Wednesday, July 11, 2012

What Happened to the Ark of the Covenant? Part 2

In my last post, I started to answer the question, "Are there any sound theories about what happened to the Ark of the Covenant?"  The answer is yes.  There are some reasonable theories out there.  At the same time, there are many unreasonable theories as well, both ancient and modern.  You can see a list of the various proposals that have been made here.

The next question I wanted to address was: "When does it last appear in the biblical record?"  Well, that's complicated, so let me answer that by referring three different passages.

First of all, the last time the ark appears in the historical books is in 2 Chronicles 35:3 during the time of Josiah:

And he [Josiah] said to the Levites who taught all Israel and who were holy to the Lord, “Put the holy ark in the house that Solomon the son of David, king of Israel, built. You need not carry it on your shoulders. Now serve the Lord your God and his people Israel." (2 Chr. 35:3, ESV.)

Why the Ark was outside the Temple is unclear, but the fact that Josiah tells them to place it inside indicates that the Ark was in Jerusalem during his reign (640-609 B.C.).

Secondly, the last time it is mentioned in the prophets is in Jeremiah 3:15-17. 

And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. And when you have multiplied and been fruitful in the land, in those days, declares the Lord, they shall no more say, “The ark of the covenant of the Lord.” It shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed; it shall not be made again. At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart. (Jer. 3:15-17, ESV.)

Jeremiah ministered at the end of the Monarchy Period and watched the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.  In the context of chapter 3, Jeremiah is prophesying about the future return of the northern kingdom (which had been taken into exile in 722 B.C.)  In this passage Jeremiah is referring to the 1,000 year reign of Christ that will occur when Jesus returns (Rev. 20:1-6).  He states that "it shall not be made again" implying that at some point the Ark will be destroyed.  Whether or not it was destroyed in Jeremiah's day is a debatable question, but if it was in the Temple in Josiah's day only a few decades before, then it seems reasonable that it was still in the Temple when Jeremiah came on the scene.

Thirdly, the last time we find it in scripture is in Revelation 11:19.  The Ark is not mentioned much in the NT (see Heb. 9:4 for another occurrence), but it does make a surprise appearance in the last book.  During one of John's visions of heaven he writes this:

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 thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail. (Rev. 11:19, ESV.)

How you interpret this verse depends partly on how you interpret the book of Revelation as a whole.  Personally, I'm convinced that in passages such as this, John saw actual objects that actually exist in heaven.  So was this the Ark that Moses made that was at some point transported to heaven?  That seems unlikely to me, especially since Jeremiah implies that the earthly Ark was or will be unmade.  The most likely explanation is that the earthly Ark was patterned after an Ark that exists in heaven (see Heb. 8:4-5).  God gave specific instructions to Moses about how to build it, so the size, shape, and features of the Ark were entirely God's idea in the first place.

However, in the end, we must side with Jeremiah and say that the Ark is not all that important in the grand scheme of things.  Was it important when the Israelites had possession of it and it stood in the Tabernacle and Temple?  Absolutely.  It was a holy object that at times served as the resting place of the glory of God on earth.  But was it meant to be an enduring object that was intended to be used until the end of time?  I don't think so.  The coming of God's Son was far more important and enduring than any box Moses ever made (see Heb. 9).

With that said, we finally we come to my answer to our main question: What happened to the Ark of the Covenant? No one knows for sure, however my educated guess is that it was looted or destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. when Solomon's Temple was destroyed (numbers 13 and 14 on Gary Byer's list). The biggest critique of my theory is that the Ark is not mentioned among the spoil listed in 2 Kings 25:13-17, so it seems that it was not in the Temple at that time (otherwise the author would have mentioned it). But if the Ark was there during the time of Josiah, then it seems likely that it was still there a few decades later when the Temple was destroyed. I will grant that it is possible that it was taken from the Temple and hidden somewhere before the Babylonian soldiers arrived (see numbers 7 through 11 on Byer's list), but I'm not sure anyone in Jerusalem would have been that concerned about the Ark at that point in time. They had their own necks to think about and in any case, I doubt that the Ark would have been very precious to the inhabitants of Jerusalem at that time. Have you ever read about what Ezekiel saw happening in the Temple just before the Exile? (See Ezekiel 8.)

It seems more likely to me that the Ark was destroyed in 586 B.C., or at best that it was hauled off to Babylon with the rest of the loot where it disappeared into some treasury storehouse somewhere. Possibly it was stripped of all its gold and only the gold was carried off, or perhaps the Babylonian soldiers destroyed it as a way to show that they had utterly conquered the nation of Judah.  I'd be interested to learn if there are any ancient records that can tell us what the standard practice of Babylonian armies was in situations like this.

But in the end, I want to emphasize again that although the fate of the ark is an interesting question, the answer to it is not terribly important.  Neither Jesus nor the apostles paid any attention to the matter.  Jeremiah's prophesy concisely summarizes the New Testament's attitude toward the Ark: "It shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed ..."