Useful Bible Studies > Hebrews Commentary > chapter 9

What was the purpose of the Holy of Holies?

Hebrews 9:5

The Ark of the Covenant was the most sacred object in the house of God. An ark is a box. This ark was evidence of the covenant (agreement) between God and his people.

The author has just given a list of the ark’s contents (see Hebrews 9:4). But people did not open the ark and they did not look at the objects inside. The Bible only records one occasion when this happened. The result was a terrible punishment for the people who did it (1 Samuel 6:19-20).

The ark was in a special room called the Holy of Holies (Most Holy Place). Only the chief priest could go there, and he did that only on one special day each year. He would not see inside the ark, but he would see the things round it. And that is what Hebrews 9:5 describes. You can read a longer description of these objects in Exodus 25:10-22.

Everything that the chief priest saw was gold. The ark and its carrying poles were wooden, but gold covered the wood completely. The other objects in the room were originally pure gold.

The most impressive objects in the Holy of Holies were the two cherubim. Cherubim are special angels (servants of God); they act as guards of holy things (Genesis 3:24). But the cherubim in the Holy of Holies were not real ones; they were gold models. They had wings that reached right across the room (2 Chronicles 3:10-13).

The two cherubim stood on either side of the ark. So it was like the description of God’s throne (royal seat) in Psalm 99:1. And on top of the ark, there was a gold cover. It may have been like a seat. English translations call it the ‘mercy seat’ or the ‘place of atonement’. Mercy means kindness; but atonement is the better translation. Atonement means to deal with sin (wrong and evil deeds). And there God dealt with sin when he forgave it.

That is wonderful. The most holy act of God in his Most Holy Place was to forgive sins. And that was the reason for all these things. The reason for God’s covenant with Israel was that he wanted to forgive his people’s sins. That was the reason why the house of God existed. That was the reason why he appointed priests. God wanted to forgive!

Soon the author of Hebrews will explain to us how this was possible. But some facts are clear. God did not forgive people merely because of the holy buildings or their contents. God did not forgive merely because of the priests’ ceremonies and rules. People could not force God to forgive them because of the animals that they gave as sacrifices (gifts) – Psalm 51:16-17; Micah 6:7-8; Hebrews 10:4.

These things all had their purpose. That purpose was to teach people how God would forgive them. Gifts and ceremonies do not impress God. But the attitude of someone who obeys God completely impresses him. And nobody did this better than Jesus. That is why God accepted Jesus’ sacrifice. And that is why God can forgive us because of Jesus only. We have all done many wrong things, but God wants to forgive us.

Next part: Israel’s priests and their daily work (Hebrews 9:6)


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© 2014, Keith Simons.