The Tabernacle in the Wilderness

 •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 11
Many questions having been addressed to us concerning the formation, limits, and so forth, of the house of God. We propose, if the Lord will, to trace out the subject, in several successive papers, from the Word of God. There is really no difficulty, if our minds are but subject to the Scriptures, and our hope is that some at least may be helped to a clearer understanding of the question by a dispassionate presentation of the teaching of the Spirit of God.
It is evident to every reader of the Bible that God did not, in any sense, dwell on earth before the redemption of Israel out of Egypt. He visited Adam in paradise, and walked in the garden in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:88And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:8)); He appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and communicated freely with them. In like manner He revealed Himself to Moses in the desert, at the mount of God, when He commissioned him to return to Egypt as the deliverer of His people; but search the record as closely as you may, not a trace is found so far of His having a habitation on the earth. But after the redemption from Egypt the Lord said to Moses, “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring me an offering: of every man that giveth it willingly with his heart ye shall take my offering. And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:2,82Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring me an offering: of every man that giveth it willingly with his heart ye shall take my offering. (Exodus 25:2)
8And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)
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The thought of dwelling in the midst of His people came thus first from God Himself. And this is in harmony with His own purposes of grace in redemption. We read that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ “hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love” (Eph. 1:3-43Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: 4According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: (Ephesians 1:3‑4)). In that past eternity God dwelt in the perfection of His own bliss; but in the fullness of His grace and love He purposed to surround Himself with a redeemed people that should be for His own joy, and for the glory of His beloved Son—a people who should find their joy in the presence of Him who had redeemed them, and redeemed them at the infinite cost of the death of His only begotten Son. This purpose was first declared, in its germ at least, in Eden, on the failure of Adam as the responsible man (Gen. 3:1515And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. (Genesis 3:15)). Consequent upon his sin and judgment God announced the Man of His counsels, the One in and by whom all the purposes of His heart were to be accomplished, in the redemption of those who were to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren (Rom. 8:29-3029For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. (Romans 8:29‑30)). Gradually His purposes were unfolded in types and shadows, in His ways with Abel, Enoch, Noah, and the patriarchs, and finally in the deliverance of the children of Israel, on the ground of the sprinkled blood of the Passover lamb, out of Egypt, and from the claims and power of Satan, as well as from death and judgment, as set forth in their passage through the Red Sea. Henceforward they were a redeemed people. The Lord had become their strength and song, and their salvation. In His mercy He had led forth the people which He had redeemed; He had guided them in His strength unto His holy habitation. (See Ex. 15.)
Having now chosen and redeemed a people for Himself, the Lord announces, as we have shown, His desire to come and dwell among them. And it will be seen in due time that His taking up His abode in the midst of Israel, while it indicated the whole truth of redemption, was but a shadow of the fulfillment of His entire counsels of grace in eternity; that, in a word, the encampment in the wilderness was but an anticipation of the time when, after the appearance of the new heaven and the new earth, the tabernacle of God (the Church, the holy city, new Jerusalem, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband—the Lamb’s wife) shall be with men, and He shall dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, their God (Rev. 21). The erection of the tabernacle in the wilderness was the response to the Lord’s command to Moses. The people offered willingly; for the Lord had stirred up their hearts, and the tabernacle was made in all things according to the pattern which had been shown to Moses in the mount, even as the Lord had commanded him. (See Ex. 40.)
There are two things especially to be considered. The first is the ground on which God took up His abode in the midst of His people. This is made very clear from Exodus 29. After the directions had been given for the construction of those sacred vessels and the furniture which set forth in type and figure some display or manifestation of God, and after the consecration of the priests who were to act for God in ministry on behalf of the people, and before the directions are given for the vessels of approach—those vessels which were necessary for drawing near to God—there is a break, a parenthesis. And this is occupied with directions concerning the continual burnt-offering. Thereon it is added, “The tabernacle shall be sanctified by my glory. And I will sanctify the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar: I will sanctify also both Aaron and his sons, to minister to me in the priest’s office. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, that brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them: I am the Lord their God” (vss. 38-46).
This account shows three things most clearly. First, that the ground on which Jehovah was able to dwell with His people was the perpetual ascension of the fragrance of. Christ as the burnt-offering. Typically the children of Israel had been redeemed, and now in virtue of the continual burnt-offering they stood before God in all the acceptance of Christ. Hence Jehovah could dwell in their midst. Secondly, as a further consequence, the tabernacle was sanctified by His glory—the tabernacle, the altar, and the priests alike were claimed in virtue of the same sacrifice, and set apart to God according to all that He was as revealed—the claims of His glory having now been met, that glory became also from that moment the standard for everything devoted to His service. Thirdly, the people should know the One who dwells in their midst as the One who had brought them out of Egypt, as, in fact, the God of redemption. If these three points are comprehended, the whole truth of God’s habitation on earth, in any age or dispensation, will be understood. It will be then seen that, while a consequence of redemption, it is dependent upon what Christ is in the efficacy of His death, and upon what God is as so revealed.
