What is significant about the Ark of the Covenant? What is it?
In Genesis, God had Noah create an ark—a sanctuary for some of those things God had placed man in charge of, namely animals. In Exodus, God gave Moses instructions for a different type of ark. An ornate box that was to hold some of the law God had given the Israelites to be in charge of: the Ten Commandments. It was also a marker for where the presence of God would rest and where God would talk to His people.
The Ark of the Covenant was a different kind of religious symbol than the Israelites were used to. It was not a statue meant to represent the physical manifestation of a god. It was not a container for God—it was to be respected but not worshiped. Instead, it was a place where God and man could meet. Both literally, as God would hover over the Ark when the priests approached it, and figuratively through the law that was kept inside. That law was the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written (Deuteronomy 10:2). These commandments were key in the covenant for which the Ark was named. If Israel followed the Ten Commandments and, as they represented, the rest of the Law God gave to Moses, God would always be in their presence.
In Exodus 16:32-33, Moses told his brother Aaron to take a jar of manna and place it before the Ark as a remembrance of how God provided for the Israelites. In Numbers 17:1-11, as a way of validating the choice of Aaron for High Priest, God made Aaron's staff grow buds, flowers, and almonds. God then told Moses to put Aaron's rod "before the testimony." Hebrews 9:4 is a bit confusing. It appears to say that the manna and the rod were inside the Ark. Looking more closely, however, it could be that the passage says the manna and the rod were inside the Holy of Holies (verse 3), which 1 Kings 8:9 confirms. There are a few other possibilities for how to reconcile these verses as well, discussed in our article "What was inside the Ark of the Covenant?"
The Ark of the Covenant was basically a box with an ornate top. It was made of acacia wood, overlaid with gold. Four cast gold rings were fastened to the feet. Long poles fit through the rings so the priests could carry the box—the only method of transport authorized (1 Chronicles 13:7-10). (Of course, pure gold could not have held the weight of the ark, but if refining techniques were more primitive, the gold would not have been as pure.)
The lid was called the "mercy seat." On the lid were two gold cherubim, facing each other, with wings spread upward and covering the seat. God's presence hovered above the seat, between the cherubim, when He talked to the priest. It's possible that God used the wings to protect the priest from seeing His glory (see Ezekiel 1).
Moses had the Ark of the Covenant built while the Israelites were still wandering the desert. When the priests weren't carrying it, it was held in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle. After Solomon built the Temple, it was moved there. Save for occasional visits to the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:3-11), the home of Obed-edom the Gittite (2 Samuel 6:1-11), and the Israelite army (2 Samuel 11:11), the Ark usually stayed in the Temple. At some point it disappeared, and by the time the Babylonians took the Jews into captivity, the record of its location was lost. The Apostle John recorded in Revelation 11:19 that he saw the Ark in the temple in heaven.
We still do not know where the Ark is to this day, although there are rumors. Second Maccabees 2:4-10 says that Jeremiah hid the Ark in a cave. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims to have the Ark in a treasury that they keep behind locked doors. There are also legends that the Knights Templar or Freemasons have it, but none of these stories are likely. Not even that Indiana Jones found it in Tanis, Egypt, and brought it to America where the government stored it in a warehouse.
Jeremiah 3:15-18 talks about a time when the Ark will no longer be needed or missed. At that time, the Jews will freely and completely follow God. Jerusalem, itself, will be God's throne. We will no longer have to hide from God's presence behind angels' wings, real or gold.
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