The sacred chest located in the Most Holy of the tabernacle and, later, in the temple built by Solomon. The Ark was made at Jehovah’s command and according to his design.
Bible writers designate the ark of the covenant in more than 20 different ways. The more common of these expressions, “the ark of the covenant [Heb., ’arohnʹ hab·berithʹ; Gr., ki·bo·tosʹ tes di·a·theʹkes]” (Jos 3:6; Heb 9:4) and “the ark of the testimony” (Ex 25:22), are not peculiar to any certain writer and are used interchangeably.
Pattern and Design. The first thing Jehovah gave Moses, when instructing him to build the tabernacle, was the pattern and design of the Ark, for indeed it was the central and paramount object of the tabernacle and the whole camp of Israel. The chest itself measured 2.5 cubits long, 1.5 cubits wide, and 1.5 cubits high (c. 111 × 67 × 67 cm; 44 × 26 × 26 in.). It was made of acacia wood, overlaid inside and out with pure gold. An artistic “border of gold” served as a crowning wreath “round about upon it.” The second section of the Ark, its cover, was made of solid gold, not just wood overlaid with gold, and was the full length and breadth of the chest. Mounted on this cover were two golden cherubs of hammered workmanship, one at each end of the cover facing each other, with heads bowed and wings extending upward and overspreading the Ark. (Ex 25:10, 11, 17-22; 37:6-9) This cover was also known as the “mercy seat” or “propitiatory cover.”—Ex 25:17; Heb 9:5, ftn; see PROPITIATORY COVER.
Long poles were provided for carrying the Ark. They were also made of acacia wood covered with gold and were inserted through two rings of gold on each side of the chest. These poles were not to be removed from their rings; hence there was never a necessity for bearers of the Ark to touch it. There were four feet, “walking feet, feet bent as if for walking,” located at the corners to raise the Ark off the floor, but how high is not disclosed. (Commentary on the Old Testament, by C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, 1973, Vol. 1, The Second Book of Moses, p. 167) The rings may have been mounted immediately above the feet, if not on the feet themselves.—Ex 25:12-16; Nu 4:5, 15; 1Ki 8:8; 1Ch 15:15.
Inauguration and Use. Bezalel and the wisehearted ones assisting him followed the plans explicitly, constructing the Ark from the materials contributed by the people. (Ex 35:5, 7, 10, 12; 37:1-9) When the tabernacle was completed and set up a year after the Exodus, Moses took the two stone tablets of the Law and put them into the Ark. (Deuteronomy 10:1-5 indicates that a temporary ark made of acacia wood housed the tablets during only the few months’ interval from the time Moses received them in the mountain until they were transferred to the Ark made by Bezalel.) Next, Moses inserted the poles in the rings of the Ark, laid the cover on, brought it into the tent, and put up the screen that was to separate the Holy from the Most Holy. Then, as part of the inauguration ceremony, Moses anointed the Ark and all other furnishings with oil. From then on, when the priests disassembled the tabernacle to move camp, the same dividing screen, together with additional sealskins and blue cloth, was used to cover the Ark to prevent the people from looking upon it ‘for the least moment of time, lest they die.’—Ex 40:3, 9, 20, 21; Nu 3:30, 31; 4:5, 6, 19, 20; 7:9; De 10:8; 31:9; see TABERNACLE.
The Ark served as a holy archive for the safekeeping of sacred reminders or testimony, the principal contents being the two tablets of the testimony, or the Ten Commandments. (Ex 25:16) A “golden jar having the manna and the rod of Aaron that budded” were added to the Ark but were later removed sometime before the building of Solomon’s temple. (Heb 9:4; Ex 16:32-34; Nu 17:10; 1Ki 8:9; 2Ch 5:10) Just before Moses died, he gave a copy of the “book of the law” to the Levitical priests with instructions that it should be kept, not within, but “at the side of the ark of the covenant of Jehovah your God, . . . as a witness there against you.”—De 31:24-26.
