The (Lost) Ark of the Covenant
Where on earth might the Ark of the Covenant be? For over 2500 years the question of the Ark’s existence and location has perplexed theologians, rabbis, archeologists, and students of Scripture the world over. In the 20th and 21st centuries, theories of and interest in the Ark of the Covenant accelerated in scope and intensity even among secular historians; as reflected in movies, television documentaries, articles, and books. Some say that its discovery would be the single greatest archeological find of all time.
Before we examine some location theories about the Ark of the Covenant, let’s look at more Biblical history of this sacred object that was the centerpiece of the Holy of Holies—first in the Tabernacle, then in Solomon’s Temple. Combining Scripture with a healthy dose of rational common sense deduction, I believe we’ll develop a better understanding of the purpose and importance of the Ark … what it was meant to be but also what it was not supposed to be or do.
But also to convincingly confirm last week’s daring premise: “We can, with a great deal of Biblical certainty, know what happened to the ark and where it’s located!”
Following the spectacular Battle of Jericho in which the Ark of the Lord played a powerful part in the victory by symbolically portraying the protection, provision, presence, and power of God for his people, the next conspicuous reference to the Ark is found some two hundred years later—after the birth of the great prophet Samuel. Let’s pick up the story during one of many battles between Israel and her archenemy, the Philistines. At that time, the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant rested in Shiloh, a city about 25 miles north of Jerusalem.
Synagogue in Shiloh, Israel, Modeled After Tabernacle
“The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh and gave messages to Samuel there at the Tabernacle. And Samuel’s words went out to all the people of Israel. At that time Israel was at war with the Philistines … The Philistines attacked and defeated the army of Israel, killing 4,000 men. After the battle was over, the troops retreated to their camp, and the elders of Israel asked, ‘Why did the Lord allow us to be defeated by the Philistines? … Let’s bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh. If we carry it into battle with us, it will save us from our enemies’” (I Samuel 3: 21 & 4:1-3, italics and bold for emphasis).
Even without the bold print and italics, it’s hard to miss what is happening here. What was it that the people were placing their hope and trust in, after a shameful defeat that they simply couldn’t comprehend? The text is crystal clear: The leaders of Israel believed that the Ark, itself, would bring victory … nothing more than a superstitious reliance on the presumed power of a sacred object that was designed by God to (at this point in Israel’s history) remain in the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle where God’s very presence dwelt.
Samuel was the last of several judges appointed by God over Israel, with each judge used by the Lord to bring his people back from disobedience and abandonment of the Lord. But Samuel was more than a judge; he was also the first notable prophet since Moses. God used Samuel to give the people what they didn’t need, but wanted anyway … a King to rule over them. Over the ensuing 450 years nearly all of Israel’s and Judah’s kings were evil; thus, it was necessary for the Lord to bring one prophet after another to warn Israel that their allegiance to God would determine blessings or curses as so meticulously explained by Moses before he died.
Misunderstanding & Misuse of the Ark of the Covenant
With this unfathomable defeat at the hands of the Philistines, it was obvious that God had again withdrawn his protection from Israel. Once again the leaders of Israel were blind to their spiritual condition. Instead of calling directly upon the Lord for restoration and rescue, they decided that it was time to bring out the Ark of the Covenant and carry it into battle. Their misguided mindset was all too clear: It was the Ark of the Lord that brought the walls of Jericho down. It worked then, it would work again. There wasn’t time or the need to repent and return to the Lord their God. Just bring out the Ark and God would (was obligated to) fight for them.
“When all the Israelites saw the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord coming into the camp, their shout of joy was so loud it made the ground shake!” (I Samuel 4:5).
So, too, were the Philistines familiar with the presumed legendary power of the Ark of the Covenant.
