What was the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant?
The mercy seat was an object that rested on top of the Ark of the Covenant and was associated with the Day of Atonement in the Old Testament. Mentioned more than 20 times in the Bible, the mercy seat is first described in Exodus 25:17-22:
You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.
The Ark and its mercy seat (a type of lid or covering) represented the presence of the holy God. The Ark was kept behind a veil in the tabernacle (and later the temple) in a room known as the Holy of Holies, and could only be visited once per year, on the Day of Atonement, and only by the high priest. The high priest was required to follow specific rules in order to enter; if he broke any of these rules, thereby disrespecting the holiness of God, he would be struck dead.
Because the mercy seat was made of pure gold, it was highly valuable financially. More importantly, its connection with the Ark as well as serving as a cover over the Ten Commandments, gave this object the highest level of importance by the Jewish people.
Who built the mercy seat? Exodus 35 says that the gold came from the people of Israel. The mercy seat was one of many articles of the temple built by artists, metal-workers, and carpenters: "Let every skillful craftsman among you come and make all that the LORD has commanded: the tabernacle, its tent and its covering, its hooks and its frames, its bars, its pillars, and its bases; the ark with its poles, the mercy seat, and the veil of the screen" (Exodus 35:10-12). These craftsmen worked under the leadership of Bezalel and Oholiab (Exodus 35:30, 34; 36:1-2) and constructed the items as God dictated to Moses upon Mount Sinai.
The mercy seat is also mentioned in the New Testament. Hebrews 9 discusses the Holy Place that included the Ark and the mercy seat, saying in verse 5, "Above [the Ark] were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat." Verses 11-12 say, "But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption." The mercy seat is no longer an essential part of atonement. Instead, Jesus Christ Himself has become the One who atones for sin.
While the mercy seat served as an important part of Jewish worship during the tabernacle and temple periods, the coming of Jesus Christ has brought with it a new covenant by which each person can find atonement or forgiveness and payment for their sins through faith in Jesus Christ as God's risen Son (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:8-9).
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