Associated with God’s presence. The Ark was associated with God’s presence throughout its history. Jehovah promised: “I will present myself to you there and speak with you from above the cover, from between the two cherubs that are upon the ark of the testimony.” “In a cloud I shall appear over the cover.” (Ex 25:22; Le 16:2) Samuel wrote that Jehovah “is sitting upon the cherubs” (1Sa 4:4); hence the cherubs served as “the representation of the chariot” of Jehovah. (1Ch 28:18) Accordingly, “whenever Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with [Jehovah], then he would hear the voice conversing with him from above the cover that was upon the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubs; and he would speak to him.” (Nu 7:89) Later, Joshua and High Priest Phinehas also inquired of Jehovah before the Ark. (Jos 7:6-10; Jg 20:27, 28) However, only the high priest actually entered the Most Holy and saw the Ark, one day a year, not to communicate with Jehovah, but in carrying out the Atonement Day ceremony.—Le 16:2, 3, 13, 15, 17; Heb 9:7.
In other ways the presence of Jehovah as represented by the Ark brought blessings to Israel. It was customary when Israel moved camp for the Ark with its overhead cloud to lead the way. (Nu 10:33, 34) So, at the crossing of the Jordan, when the priests carrying the Ark stepped into the river’s water, Jehovah stopped its flow, allowing them to pass. (Jos 3:1–4:18) In the line of march around Jericho, the war-equipped forces were followed by seven priests blowing horns, then the Ark, and behind was the rear guard. (Jos 6:3-13) In contrast to the victory at Jericho was the defeat suffered when certain rebels presumptuously pushed ahead in an attempt to take the Promised Land contrary to divine instructions, and when “the ark of Jehovah’s covenant and Moses did not move away from the midst of the camp.” (Nu 14:44, 45) Even the enemy Philistines recognized the presence of Jehovah when the Ark appeared on the battlefield. In their fright they cried out: “God has come into the camp [of Israel]!” “Woe to us, for such a thing as this never occurred before! Woe to us! Who will save us from the hand of this majestic God? This is the God that was the smiter of Egypt with every sort of slaughter in the wilderness.”—1Sa 4:6-8.
Jehovah’s presence continued to be demonstrated when the Philistines captured the Ark and took it to Ashdod to sit alongside the image of Dagon. That night, Dagon fell on his face; the next night he again toppled before the ark of Jehovah and his head and the palms of both of his hands were cut off. During the next seven months, as the Ark circulated among the Philistine cities, the people were plagued with piles, and the city of Ekron was plunged into “a death-dealing confusion,” until finally the Ark was returned to Israel with proper offering.—1Sa 5:1–6:12.
The fact that the Ark was associated with the presence of Jehovah demanded that due respect and high regard be given the Ark. Hence, when the Ark set out on the move and when it came to rest, Moses proclaimed words of praise to Jehovah. (Nu 10:35, 36) High Priest Eli was so shocked to hear that the Philistines had captured the Ark that he lost his balance and fell over backward, breaking his neck; also his daughter-in-law in the throes of death lamented, “Glory has gone away from Israel into exile, because the ark of the true God has been captured.” (1Sa 4:18-22) King Solomon acknowledged that “the places to which the ark of Jehovah has come are something holy.”—2Ch 8:11.
Not a magic charm. However, the Ark was not a magic charm. Its presence alone did not guarantee success; Jehovah’s blessings depended on the spiritual standing and faithful obedience of those possessing the Ark. Hence, the Israelites under the leadership of Joshua suffered defeat at Ai because of unfaithfulness, despite the presence of the Ark in their camp. (Jos 7:1-6) Similarly, Israel’s trusting in the presence of the Ark among the very fighting forces did not prevent the Philistines from killing 30,000 Israelites and capturing the Ark. (1Sa 4:1-11) The return of the Ark from the Philistines was an occasion for great rejoicing, offering of sacrifices, and thanksgiving, yet Jehovah “struck down the people with a great slaughter.” Why? “Because they had looked upon the ark of Jehovah” in violation of his command. (1Sa 6:11-21; Nu 4:6, 20) Exactly how many died on that occasion is not certain. The Masoretic text reads: “So he struck down among the people seventy men—fifty thousand men.” This ambiguous construction might suggest that “fifty thousand men” is an interpolation. The Syriac Peshitta and the Arabic say that “five thousand and seventy men” were struck down. The Targum Jonathan reads: “And he struck down seventy men among the older men of the people, and fifty thousand among the congregation.” The Greek Septuagint says that “seventy men among them, and fifty thousand of the men” were struck down. Josephus mentions only seventy men as being killed.—Jewish Antiquities, VI, 16 (i, 4).