“What’s going on?” the Philistines asked. ‘What’s all the shouting about in the Hebrew camp?’ When they were told it was because the Ark of the Lord had arrived, they panicked. ‘The gods have come into their camp!’ they cried. ‘This is a disaster! We have never had to face anything like this before! Help! Who can save us from these mighty gods of Israel? They are the same gods who destroyed the Egyptians with plagues when Israel was in the wilderness’” (I Samuel 4:6-8).
The Philistines knew something about Israel’s history. But like other pagan nations they attributed Israel’s might to the Ark of the Covenant and to gods (plural) of the Ark, not the true and living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To them—sadly even to the Israelites—the Ark of the Covenant was a mysterious object that possessed magical, cryptic clout. The army that carried it into battle would be invincible. But this was not just some ancient fantasy that would be considered absurd in today’s ultra-modern civilization. This same perverted belief drove Hitler and the Third Reich to extreme measures to try to find and wield the Ark of the Covenant in their conquest of Europe and eventually the world.
But the Philistines mustered their courage and shouted, “…Stand up like men and fight! So the Philistines fought desperately, and Israel was defeated again. The slaughter was great; 30,000 Israelite soldiers died that day … The Ark of the Covenant was captured…” (I Samuel 4:9-11).
Without first seeking the Lord their God, Israel’s defeat was even more devastating when they carried the Ark into this battle.
The rest of the story shows that the Philistines took the Ark of God as a trophy and placed it in their own temple. Big mistake!
When the Philistines placed the Ark next to their chief god Dagon, it smacked of presumptuous sacrilege against the God of the Ark. And they would pay a heavy price. First, however, God would toy with them, displaying a sense of humor by causing the mighty god Dagon to fall flat on his, “…face to the ground in front of the Ark of the Lord!” (I Samuel 5:3).
The Philistines did what any “reasonable” people would do for an idol that depicted their god of fertility and harvest; “…So they took Dagon and put him in his place again. But the next morning the same thing happened—Dagon had fallen face down before the Ark of the Lord again. This time his head and hands had broken off and were lying in the doorway. Only the trunk of his body was left intact. That is why to this day neither the priests of Dagon nor anyone who enters the temple of Dagon in Ashdod will step on its threshold” (I Samuel 5:3-5).
You don’t want to get crushed by a falling god!
How horrible. Poor Dagon … a god without hands or a head! That must have been worse than a modern-day person losing their god of fortune (stock market crash), or their god of fame (sudden rejection by their followers), or their god of pleasure (perhaps through a debilitating STD).
But then the Lord stopped playing with the Philistines and their pathetic god(s) and took some serious action. “Then the Lord’s heavy hand struck the people of Ashdod and the nearby villages with a plague of tumors. When the people realized what was happening, they cried out, ‘We can’t keep the Ark of the God of Israel here any longer! He is against us! We will all be destroyed along with Dagon, our god’” (I Samuel 5:6-7).
You think! Apparently they were already tired of putting Dagon back together again, Humpty, Dumpty style.
Didn’t take them long to fully comprehend that it wasn’t the Ark that would destroy them; rather it was the God of Israel. They went from gods of Israel (plural) that delivered Israel from the Egyptians, to a personal pronoun, “He,” (is against us). He, singular … as in the one and only God. And the Bible tells us that one day all nations and peoples will acknowledge the true and living God and his Son, Messiah Jesus.
The Ark of the Covenant Returns to Israel
In a foregone conclusion, the Philistines returned the Ark of the Covenant to Israel, specifically to the Jews of Beth-shemesh who were overjoyed to get it back. So much so that they, too, forgot God’s solemn instructions as to how the Ark must be handled reverently and treated respectfully; including only Levites carrying it … which was done upon its return. But that no one must look inside the Ark, which some of the Israelites failed to obey. The Lord would not permit even his own people from misusing the Ark of the Covenant; to flippantly disrespect and disregard the holiness and sanctity that the Lord had placed on the perfect purpose and proper position of the Ark—God’s very presence above the Ark of the Lord in the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle.
