Updated: Apr 24, 2020
In the hands of Hollywood, the Ark of the Covenant seems like the stuff of science fiction. Part of what makes it so intriguing is that this golden chest seems to have simply disappeared from history, and it's hard not to wonder what happened to it.
The ark was housed in the tabernacle, and their history begins together. (What Was the Tabernacle? Check out this post!) A time comes when they are split apart, and it seems they never come back together again.
What was the Ark?
Called the Ark of the Covenant, or the Ark of Testimony, it was basically a fancy box. You can read a great description of the Ark of the Covenant in Exodus 25:10-22. It is made from Acadia wood, overlayed with gold inside and out, and given rings so that long poles can be used to carry it.
What was the point of the ark?
The ark contained the Testimony, which was given by God to Moses. - Exodus 40:20 (This was likely the ten commandments written on stone, though God gave Moses a fair few instructions beyond that!)
Kept before the Testimony there were:
Aaron's rod which budded with flowers (Numbers 17:10) and a jar of manna, the food God gave them from heaven. (Exodus 16:33-34)
Hebrews 9:3-5 speaks of Aaron's rod and the jar of manna being within the ark, but when the ark is moved by Solomon into the newly built temple, it seems only the testimony is in the ark. (1 Kings 8:9 ) Perhaps the other two were lost during the time the ark was captured, or perhaps they are not kept within the ark, but near it.
Though these relics are amazing, the ark was more than a place for storage.
Another amazing feature of the ark, is that on top there is a “mercy seat”. Exodus 25:21-22 says :
“You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I will give you. There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.”
Wow! Did you catch that? It's no wonder that the people revered the ark, for it was the place where God came to meet with His people. The ark was so special that it was kept within the holy of holies, a separated portion of the temple were only a select few ever walked, and even then it was with fear, trembling, prayers and incense.
When the ark moved from place to place, it was covered with three layers to be sure that no one else could lay eyes on it, and the people were supposed to keep back. If people mistreated the ark and did not revere it, they suffered and died. (1 Samuel 5:6, 9; 6:19; 2 Samuel 6:2-7)
So we have here two of the key items of the worship of the early Israelite, the tabernacle and the ark. (Not that these two were the most important. There was also the altar for sacrifices, the washbasin for purification, the tables for bread, the lamps and the incense burners, all of these were important for worship.)
So, what happened to the ark and the tabernacle?
While the ark is famous for being lost, I thought that the answer to what happened the tabernacle would be straight forward. Nope! It took some digging. The answers in scripture are elusive, and Bible scholars do not all agree. This seems strange to me considering the wealth of detail that we are given about its construction and assembly. I'll come back to this.
When the people moved into the promised land, the first place it is mentioned that they camp in Gilgal. (Joshua 4:19) It isn't explicitly said, but it is implied that the tabernacle was set up here. The ark is obviously nearby, as it is used in the conquering of Jericho.
Next, the tabernacle and ark go to Shiloh. (Joshua 18:1) They stay there for some time. The Bible doesn't give us a number, but according to Jewish tradition, the center of worship is in Shiloh for 369 years.
Then the history of the ark and tabernacle split.
I'll try to keep this chronological.
The ark is foolishly taken out of the tabernacle and lost to the Philistines. (1 Samuel 4:11)
What happened to Shiloh is not spoken of in the narrative, but looking back, Jeremiah speaks of the shame of Shiloh. (Jeremiah 7:12) We can assume that the Philistines—having routed the Israelite army—turned their sights on the religious center of their enemies and destroyed the city. (This was in about 1050 BC*) However, it does not have to mean that the entire tabernacle was destroyed. Some of the tables and altars and lamps and other utensils might have been saved.
The ark returns seven months after being captured, to a place called Beth-shamesh. The foolish people still do not respect God's commandments, and a lot of people died because they looked inside the ark. Terrified, they send for the men of Kiriath-jearim to take the ark to the house of Abinadab. (1 Sam 7:1) It stays here at least twenty years.
In 1 Samuel 21, David goes to see Ahimelech the priest in Nob. Ahimelech gives him consecrated bread, which was removed from before the Lord. This is interesting! Either the tabernacle was saved in Shiloh and set up in Nob, or another tent had been set up. I lean towards the latter. At the very least, it seems the table of showbread had been saved.
