Whatever happened to the Ark of the Covenant?
Hollywood has made a lot of money off of the Ark of the Covenant (Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) and this single item has been the object of a lot of speculation. Where is it? What happened to it?
Special Study – A Brief History of the Ark of the Covenant
The Ark of the Covenant (AKA the ark of the Lord/God & the ark of the testimony) was the sacred portable chest which represented the presence of God. It was a rectangular box made of acacia wood and measured 2.5 X 1.5 X 1.5 cubits (or approx. 45 X 27 X 27 inches). It was overlaid with gold, had four gold rings (two on each side) through which two poles could be passed through to carry it, and was built by a man named Bezalel (see Exodus 25.10-22; 37.1-9).
God was very specific concerning its dimensions, how it was to be carried, and who could carry it. Levites were to cover it with the veil between the holy place & the Most Holy Place (Numbers 4.5) before they could carry it using the acacia wood poles. For 40 years they transported the Ark whenever the Israelites broke camp in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 10.8). Each time they departed and each time they rested, Moses sang a song or gave a brief benediction (Numbers 10.35-36).
The Ark contained a copy of the Ten Commandments written on stone, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s staff (Hebrews 9.4). The Ark served as the meeting place for the people of Israel where God would reveal His will for His people to His servants Moses (Exodus 25.22), Aaron (Leviticus 16.2), and Joshua (Joshua 7.6).
When Israel went in to conquer the Promised Land the Ark played significant roles. When the Israelites crossed the River Jordan, the priests who were carrying the Ark went in first to stop the waters from flowing so that all Israel passed through on dry ground (Joshua 3.13); it was as though YHWH Himself was passing through the river (v.11). At Jericho, seven priests blowing trumpets led the march around the city walls with the Ark following behind them and the rest of the army behind them (Joshua 6.8-9). When Israel renewed covenant at Mount Ebal & Mount Gerazim, there was the Ark between the two mounts in the midst of the Israel and surrounded by elders, officers, judges, and the priest who carried it (Joshua 8.33).
Following the conquest of the land the people set up the tent of meeting at Shiloh and this becomes the place where the Ark resides for some time (Judges 18.1). At some point during the time of the judges the Ark was moved to Bethel (Judges 20.24-27) before being moved back to Shiloh during the time of Samuel (1 Samuel 3.3) and remaining there until Israel went to war with the Philistines (1 Samuel 4). After suffering a loss in battle to the Philistines the Israelites concoct a superstitious idea that the Ark of God will save them rather than the God of the Ark (v.3). So the Ark is brought from Shiloh to Ebenezer where the Israelites were encamped and in the ensuing battle the Ark is captured by the Philistines (v.11). For seven months the Ark remains in Philistine hands but is quickly returned due to plagues among the people (1 Samuel 6). The two milk cows which pulled the cart upon which the Philstines had placed the Ark went straight to Beth-shemesh (v.12). The men of Beth-shemesh send messengers to Kiriath-Jearim to come get the Ark because 70 of the men have died because they looked upon the uncovered Ark (v.19-21). So the men of Kiriath-Jearim take the Ark to the house of Abinadab whose son Eleazar has charge of the Ark.
The Ark remains in his house for 20 years, except for a short field trip to Saul’s camp near Beth-aven (1 Samuel 14.18) though David says the people did not seek God during Saul’s days (1 Chronicles 13.3). After several decades (some say upwards to 70 years), David decides to move the Ark from the house of Abinadab at Kiriath-Jearim (AKA Baale-Judah, see 2 Samuel 6.2) to Jerusalem (about an 8 mile trek) where he has set up the tent of meeting (2 Samuel 6; 1 Chronicles 13). However, during the transportation of the Ark, Uzzah reaches out to steady the Ark and is struck dead. Angry & afraid, David reroutes the Ark to Obed-Edom’s house. He appears to be a Levite since he is a Gittite, that is, a resident of the Levitical town Gath Rimmon.
For three months the Ark remains in Obed-Edom’s house and his household is blessed because of this. When David learns of this he decides the time is right to move the Ark again. This time, though, they are going to do it right with only Levites carrying it as YHWH had specified (1 Chronicles 15.2, 15). Further, every six steps a sacrifice is offered (2 Samuel 6.13). All of Israel shows up and celebrates as the Ark of the Covenant of YHWH is brought into Jerusalem.
During the reign of Solomon is when the first temple is built. This glorious & splendid temple becomes the permanent dwelling of the Ark. A great ceremony is held when they bring the Ark into the new temple (1 Kings 8). At some point it was moved out of the temple and had to be returned during the reign of Josiah (2 Chronicles 35.3).
