By Philip Bray
He struck down some of the men of Beth Shemesh because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. He struck down of all the people, 50,070 men, and the people mourned because the LORD had struck the people with a great slaughter. The men of Beth Shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God? And to whom shall it go to from here?” - 1 Samuel 6:19-20.
1 Samuel 4 recounts how Israel, seven months before the events of the above passage, suffered a great military defeat at the hands of the Philistines. As well as the Ark of the Covenant being captured, 30,000 Israelite footmen were killed. Yet, in comparison more people died at Beth Shemesh when the Ark was opened than had died at the hands of the Philistines. Furthermore, the record states, “He struck down”, i.e. it was God Himself who judged the people at Beth Shemesh.
I would like to show, firstly how every man exposed to the Law of God must die; and secondly how entirely Christ is the end of the Law and that He has presented us perfect before God.
The Death of Man Brought by the Law.
What was it that caused the Lord, in His perfect justice, so severely and instantly to judge His people? I suggest that it was the exposure of man to the Law of God. Once Moses had been given the two tables of stone, he was instructed to place them inside the Ark (Exodus 40:20). The Ark was then sealed by the ‘Mercy Seat’ a pure golden lid with a golden cherub at each end. The Law of God was literally underneath and completely covered by the Mercy Seat.
However, in circumstances not known to us, Israel looked inside the Ark. In other words, they removed, or at least partly removed the Mercy Seat and looked directly at the Law of God.
You often meet people who believe that, while not perfect, they are not bad. They would be content to die in their current state and believe that they will be acceptable to God and go to heaven and not to hell. In effect, they are saying, ‘let me be judged by the Law and I will be found innocent.’ What foolishness! This is exactly what the inhabitants of Beth Shemesh were doing. In lifting the Mercy Seat from off the Ark the Israelites said, “We can stand the examination of the Law.” This is impossible. If any of us were judged by the Law we would be found absolutely guilty with the punishment of eternal Hell; and, we might add instantly judged.
This brings us to Christ’s fulfilment of the Law illustrated in the Mercy Seat.
The Mercy Seat - Christ the end of the Law
The Ark was the first part of the tabernacle described to Moses in Exodus 25:10-22. Being the first article of furniture commanded and constructed we may reasonably conclude that it is of first importance.
Unlike the sides and base of the Ark which were made of wood covered with gold, the Mercy Seat was made entirely of pure gold (Exodus 25:17). The gold speaks of Christ’s perfect righteousness. He was without spot or blemish – there was no intrinsic frailty or failure—no sin within Him. The keeping of the Law is not just an outward act. We do not fulfil the law by just doing what it says; we must also do it with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. It must be an inward and an outward act. Christ fulfilled it perfectly.
Secondly, the Mercy Seat was exactly the same width and length as the Ark (Exodus 25:10 and 17). Therefore, there would have been no overlapping edges; all that lay below the Mercy Seat would have been covered. This speaks of Christ’s fulfilment and complete perfection in all points of the Law. There were no ‘over-lapping edges’. All of the Law of God was covered by Christ. He fulfilled ‘all righteousness’. - Matthew 3:15.
Thirdly, a golden angel was placed at either end of the Mercy Seat, fashioned from the same piece of gold:
You shall make two cherubim of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub at one end and one cherub the other end; you shall make the cherubim of one piece with the mercy seat at its two ends – Exodus 25:18
The Mercy Seat and its angels point to Christ and His work on Calvary. I wonder if this in some way relates to when Mary stooped and looked into Christ’s tomb and saw,
…two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying – John 20:12.
The sight of two angels at either end of where His body had lain should remind us of the Mercy Seat with its two overshadowing angels and is designed to point us to the Mercy Seat. The just punishment demanded by the Law of God on every sinner was paid for by Christ.
The Law of God cries upwards to the throne of God for justice and judgment. It says, “You shall not commit adultery” and we stand condemned when we have looked at a man or woman with lust in our hearts. It says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”, and we find ourselves condemned in that we have each turned to our own ways.
However, the Law has been perfectly fulfilled by Christ in His life and death. All the work demanded of a perfectly just God has been completed by Christ. Every requirement of the Law has been fulfilled by Christ. Christ not only fulfilled the Law by His perfect life, but he fulfilled the Law by bearing the punishment demanded of the Law. The condemnation of the Law fell upon Christ. He was the ‘propitiation’ [literally the mercy seat] for our sin.
... whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed - Romans 3:25
How perfect God is in all His ways! He does not ignore, or overlook a single sin, but He punished all sin in Christ.
The chastisement of our peace, was upon Him. - Isaiah 53:5 (KJV).
The responsibility of man is now to repent of our sins, and then to believe on Christ for our full and total salvation.
What I have written here is not exhaustive, but I hope it is sufficient to apply the truth to our hearts. Here is how God demonstrates His Divine justice, wisdom and mercy. I unashamedly write of the first principles of Christ, rather than a more obscure point of doctrine. The ark with the mercy seat was the first article of furniture of the Tabernacle revealed to Moses, and the work of Christ should retain first place in our thinking. There are three further applications:
Firstly, do you trust only in Christ to be saved and have you renounced your own works? If not, you are lifting the lid of the Ark; you are removing the Mercy Seat and are about to stare at the Law. If you attempt to be justified before God by keeping one element of the Law, you will be required to keep it all – perfectly. Learn the lesson of the Beth Shemeshites. Notice that it is for good reason that the Mercy Seat covers the Law entirely.
Secondly, there has been a worrying tendency in the evangelical church to work publicly with representatives of Roman Catholicism. The gospel of Rome makes a person trust in both their works and the death of Christ; this is to remove the Mercy Seat from the Ark. 50,000 people died in Israel; how many will be eternally killed, i.e. be sent to hell by a compromise with Rome, which causes people to once again come under the naked examination of the Law?
Finally, we must be cautious in our approach to Israel. Some evangelicals do more than pray for Israel, more than becoming a Jew to win a Jew, and more than seeking to preach Christ to the Jews. There is a tendency in some circles to think that it is good for a Christian to assume some of the practices of Judaism. Perhaps it starts as the use of Hebrew terms and phrases (and there is of course no harm in this), but, then it becomes the regard of the Jewish calendar and feasts. Let us tread with caution. Christ is the end of the law; that is the One who kept and fulfilled all of the Law, and the One to whom the Law gave witness. There is a real danger of moving away from Christ by returning to the Law, and lifting the lid of the Ark. Beware!
How superior the New Covenant is; Moses and Elijah, symbolic of the Law and the Prophets appeared in (I assume) a transfigured state with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. However, as soon as Peter gave them equal attention to Christ, the Lord immediately brought a rebuke saying “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear Him ” (Matthew 17:5 cf. 3:17). In comparison to Christ, all that came before are “weak and beggarly elements” (Galatians 4:9). Let us not return again to those things, but cleave to the One who is meek and lowly in heart, perfect in holiness, and who was slain for us.
May we be as Paul who said,
More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith - Philippians 3:8-9
About The Author
Philip Bray is a major in the British Army. He was converted in his year off in 1995 before attending university. Since then he has served at Stroud Green Christian Assembly, most recently as an elder, and is involved in the work of Christian Alliance Ministries. As an infantry officer in the British Army he has completed 10 years' service which included tours in Northern Ireland, and in Afghanistan.