The result: “But the Lord killed seventy men from Beth-shemesh because they looked into the Ark of the Lord. And the people mourned greatly because of what the Lord had done. ‘Who is able to stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?’ they cried out. ‘Where can we send the Ark from here?’” (I Samuel 6:19-20).
Indeed, it was a severe object lesson. But it got the attention of the Israelites and soon afterward they turned back to the Lord through Samuel who said to the people of Israel, “If you are really serious about wanting to return to the Lord, get rid of your foreign gods and your images of Ashtoreth. Determine to obey only the Lord; then he will rescue you from the Philistines” (I Samuel 7:3).
That’s exactly what Israel did and from then on they experienced one victory after another against the Philistines under Samuel’s leadership, then through most of King Saul’s reign and all of King David’s rule… without the Ark of the Covenant going before them.
The Ark was eventually taken to a small community called Kiriath-jearim where it remained until King David attempted to transfer it to Jerusalem. But the Ark of the Lord was not returned to the Tabernacle which was moved to Nob during Saul’s reign, then Gibeon during the governments of King David and King Solomon.
On his second attempt, David finally brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem where it remained until Solomon built the Temple of God. Many remember what happened during King David’s first effort to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. He failed to review the Torah to make sure how the Ark should be transported. This wrong (disobedient) method of carrying the Ark on an ox cart is why Uzzah was struck dead by God when Uzzah touched the Ark trying to keep it from falling off the cart. It was another (deadly) serious object lesson of God’s holiness; that his scrupulous standards for managing the Ark were an expression of his sovereignty and sanctity.
Although the priests and Levites brought the Tabernacle Tent and all the sacred items within to the dedication of the newly built Temple, all of the furnishings and furniture of Solomon’s Temple were newly built (not reused); even the golden Cherubim which hovered over the Ark were newly fashioned for the Temple. With one significant exception: The Ark of the Covenant. There would be no duplication of or substitution for the original Ark of the Lord.
What a celebration it was, the dedication of the majestic Temple. “There, before the Ark, King Solomon and the entire community of Israel sacrificed so many sheep, goats, and cattle that no one could keep count! Then the priests carried the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant into the inner sanctuary of the Temple—the Most Holy Place—and placed it beneath the wings of the cherubim” (II Chronicles 5:6-7).
Then the people, “…raised their voices and praised the Lord with these words: ‘He is good! His faithful loves endures forever!’ At that moment a thick cloud filled the Temple of the Lord. The priests could not continue their service because of the cloud, for the glorious presence of the Lord filled the Temple of God” (II Chronicles 5:13-14).
A little later, Solomon delivered a lengthy but magnificent prayer and praise of dedication to God and his Temple. I want to focus on just two portions of this tribute. (1) Solomon’s wisdom to recognize the limitation of the Temple: that it was ultimately for the benefit of Israel, not a place that God needed to dwell on earth. Said Solomon: “But will God really live on earth among people? Why, even the highest heavens cannot contain you. How much less this Temple I have built! Nevertheless … May you watch over this Temple day and night, this place where you have said you would put your name. May you always hear the prayers I make toward this place” (II Chronicles 6:18-20).
(2) The true significance of the Ark: “And now arise, O Lord God, and enter your resting (dwelling) place, along with the Ark, the symbol of your power…” (II Chronicles 6:41, italics for emphasis).
Three Hundred Years Later
For over three hundred years virtually nothing is mentioned about the Ark of the Covenant. In 722 BC, Assyria conquered the ten northern tribes of Israel and dispersed the Jews to foreign lands. God’s patience for the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin continued for more than a century, until they finally crossed the divine line of God’s forbearance. It was King Manasseh of Judah who stretched the chain of God’s tolerance to the breaking point. Enough was enough. What he did as king was appallingly incomprehensible. He had plunged Judah into the depths of depravity and taken the people to the point of no return.
