A term applied in several ways in the Scriptures. (1) In general, it could be applied to the camp of Israel, the people of God, and to Jerusalem and the holy places within it; also, it was specifically used in reference to (2) the sanctuary, including the courtyard and the entire tent of meeting or the later temple; (3) only the two compartments of the tabernacle or temple building itself; (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 (Deut. 23:14); later, the land of Palestine and the city of Jerusalem in particular. God’s sanctuary was located there, his name was placed there and his people were counted holy. (Ezek. 21:2) The entire camp was to be kept holy and, later, the entire land that God gave to his people. Hence, anyone offering up a sacrifice to a false god or carrying on any unclean practices defiled God’s sanctuary or holy place located in their midst.—Lev. 20:3; compare Leviticus 18:21, 30; 19:30; Numbers 5:2, 3; Jeremiah 32:34; Ezekiel 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; 2 Chron. 29:5; Acts 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. (Lev. 12:2-4) Evidently even a state of continued uncleanness on the part of the Israelites was considered as defiling the tabernacle. (Lev. 15:31) Those presenting offerings for cleansing from leprosy brought their sacrifice only as far as the gate of the courtyard. (Lev. 14:11) No unclean person could partake of a communion sacrifice at the tabernacle or the temple, on pain of death.—Lev. 7:20, 21.
3. The Most Holy, the innermost compartment. At Leviticus 16:2 it is called “the holy place [Heb., qoʹdesh, 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” (AV) (Gr., ton ha·giʹon, the holies).
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. (1 Ki. 6:16, 17; 2 Chron. 3:3, 8) Inside the Holy Place 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, such as 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.—1 Ki. 7:48-50; 2 Chron. 4:7, 8, 19, 20.
When inside the Holy Place the priest would see, through 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, gourdshaped ornaments and garlands of blossoms, all covered with gold.—1 Ki. 6:17, 18, 22, 29.
The high priest was responsible to make perfumed incense smoke on the golden altar in the tabernacle morning by morning, and to dress and light the seven lamps of the lampstand. (Ex. 30:1, 6-8) He was also to make atonement for the altar of incense (cleansing it) with blood once a year. (Ex. 30:10) On this day, the annual Day of Atonement, when the high priest entered with the blood of the sacrificial animals, no other priest was allowed to be in the tent of meeting.—Lev. 16:17.
Inasmuch as the place where God dwells is a sanctuary, a holy place, the Christian congregation is likened to a holy place, the temple of God. (1 Cor. 3:17; Eph. 2:21, 22) 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 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.
While on earth, the 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.” (1 Pet. 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, washing themselves with water from the copper basin in the courtyard, when preparing to serve in the Holy Place. (Ex. 40:30-32) So, too, those Christians who have been declared righteous are said to be “washed clean.” (1 Cor. 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 those 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; Rev. 8:4), eat the spiritual food God provides (as he provided the showbread for the priests; Mark 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; 1 Pet. 1:3, 4.—See HOLY CONTRIBUTION; MOST HOLY.