Depending on your Biblical translation, the tablets that Moses received from God and the sacred box that they were carried in are referred to by different words. Both “ark of the covenant” and “ark of the testimony” are acceptable phrases for the description of the cherubim-topped chest that carried the ten commandments in the wilderness, and then that housed them in David’s makeshift home and eventually Solomon’s grand temple.
I find it interesting that two words that seem to be so different are used to denote the same thing…unless there is more connection in these two terms than we first allow.
A covenant was an agreement made between two parties, it was an agreement, an accord. Now, in the Biblical idea of covenants there is a tendency to define it the same way we define a contract (where two parties mutually agree on an exchange of goods, services, or currency). The Bible sees covenants differently. A covenant seems to be more rooted in an embrace of hearts than an exchange of goods or services. Covenants are less about what you bring “to the table” and more about who you are going to sit with around that table. It is this that makes the dual terminology of the ark so powerful to me.
When God gave the Ten Commandments they were not put into a legal building like a courtroom, they were placed into a box that would be referred to as “testimony”. A testimony is defined as “a firsthand authentication of a fact; an outward sign”. To a certain degree, a testimony is the exposure of something that has been personally possessed/concealed with the intention of bringing clarity to a situation or relationship. An eye-witness in a legal proceeding gives their “testimony”. A weathered saint of God, in a prayer meeting, lifts her voice to give a “testimony”. God, on the mountain with Moses, inscribed onto two tablets His own “testimony”. That is, He revealed to us something about Himself in the farrago of weather systems, odd sounds, and smoke atop that hill.
The connecting point here isn’t that complex. God’s testimony was His covenant. He told His people – and by implication us – who He was/is. He is a God of respect, honor, peace, rest, order, life, fairness, commitment, etc… It is noticeable that the rest of the Law that Moses gave to the people, the extensive and intensive rule book for Israel, was NOT placed into the ark. Only the Ten Commandments given by God was placed in that box. But the Psalmist lauds the Law, dwelling in it, meditating on it, staying up late and rising early to ponder to the nuances of the Law of the Lord…surely it’s not unimportant. So what’s different about the Ten Commandments?
What if we looked differently at them? What if we didn’t first approach the Ten Commandments as rules that God imposed on us, but as a revelation of His character, a testimony of who He is? How would that change how we see God? Is He still a Law-giver? Yes. Is He still a God who expects and requires? Yes. Is He arrogantly levying rule after rule and imposition after imposition upon the peons that dwell far below Him? No.
This is a God that stands up at the end of a Sunday Night service and testifies. He says, “I am all of these things, and all of these things are examples of the world that I created for you – order, love, commitment, absence of fear, rest, purpose. But the world isn’t like I created it originally, It’s fractured and broken. But I want you to know that you can taste life as it was meant to be. Though there is sorrow and pain there can also be love and grace. Look at these Ten revelations and know that I have promised to be with you, to stand by you, and to bring these things into your life. One day I will reset the entire system and you’ll know what it means to live in this perfect way without any hitch.”
God’s testimony and covenant are both self-revelations of who He is. He is a God that desires good for His people. The ark became the evidence that God testified, He told His story to His people so they would know that His heart was willingly connected with them. He offers us the same testimony, the same covenant. And it is not coincidental that as the crowning jewel atop the testimony of God is the seat of mercy. Between the cherubim is the place where all eyes are drawn, where the entire idea begins to make sense, the connection point between the Divine and the common: grace.
I encourage you today friends, open your ears. Echoing through our universe is the eternal testimony of God. You can pick up its reverberations in the sunrise every morning, in the rainbow that you see after the storms, in both the coos and cries of babies all around us. God’s testimony is carried on the brisk breezes of winter and the flesh-thawing warmth of spring. God is not silent, despite our best efforts to mute Him. Every act of kindness repeats His testimony. Every time a spouse turns away from infidelity His covenant is seen. Each time an honest word is spoken, a greedy thought is cast aside, a murderous heart is set at peace – in all of these things we see God’s heart, just like He showed us on those two stone plates thousands of years ago.
Listen close. He’s speaking now.