Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“’In those days, when your numbers have increased greatly in the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘people will no longer say, “The ark of the covenant of the Lord.” It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made.’” (Jeremiah 3:16)
So, what ever happened to the most important sacred object in the history of ancient Israel?
That’s easy. After Indiana Jones survived the moment when the Nazis foolishly popped off its lid and peered inside, the ark of the covenant was securely tucked away in a ginormous warehouse somewhere in the continental United States.
That’s one possibility. But the real story, while not quite as dramatic, is definitely just as mysterious.
The bottom line is that no one really knows if the ark still exists. But that hasn’t diminished the enthusiasm of a group of imaginative authors and conspiracy theorists who have suggested that the ark may have ended up hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the Promised Land.
What makes the ark so special?
According to the book of Exodus, Moses received detailed instructions from God concerning the construction of several pieces of sacred furniture. These items were to occupy special places in the Holy and Most Holy Places in the interior of the tabernacle (and later, the temple). Thus they would remain unseen by the vast majority of God’s people.
The ark was a gold-covered wooden box – approximately four feet long, two feet high, and two feet across – which contained the two stone tablets Moses had received on Mt. Sinai. The words of the Ten Commandments, etched by God himself, appeared on the tablets. A pair of golden cherubim graced the heavy lid (known as the mercy seat), their wings outstretched over the ark.
For the Jews, the tabernacle / temple was the most significant piece of real estate on the planet. It was the chief place where heaven (God’s domain) intersected the Earth (the domain of humanity).
And the most important component of that most important place was the ark of the covenant. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, God met with just one person – the high priest – in the presence of the ark. No one else was ever granted access to the Holy of Holies.
The ark is routinely mentioned in the history books of the Old Testament. But then, seemingly out of the blue, it disappears from the narrative.
When the Roman general Pompey conquered Palestine in 63 BC, he couldn’t resist doing what the Jews had sternly warned him not to do. He strolled into the Holy of Holies to have a look for himself, to see what all the fuss was about. The general was disappointed. Instead of jewel-encrusted statues or relics with supernatural power, all he found were a few simple pieces of furniture.
There was no ark. During the time of Jesus it was widely known that the ark had been missing for a very long time.
Where was it?
Rabbis speculated that it had probably been destroyed by the Babylonians when they besieged Jerusalem and burned down the temple in 587 BC – an opinion shared by many modern scholars. Others suggested that it was carted off to Babylon, then presumably lost or misplaced amidst piles of war booty. Still others believe one of the prophets had removed the ark from the temple before the siege even began, hiding it in an underground storage room on the Temple Mount.
British journalist Graham Hancock, in his 1992 book The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant, believes the ark ended up in Ethiopia. Today, he suggests, it is kept under lock and key by a special group associated with an ancient church. As recently as 30 years ago, a group committed to the notion that God now sees the British as the true Chosen People began excavating a hill in Ireland in the fervent expectation of finding the ark buried there.
Jeremiah could have saved a lot of people a lot of trouble.
According to Jeremiah 3:16, the day is coming when the ark will no longer be the focal point of God’s presence on Earth. It won’t be remembered, won’t be missed, and won’t be replaced.
Christians have an abiding conviction that that day came a long time ago. In fact, it arrived when Jesus of Nazareth launched the Church – a movement that redefines God’s Chosen People as including all those, no matter what their background, who choose to follow him.
Jeremiah himself describes what this new covenant, this new reality, looks like:
“’This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more’” (Jeremiah 31:33-34).
In this new covenant – the “new deal” between God and humanity ushered in by Jesus – there’s no need for a gold-covered box containing God’s commandments. God’s laws are no longer written on a set of stone tablets. Now they’re written on human hearts.
Which means if you’ve given yourself to Jesus, they’re actually written on your heart.
It may seem incredible, but the place where heaven meets Earth – where God chooses to reveal himself – has changed forever.
You are that place.
And not just one day every year, but every single day.