Approaching the Presence of God
TO MOST true Christians prayer is one of their most sacred acts of worship. They realize that they are invited by the Most High Ruler of the universe to approach personally into his august presence and petition him for their needs, and this fills them with the greatest respect and awe. With some persons, however, this very willingness of the living God to consider their problems and their wants leads to lack of courtesy, to disrespect, often to audacious impudence.
These view the all-wise Counselor as a “back-yard philosopher and miracle maker” to whom they can run whenever all else fails; or they speak of him as “the man upstairs” with whom they can idly chat about all the trivial affairs of a humdrum life. To such people prayer is merely an outlet for pent-up emotions, a “good-luck charm,” a surcease from loneliness, a solace for sorrowful longing. With many this might be intended innocently and sincerely but it demonstrates a total lack of understanding and appreciation of the relationship mankind have as completely dependent inferiors to the self-sufficient though loving Supreme Sovereign.
Suppose, for a moment, that such persons could be transported back in time to 1513 B.C., to the occasion when Jehovah by his holy angel approached the families of Israel and stood before them in Mount Sinai on the peninsula of Arabia. Jehovah had said to Moses: “Go to the people, and you must sanctify them today and tomorrow and they must wash their clothes. And they must prove ready for the third day, because on the third day Jehovah will come down before the eyes of all the people upon Mount Sinai. And you must set bounds for the people round about, saying: ‘Guard yourselves against going up into the mountain, and do not touch the edge of it. Anybody touching the mountain will positively be put to death. No hand is to touch it, because he will positively be stoned or will positively be shot through. Whether beast or man, he will not live.’ At the blowing of the ram’s horn they themselves may come up to the mountain.”—Ex. 19:10-13, NW.
For three days the people were sanctifying themselves, washing their clothes and otherwise purifying and preparing themselves to meet their great Deliverer who had just released them from Egyptian bondage. “And on the third day when it became morning it came about that thunders and lightnings began occurring, and a heavy cloud upon the mountain and a very loud sound of a trumpet, so that all the people who were in the camp began to tremble. Moses now brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they went taking their stand at the base of the mountain. And Mount Sinai smoked all over, due to the fact that Jehovah came down upon it in fire, and its smoke kept ascending like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain was quaking very much. When the sound of the trumpet became continually louder and louder, Moses began to speak and God began to answer him with a voice.”—Ex. 19:16-19, NW.
At such an awesome display of Jehovah’s glory surely we too would tremble. It was at this time that Jehovah began to organize the families of Israel into a nation and gave them a body of laws and established for them a means of regular approach into his presence as their God and King. This was through the sacred tabernacle and all of its furnishings, and it was in this way of presenting themselves that Jehovah gave us the typical pattern that we must follow today if we are to be accepted into his presence. On this point we have the inspired testimony of the apostle Paul.—Heb. 9:9, 10.
In the tabernacle the most sacred article of furniture was the ark of the covenant. Situated in the innermost room or Most Holy, it denoted to the Israelites the presence of Jehovah God on earth in their midst. It meant that any one of them could come before Jehovah and petition him for blessings or forgiveness of wrongdoing. But it was not possible for these people to run to him at will in any way of their own choosing. In spite of the fact that Jehovah was hereby making himself accessible to the least person in the nation—and even to the strangers among them—only one man out of the entire nation, the high priest of Israel, was permitted to stand before the ark in Jehovah’s presence.
Furthermore, in spite of the inspired workmanship that went into the superb design and fashioning of the ark’s actual structure and in spite of the great intrinsic wealth that was represented in this one article alone, comparatively only a very few mortal men ever saw it. But why would Jehovah give such a careful pattern and inspire craftsmen to fashion such a beautiful article of worship if it were only to be hidden from the eyes of the worshipers? Certainly among other reasons would be to impress upon mankind the awesome presence of Jehovah God and the need that man has to study carefully to approach him in a way that is acceptable and in keeping with his position as the greatest Personage in the universe.
