XI. The Ark and the Holy of Holies
The Tabernacle of Israel, by George de Charms, 1969
The description of the tabernacle begins, not with the building itself, but with the furniture that was to be kept in the inmost sanctuary called the holy of holies.
The Scripture does not follow, therefore, the order that would be natural in presenting the construction of a building, beginning with the foundation and passing on to the framework and roofing, the interior and exterior finishings, and at last the furniture. The process here is reversed, and this because what is described in the Word is the actual order according to which any spiritual construction must take place. No house is ever built until first there is formulated an end or purpose -- a use to which it is to be put. Arising out of this use and governed by it in all particulars comes the plan forseen by the builder and designed most perfectly to fulfill the requirements of that use. This is the spiritual law of creation according to which there must be a cause, first in the spiritual world, before an effect can be produced on earth. And it is equally true of the church with men, that it must have its origin in a spiritual vision of the Lord who is the Builder of the church. The first of the church is a vision of God in the inmost of the mind. This is what rouses a desire for religious things and for communication and conjunction with the God who has been seen.
Religion arises from a revelation of God. God must be seen as the Creator and the Preserver of the universe. Yet, He must be perceived as One who is accessible to man, and who in mercy responds to human prayer. He must be seen as One who protects, leads, and blesses all those who learn and keep His law. Spiritually, He must appear to every man, in the midst of the cloud on Mount Sinai, and His voice must be heard out of heaven. Without this experience no one would feel any need for the building of a tabernacle for the worship of the Lord. This must be an individual experience. There must be a "coming" of the Lord to every man, and until this takes place no church can be built within him. He may indeed worship externally in some sacred edifice which other men have built. He may have his place and his part in the church of his fathers, and be entirely familiar with its forms and customs. Indeed, he may have a strong affection for these things in which he has been brought up. But this is a temple erected and dedicated not to his God, but to the God of his fathers. He may admire it, he may find delight in it, and thus in a sense he may love it, but his inmost being will stand without, and the religion thus formed will not be his. If, as he progresses in life, he is to build a tabernacle of his own, a church in which he may truly live and from which he may truly think, he must have his own vision of God -- a vision that must come from within through the soul, not from without by means of others. Unless this is the case, his worship will be but an idolatrous aping of religion. The voice of confession and of prayer will echo with a hollow sound through its halls. "Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it." The Lord must be present within. He must come. He must be seen in the Word by the man himself. Revelation is not the sacred books, not the sayings of the prophets alone, but these illumined by the light of perception, their inner significance deeply realized. Such a vision of God brings with it the perception of the Divine law -- expressed in the form of truths which the man must understand and apply to life if he is to be conjoined in love and faith with the God whom he has seen. How shall a man live? What shall he do to be saved? On his answers to these questions depend the whole conception of what the church is, the whole plan of the tabernacle. It is the varying answers to these questions that give rise to differences of religion, to the separation of sects and churches. All men, whether they be Christian or Gentile, acknowledge that religion is a "binding back" to God, a means of communication and conjunction with Him. But with what God do they seek such conjunction? By what means is it to be effected? Every religious faith must have at its center and as its living soul some distinct vision of God, some conception of Him, and some Divine Word or revelation of His will according to which it is formed. All the structure of a church considered as a human organization is but a means of housing that vision, of protecting and making it effective. The corollary to this is that before a new church can be founded there must be given a new revelation, a renewal from within of the vision of God. The means or medium by which that vision is to be realized must be enshrined at the center of all its worship. And so it is that with the tabernacle of the Jews the construction is described as beginning immediately after the appearance of Jehovah on the Mount, immediately after the giving of the Decalogue on the tables of stone. For the tabernacle was built to perpetuate the
presence of that God who had been seen. It was built as a place where that God might abide, wherein He might be approached. For this reason the highest end or purpose which governed the building of the tabernacle was to enshrine the Law, to protect it, to surround it with holiness and to provide a means by which the Lord might speak from it, to lead and to deliver. This is the reason why the first thing which it was commanded should be built was the ark, for this was to be the repository for the tables of the Law.