The second thing to be noted is the actual taking possession of the tabernacle when completed. Moses “finished the work,” and eight times it is recorded that all was done as the Lord had commanded him. Jehovah’s approbation was now expressed in another way; for, together with the statement that Moses finished the work, it is added, “Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Ex. 40:34-3534Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34‑35)). God thus took possession of the house which had been built according to His word, and henceforward dwells in the midst of His people, and was known as dwelling between the cherubim (1 Sam. 4:44So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from thence the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, which dwelleth between the cherubims: and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. (1 Samuel 4:4); Psa. 80:11<<To the chief Musician upon Shoshannim-eduth, A Psalm of Asaph.>> Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock; thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth. (Psalm 80:1)); that is, between the cherubim overshadowing the mercy-seat. The mercy-seat was His throne, the throne on which He sat, whence He governed His people, and from whence He dispensed mercy according to the efficacy of the incense and the blood of the sacrifices that were presented before Him on the great day of atonement. (See Lev. 16.)
It should be most distinctly observed that the tabernacle, and not the congregation of Israel, formed the house of God in the wilderness. To lose this distinction would be to confuse the typical teaching of the whole encampment of Israel, as already pointed out in relation to Revelation 21 The people, as such, were not permitted to enter into the tabernacle; God met with them at its entrance (Ex. 29:42-4442This shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the Lord: where I will meet you, to speak there unto thee. 43And there I will meet with the children of Israel, and the tabernacle shall be sanctified by my glory. 44And I will sanctify the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar: I will sanctify also both Aaron and his sons, to minister to me in the priest's office. (Exodus 29:42‑44)). Moses alone had access at all times (the high priest only once a year) to the mercy-seat (Ex. 25:2222And 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)), and this in his capacity as mediator, and as such a type of Christ. It is most important to bear these distinctions in mind. At the same time, it is equally of moment to remark that all the people—all the people with their families; all, in a word, who were on the ground of redemption (typically)—were grouped around the tabernacle. God was in their midst, and all the people had been brought into a known relationship with Himself as their Redeemer, all alike could enjoy the privileges of the priesthood which had been instituted on their behalf, and all could approach the brazen altar in the appointed way, and with the appointed sacrifices. It was the only spot on the earth where the Lord had His sanctuary; and as we remember all that this involved, we may understand a little of this place of blessing into which the children of Israel had been brought. Whether they themselves apprehended or enjoyed it is not the question. There were, as we know, stubborn and ungodly souls among them; still, the character of the place remained unchanged. God was in their midst, and on this account, because of what He was in Himself, and because He had opened up a way into His own presence, the camp of Israel was such a place of blessing as was found nowhere else upon the face of the earth. It was therefore no mean privilege to be found numbered with those who surrounded the tabernacle.
But if on the one hand, it was a place of blessing, it was most surely, on the other, a place of responsibility. “And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Command the children of Israel, that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that hath an issue, and whosoever is defiled by the dead: both male and female shall ye put out, without the camp shall ye put them; that they defile not their camps, in the midst whereof I dwell” (Num. 5:1-31And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 2Command the children of Israel, that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that hath an issue, and whosoever is defiled by the dead: 3Both male and female shall ye put out, without the camp shall ye put them; that they defile not their camps, in the midst whereof I dwell. (Numbers 5:1‑3)). Again, “I am the Lord your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy” (Lev. 11:4444For I am the Lord your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. (Leviticus 11:44)). In one word, as these scriptures show, holiness, and holiness according to the nature of the One who dwelt in their midst, was incumbent upon every Israelite who surrounded the tabernacle. Jehovah, as revealed, was the standard for the whole camp (compare 1 John 2:66He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked. (1 John 2:6)), for every individual, whatever his state, who formed part of it. Being numbered with God’s people was to be brought therefore into a place both of blessing and of responsibility.
Into the typical significance of the sanctuary in the midst of Israel we do not propose to enter. It will suffice to point out here that as its primary idea was God’s habitation, so every part of it, together with all its sacred vessels and furniture, was fraught with some manifestation of God and of His glories as hereafter displayed in Christ. This was so, indeed, on two grounds; first, because it was a pattern of things shown to Moses in the mount, and therefore a revelation of heavenly scenes; and because also it told in every part—boards, curtains, ornaments, hangings, and vessels—of the glories of Christ, inasmuch as He Himself in a later day took the place of the temple of God. (See John 2:19-2119Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. 20Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? 21But he spake of the temple of his body. (John 2:19‑21).) But it may be added, that the more thoroughly God’s thoughts concerning His habitation in the midst of Israel are understood, the more fully will the character of the Church as God’s house be comprehended.