“He built pagan altars in the Temple of the Lord … He built these altars for all the powers of the heavens (meaning the occult powers behind worship of the stars, sun, and moon) in both courtyards of the Lord’s Temple. Manasseh also sacrificed his own sons in the fire in the valley of Ben-Hinnom. He practiced sorcery, divination, and witchcraft, and he consulted with mediums and psychics. He did much that was evil in the Lord’s sight, arousing his anger” (II Chronicles 33:4-6).
Toward the end of a painfully long reign, Manasseh briefly repented and turned back to God, but it was too late. His loathsome practices had irreversibly influenced the people of Judah to continue their unholy and ungodly worship of false gods and child sacrifice and any number of other despicable sins.
In 640 BC, Manasseh’s grandson, Josiah, began to rule (fifth to the last king of Judah) and for one last shining, but brief moment in Judah’s evil decline, he and the people returned to the Lord. Jeremiah was God’s main prophet to Judah at that time.
God told Jeremiah to tell the people: “…Even now, if you quit your evil ways, I will let you stay in your land. But don’t be fooled by those who promise you safety simply because the Lord’s Temple is here. They chant, ‘The Lord’s Temple is here! The Lord’s Temple is here!’ But I will be merciful only if you stop your evil thoughts and deeds…” (Jeremiah 7:3-5).
And, “Don’t be fooled into thinking that you will never suffer because the Temple is here. It’s a lie! Do you really think you can steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and burn incense to Baal and all those other new gods of yours, and then come here and stand before me in my Temple and chant, ‘We are safe!’—only to go right back to all those evils again” (Verses 8-10).
*Note: We see again that the people are back to the idea that the Temple (including the Ark of the Covenant) alone would ensure safety, peace, and indefinite protection by God from their enemies … no matter what they did. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
No different, I might add, than the United States using, for example, the Statue of Liberty as a symbolic representation of America’s democratic principles and military might to indefinitely preserve freedom, protection, and prosperity no matter how far this great nation declines morally and spiritually. Repeat with me: Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
As indicated, King Josiah did lead his people back to the Lord for a couple of decades. In the year 622 BC, he reinstated the Passover celebration. In fact it was such an incredible observance of this once significant festival (High Holy Day of the Lord) that the Bible tells us, “Never since the time of the prophet Samuel had there been such a Passover. None of the kings of Israel had ever kept a Passover as Josiah did, involving all the priests and Levites, all the people of Jerusalem, and people from all over Judah and Israel” (II Chronicles 35:18).
In preparation for this Passover remembrance, “Josiah also assigned the priests to their duties and encouraged them in their work at the Temple of the Lord. He issued this order to the Levites, who were to teach all Israel and who had been set apart to serve the Lord: ‘Put the holy Ark in the Temple that was built by Solomon son of David, the king of Israel. You no longer need to carry it back and forth on your shoulders. Now spend your time serving the Lord your God and his people Israel’” (II Chronicles 35:2-3).
By inference, it’s evident that the Ark of the Covenant was not always kept in the Temple. In all likelihood, Manasseh (or King Ahaz before him) had ordered the Ark of the Lord to be removed from the Holy Place along with other sacred items; in order to set up his own profane instruments of worship. And/or the Ark was still used periodically during battles with Judah’s enemies. But at this time, King Josiah ordered that the Ark of the Lord be placed permanently in the Most Holy Place and left there … which is where it should have been kept in the first place.
But when Josiah died, the people once again ignored God and went their own way. In less than two decades, Babylon would begin its first of three military campaigns against Judah, culminating in complete sack of Jerusalem, destruction of Solomon’s Temple, and final exile of the Jews to Babylon in 586 BC. Just prior to the beginning of the Babylonian assaults against Judah, the Ark of the Covenant is not mentioned again in the Old Testament.
With one notable exception! We’ll get to that shortly.
What Happened to the Ark? Where Is It Today?