The ark was a box of cedar or shittim wood, covered within and without with gold. It measured 21/2 cubits in length and 11/2 cubits in width and height. Around the upper edge was a band of pure gold called the "crown" or border, designed so as to hold the lid or propitiatory in place. At each of the four corners was a hollow golden orb through which passed the staves of gilded shittim wood by which the ark was carried. It was characteristic of the ark, in contradistinction to the other articles of furniture, that the staves were never to be removed from the orbs.1 These staves were so placed that they ran along the length of the ark near the top and under the crown. Covering the ark was a plate of pure gold called the propitiatory or mercy seat. It measured 11/2 cubits by 21/2 cubits, fitting as a lid within the crown and protecting the tables of the testimony deposited within it. Upon this mercy seat, and fastened to it at either end, was a cherub. The cherubs, though it is nowhere distinctly stated, were probably human figures representing angels. Three things were prescribed concerning them: that they were to face one another; their faces were to be toward the mercy seat; and their wings were to be spread out over the mercy seat, touching above.2
The ark was to be placed in the holy of holies, the rods running east and west. It was to be equidistant from the two sides or walls of the tabernacle, the front of the staves extending a little beyond the line of the pillars upon which the veil was hung; this in order that while the ark itself was hidden, the fact of its presence behind the veil would be attested because the staves would push the veil slightly out of its natural position.3 The holy of holies was the inmost chamber of the tabernacle. It was a room cubical in shape, measuring ten cubits in each dimension. Three of its walls, north, south and west, were formed by the gold-covered boards while the eastern wall was made by the linen veil of four colors in which cherubs of gold were woven. The ceiling displayed a portion of the first tabernacle curtain, the material of which was similar to that of the veil. There was in this chamber no opening for light and no means of entrance except by lifting a corner of the veil. The only article of furniture in this room was the ark. All these related particulars concerning the ark and its resting place in the tabernacle are deeply significant.
In the Writings the ark is given essentially the same representation as the holy of holies -- the one is a repository and the other a sanctuary for the Law. They represent the highest and most immediate dwelling place of God with man.4 That is, they represent the celestial degree of the mind which, when opened, gives perception out of the celestial heaven where love to the Lord reigns, where the angels speak face to face with God, and where they are in the fullness of wisdom and perfection of life. No man can come into this celestial heaven who has not that heaven formed in himself. He must have opened that highest plane of the mind which is capable of receiving celestial wisdom and of perceiving this exalted vision of the Lord. The characteristic of this degree of the mind is that it is above thoughtabove reason and rationality. Its consciousness is not dependent upon any process of logic, but upon what men call intuition -- a perception deeper and more certain than any reasoning. This intuition is as different from thought and reason as is the touch of ultimate sensation. Indeed, it can best be compared to the direct touch of the soul with spiritual reality, more keenly perceived than the touch of the bodily senses with matter. Between this inner touch called perception and the outer-touch called sensation thought and reason are formed. Through this inner touch man has a dictate that there is a God and that His Commandments are to be obeyed. When it is stated this truth can be seen at once by any normal human mind without need for proof.5 It is a truth that man acknowledges, as it were, instinctively, because he has been created for heaven, and his mind has been formed for the reception of the Lord. Here, in this deepest intuition, religion must find its origin, its final refuge, and the sanctuary that alone can protect it from the attacks of the hells. It must rest upon a perception of which the man is sure, not, in the last analysis, because he has been able to reason it out, but because he has felt it, has directly touched its substance with the sensation of the soul. Those who deny religious truth on the ground that it cannot be demonstrated physically are asking that spiritual substance be touched and felt by the material senses. This is impossible. Spiritual substance may be touched and sensed through the spirit, and this touch is as real as that of the body with matter. As to that which we see and feel, there is no need to reason concerning its existence, because this is self-evident. This is as true of spiritual as of natural sight and touch.
We speak of a rational religion, by which we mean one that, as to its great general outlines and its main supports, can be understood in the light of reason. But a religion that is not more than this is like a house built upon the sand. To be permanent it must rest at last upon a rock -- the eternal truth of inner experience that transcends any process of thinking, of logic, or of reason. He who has this inward testimony "has set to his seal that God is true."6 It is just this that is denied by modern philosophers who hold that there is no such thing as internal sensation and that the only ground of reality rests upon physical touch. Wherefore it is held that all that cannot be demonstrated by sense experience is not only unknown but unknowable, and shares in the shifting uncertainty of all man's thought. Such a philosophy reduces all religion to the plane of individual or collective opinion, to be criticized and demolished by one who, through scientific discovery and reasoning, reaches some other conclusion. Yet, because there is more than human opinion in religion, because it has its deepest springs in the universal sense or interior perception of God, it has found a permanent place with every people in every land and in every age.
