The Ark of the Covenant in the Bible

In Exodus 25:10, Moses receives the command to build an ark of acacia wood. Within this ark were to be placed the tables of the law which God was about to give to Moses. Upon the top of the ark, probably not as a lid but above the lid, was a golden plate upon which two cherubim, with raised wings and facing each other, covered the ark. From the place between the two cherubim, God promises to speak to Moses, as often as He shall give him commands in reference to the Israelites. 

The ark was designed to be a symbol of the presence of God in the midst of His people is the common teaching of the Old Testament. This place on the lid was also referred to as the “Mercy Seat”. Once a year a priest would enter the holy tent and sprinkle blood from a sacrificed animal to atone for the sins of Israel. This old covenant on the Day of Atonement is no longer needed as Jesus Christ became a new covenant in which His sacrifice on the cross was a complete atonement for sins.  

According to the statements in the Priestly Code, the ark of the covenant was a chest made out of acacia wood, 2 1/2 cubits (about equal to 4 ft.) long, 1 1/2 cubits wide and 1 1/2 high. It was covered with gold within and without and was ornamented with a molding of gold running all around it. At its four feet, rings were added, through which the gold-covered carrying-staves were put.

Other contents to believed to have been in the ark of the covenant were: a pot of Manna from when Israel was in the wilderness to remind them of God’s love, provision and care; and the rod of Aaron to symbolize God’s given leadership and priesthood.

According to the tradition contained in the Pentateuch the sacred ark was built at Mount Sinai and was taken by the Israelites along with them to Canaan. When Israel had been conquered by the Philistines, the ark was taken from Shiloh in order that Yahweh should aid His people. When Philistines yet conquered and captured the ark, the many misfortunes that overtook them made them think that the possession of the ark was destructive to them and they sent it back. The ark then settled in a holy tent for priests until King Solomon placed the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies of this temple, where it was placed under the wings of two mighty cherubim images. The ark is believed to have been destroyed with the destruction of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar.

Photo Credit: painting by Benjamin West, Joshua passing the Jordan River with the Ark of the Covenant, 1800

What Was the Significance of the Ark of the Covenant?

When the word ark is mentioned in correlation to the Bible, many picture Noah’s ark, the gigantic boat housing two of every animal before the big flood. The picture of the Ark of the Covenant can be less common in Christian culture. What was this ark and what was its significance? Let’s see what the Bible has to say about this important artifact in history.

What Was the Ark of the Covenant?

In Exodus 25:10, the Lord told Moses to instruct the Israelites to build an ark. The Message translation identifies this creation as a chest. The chest was to be made of acacia wood measuring “two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.” Today, a cubit is equal to about 18 inches. The Ark was highly adorned, gold plated in and out, with a golden band around the outside. It held four gold rings on the bottom, each with a gold-plated rod inside used to carry the Ark. It also had a golden lid with two wide-winged angels facing one another. The Lord said he would come to speak to the people between the placements of the two cherubim.

The Ark of the Covenant held three important items. The first contents were the tablets with the 10 Commandments the Lord gave to Moses. Secondly, the chest held a jar of manna as a sign of remembrance when the Lord provided bread in the wilderness after the Israelites escaped Egypt. Lastly, in Numbers 17, we find the miracle of Aaron’s budding rod, confirming his divine priesthood. His rod was placed in the front of the Ark. Matthew Henry states these three items were preserved “to show to after-ages how the ancient church was taught, and fed, and ruled.”

What Was the Meaning of the Ark?

Before Jesus died on the cross, the Holy Spirit didn’t come into the hearts of believers. Today Christians are continuously in the presence of God and can call on him anytime. The Israelites didn’t have that luxury. The Ark of the Covenant represented God’s presence. There are several examples of this in Scripture.

In Joshua 3, the Israelites needed to cross the Jordan River to get to the Promised Land. Orders were given to follow the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant. In verse 5, the Bible says Joshua told the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.” The next day, the Lord proclaims “Today I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of all Israel, so they may know that I am with you as I was with Moses” (Joshua 3:7). The priests brought the Ark into the river and the waters were stopped to allow the Israelites to cross. After everyone made it to the other side, the chest was removed and the waters again filled the river. The Ark, representing God’s presence, allowed the people to safely cross the Jordan.