After David is helped by the priests, an enraged King Saul slaughters the city of priests. What happened to the tent the priests were using? Once again the Bible is silent, but Jewish tradition says that this tent is destroyed, and another is set up back in Gilgal to continue the sacrifices.
When David goes to fetch the ark, he goes to get it from Kiriath-jearim, but when trouble happens on the way, the ark comes to rest at the house of Obed-edom. (1 Chronicles 13:6-14)
After blessing the family of Obed-edom for three months, the ark then goes to Jerusalem, where David has pitched a tent for it. (1 Chronicles 15:3; 16:1) This tent is not called the tabernacle. It seems to be just a tent. This to me suggests that the tabernacle was destroyed before this. In 1 Chronicles 17:5 the Lord says, "I have not dwelt in a house since the day that I brought up Israel to this day, but I have gone from tent to tent and from one dwelling place to another."
The things that David dedicated to the Lord are eventually added to the temple his son Solomon builds. (2 Chronicles 5:1) Are these things David commissioned, or are these the surviving articles from the tabernacle? (This is one of the places scholars like to disagree!)
The ark remains in Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem until it falls to the Babylonians. (2 Chronicles 36:18) The articles of the temple are captured. While many items are returned to the temple (Ezra 1:7-11), the ark is never mentioned and disappears into history.
When the temple is rebuilt, there is no ark of the testimony in the holy of holies, and by the time of Jesus, the holy place is still empty, save for a rock to mark the place the ark should rest.* Yet, all the other ceremonies continue. So what do you think?
What I find crazy throughout this, is how little attention is paid to the tabernacle's fate. There is so much detail given about its creation and the splendor of the materials used to create this tent. Whether it was destroyed or saved, why isn't there a mention of it?
My humble opinion is this:
1. It seems this history was written in the time of the Temple, and shortly thereafter. By this time the tabernacle was but a hint of things to come: the marvelous temple of Solomon. The tent of meeting does not seem to have the same place in the people's hearts as the glorious temple did.
2. Maybe the historian believed that everyone knew and understood what happened to the tabernacle, and so didn't bother to write it down. Perhaps it simply wasn't relevant to the slice of history he was trying to tell.
3. The empty tabernacle was meaningless. It wasn't the tabernacle itself that was holy. Without the ark—or more precisely, without God's presence—it was just a fancy tent. Why write about an empty tent?
And the ark?
My personal opinion is that the ark was destroyed, and not transported to Babylon. (2 Chronicles 36:19 speaks of the destruction of valuable articles.) I see the soldiers of Babylon taking pleasure in desecrating their enemies' center of worship. In my imagination, I see the soldiers looting the temple, knocking the ark to the ground, breaking off the golden cherubim on top, taking whatever golden overlay they could rip off, and leaving the rest to burn. Otherwise, I think it would have been returned with the other articles in Ezra 1:7. (As to whether someone can touch the ark and live, remember that it is not the ark itself that has power, but God gives it holiness. If God had departed, it was just a box and empty mercy seat. A Roman once strode into the holy of holies, and lived to tell the tale.* God chooses when to reveal His glory.)
What do the ark and the tabernacle mean for us today?
The ark in the holy of holies was revered for being the place where heaven and earth met, the place where God came to be with His people. The high priest would enter and act as the representative of the people, offering up a pleasing sacrifice to the Lord.
The tabernacle was replaced by the temple of Solomon, then a second temple after the exile, and then it was replaced once again. By us, the believers! Isn't that incredible? For generation after generation, the people had to go to a physical place to be near to God. Now, His spirit dwells among us.
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul is admonishing the people to purify their lives and to live with holiness. He says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple [or sanctuary] of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?”
Ephesians 2:19-22 speaks of constructing a new “temple” of believers, with Jesus being the cornerstone from which everything else is aligned, and the apostles and prophets being the foundation.
Sometimes, when reading of the glory of the Lord descending on the tabernacle, or the glory of the Temple of Solomon, I wish I could be there to see it for myself. It's easy to forget that we are living in a special era that these people would have loved to see. The days of Bible history had the prophets, the judges, and the apostles, but we have the holy spirit among us and within us.
Doesn't that just fill you with awe?
Scripture quotes are from the NASB translation.
* Taken from Dictionary of New Testament Background page 818-819, 1167, 1169