A term applied in several ways in the Scriptures. (1) In general, it could be applied to the camp of Israel, to Jerusalem and the holy places within it; also, it was specifically used in reference to (2) the entire tent of meeting and, later, the temple; (3) the Most Holy, the innermost compartment of the tabernacle and, later, the temple; and (4) the first interior room of the tabernacle, as distinguished from the Most Holy compartment. In each appearance of the expression “holy place,” the application intended can be determined from the context.
1. The camp of Israel (De 23:14); later, the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem in particular. (Compare Mt 24:15 and Lu 21:20; notice the expression “holy city” at Mt 27:53.) God’s sanctuary was located there, his name was placed there, and his people were counted holy. (Eze 21:2) The entire camp, and later the entire land that God gave to his people, was to be kept holy. Hence, anyone offering up a sacrifice to a false god or carrying on any unclean practices defiled God’s sanctuary, which was located in their midst.—Le 20:3; compare Le 18:21, 30; 19:30; Nu 5:2, 3; Jer 32:34; Eze 5:11; 23:38.
2. The tent of meeting and, later, the temple. The entire arrangement, including the courtyard of the tabernacle and the temple courts, was a holy place. (Ex 38:24; 2Ch 29:5; Ac 21:28) The primary items located in the courtyard were the altar of sacrifice and the copper basin. These were holy objects. Only those persons ceremonially clean could enter into the tabernacle courtyard at any time; likewise, no one could go into the temple courts in an unclean state. For example, a woman in the unclean state could not touch any holy thing or come into the holy place. (Le 12:2-4) Evidently even a state of continued uncleanness on the part of the Israelites was considered to be a defiling of the tabernacle. (Le 15:31) Those presenting offerings for cleansing from leprosy brought their sacrifice only as far as the gate of the courtyard. (Le 14:11) No unclean person could partake of a communion sacrifice at the tabernacle or the temple, on pain of death.—Le 7:20, 21.
3. The Most Holy, the innermost compartment. At Leviticus 16:2 it is called “the holy place [Heb., haq·qoʹdhesh, “holy”] inside the curtain.” Paul apparently had this compartment in mind when he spoke of Jesus’ entry into heaven, saying that he did not enter into a “holy place [Gr., haʹgi·a, “holies”] made with hands.” (Heb 9:24) At Hebrews 10:19 Paul speaks of “the holy place” (NW); “the holiest” (KJ) (literally, the holies, or the holy places, the plural denoting excellence).
The Most Holy of the tabernacle contained only the golden ark of the covenant, surmounted by two golden cherubs with wings extended. (Ex 25:10-22; 26:33) The temple built by Solomon also contained two large cherubs of oil-tree wood overlaid with gold. (1Ki 6:23-28) Following the Babylonian exile, however, the sacred Ark was missing from the Most Holy.
In the Most Holy, the high priest was surrounded by embroidered cherubs on the tabernacle’s inner covering and on the curtain. (Ex 26:1, 31, 33) In Solomon’s temple, the walls and ceiling were of cedarwood covered with gold; cherubs, palm-tree figures, gourd-shaped ornaments, and blossoms were engraved on the walls.—1Ki 6:16-18, 29; 2Ch 3:7, 8.
4. The first, larger compartment, the Holy Place, or the Holy, as distinguished from the innermost compartment, the Most Holy. (Ex 26:33) This compartment was two thirds the total length of the structure. (1Ki 6:16, 17; 2Ch 3:3, 8) Inside the Holy Place of the tabernacle were located the golden lampstand on the S side of the room (Ex 25:31-40; 40:24, 25), the golden altar of incense at the W end in front of the curtain to the Most Holy (Ex 30:1-6; 40:26, 27), and the table of showbread on the N side (Ex 25:23-30; 40:22, 23; Heb 9:2, 3). Along with these were the accompanying golden utensils, including bowls, snuffers, and so forth. In the temple’s Holy Place were the golden altar, the ten tables of showbread, and ten lampstands. The lampstands and tables were placed five on the right and five on the left.—1Ki 7:48-50; 2Ch 4:7, 8, 19, 20.
When inside the tabernacle’s Holy Place, the priest would see, between the parts of the panel frames of the walls, and on the ceiling, the colorful embroidered cherubs of the tabernacle’s inner covering. (Ex 26:1, 15) Suspended from four golden pillars was the curtain to the Most Holy, likewise embroidered with cherubs. (Ex 26:31-33) The screen to the tabernacle entrance was also of colorful material. (Ex 26:36) In the temple, the walls of this room had carvings of cherubs, palm-tree figures, gourd-shaped ornaments, and garlands of blossoms, all covered with gold.—1Ki 6:17, 18, 22, 29.
Symbolic Significance. The arrangement that God set up for man’s atonement through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is called “the greater and more perfect tent not made with hands.” Christ entered “once for all time into the holy place” of this great spiritual temple “and obtained an everlasting deliverance for us,” writes the apostle Paul. (Heb 9:11, 12) On going into heaven and appearing before Jehovah, Christ entered into what was pictured by the innermost compartment of the tabernacle, namely, the Most Holy. (Heb 9:24, 25) Thus the tabernacle and its services served as “a typical representation and a shadow of the heavenly things.”—Heb 8:5.
Christian underpriests. Inasmuch as the place where God dwells is a sanctuary, a holy place, the Christian congregation is also likened to a holy place, the temple of God. (1Co 3:17; Eph 2:21, 22) While on earth, the anointed followers of Jesus Christ are spoken of as “being built up a spiritual house for the purpose of a holy priesthood” and as constituting “a royal priesthood.” (1Pe 2:5, 9) As the underpriests served in the courtyard and also in the Holy Place, so these Christian priests of God serve before his symbolic altar and also in the symbolic Holy Place. The priests of Israel had to be clean, so when they were preparing to serve in the Holy Place they washed themselves with water from the copper basin in the courtyard. (Ex 40:30-32) So, too, those Christians who have been declared righteous are said to be “washed clean.” (1Co 6:11) The Israelite priests were surrounded by the figures of the cherubs on the tabernacle curtains as they carried out their duties there. This calls to mind the statement of the apostle to certain ones that are declared righteous that, while yet on earth, “[God] seated us together in the heavenly places in union with Christ Jesus.” (Eph 2:4-6) As these Christians of the “royal priesthood” serve, they offer sacrifices of praise (Heb 13:15) and prayers to God (related to the incense; Re 8:4), eat the spiritual food God provides (as he provided the showbread for the priests; Mr 2:26), and enjoy light from God’s Word of truth (as from the lampstand; Ps 119:105). The apostle Paul points out that they have the hope, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, of entering into the real “Most Holy,” heaven itself.—Heb 6:19, 20; 9:24; 1Pe 1:3, 4; see HOLY CONTRIBUTION; MOST HOLY.