APOCALYPTIC SYMBOLISM OF THE TABERNACLE
A comprehensive study of biblical apocalyptics requires at least a brief notice of the mystic symbolism of the sacred tent, which figures so conspicuously in the narrative of the Levitical worship. The structure is called the “tent of meeting,” the “tent of the testimony,” and the “dwelling of the testimony.” Its symbolism is essentially the same as that of the temple of Solomon, and the allusions in John’s Apocalypse to the “temple of God opened in heaven,” and “the tabernacle of God with men” (Rev. 11:19; 21:3), cannot be explained without reference to the significance of this symbolism.
The tabernacle and the temple, as described in the Old Testament books, were comparatively small structures, inadequate for the accommodation of a large congregation, and not designed for such a purpose. A great assembly might draw near and stand “at the door,” so to speak, and witness what was visible from without, but only consecrated priests and Levites were permitted to enter and perform the sacred rites of worship. So all Israel worshiped by proxy, and the officiating priest was their minister before God. The holy places were, (1) the court, where the altar of burnt offerings and the laver stood; (2) the holy place, where were the table of showbread, the golden candlestick, and the golden altar of incense; and (3) the holy of holies, in which was “the ark of the covenant.”
What, now, was the symbolical import of this sacred tent? It would lead only to confusion and error to seek for mystical significance in the minor details of the structure. The boards, the curtains, the loops, the taches, the rods and the rings, and such like may all be passed over as mere incidentals necessary to the different parts of the tent. The main structure had two apartments, and these, with their chief articles of furniture, may reasonably be supposed to represent the principal ideas intended.
The words employed in describing these parts suggest the fundamental thought of their significance. The principal names are the dwelling (____) and tent (____) and the passage which, above all others, points out the one great idea embodied in the tabernacle is Exod. 29:42-46: “It shall be a continual burnt offering through. out your generations, at the door of the tent of meeting before Jehovah, where I will meet with you, and speak unto thee there. And there I will meet with the sons of Israel, and he (that is, Israel) shall be sanctified in my glory…. And I will dwell in the midst of the sons of Israel, and I will be their God, and they shall know that I am Jehovah their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them.” Here obviously the one great thought is that Of JEHOVAH MEETING AND DWELLING WITH HIS PEOPLE, and sanctifying them in his glory. It is difficult not to think that the Saviour had this divine thought in mind when he prayed for his followers “that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them and thou in me, that they maybe perfected into one,” and, furthermore, that “where I am they also may be with me, that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:23, 24).
With this clew to the meaning we think of the tabernacle as a material symbol of the dwelling of God with his people. The two apartments, known as the holy place and the holy of holies, represent the true relations of Israel and Jehovah. It is the twofold fellowship of the human and the divine. God condescends to dwell with man that man may dwell with God in eternal life. By virtue of this blood-bought relationship the true Israel of God become sanctified in the divine glory (Exod. 29:43). The “many mansions” (____, dwellings, abiding places, John 14:2) of the Father’s house in the heavens are but the fuller realization and perfection of the believer’s fellowship with God on earth. In the mystery of this blessed symbolism we see a type as well as a symbol of the New Testament Church and kingdom of God, a spiritual house (1st Peter 2:5), a habitation of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:22). The two holy places, separated by the veil, suggest how closely God and man may come together in holy communion, and the chief symbols of the two apartments show the terms, or conditions, of the fellowship.
In accordance with this main thought we may easily infer the significance of the principal objects belonging to the sacred tent. The holy of holies was the secret presence chamber of Jehovah, and the ark, containing the tables of the law covered by the mercy seat, was a symbol of the deepest mystery of the kingdom of grace. It was a picture of “mercy covering wrath.” The ark was a small chest, made of most durable wood, and overlaid within and without with gold. Within this were deposited “the two tables of testimony,” so called because the Ten Commandments were a monumental witness of Jehovah against sin. The mercy seat, or capporeth (____), was a golden cover for the ark, and it was made exactly of the same dimensions as the length and breadth of the ark itself, and sprinkled with blood on the great day of atonement. Thus it became a symbol of “the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth to be an expiatory covering (_______= capporeth) through faith in his blood” (Rom. 3:25). The cherubim at the ends of the mercy seat, with their faces toward each other, and spreading out their wings on high (Exod. 25:20), seem there as at the gate of Eden to guard the way of life, and suggest the ultimate glory of the redeemed who shall have power over the tree of life which is in the paradise of God (comp. Rev. 2:7; 22:14).
As the most holy place and its furniture symbolized Jehovah’s relations to his people, and showed how and on what terms God condescends to dwell with men, so, on the other hand, the holy place and its furniture and ministering priest represented the true relation of Israel to God. As the officiating priest stood in the holy place, facing the holy of holies, he had at his right hand the table of showbread, at his left the candlestick, and immediately before him the golden altar of incense. The twelve cakes of showbread on the table represented the twelve tribes of Israel continually presented as a living sacrifice before God, and the candlestick with its seven lamps was another symbol of Israel standing as the light of the world. But the more direct worship of God on the part of his people was symbolized by the offering of incense on the golden altar, which stood immediately before the veil and in front of the mercy seat (Exod. 30:6). This offering of incense was an expressive symbol of the prayers of the saints (Psalm 141:2; Rev. 5:8; 8:3, 4), and, accordingly, the people were wont to pray without at the time when the priest offered incense within (Luke 1:10).
The altar of burnt offering and the laver which were in the court had also their significance. There could be no approach unto God on the part of sinful man, no possible meeting and dwelling with him, except by reason of the offerings made at the great altar in front of the holy tent. No priest might pass into the holy places of the tabernacle until sprinkled with blood from that altar (Exod. 19:21), and the live coals used for the burning of incense before Jehovah were taken from the same place (Lev. 16:12). Nor might any priest minister at the altar or enter the tabernacle without first washing at the laver (Exod. 30:20, 21). So the great altar continually proclaimed that without the shedding of blood there is no remission, and the priests’ ablutions suggest the fundamental truth that without the “washing of regeneration” no man may enter he kingdom of God.
The symbolism of the tabernacle is recognized in Heb. 9:1-12, and Christ’s entrance “into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us,” is illustrated by analogies in the worship of the Levitical tabernacle. It may also be observed that as the most holy place in the temple was a perfect cube (1st Kings 6:20), the same was probably the case in the tabernacle, and this fact may have suggested the figure of the new Jerusalem in John’s Apocalypse, the length and breadth and height of which were equal (Rev. 21:16). This ideal of perfection is to be realized when that holy city shall have so come down out of heaven from God that a great voice from the throne may say, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall dwell with them” (Rev. 21:3).