As the Israelites continued on their journey, the Ark became instrumental again in Joshua 6. The people were up against Jericho’s wall where no one came in and no one came out. The Lord told Joshua to have armed men march around the wall for six days. Priests in the procession blew trumpets followed by the Ark of the Covenant. On the seventh day, the marching army was instructed to give a loud shout and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. The people did what the Lord instructed and took over the city. The chapter ends with verse 27: “So the Lord was with Joshua, and his fame spread throughout the land.” God’s presence and power, seen in the Ark-marching army, caused the walls of Jericho to collapse.

The meaning of the Ark is confirmed in 1 Samuel 4. The Israelites were fighting against the Philistines and losing terribly. They decided to get the Ark, hopeful its presence would help them defeat their enemies. When it arrived, the Philistines became weary that a god had entered the camp. They fought and overcame the Israelites stealing the holy artifact. They put the prize in the Dagon’s temple, but the statue of their false god kept falling before the Ark. The Lord brought more devastation on the Philistines, and they decided to get rid of the stolen possession, moving it to the city of Gath. However, Gath experienced the same horrible hardship and relocated the chest to a third city, where again devastation afflicted the people. Finally, after seven months, the Philistines decided they’d had enough. They needed to return the Ark to the Israelites.

Why Did God House Himself in the Ark?

The Ark was housed in the tabernacle where Israelites brought offerings to God. Before God gave instructions to build the tabernacle, he told Moses “Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). Part of the sanctuary included the Ark of the Covenant which had an atonement cover. Two angels sat on top of the chest’s cover, with a Mercy Seat in between them. The Lord said he would come to the Mercy Seat to give the Israelites the commandments.

God came to the Ark when priests were present. They carried the sacred object with poles. Because of his holy nature, the priests would die if they touched the place God resides. explains “The reason for this is because God's glory and presence cannot be touched by man. Our sinful natures cause us to keel over if we come into the presence of the Lord, without the Holy Spirit residing within us.” As mentioned above, because these traditions took place in the Old Testament before the birth and death of Jesus, the Israelites did not have direct access to the Holy Spirit.

What Happened to the Ark throughout History?

In 1 Samuel 6, the Philistines decided to return the stolen Ark by placing it on a cart with golden guilt offerings. The cows hitched to the cart headed toward Beth Shemesh, and the people rejoiced at its return. The cart stopped in the field of Joshua near a large rock. The Levites took the Ark and put it on the rock, presenting sacrifices and burnt offerings to the Lord. However, because they looked directly at God’s presence, 70 people were put to death. Not knowing what to do, they sent a message to Kiriath Jearim asking its people to come to take the Ark. 1 Samuel 7 goes on to explain the people of Kiriath Jearim came for the chest, bringing it to the house of Abinadab. His son guarded the Ark and it remained in the city for 20 years.

In 2 Samuel 6, King David summoned troops to retrieve the Ark from Kiriath Jearim, also known as Baalah. Two of Abinadab's sons, Uzzah and Ahio, started to drive the Ark to Jerusalem. During the journey, the cart and its contents faltered when the oxen stumbled. Uzzah reached out to catch the Ark and died when he touched the sacred possession. This location was named Perez-uzzah which means “outbreak against Uzzah.” Nervous to have the powerful object continue toward Jerusalem, David placed it in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. During the three months the Ark stayed there, the household of Obed-edom was blessed, and David’s fear diminished. He fetched the Ark to continue the journey to Jerusalem, the city of David. The sacred object entered the City of David amidst rejoicing and dancing and was placed in a designated tent.

Skip ahead to 2 Chronicles 35 where we find the last mention of the Ark of the Covenant’s location. In this chapter, Josiah was celebrating Passover. The priests were prompted to take part in the observance in the Lord’s temple. In verse 3, Josiah instructed the Levites to "Put the sacred ark in the temple that Solomon son of David king of Israel built.” It’s thought the artifact was demolished afterward when King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem. The chest went missing after the destruction of the temple, however, John states in Revelation 11:19 that the Ark will be seen again after the second coming of Christ.

The journey of the Ark of the Covenant among the Israelites and Philistines is clearly laid out in Scripture, while its disappearance is more ambiguous. We can see this artifact played an important role in biblical history, representing God’s presence and helping the Israelites overcome trials. While there’s a large gap in Scripture when the Ark disappears, we can be confident that along with many other things, this precious artifact will be restored when we see Christ again.

Read the full Bible passages of this story below and find related articles, podcasts, and sermons to better understand its meaning.