Now this special study concerning the Ark of the Covenant is important to the study of Psalm 24. Psalm 24 is about the glorious entrance of the King into the temple, i.e. God, symbolically represented by the Ark, entering His temple. What must it have been like to see the Ark enter the temple? Psalm 24 transports us there when the Ark would have entered the designated place, first the tabernacle and later the temple.
Bringing the Ark to the Gate (1-6)
1The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, 2for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.
Total Rule (1-2): God is sovereign over everything – world & people. The Bible tells us He created the world (Gen 1.4).
3Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? 4He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.
Total Religion (3-4): 1) Question (3): For the Israelite, this would no doubt have conjured up Mt. Sinai – Ex 19.12-13, 23. Only Moses was allowed to ascend the mountain. 2) Quest (4): Asking the question leads to a quest, the quest for practical morality leading to holiness for the purpose of ascending the holy mountain of God. Four (4) aspects of practical morality: 1) Clean hands – pure actions. 2) Pure heart – pure motives. 3) Humble Soul – right relationship with God. 4) True Lips (right relationship with others.
5He will receive blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation. 6Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Selah
Total Reward (5-6): Blessing & righteousness from God. This is the reward for seeking the face of God (cf. 27.8; 105.4). Selah is the pause button in Psalms – time to meditate & contemplate the things just sung.
Enter the King of Glory (7-10)
The follow closing section of the Psalm was intended to be sung antiphonally with three different parts: the crowd as they drew near the temple, the voice within the temple, & the spokesman for the King. It breaks down as follows:
7Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.
8Who is this King of glory?
Spokesman for the King
The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle!
9Lift up your heads, O gates! And lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.
10Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory! Selah
In this moment of pause, this is an “ah-ha” moment! They would have done this when David brought the ark into the tabernacle and then again when Solomon completed the temple.
The Ark of the Covenant & the Christian
Disappearance & Tradition: It is uncertain when & how the Ark was lost; the Bible is silent on the matter. After the deportations under Nebuchadnezzar and the destruction of the temple in 586 BC nothing is known concerning what became of the Ark. In fact, it is not listed as the spoils of Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25.13-17; Jeremiah 52.17-23) leading some to think it may have already been lost. Indeed, Jeremiah had prophesied of the day when the Ark would no longer be visited, remembered, or talked about (Jeremiah 3.16). They wouldn’t even miss it.
Various traditions exist about what happened to the Ark of the Covenant: some Jewish traditions say Jeremiah took the Ark & hid it, some even specifying he hid it in the mountain where Moses is buried; another source says Josiah hid the Ark under a rock “in its place,” that is, under the temple; one legend says an angel came and removed the Ark before the destruction of Jerusalem. But all traditions point to the exile as the time for the disappearance of the Ark.
The Ark of the Covenant was conspicuously absent from the 2nd & 3rd temples. In fact, Josephus explains that in the Most Holy Place “there was nothing at all…and not to be seen by any” (War of the Jews 5.219). They didn’t even rebuild it just as Jeremiah said. Ezekiel’s vision (40-48) does not include the Ark. According to the rabbinic writings, where the Ark would have been was a “stone of foundation” three fingers high. The last sighting of the Ark of the Covenant was by the apostle John in the Revelation (11.19), but given the symbolic nature of the prophecy, it is doubtful this was the literal Ark of the Covenant.
Why God Would Allow the Ark to be Lost? Partly, because He knows men will worship anything & everything except Him. If we had the Ark of the Covenant, people would worship the relic rather than the Righteous One. But also, God paves the way for something greater by allowing the Ark to be lost to history. No longer would He dwell above the mercy seat, above the Ark of the Covenant, between the cherubim, in the Most Holy Place, behind the veil, in the temple in Jerusalem. No, now His Spirit resides in Christians who are the temple of God (1 Cor 3.16-17; 6.19-20; 2 Cor 6.16). When we became a Christian, we let the King come in, opening the door of your heart at which Jesus stood and knocked – “be lifted up, you doors!” And He continues to reside within us each day as we confess “YHWH Almighty is the King of glory” & therefore the King of my life.
What is very interesting about this Psalm is that it was always sung on the 1st day of the week in Jewish worship [Psalm 48 the 2nd day; 82 the 3rd; 94 the 4th; 81 the 5th; 93 the 6th; 92 the 7th, i.e. the Sabbath]. Every Lord’s Day, tho we may not sing this Psalm, we unite with the spirit of this, renewing our devotion to our King & calling on Him to enter our lives & live in, with, & thru us. The Lord wishes to enter your life so that He might save you and change you.
Won’t you let the King come in?