The mind by which man is able to experience this sense of the Divine is what is represented by the ark and the holy of holies. It is, indeed, the inmost dwelling place of God with man, and yet it is a place which, in the sight of the lower mind, is dark, mysterious, reaching up toward the Infinite where reason can no longer follow. If we look at it from without or from below, we behold but darkness; yet if we look upon it from within we find it not only full of light but the very source of light, the beginning of all understanding and wisdom, the starting point from which is all true reason. Religion has been called "the pragmatic expression of hope." This is often meant to discredit it. It implies that man imagines all things that he most would like to have, forms to himself a mental picture of them and then calls them his religion, believing that they must be real. Whence come these desires that are common to all men? They have no assignable origin if they are unreal and unattainable. Why was man created to long for them? To create a race of beings filled with a longing for the unattainable is an act of cruelty that cannot be ascribed to a God of love. But what shall we say if these desires of the soul are realities; if they can be fulfilled; if they are but the means of imparting to man the realization of the end and purpose for which he was created? What if they are not a hopeless mirage, but rather a first glimpse of an inner world into which man is to come after death? To postulate this origin of our inmost longings is more in accord with the facts of experience than to suppose that they are unreal. In either case the external appearance would be the same. That which a man perceives in this highest recess of the mind is the actual delight of human joy and happiness. In it is found the summation of all the deepest longings of the spirit. And the fact that this perception is common to all men is the promise of its attainability. This is the reason why the predominating color of the ark and of the sanctuary is gold. The ark was covered with gold within and without, and the walls of the holy of holies were covered with gold. For gold signifies good, and the delight of love to the Lord is as it were the natural joy for which man was created and which alone can satisfy his innate cravings. All things in that highest region of the mind are such as to impart delight and happiness to men, whence comes an inner light and a perfect peace, trust and confidence in the near presence of the Lord as the Divine and infinitely living Savior. It is the Lord there present as "The Light of the World," the only light which can dispel the clouds of doubt, make clear the Divine end and law, give purpose and reason and an understandable use to all created things. The holy of holies is therefore like the holy city, of which it is said in the Apocalypse that "It hath no need of the sun, neither of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God doth lighten it and the Lamb is the light thereof."7 This ark of shittim wood is said in the Arcana Coelestia to represent the same as the tree of life in the Garden of Eden, to eat of which was to live forever.8 That tree is said in the Writings to represent the Lord's life present and received by man, so affecting him as to the inmost that he becomes aware of it.9 This ability to feelthe Divine presence is of the mercy of the Lord and is the power by means of which He is able to move men to live a life of religion and so to be saved. For this reason it represents the mercy and righteousness of the Lord operating for man's salvation.
And this brings us to consider the meaning of the mercy seat or propitiatory. This plate of gold covering the ark was that through which or by means of which there was influx from the Lord. "There will I meet with thee, and I will commune with thee, from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim."10 In the ark, by means of the tables of the Law or of the Word, the Lord is livingly present, and His presence there can be perceived and acknowledged by man because it can be felt in the inmost of his mind. From this highest seat the Lord can speak to guide and direct man's way in the degree that man, as of himself, shuns evil as sin. For with the removal of evil, good from the Lord inflows, but so long as evil is present, such influx is impossible, and this is why the mercy seat was called the propitiatory. It was the "mercy seat" because in the Lord's mercy it provided the means of salvation. It was called the "propitiatory" because salvation was possible only through repentance and the remission of sins. Every Christian must acknowledge God as a Divine man in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He must obey the Lord's teaching and he must do so from love and faith. By this means alone is he regenerated. For this reason the mercy seat is said to represent the Divine Human or the visible God. It covered over the Law which here represents the idea of God as infinite, as invisible. This idea by itself is powerless to save. But when the invisible God is perceived as a soul within the form of God Incarnate, God becomes consciously present to man and has "all power in heaven and on earth."
On this mercy seat were the two cherubim which are said to represent the same as the angels "guarding the way of the tree of life," namely, Divine Providence preventing any approach to the Lord except from good of love and from an actual shunning of evil as sin.11 They were two in number to represent the spiritual and celestial genius among men. Those of a celestial genius being saved, as it were, from the east by the good of love, and those of a spiritual genius from the west by the good of faith. And this is the reason why they were so placed as to be in the east and west respectively. They looked toward one another to represent the conjunction and the harmony of these two things in the Lord, and to represent the marriage of good and truth in men as being the universal of religion. For it is not by good alone nor by truth alone that man can be saved, but by the two conjoined as in a marriage. This is true whatever the genius of the man, whether celestial or spiritual. The cherubim looked toward the mercy seat to represent the turning of the interiors of the mind to the Lord because the inmost end and purpose of life should be to become conjoined with Him. Their wings covered the mercy seat to represent the Divine Providence of the Lord and His protection in every state of love and faith with men. This covering by the wings also represented a veiling over of Divine truth with forms and appearances accommodated to man so that he might perceive the Lord who in Himself is invisible and ineffable. And finally it represented a lifting up or elevation of the mind by means of truth and love. This elevation is above the things of the earth into the realm of heavenly perception. The cherubim were fastened to the mercy seat because all this protection, all this veiling, and all this elevation is effected by the Lord in his Divine Human. They were of gold because such protecting and guarding is of the Divine love. And finally, they were angelic forms because all influx to men before the incarnation was through and by means of the celestial heaven, and every appearance of the Lord was by means of an angel infilled with His presence.
We see in the ark with its tables of the testimony a wonderfully graphic picture of how the Lord can be present in the human soul, to become therein the first of all religion, that for which all religion exists, and by which it is formed; and for this reason it is described first in the account of the tabernacle and how it was to be builded by the sons of Israel at the command of Jehovah.