As indicated in last week’s Part I article, the majority of Jews and most Gentiles, who are interested in the Ark of the Covenant’s disposition, maintain that the Ark was kept intact and still exists to this very day. The primary (by sheer numbers or strength of argument) places where the Ark of the Lord is said to be located and safeguarded are in the following order:
- Remained in Jerusalem (view held by most observant Jews, especially Rabbis as found in much of the rabbinical literature). More specifically, somewhere beneath Temple Mount.
- In the Church of our Lady Mary of Zion, located in Axum, Ethiopia. Guarded by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
- Mount Nebo, having been transported there by the prophet Jeremiah, who also took the entire Tabernacle, and altar of incense. This can be found in the writings of 2 Maccabees which states that this hiding place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together.
- Taken by the Lemba people of South Africa and Zimbabwe to a cave in the Dumghe Mountain range,
- Taken to Arabia (Saudi Arabia).
Church of our Lady Mary of Zion in Ethiopia (Reported location of the Ark)
But What Does the Bible Say Directly and by Logical Implication?
“The king (Nebuchadnezzar) took home to Babylon all the articles, large and small, used in the Temple of God, and the treasures from both the Lord’s Temple and from the palace of the king and his officials. Then his army burned the Temple of God…” (II Chronicles 36:18-19).
First, if the Ark of the Covenant was taken by the Babylonians, it’s unimaginable that Jeremiah or Ezekiel or Daniel, who were prophets just before, during, and after the final Babylonian victory over Judah, would not tell us that the Ark was captured among the treasures taken from the Temple, or destroyed, or possibly hidden by Jews. However, Nebuchadnezzar and kings from other nations knew of Israel’s history, of her God, and certainly about the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, “The Lord gave him (Nebuchadnezzar) victory over King Jehoiakim of Judah and permitted him to take some of the sacred objects from the Temple of God…” (Daniel 1:2). I suppose it’s possible, but highly unlikely that (if the Ark was still in the Temple) Nebuchadnezzar would dare risk transportation of the Ark, knowing its legend.
Secondly, if Nebuchadnezzar had taken the Ark to Babylon, it would surely have been among all the other sacred objects of the Temple captured by the Medes-Persians when they conquered Babylon. In fact, King Cyrus of Persia issued a decree that the Jews could return to Israel and rebuild their Temple, taking with them all the articles of the Temple. Cyrus ordered that all of these items be counted, the categorical list of which is found in Ezra Chapter 1.
In the book of Ezra, The Temple of God or God’s Temple is mentioned at least 57 times (at least, because I only made one count and may have missed a couple, but also I omitted slight references to the Temple, such as “servants of the Temple”). Not once is the Ark of the Lord mentioned and, of course, it was never placed in the rebuilt Temple. It’s simply inconceivable that Ezra would not have returned the Ark of the Covenant to the Temple if its whereabouts were known to him or someone else. Ezra was a priest, but also a scribe (historian). If anyone knew anything about the Ark’s location, he would have retrieved the Ark, put it in the rebuilt Temple, and recorded this in his book.
One could even make the argument that Biblical silence about the Ark of the Covenant is so deafening that God may have instructed select prophets, priests, and scribes (if they knew the Ark’s whereabouts) not to record their knowledge of or anything more about the Ark.
Thirdly, if the Ark was hidden and still exists today, why did Ezekiel not make any reference to the Ark of the Covenant in his stunning introduction and prophetic description of what will be the 3rd rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem? Nor will there be any curtain in that Temple that separates the Holy Place from the inner sanctuary, the Most Holy Place. Instead, there will be two double doorways, each with two swinging doors (Ezekiel 41:23). In my Biblically based opinion, there’s no way that Ezekiel’s description of this future Temple would exclude the Ark of the Covenant from being placed in the Holy of Holies, if it exists on earth when this future Temple is built.
Which leads us to the last reference made of the Ark of the Covenant that comes from the prophet Jeremiah, who prophesied from 627 BC until the destruction of the Temple in 586 BC. Many of Jeremiah’s prophecies pertained to the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and the Temple. But like the other major and minor prophets he also tells us about end times events in which Israel will be redeemed and restored as a nation.
