What is the Mercy Seat in the Bible?

A crucial part of the ark of the covenant, the mercy seat teaches us some vital lessons about God's stature and position.

Contributing Writer
Feb 04, 2022
What is the Mercy Seat in the Bible?

"Mercy seat" may not be a common Bible term, but it is a vital part of one of Israel's most treasured artifacts. What the Bible tells us about it gives us important insights into God's holiness and how the Old Testament foreshadows Christ. 

Where Does the Bible Talk about the Mercy Seat?

The mercy seat is the solid gold lid of the Ark of the Covenant. More explanation comes in Exodus 25:17-22. God gave Moses specific instructions on how the ark was to be constructed and what it would be used for: 

“And thou shalt make a mercy of pure gold: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof. And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat. And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof.”

The Lord also said, “the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be.” 

God also gave instructions to put the mercy seat above upon the ark. God told Moses that he would place the testimony that He would give them in it.

“And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.” (Exodus 25:22).

The ark also had shewbread, twelve loaves of bread that symbolized the twelve tribes of Israel. The shewbread was symbolic that God was the source of all things for Israel.

The Ark of the Covenant was among the most cherished artifacts in those days. Not anyone could manage the ark. You had to be appointed and anointed. Some have died trying to oversee the ark, as seen in 2 Samuel 6. King David was bringing the ark to Jerusalem. Uzzah put his hand on the ark because the oxen shook it. He may have meant no harm and did not want it to fall, but he did not have the authority to touch it.

“And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God.” (2 Samuel 6:7)

Mathew Henry observes this in his commentary about the incident:

“They were guilty of in this matter, that they carried the ark in a cart or carriage, whereas the priests should have carried it upon their shoulders, v. 3. The Kohathites that had the charge of the ark had no wagons assigned them, because their service was to bear it upon their shoulders, Numbers 7:9… Uzzah was a Levite, but priests only might touch the ark. The law was express concerning the Kohathites, that, though they were to carry the ark by the staves, yet they must not touch any holy thing, lest they die, Numbers 4:15. Uzzah's long familiarity with the ark, and the constant attendance he had given to it, might occasion his presumption, but would not excuse it.”

(Excerpted from “Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: 2 Samuel 6”)

What Did the Israelites Use the Mercy Seat For?

After God gave Moses specific instructions on making the Ark of the Covenant, which included the mercy seat, He also gave Moses’ instructions on building the tabernacle and altar. God also established his brother Aaron and Aaron’s sons as priests from among the children of Israel. (Exodus 28:1) Unfortunately, two of Aaron’s sons died because they presented strange fire before the Lord. (Leviticus 10:1-2

The Bible says, “Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generation.” (Leviticus 10:9) There is a difference between holy and unholy, unclean and clean with God. Throughout the Bible, God instructs how He should be approached, and by whom.

God is a very ceremonious, ritualistic, and Holy God. He gives specific instructions on building the Ark of the Covenant and what its purpose is. We are afforded so much grace because of the blood shed by Jesus. God did not tolerate a lot of foolishness or error before Christ. To make mistakes with the ark had deadly consequences.

Leviticus 16:14-16 shows how Aaron will make a sacrifice on the mercy seat:

 “And he shall take the blood of the bullock and sprinkle it with his finger upon the mercy seat eastward; and before the mercy seat shall he sprinkle of the blood with his finger seven times. Then shall he kill the goat of the sin offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the vail, and do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it upon the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat: And he shall make an atonement for the holy place, because of their transgressions in all their sins: and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, that remained among them in the midst of their uncleanness.”

Wherever the ark resided, there was blessing. That is one of the main reasons David wanted to bring the ark back. The ark was supposed to be moved by priests or Levites only. We see in the Numbers that the sons of Kohath were charged with carrying the ark on their shoulders. However, the ark had to be covered because it was holy, or they would die (Numbers 4:15). The Kohathites also could not see when the holy things were covered, or they would die (Number 4:20).

