Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Ark of the Covenant
ARK OF THE COVENANT, Ark of the Revelation (E.V. ark of the testimony, Exod. xxv. 16, 22, &c.), are the full names of the sacred chest of acacia wood, overlaid with gold, which occupied the holiest place in the tabernacle and temple, and through which the idea of the constant presence of the covenant God with the people of Israel received symbolical expression. The Old Testament religion conceived of God as spiritual, and so could not think to secure His presence by the use of images. But the notion of communication between the spiritual God and His people still took the form of a tryst or meeting (מוֹעֵד E.V. wrongly, congregation, Exod. xxvii. 21, &c.), under conditions of time and place divinely appointed (Exod. xx. 23, 24), and the idea of purely spiritual approach to God without any local and symbolical point of rapport between heaven and earth was reserved for the New Testament (John iv. 21, ff.) In accordance with this view, certain fixed sanctuaries, consecrated by former revelations, were fit places for man to draw near to God. But the constant presence of God with the nation in its wanderings could not be realised without a portable sanctuary, the central point of which was very fitly the chest in which was contained the “revelation” (Exod. xxv. 16, xl. 20), that is, the tables of stone with the ten commandments (Exod. xxxi. 18; Deut. x. 5), which formed the basis of the covenant. This meaning of the ark is symbolically expressed by the addition of an upper piece called the kappóreth (E.V. mercy-seat), which was wholly of gold, and surmounted by two cherubim or symbolical winged figures, which, in the Old Testament, are always associated with the idea of local manifestations of the God who, though inaccessible to man, yet reveals himself to him. The space above the kappóreth and between the cherubim was conceived as the point of meeting between God and man (Exod. xxv. 22; Lev. xvi. 2); and the name kappóreth, which has been very variously interpreted, is probably derived from the atoning ordinances through which alone the high priest, as the people's representative, ventured to come face to face with this awful spot (Lev. xvi.)
The ark contained nothing but the tables of the law, 1 Kings viii. 9. That the pot of manna and Aaron's rod were also contained in it is an opinion resting on Heb. ix. 4, and Rabbinical tradition, but quite without evidence from the Old Testament (Exod. xvi. 33; Num. xvii. 10). That the presence of God to his people above the kappóreth was marked not only by artificial symbols, but by a miraculous cloud, is not certainly taught in Lev. xvi. 2, where the cloud is, according to many interpreters, the incense cloud of verse 13.
As the permanent pledge of God's gracious presence, the ark preceded the people in their march, and led them on to victory (Num. x. 33–36). During the conquest of Canaan it stood in the headquarters of the invaders, first at Gilgal, and then at Shiloh, nor does it appear to have ceased to move from place to place during the insecure period of the Judges (compare 2 Sam. vii. 6 with 1 Chron. xvii. 5), though the pre-eminence of the tribe of Ephraim seems to have kept it for the most part within their territory. At the close of this period we find it established in Shiloh. But the old tradition, that the ark is essentially the sanctuary of the armed host of Israel, with the Levites for its body guard, was not yet extinct, and it was brought into the field and captured by the Philistines in the fatal battle of Ebenezer, which broke the supremacy of Ephraim (1 Sam. iv.) Though soon restored by the Philistines who, smitten by a plague, feared to retain it, the ark could not be replaced in the central sanctuary, which had probably been destroyed in the war, and it remained in obscurity till David brought it to Zion, and again gave to the nation a religious as well as a political centre. Even in David's time the ark was carried into the field by the armies of Israel (2 Sam. xi. 11); but the king, who had himself so long maintained his religious life in banishment from the national sanctuaries, was the first clearly to express the conception, that God's help could reach forth to those who were far from Zion without any material pledge (2 Sam. xv. 25; compare Psalm iii. 4, and the idea of a heavenly temple, Psalm xviii.) So soon as this idea was reached, the importance of the ark (which ceased to be carried beyond the temple) was lost in the gradually increasing weight laid on the fixed sanctuary of Zion. Probably it was altogether lost in the counter-reformation of Manasseh, for soon after, in the beginning of the reign of Josiah, Jeremiah (iii. 16) speaks of it as missing and anxiously sought for, though 2 Chron. xxxv. 3 seems to imply that it was subsequently restored. But Jeremiah teaches that the religious significance of Jerusalem is quite independent of this symbol, and the wild legends of its preservation at the taking of Jerusalem (2 Mac. ii. and elsewhere) only show that the popular mind was unable to share the view that the ark was now an obsolete relic. More poetical is the tradition that the ark was raised to heaven, there to remain till the coming of the Messiah, which embodies the spiritual idea that a heavenly pledge of God's covenant faithfulness had superseded the earthly symbol. Compare with this Rev. xi. 19. Ample traditional material will be found in the younger Buxtorf's dissertation De Arca Fœderis, Basel, 1659. For historical treatment of the subject compare especially Ewald's Geschichte, vol. ii., and essays by Graf in Merx's Archiv, i. 78, and by Kuenen in the Theologisch Tijdschrift for 1872, together with the usual works on Biblical Antiquities.)
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