entered into Ethiopian history.8
The Heavenly Theory
Another theory regarding the fate of the Ark is that it was translated or raptured, being taken up to Heaven to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Babylonians. This theory is based upon a reference to the Ark in Revelation 11:19. This passage is a flash-forward to the end of the Tribulation when Heaven opens and Jesus returns in wrath. The writer states that when Heaven opened “the ark of His covenant appeared in His temple.”
Those who reject this theory argue that the Ark seen in Heaven in this passage is the heavenly reality of which the Ark of the Covenant was only an earthly shadow or copy (Hebrews 8:5).
The Forgotten Ark
Regardless of what happened to the Ark, the Scriptures suggest that it will never be found again. This comes as quite a shock to some Christians who have assumed that the Ark must be found before the Tribulation Temple can be built and animal sacrifice re-instituted. Others have simply assumed that the Ark would be replaced in the Holy of Holies when the Lord’s Millennial Temple is built.
But Jeremiah says point blank that “the ark of the covenant of the Lord… shall not come to mind, nor shall they remember it, nor shall they miss it, nor shall it be made again” (Jeremiah 3:16). The context of this passage is the Millennial reign of Jesus, so it does not rule out the possibility of a discovery prior to that time. Conceivably, the Ark could be discovered, and Satan could use its discovery to incite the rebuilding of a Temple where an apostate sacrificial system would be re-instituted. We know that such a Temple will be built, but I doubt if its construction will be motivated by the discovery of the Ark.
The Non-Essential Ark
The important point to keep in mind here is that the rediscovery of the Ark is not essential to the rebuilding of the Temple. After all, the Temple was rebuilt by Zerubbabel following the Babylonian captivity, and the Ark had already been lost by that time. There was no Ark in the Holy of Holies during the time when Jesus worshiped in the Temple.
Nor is the Ark needed for the Millennial Temple. Ezekiel describes the Temple in great detail (chapters 40-42), and he never mentions the Ark. There is a Holy of Holies (Ezekiel 41:4), but it is empty, and it is not separated from the Holy Place by a veil.
Jesus has already entered the heavenly Holy of Holies in our behalf (Hebrews 4:14-16, 8:1-6). He has torn away the veil that separated us from God, and He serves as our High Priest, having offered His own blood as the perfect sacrifice for our sins (Hebrews 9:11-16). He serves as our Mediator before the Father’s throne (Hebrews 9:24-28).
Thus, during the Millennium, there will be no need for a human high priest or an Ark with a mercy seat. Jesus will serve as both king and high priest, and in that capacity, He will continue to serve as humanity’s mercy seat. (Zechariah 6:12-13).
The True Ark
With regard to this concept of Christ as our mercy seat, let me add a penetrating insight which I picked up from John MacArthur, one of this country’s greatest preachers. He pointed to a simple historical verse that contains a profound truth about Jesus being our mercy seat.
The verse is John 20:12. Speaking of Mary looking into the empty tomb of Jesus, the verse says, “she beheld two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying.” What Mary saw, MacArthur observed, was the new mercy seat, the perfect mercy seat.
Consider again what Mary saw. She witnessed two angels, one sitting at each end of the slab which had held the broken body of our Lord. That scene points us back to the Ark of the Covenant where two cherubim hovered over its blood splattered mercy seat!
There is no more need for the Ark. Jesus has fulfilled all that the Ark stood for. He was deity who took on flesh. He rendered complete obedience to the Law, being made perfect and becoming the source of our salvation (Hebrews 5:8-9). His blood was shed for our sins, and His victory is attested by the fact and the power of His resurrection.
Just as the Ark was designed to be a symbol of the presence of God in the midst of His people, Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s love and care and presence. He is our Ark. He is our Law. He is our Manna. He is our Budded Rod. And, thank God, He is our Mercy Seat.
1) Randall Price, Searching for the Ark of the Covenant: Latest Discoveries and Research (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2005), p. 142.
2) Price, pp. 144-145.
3) Tacitus, Historiae, 5.9.1.
4) Babylonian Talmud, Yomah 52b and The Tosefta, Sotah 13:2).
5) Price, p. 150.
6) Ibid., p. 147.
7) “Menelik I,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menelik_I.
8) Harry R. Atkins, “Ark of the Covenant: Not in Ethiopia,” Queries & Comments, Biblical Archaeology Review (November-December, 1993), p. 78.