Joshua also gave the children of Israel specific instructions about the ark as it passed through Jordan. He instructed them to sanctify themselves the day before. He also told them the Lord would do wonders. (Joshua 3:5) Joshua told them they had to remain about two thousand cubits from the ark. That is about half a mile. Read chapter three of Joshua to see the miracles concerning the ark.

What Happened When Philistines Stole the Ark of the Covenant?

Unfortunately, the Philistines took the ark during a battle (1 Samuel 4). Before the battle, the Philistines had been terrified of Israel’s God. They knew how He had afflicted the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues. When they stole the ark and sat it in the house of Dagon, their god, strange things happened. After Dagon ended up with his head and palms of his hands cut off, a plague spread through Ashdod. God dealt harshly with them.

The Bible says God smote them with “emerods in their secret parts.” I looked that up. It could be interpreted as hemorrhoids or tumors. Anyway, it was enough for them to realize that they needed to make a correction. They sent the ark to Ekron. The Ekronites were fearful and said that they had brought the ark of the God of Israel to them to slay them. They suffered the same plagues as the people of Ashdod. They begin to associate their misery with the presence of the ark.

The ark was in the country of Philistine for seven months. The Philistines called for the priests and the diviners to ask for help. (1 Samuel 6:1-2) They told them to return the ark with a trespass offering. They did as was instructed. They returned it to Beth-shemesh. The people were glad to see it. Unfortunately, they looked in the ark, which was forbidden. Fifty thousand people died because of this. The people sent messengers to get the ark.

In another instance, King Solomon brings the ark to the temple in 1 Kings chapter 8. He goes all out to make sacrifices to honor God. He sacrificed so many sheep and oxen that the multitude could not be told or numbered. When the ark is opened, the tablets of the Ten Commandments are there. Interestingly, the golden pot of manna and Aaron’s rod are not mentioned.

What Happened to the Mercy Seat?

There is usually a blessing wherever the ark goes provided it is in the correct hands and managed appropriately. In the wrong hands, God chooses to deal with people harshly. The lesson is that people have to respect God and His spirit. The ark was created so that it would dwell in the tabernacle and that he could commune with the people of God.

There are many stories about where the Ark of the Covenant is now thousands of years later. Steven Spielberg even made a movie about Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. All of humanity’s searching could be in vain, according to Revelations 11:19:

“And the temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was seen in his temple the ark of his testament: and there were lightnings, and voices, and thundering, and an earthquake, and great hail.”

Why Does the New Testament Call Jesus the Mercy Seat?

Hebrews 9:11 discusses that Christ is the high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle:

“This tabernacle was not built by hands and is not a building. The blood of goats and calves is no longer needed. By His own blood, Jesus entered in once into the holy place having obtained eternal redemption for us.”

In the Old Testament, the mercy seat was used for sacrifice and making atonement for the people of God. Jesus is now the mediator of the New Testament. Because of His death, we can receive redemption for the transgression of sin. Jesus now appears before the Father in heaven, making intercession for us.

Further Reading:

What Was the Ark of the Covenant?

Uzzah - International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

Photo Credit: Megapixl.com/jgroup

Dr. Sandra SmithDr. Sandra Hamer Smith is a Christian and wife to Sylvester Smith. She has one stepson, Greg. Smith lives and resides in Memphis, Tennessee. The University of Memphis alumnae has been in education for about 20 years after receiving the call to teach. Dr. Smith primarily teaches language arts. Prior to education, she worked in local and national television news for 13 years including positions as an overnight news anchor, reporter, and assignments editor at two local network affiliate stations. Smith was also a freelance correspondent for BET news. Dr. Smith has freelanced for the Tri-State Defender newspaper and Contempora magazine.  She is the author of the self-published novel GLORY…THE HAIR.  Smith is also a playwright and poet. The Tennessee native is a member of Temple of Deliverance COGIC, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc, Omicron Delta Kappa, The Golden Key International Honour Society, and Kappa Delta Pi.


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