Locations Where the Ark Was Kept. The Ark had no permanent resting-place until the erection of Solomon’s temple. With the major conquest of the land completed (c. 1467 B.C.E.), it was moved to Shiloh, where it apparently remained (with the exception of a time when it was at Bethel) until captured by the Philistines. (Jos 18:1; Jg 20:26, 27; 1Sa 3:3; 6:1) Upon its return to Israelite territory it rested successively at Beth-shemesh and Kiriath-jearim, at this latter place for about 70 years.—1Sa 6:11-14; 7:1, 2; 1Ch 13:5, 6.
According to the Masoretic text, 1 Samuel 14:18 indicates that, during a conflict with the Philistines, King Saul had Ahijah the high priest bring the Ark to his campsite. However, the Greek Septuagint states that Saul said to Ahijah: “‘Bring the ephod near!’ (For he carried the ephod in that day before Israel.).”
David’s desire to have the Ark brought to Jerusalem was a good one, but the method he first used led to disaster. Instead of having it carried by the poles on the shoulders of the Kohathite Levites as instructed, David let it be placed on a wagon. The bulls caused a near upset, and Uzzah was struck down because he reached out to grab hold of the Ark, contrary to God’s law.—2Sa 6:2-11; 1Ch 13:1-11; 15:13; Nu 4:15.
The Ark was finally brought to Jerusalem, properly carried by the Levites (1Ch 15:2, 15), and there it remained in a tent during the remainder of David’s reign. (2Sa 6:12-19; 11:11) The priests attempted to take the Ark along when they fled Absalom’s rebellion, but David insisted that it remain in Jerusalem, trusting that Jehovah would bring them all back safely to it. (2Sa 15:24, 25, 29; 1Ki 2:26) David desired to build a permanent house for the Ark, but Jehovah postponed such construction until Solomon’s reign. (2Sa 7:2-13; 1Ki 8:20, 21; 1Ch 28:2, 6; 2Ch 1:4) On the occasion of the dedication of the temple, the Ark was moved from the tent on Zion into the Most Holy of the temple up on Mount Moriah, where it was placed under the overshadowing wings of two large cherubs. It was the only piece of furniture from the original tabernacle that became part of Solomon’s temple.—1Ki 6:19; 8:1-11; 1Ch 22:19; 2Ch 5:2-10; 6:10, 11; see TEMPLE (Solomon’s Temple); CHERUB No. 1.
The only post-Solomonic historical reference to the ark of the covenant, nearly 900 years after it was made, is at 2 Chronicles 35:3 where King Josiah, in 642 B.C.E., commanded that it be returned to the temple. How it had come to be removed is not stated. Josiah came to the throne following some very apostate kings, one of whom had put an image in the house of Jehovah, and possibly one of these wicked kings removed the Ark. (2Ch 33:1, 2, 7) On the other hand, Josiah sponsored extensive repairs of the temple, during which time the Ark might have been kept elsewhere for its own protection against damage. (2Ch 34:8–35:19) There is no mention of the Ark’s being taken to Babylon. The Ark is not enumerated among the temple articles carried off. Likewise, there is no mention of its being returned and placed in Zerubbabel’s rebuilt temple; neither was a replacement made for it. When and under what circumstances the Ark disappeared is unknown.—2Ki 25:13-17; 2Ch 36:18; Ezr 1:7-11; 7:12-19.
Jeremiah foretold a time when the ark of the covenant would be no more, but that it would not be missed and Jehovah’s worshipers would experience no hardship because of not having it. Instead ‘Jerusalem itself will be called the throne of Jehovah.’—Jer 3:16, 17.
In the symbolic book of Revelation, John says that “the ark of his covenant was seen in his temple sanctuary” in heaven. This ark of the covenant has to do with the new covenant of God with men and the appearing of the Ark was an indication that Jehovah was again ruling by means of his Anointed One.—Re 11:15, 19.