Raiders of the Lost Ark

Joshua base imageI’m not preaching this week, but I was reading through Joshua 3 and thinking about the role of the ark.  It won’t crop up in the sermon or in the Cell Outline.  So these are just some extra thoughts. 


I recall years ago someone having a passionate debate with me about where the ark is now.  He’d spent years carefully scouring the OT to discover its whereabouts!  The ark is, of course, a prized object and not just in The Raiders of the Lost Ark, but some Ethiopian Christians claim that during Solomon’s reign an Israelite priest secretly brought it to Ethiopia where it still resides today.


In Joshua 3, the ark was a kind of “divine crossing guard,” stopping the Jordan’s flow until all Israel, including the priests, have safely crossed into Canaan. Basically a gilded wooden box, the ark represented the footstool to God’s throne and symbolised the presence of God who would otherwise be invisible to human sight.


Constructed at Mount Sinai (Ex. 25:10; 37:1) and kept in the tabernacle’s Most Holy Place (26:33), the place where God spoke to Israel through Moses (25:22; Num. 7:89), it was the home of the Tablets of the Law (Deut. 10:2, 5; 1 Kings 8:9; cf. Heb. 9:4).  It was carried through the wilderness (Num. 10:33-36; 14:44), kept in Solomon’s temple (1  Kings 8:6) and used in worship (Ps. 132:8).


While in Philistine hands, the ark so disrupted Philistine life that they gladly returned it to Israel.  For failing to pay it due respect, God killed seventy members of one family (1 Sam. 6:19), as he did with Uzzah, who touched it without authority (2 Sam. 6:6-7). Even David was terrified by the ark’s apparent power (1 Sam. 6:20; 2 Sam. 6:9). By contrast, when treated properly, the Lord’s blessing was released, e.g Obed-Edom (2 Sam. 6:11).


After David retrieved the ark from its twenty-year exile and brought it to Jerusalem  with a great ceremony, he installed it in a tent until its move into the Temple (2 Sam. 6:16-19; 1 Kings 8:4). From there it vanished from history except for a brief mention by King Josiah three centuries later (2 Chron. 35:3).


Jeremiah prophesied that after the exile, the ark would not be remembered, missed, or remade (3:16).  And that seems to have been the case. Only in Hebrews 9:4 and Rev. 11:19 is it mentioned again, where we find its final resting place in the heavenly temple .


Since the Reformation, most Christians no longer hold religious objects in special awe, so it’s a strange idea that a gilded wooden box would command such wonder and exude such power.   Yet Israel associated the ark with both the presence and the “hand (or power) of God” (Josh. 4:24).


So how did Israel avoid the ark becoming an idol? The ancients believed the idol was the place where the god actually lived. The image before them a god. Indeed, on one occasion Israel also came close to treating the ark as if it were a magic good-luck charm. The Philistines had inflicted a shattering defeat and great loss of life on Israel (1 Sam. 4). Israel’s leaders responded by ordering that the ark be sent to the next battle. That way, “it [the ark] will save us … from … our enemies” (4:3). The implication of their words is telling: Their reliance was not on the presence of God with the ark but on “it” (the ark itself). 


They seemed close to believing that the ark somehow was God and his mysterious power was present in it.  Subsequent events plainly show them to be wrong. In the next battle, with the ark present, the Philistines again routed Israel and, worse, actually captured the ark and took it home! (1 Sam. 4:10-11). The ark possessed no power to defend itself against humans.


The biblical principle is that the ark’s powerful influence always come from God’s presence with it not in it. The ark may be in God’s presence but it does not guarantee to bring God’s presence. As a physical object, the ark did not offer a physical representation of God — that is, what he actually looks like. In the ancient world, idols might visually present the god (Baal, for example), but a gilded box in no way presents a visible image of who God is.


God is completely invisible and hence impossible to represent. God’s majesty so defies physical representation as to make all such attempts both futile and blasphemous. That was the error of the golden calves promoted by Aaron and King Jero­boam as representations of God (Ex. 32; 1 Kings 12:28; 2 Kings 10:29). They horribly misrepresented him! They were nothing but ugly, grotesque forgeries—insults to God himself—and earned both of them just punishment.


In the ancient world, to “look on” something was, in a sense, to exercise some control over it. Our expression to “keep (something) in our sights” is similar. To look on God implies an attempt at human control, however limited, over him. No wonder people who attempt to “look at God” himself run the risk of instant death simply for doing so (Judg. 13:22; cf. John 1:18).


Therefore to look at the ark, or move it, was not to look on God or seek to control him.  As a symbol the ark was “like an arrow pointing away from itself to the invisible God hovering above it”.  And God now dwells within believers by his Spirit.  So no wonder we cannot find the ark.  It, like the Temple, is no  longer needed.

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