Online Bible Commentary
Hebrews 9:1 Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. 2 A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. 3 Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, 4 which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron's staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. 5 Above the ark were the cherubim of the glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now. (NIV)
In the preceding passage, the writer of Hebrews wrote of the superiority of Christ’s New Covenant to the Old Covenant. He now is preparing to compare the sacrificial systems of the two covenants, which includes the details of the gifts and sacrifices offered by Christ in His capacity as high priest which were mentioned, but not detailed, in Hebrews 8:3. He begins this comparison by giving us a general description of the tabernacle in this passage.
The tabernacle was the first place of worship for God’s people. The temple, and later the church, was a type of the tabernacle. The tabernacle was a very beautiful and ornate tent. It was the abode of God, and was called the tent of Jehovah. It would be set up in the center of everything to demonstrate that God should be in the center of the lives of His people.
God gave Moses instructions for building the tabernacle on Mount Sinai, shortly after the Hebrews had left captivity in Egypt. It was the place of worship until Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, some 480 years later. It was portable, and the Hebrews carried it with them throughout their forty years of wandering in the desert. They would set it up each time they camped and break it down each time they broke camp. The Levites were the tribe God anointed as priests and they were in charge of setting up, breaking down, and transporting the tabernacle.
The Old Covenant “had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary” (v.1). The regulations for worship were included in the law, the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. The earthly sanctuary was the tabernacle.
When the tabernacle was “set up” (v. 2a), it was composed of three areas: an outer court; the Holy Place; and the Holy of Holies. The outer court was the area around the tabernacle, where the people were allowed to congregate. It was enclosed by a fence with bronze posts and linen stretched between them.
The tabernacle itself measured about 45 feet long, 15 feet high and 15 feet wide. The first room, the first 30 feet inside the tent, was the Holy Place, where only the priests could enter to perform their ritual duties. The back room, the next 15 feet of the tent separated by a curtain, was the Holy of Holies, where only one man in the world could enter. The high priest would enter once a year on the Day of Atonement to offer a blood sacrifice.
Upon entering the outer court there was the altar of burnt offering, where sacrificial animals were slain and burned. Next was the laver, a large bronze stand filled with water, in which the priests washed their hands and feet.
In the Holy Place there was “the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread” (v. 2b). The lampstand was a menorah. It was made of gold with a main stem and three arms reaching upward and holding oil-burning lamps on each side of the stem. The lampstand represented the light of God’s truth. The table was the table of showbread on which were twelve cakes of bread, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. These cakes were called “bread of the presence” because they were set in the presence of God. The showbread represented that the soul must have its spiritual food and live in communion with God.
Also, In the center of the Holy Place was the golden altar of incense (Ex. 30:6), with the table on its right and the lampstand on its left, against the walls. The altar of incense was the symbol of prayer. The priests entered the Holy Place daily to offer incense for the morning and evening prayers and to renew the lights on the lampstand. They would change out the bread each Sabbath.
In the next room, “behind the second curtain” (v. 3a), was “the Most Holy Place” (v. 3b), the Holy of Holies, the abode of God. It was the type of Heaven. Located in the Holy of Holies was the “golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant” (v. 4a). The “golden altar of incense” was a reference to the censer, or incense shovel, with which the high priest would carry incense from the golden altar in the Holy Place into the Holy of Holies.
So there was but one lone object in the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant “contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron's staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant” (v. 4b). By the time the temple opened the only thing in the ark was the two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments (1 Kings 8:9).
The Ark of the Covenant was a large wooden chest overlaid on all sides with gold. The gold lid of the ark was called the mercy seat, the place where Jehovah dwelt. It was a slab of pure gold that fit over the entirety of the top of the ark. Above the mercy seat were “the cherubim of the glory” (v. 5). The cherubim were two figures made of beaten gold facing each other, with heads bowed and wings outspread and over arching the mercy seat. The cherubim were the carriers of the divine glory and shekinah.
As mentioned previously, the tabernacle was the type of the temple, and later the church. It was a place to receive forgiveness for sins and to worship God. It was a beautiful and holy place. It was said to be the abode of God.
But, of course, God does not live in any building. God, the Holy Spirit, lives in our hearts and Jesus and the Father live in Heaven. We can worship God at any time and at any place because He indwells every Christian. We can worship Him and talk to Him continuously, all day long. At the moment Christ died on the cross the curtain to the Holy of Holies ripped in two. We are no longer separated from God. He is always with us.