In our last study in Hebrews chapter 8, we focused on the superiority of Messiah’s priestly ministry and ultimately the superiority of the New Covenant. Chapter 9 begins with a statement referring to that discussion: “Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary” (Hebrews 9:1). In essence, the argument here is that the earthly sanctuary had real value as a teaching tool for the Israelites even though it is a mere copy of the heavenly one. The writer of Hebrews uses the tabernacle in the wilderness instead of the Temple as his example because the tabernacle is associated with the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. Beginning in chapter 9, verse 2, the writer describes the tabernacle in detail. He divides the tabernacle into two areas—an inner tabernacle and an outer tabernacle.
The outer tabernacle contained the lampstand, or seven-branched menorah, and the table with the sacred bread. The menorah’s purpose was to provide perpetual light in the dark, windowless tabernacle. The priests tended to it morning and evening to make sure the light was never extinguished. In essence, the menorah was a representation of the presence of God among the people of Israel. The table with the sacred bread, or showbread, consisted of a table made of acacia wood overlaid with gold leaf. On the table were twelve loaves of bread representing each of the tribes of Israel. Each week, the loaves would be eaten by the ministering priests and replaced with new loaves on the Sabbath. The outer tabernacle was called the “holy place” and these two articles of light and bread pointed to the one who would come as the “Light of the World” and the “Bread of Life.”
The inner tabernacle was behind the second veil and it is called the “Holy of Holies.” The second veil was there to separate the people from the presence of God, but it was torn from top to bottom when Yeshua (Jesus) was crucified. The writer of Hebrews describes the inner tabernacle as “having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant…” (Hebrews 1:4). The golden altar of incense was not in the inner tabernacle but in front of the veil leading into the Holy of Holies. A common question asks why the golden altar of incense is listed as though it were inside the Holy of Holies rather than outside. The most likely answer is that the golden altar of incense related functionally to the ministry within the Holy of Holies even though it was not physically inside it. In the morning and evening, the priests would burn incense to God which allowed it to burn continuously. This altar represented the worship and prayers of God’s people and pointed to His presence in the Holy of Holies.
The ark of the covenant was the one piece of furnishing inside the Holy of Holies. The ark, like the table containing the sacred bread, was made of acacia wood. It was an opened-top chest covered inside and out with gold. The writer of Hebrews says it contains “…a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod which budded, and the tables of the covenant” (Hebrews 1:4). The lid of the ark, which is the mercy seat, was made of solid gold. The mercy seat was overshadowed by the “cherubim of glory.” Two cherubs on each side, with wings spread out toward one another, were either attached to the mercy seat or perhaps constructed as one piece with it. While these present some incredible furnishings in the tabernacle, the writer of Hebrews simply describes what was there rather than going into detail. His intent is to continue building a case for the superiority of Messiah’s priestly ministry over the Levitical priesthood.