What is the mercy seat?

The mercy seat is the name given to the lid of the Ark of the Covenant that was in the Jewish sanctuary in the desert and later in the temple in Jerusalem. The lid was made from a solid piece of gold.

A figure of an angel, called a cherub, was placed at each end of the cover. The space between the angels was called the mercy seat because it had a special religious meaning.

The meaning of the mercy seat

The mercy seat was special because it was the place God’s glory appeared when He wanted to communicate with Israel (Exodus 25:22). The symbol of the divine presence appeared over the mercy seat like a glowing light called the “Shekinah”.

The Hebrew word translated mercy seat in English, is kapporeth, a word that refers to a sacrifice that reconciles and leads to peacemaking. Once a year, the High Priest conducted a special ceremony of forgiveness and dedication at the mercy seat.

Even today that annual event of special mercy seat services, called “Yom Kippur” (Day of Atonement), is the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Its central themes are atonement (making things right) and repentance. Jews traditionally observe this holy day with a day-long fast and intensive prayer.

What’s the spiritual meaning of all this?

That solid gold mercy seat tells us that God is valued above all else, and He passes that “pure gold” value on to us if we want it.

  • Mercy is what we all need. God is always merciful.
  • Righteousness is explained by both the sacrifices made by the high priest in the Old Testament symbolic service, and in reality, by Jesus on the cross.

Mercy and Justice

Psalms 85:10-11, explains the concept of mercy and justice well: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed. Truth shall spring out of the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”

  • Mercy without justice = is weak and subversive of moral order.
  • Justice without mercy = is moral severity, revolting to both God and humans.

The Ark of the Covenant contained several items placed below the mercy seat lid that had special religious significance to Israel. They have the same significance for us:

  • The two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them. These Ten Commandments summarized what God expected His people to believe and to practice in their lifestyles. Nothing has changed for us. They are still the codebook that should guide our lives today.
  • The book Moses compiled (today the first five books of the Bible) about the government and religious system used in Israel was placed in a side compartment. There information in those books that is still valid for us today. There are healthful living ideas, sanitary practices that help avoid diseases, etc.
  • A bowl of manna was placed inside the ark (Hebrews 9:4). This special pot of manna was a symbol that God would sustain His people even in the desert. It is no different today, God still sustains His people.
  • A walking stick called “Aaron’s rod” was also stored within the ark (Hebrews 9:4). This rod was the central feature in a special miracle recounted in Numbers 17. God still works miracles to protect and guide His followers. You and I are never out of His sight and caring presence!

Does the mercy seat idea still function?

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul, used the same mercy seat as an illustration to explain how the divine mercy/justice paradigm works.

In Romans 3:24-26, Paul uses the Greek word (hilastérion) for the same mercy seat, and shows how the symbolism of the Old Testament was literally fulfilled in the person of Jesus: “Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation [mercy seat] by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

What does this mercy seat have to do with me?

In Acts 16:25-29, the apostle Paul was imprisoned unjustly. An earthquake shook the prison gates open (God did that! — that’s justice!). The prison warden decided to kill himself because he thought all the prisoners had escaped. Paul told him no one had escaped – that’s mercy!

Those who choose to follow the Lord receive both justice and mercy. God, through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, takes care of the mercy part. Without that divine mercy we could never escape the cage the Devil has us imprisoned in. That sacrifice also made everything right for us (justice). All we have to do is walk out of the cage when God opens the door.