“What was the ark of the covenant, and does it exist in any form today?” New Era, May 1973, 49–50
Answer/Edward J. Brandt
Shortly after the children of Israel had been led from bondage in Egypt, Moses was commanded to prepare a tabernacle—a portable temple—to be used by them until they were settled in the land of promise. (D&C 124:38.) In consequence of the unfaithfulness of the people, the fulness of the priesthood and its ordinances were taken from them and a lesser order of priesthood established among them. (D&C 84:17–27.) The tabernacle was then adopted as the sanctuary where the ordinances of this lesser priesthood were to be exercised. Its design and furnishings were revealed from God, and once completed, it was dedicated to the Lord and his service. Thereafter, this portable edifice was transported and cared for only by the authorized priesthood in Israel.
The most important of the furnishings of the tabernacle was the ark of the covenant, which is also spoken of in the scriptures by other names—ark of the testimony, ark of the Lord, and ark of the covenant of the Lord. It was a chest made of shittim (acacia) wood, approximately 4 by 2 1/2 by 2 1/2 feet in size, that was overlaid with gold. Rings were set on the corners so that gold-covered poles might be used to carry the ark. Also made of gold and completing the ark was a lid or covering (called the ‘mercy seat’) with two cherubs positioned upon it facing each other. (Ex. 25:10–22.) Within the ark were placed the second tables of stone, which included thereon the Ten Commandments. (Ex. 25:16; JST, Deut. 10:1–5.) Other sacred memorials were also stored there from time to time. (Heb. 9:4–5; 1 Kgs. 8:19.)
The ark was placed in the most sacred compartment in the tabernacle—the Holy of Holies. It stood as a continual reminder of the atonement to be carried out by Jesus Christ. The highest ordinances of ancient Israel under the Mosaic law required the high priest of the Levites to annually enter the most holy place and symbolically effect the atonement in behalf of the priesthood, who in turn represented the people. The mercy seat as a covering for the chest symbolized the atonement itself, which is a covering of the sins of the repentant. In addition the lid was the place where God would come to direct and be with Israel. From above the mercy seat within the sacred chamber he would appear or speak to his representatives. (Ex. 25:22; Lev. 16:2; Num. 7:89) As the presence of God is veiled from mortal man, so the ark, the symbol of God’s presence was veiled when outside the tabernacle. As an emblem of God’s direction of Israel, the ark was carried at the head of the people whether in travel or war. For ancient Israel, the ark of the covenant was a significant emblem that represented the power, goodness, mercy, and direction of God unto his chosen people.
The ark was transported from Sinai to the land of promise. The miraculous crossing of the Jordan River (Josh. 3:3–17) and the fall of the city of Jericho (Josh. 6:1–21) evidence the importance of the ark of the Lord to the Israelites. Once in the land of promise the ark was cared for in various places until its place of permanent rest, the temple, was constructed. During the reign of the Judges, the ark was found at the town of Bethel. (Judg. 20:27.) While Samuel was the prophet and until the war with the Philistines, the ark was located at Shiloh (1 Sam. 1:9, 3:3); during the war it was taken to the battlefield called Ebenezer, where it was captured. For seven months the Philistines were plagued and severely smitten because of their unauthorized possession of the ark. This caused them to return the ark to the Israelites, which they did at the village of Kirjath-jearim. (1 Sam. 4–6.) Here it remained some twenty years, ignored by King Saul except for one battle when its presence had been requested. Finally King David brought the ark to Jerusalem, and after some years his son Solomon constructed the long-awaited temple.
Through the years of war and conflict that followed, the ark of the covenant remained among the people of Israel in the Kingdom of Judah. The last mention of it is made during the days of the reform of King Josiah. From this point on, the scripture is silent as to the location and existence of the ark. The Jewish historian Josephus records that the temple of Herod in Jerusalem at the time of Christ did not contain the ark. (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, bk. V, v. 5.) Jewish traditions suggest that either Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the ark along with the temple in his conquest of Judah, or that before the destruction of the temple, Jeremiah, the prophet, hid the ark in the mount from where Moses had centuries before viewed the land of promise (Mt. Nebo), and there it was to remain until God gathered his people again. Its final end or even its possible existence today has not been revealed. Latter-day Saints do, however, sing of the ark in the sacramental hymn “I Stand All Amazed.” (Hymns, no. 80.) In the third stanza it states, “I will praise and adore at the mercy seat,” recognizing the ark as a memorial of the atonement of Jesus Christ.
The story of Uzzah, who aided the men of Israel in the transport of the ark to Jerusalem, illustrates an important lesson for Latter-day Saints. The Lord had specified that the ark was always to be carried by the poles and only by duly authorized persons. The chosen representatives of all Israel were assembled as an escort, and Uzzah and his brother were given the responsibility for the cart. En route to the city, one of the oxen pulling the cart stumbled, shaking the ark. Uzzah put forth his hand to “steady the ark” and was smitten by the Lord. The ark represented God’s direction of Israel and his presence among them, which they had chosen to ignore. The disregard for the Lord’s established order brought judgment upon Israel and Uzzah.
In our time we have been warned of the condemnation and judgments that will come upon those who attempt to “steady the ark”—upon those who attempt to give self-assumed guidance to the kingdom of God or any of its parts. (D&C 85:8–9.) The Prophet Joseph Smith said of the direction of the Church in difficult and turbulent conditions and times: “… men cannot steady the ark—my arm cannot do it—God must steady it.” (Documentary History of the Church, vol. 5, p. 20.)