Here’s the last known reference to the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament:
“And when your land is once more filled with people, says the Lord, you will no longer wish for the ‘good old days’ when you possessed the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant. You will not miss those days or even remember them, and there will be no need to rebuild the Ark” (Jeremiah 3:16, italics for emphasis).
Read the verse again. I believe it is as plain as it can be, but you need to think carefully about what he is saying. Jeremiah says that (in the last days which are the years just before, during, and for a thousand years after the seven-year tribulation … the Millenium), there will be no reason, whatsoever, to rebuild the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, the Jews will hardly give the Ark of the Covenant a second thought. Conversely, the obvious insinuation is: if there was a desire for the Ark, they would then need to rebuild it. The stated reason why the Ark won’t be rebuilt is because the people won’t miss it or want it back. But if they did, then the Ark would need to be rebuilt.
Putting it another way: Why would the Ark be rebuilt unless the original was no longer available? You don’t rebuild it, if it still exists. If the Ark of the Covenant remained on the earth, there would be no reason to replicate (replace) it. You simply place the original Ark of the Covenant in the new Temple. But you don’t build another Ark.
That should, beyond any doubt, tell us that the original Ark of the Covenant was either destroyed OR taken to a place totally inaccessible to anyone on this earth. And, I strongly believe that it was not destroyed.
Possible … No, Let’s Make That Probable Location of the Ark of the Covenant
“Then, in heaven, the Temple of God was opened and the Ark of his covenant could be seen inside the Temple. Lightning flashed, thunder crashed and roared, and there was an earthquake and a terrible hailstorm” (Revelation 11:19). Incidentally, this is the 7th Trumpet Judgement. Wasn’t it the 7th time around Jericho when the Shofars were blown? (Mmmm)
Time doesn’t permit to explain that the original Tabernacle and its furnishings were patterns of the heavenly Temple. That this heavenly Temple in Revelation is the ultimate and actual dwelling place of God. That the entire heavenly Temple is, in effect, heaven itself; the Most Holy Place … also the dwelling place of those who live in and actually are the temple (born-again believers, see Revelation 13:6).
But I’m confident that the Ark of the Covenant seen by John is the ORIGINAL Ark of the Lord!
If God could take Elijah directly to heaven in a chariot of fire, without dying, he certainly could have taken the Ark of the Covenant to heaven at any time just before, during, or after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem.
Can I be dogmatic that the Ark of the Covenant seen by John is the original? No. However, the Tabernacle and everything in it were replaced with the Temple and new furnishings. All but the Ark.
On the other hand, I can say with total certainty that the original Ark of the Covenant is gone from the earth.
Why? Because of what Jeremiah tells us: there will be no desire to rebuild the Ark. With the decisive deduction that if, for some reason, there was a longing for the (an) Ark, it would have to be rebuilt … because the original Ark was no longer available.
Things to Ponder
What is the all-inclusive reason why the Ark of the Covenant will not be rebuilt?
Answer: Because there would be a New Covenant that Jeremiah, himself, announced (Jeremiah 31:31-34). That New Covenant arrived when Messiah Jesus was crucified, buried, and arose from the grave. Read Hebrews Chapter Nine for extensive details of the New Covenant replacing and surpassing the Old Covenant, including reference to the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant.
The curtain that separated the Most Holy Place and the Ark of the Covenant, indeed, the entire Temple is gone from the earth. What’s left is something, someone far superior.
It’s like Jeremiah was telling future Ark-seekers: “Stop your search; it’s irrelevant!” Seek the Ark of the New Covenant.
Christ Jesus is the ARK.
He is the Ark (Author, Redeemer, and King) of the NEW COVENANT.
Messiah’s death on the cross was the ultimate once for all time redemptive sacrifice!