The cherubim spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, with their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat were the faces of the cherubim.
I am not, by any means, an Old Testament scholar with any real expertise in the furniture of the Tabernacle. I’ve read and heard some teachers who seem to have dedicated their professional lives to understanding and explaining the symbolism and foreshadowing involved in these sometimes esoteric subjects. My observation this morning was much more elementary, and wouldn’t have gained me access into the ranks of those who have studied for years.
I have known the positioning of the cherubim on top since the first time I saw an artists representation of it. The connected wings of the angels is a dramatic artistic movement, and maybe one of the most memorable parts of the entire Tabernacle. But maybe I was just late to the party, but I suppose I had never really considered just what they were facing.
Generally, in the Bible, sin and folly are seen as things that are antithetical to holiness and justice. Adam and Eve are turned out of Eden, out of the intimate presence of their Creator because of disobedience. God turns away from sin as it is laid upon His Son on the cross. We see the asymetrical nature of God’s nature and sin’s activity all throughout the Bible. But here, in this image on top of the Ark of the Covenant (or Ark of the Testimony), there is something a bit unique happening: the angels are looking directly at the place where sin comes to be dealt with, the “Mercy Seat”. The angels are not turning away, they are not hiding their faces, they are not appalled by what might be handled between them, despite the fact that the predication upon which the Mercy Seat is made necessary is the presence of sin, folly, injustice, and rebellion.
God never tells us to hide our sin. In fact, it was sin that caused us to hide in the first place after the first sin. As painful as it is, God asks that we come to Him with every fault in the open and allow Him to adjudicate in His own way. And if the Mercy Seat means anything, it should mean that the way He judges us is not as we deserve. The angels don’t turn away from the Mercy Seat because they know exactly what happens when filthy sinners come open handed to a holy God. God is not made filthy, and God is not mocked by their transgression. Instead, He makes them clean and holy by His grace and love. This is mercy. It’s shocking and it’s hard to fathom that when we walk into the presence of God no one turns away from us, not one of the heavenly creatures shrieks because of the slag and scum that we have accrued over the course of life. They are silent, or dare I say on the cusp of universe-shaking praise because they know what is about to happen, they know just what happens when a sinner comes into the presence of the Holiest One.
I can’t tell you the story is completely accurate historically, but one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read about mercy is wrapped in a tale about Napoleon. The story goes that Napoleon was about to execute a young man for desertion and treason. As the firing squad took their marks and were about to send a hail of bullets racing toward his body the young man’s mother broke through the crowd of on-lookers and called out to the General to stop. Napoleon looked at her and asked who she was.
“I am the man’s mother sir, and I beg of you to show mercy to my son.” She said.
Napoleon answered, “Madam, he does not deserve mercy, he is a traitor.”
She replied, “But sir, if it is deserved, then it is not mercy.”
Allegedly Napoleon was so astonished and impressed with the woman’s answer that he released the young man.
The story’s accuracy may not stand much scrutiny, but the point of the story is dead on. What we receive from God is not deserved, if we get what we deserve then it is not mercy. The angels staring at the Mercy Seat are evidence that we can confidently come, just as we are, to God and He will not treat us as we deserve. In fact, the most wonderful thing that we can be assured of is that He deals with us in a way that we are not yet worthy of, as saints, as pure and holy members of His family. We don’t get this treatment because we are those things, but because Jesus was, and He stood in our place on the cross.
Such is the mercy of God that he will hold his children in the consuming fire of his distance until they pay the utmost farthing, until they drop the purse of selfishness with all the dross that is in it, and rush home to the Father and to the Son and the brethren—rush inside the life-giving Fire whose outer circle burns. –George MacDonald