The Scriptural description of the ark and its cover is brief. (Ex. 37:1-9) It was a box made of wood, the close-grained and durable orange-brown-colored wood of the species acacia tortilis or acacia seyal that still grows plentifully in the Sinai peninsula.1 It was three feet nine inches long and two feet three inches wide and high.2 Then it was overlaid inside and outside with pure gold. Just how the gold plate was applied is not stated, but it was likely more than just gold leaf. And unlike the walls of the temple later built by Solomon, the box itself was no doubt solidly covered. As to the design of the side walls, again nothing is reported, but there is indication at least that there might have been corner posts that terminated in feet as rests at the bottom. This would correspond also with the table that was used in the outer room or Holy for the bread of Presence.3 (See Exodus 37:13, 14.) As one reason for this conclusion it is stated that rings were attached “above its four feet,” which could not mean at the very bottom of the ark, because gold-covered poles were inserted through the rings to carry it and this would make it top-heavy. (Ex. 37:3, NW) So the feet must have extended upward as corner posts to the border that encircled the ark at the top and it was no doubt here, just under the border, that the rings were attached.
This border or molding (“crown,” AV) has also occasioned considerable conjecture, although it is generally believed to have extended above the sides of the ark sufficiently to keep the cover securely in place during the march when the ark was borne on the shoulders of the priests. It is also believed to have been of a general cable design, since that of the table is compared with it and this seems to answer the description.4
The cover must certainly have been an art treasure in itself. It was made of a slab of pure gold and there were upon the top two cherubs of exquisite hammered work. These were so situated, one at each end, that they faced each other, and since this cover or “mercy seat” represented the throne of Jehovah, the cherubs can only be imagined in some posture of reverence. The account does not describe them or even suggest their general appearance. It merely states: “And they came to be cherubs spreading out two wings upward, screening over the cover with their wings, and their faces were each to the other. The faces of the cherubs proved to be toward the cover.” (Ex. 37:9, NW) From this meager description an almost unbelievable variety of pictorial reconstructions has been attempted. These cherubs have been represented as being everything from four-footed human-headed animals to figures of women with long hair. The reasonable conclusion is that they resembled men. Cherubs were posted at the entrance to Eden with a flaming blade of a sword. (Gen. 3:24) Men use swords. Ezekiel envisioned and described certain cherubs who appeared in a special and distinct form of a highly symbolic nature. But their general appearance was that of men. (Ezek. 1:5; 10:20-22) However, it cannot positively be stated what these golden cherubs here looked like.
Although the mercy seat pictures Jehovah’s throne in heaven, it is not to be thought that Jehovah’s presence was represented as being confined to this small space between the cherubs. (Heb. 9:24) The Scripture records that Jehovah rides “above” the cherubs. (Ps. 99:1) Here, in the Most Holy of the tabernacle, shone the so-called “Shekinah” light of Jehovah’s presence. How high above the cherubs it had its source or extended we do not know, but it was a sign to all Israel that Jehovah’s favor continued with his people. So powerful and magnificent was this presence, manifested through the ark and its accompanying Shekineh light in the Most Holy, that any unauthorized person who even touched the ark when it was carried, all covered over, from place to place died on the spot.
In the awesome manner in which Jehovah appeared to Israel at Sinai, in the loving care with which he provided for those who properly approached him and in the speedy execution of his wrath many times against those who treated his presence with audacity, Jehovah has demonstrated to us the proper manner and reverential attitude of the true Christian’s approach in prayer. Only through the great High Priest, Christ Jesus, who himself personally appears before the heavenly throne for us, can we have our petitions recognized.
1 Moldenke, H. N., Plants of the Bible, pp. 22, 24.
2 Based on a cubit of eighteen inches (actually, 17.6 in.) Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 813; Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th Ed., Vol. 26, p. 604, footnote 1.
3 Hastings, J. A., Dictionary of the Bible, p. 663.
4 Ibid., pp. 663, 665.
Jesus said to him: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”—John 14:6, NW.