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Christ: Our Mercy Seat

By Kyle Pope

In the book of Exodus, we are given the very detailed descriptions of the various items associated with worship in the tabernacle. Among these, was an item associated with the ark of the covenant which most translations refer to as the mercy seat. According to Exodus 25:17-22, this was to be a covering that went over the ark, made of hammered gold, with two angelic beings known as cherubim with wings outstretched. It was not to be a literal seat, but a covering for the ark.

     The word translated “mercy seat” is the Hebrew word kaphoreth from the verb kphr meaning “cover over, pacify, make propitiation” (BDB, p. 497). There are differing explanations of the origin of the word. Some link it to an Akkadian word meaning “to wipe” or “wash away” while others think it is closer to an Arabic word meaning “to cover.”* Isaac Lesser, in his English translation for the Hebrew Publishing Company, instead of “mercy seat” translates it “a covering.” It was a “seat” of mercy in that it was the place where mercy, propitiation and expiation took place. God promised that He would “meet with” the Israelites and “speak to them” from the mercy seat, between the cherubim (Exodus 25:22).

     The mercy seat was to be on the ark when it was placed inside the tabernacle (Exodus 26:33-34). Craftsmen were appointed for the construction of the mercy seat (Exodus 31:1-7) and they carried out God’s instructions in completing it (Exodus 37:1-9). When the tabernacle was ready Moses put the ark and the mercy seat in place in the Most Holy place (Exodus 4);17-20). God told Aaron, the High Priest, to burn incense on the Day of Atonement to make a cloud of smoke around the mercy seat and He promised to “appear in the cloud above the mercy seat” (Leviticus 16:2, 13-17).

     The mercy seat functioned in four ways: 1. God promised to “meet with” them there (Exodus 25:22); 2. God promised to instruct them there (Exodus 25:22); 3. In some sense He would “appear” to them in the cloud there (Leviticus 16:2); and 4. There, He would grant them mercy and propitiation. These functions are seen in the history of Israel. God spoke to Moses from the mercy seat (Numbers 7:89). Joshua prayed to God towards the mercy seat, and may have received an answer from the mercy seat (Joshua 7:6,10). When Solomon constructed the temple the ark with the mercy seat was placed inside the temple (I Chronicles 28:10-12).

     The Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint (LXX) translated the Hebrew word for mercy seat with the Greek word hilasterion. This word, comes from the Greek word hilasmos, meaning “means by which sins are forgiven” and is itself defined as “means or place where sins are forgiven” (Newman). The New Testament uses this word twice. The first in reference to the items of the tabernacle (Hebrews 9:1-5) and the second in reference to Jesus (Romans 3:21-26). This second reference, speaking of Jesus, says God set Him:“...forth as a propitiation [hilasterion] by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness...” (Romans 3:25a). The New King James version adds the footnote to the word “propitiation” - “mercy seat.” The Holy Spirit deliberately used a word associated with the item placed on the ark of the covenant to describe what Jesus is to mankind.

     How is Jesus our mercy seat? First, in Jesus we meet with God. Jesus declared:“...I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Second, God appears to us in Jesus. Jesus declared:“...He who has seen Me has seen the Father...” (John 14:9). Third, God speaks to us through Jesus. The Hebrew writer says that God:“has in these last days spoken to us by His Son...” (Hebrews 1:2). Finally, in Christ is the place where mercy is granted. Just before Paul speaks of Jesus as our mercy seat, he declares:“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). What the material item was to Israel, Christ is to us spiritually.

* See Strathmann Hermann, “The Meaning of the Root kphr,”Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3, p. 302 and R. Laird Harris, “kaphar,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 1, pp. 452-3.

Pope, Kyle. "Christ: Our Mercy Seat" Biblical Insights 4.8 (August 2004): 12.  

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