Grasping God's Purpose: "Big Meaning in a Small Symbol" – Exodus 37:1-9

Symbols are all around us – and the most effective ones are those that connect a singular message to a whole society. We can’t walk down any city street without seeing a range of symbols, all that have meanings that have come to be clear in our society. Think about taking a walk. You know where you are supposed to cross the street by paint markings in straight lines for the crossing. You know where the cars on the road are supposed to stop by the octagonal sign that contains one four letter word: “STOP!” No sign? No matter, the red light will do that same thing. If you saw the sign or the light in another country, you would still know what to do –because the symbol’s shape or color that speak clearly – STOP MOVING. You glance up, and discover there is a man was jogging toward you. You may know something of his tastes by reading the symbol from his shirt. You may know if he is married by a ring on the proper finger. His sneakers may bear a symbol upon them that identify their maker and tell you how serious a runner he may be. Keep walking. As you near the next intersection, a small box mounted at the corner may has the symbol of the postal service, and as your mind recognizes it, you are able to identify the purpose of the metal box affixed beside the walk. You hear a rumble and look up. A bus rolls by, and by the color you will very likely be able to tell if it is a public city bus, a private bus, or a school bus. Just as you are thinking about the children going off to school, your phone rings, and the preset tone may becomes an audio symbol, identifying the caller by a chosen tone you programmed to their identity marker. It is your pushy aunt Edna, so you turn the phone to IGNORE. My point is that our lives are filled with symbols, and they are all to offer us a short hand” script to keep messages flowing without quickly and without strain or confusion. The beauty of a symbol is that it brings clarity in simplicity and brevitya large message in a small package – and that is exactly what we will be talking about today.

You see, God was the first marketer to brand things. He knew that man would need help identifying things, and wanted us to grasp big messages about Him by offering small symbols. One of them is the subject of this study – a wooden box covered with gold that symbolized truths about God.

Key Principle: God gave His people a small symbol that helped them understand great truths about HIM!

The symbol in our passage is a GOLD COVERED BOX. It wasn’t very large, but it was quite unusual in its build:

Exodus 37:1 Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood—two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. 2 He overlaid it with pure gold, both inside and out, and made a gold molding around it. 3 He cast four gold rings for it and fastened them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. 4 Then he made poles of acacia wood and overlaid them with gold. 5 And he inserted the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry it. 6 He made the atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. 7 Then he made two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. 8 He made one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; at the two ends he made them of one piece with the cover. 9 The cherubim had their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim faced each other, looking toward the cover.

Working with symbols in Scripture is always tricky. We can be ever so tempted to “read into” a simple story, and turn an observation into an instruction – totally apart from God’s true purposes. With that in mind, one of the things we have to do to insure we aren’t making up insights and fabricating principles is to analyze the text carefully. God didn’t say to YOU something He didn’t say. Scripture was not given BY private interpretation nor FOR private interpretation – It says what It says. Application is personal –how I live out the truth. Interpretation MUST BE objective – what did God actually say.

Take a look at these simple nine verses:

  1. God recorded that Bezalel, according to God’s earlier instruction, built a box out of acacia wood in a specified size of roughly 27” high, 27” wide and 45” long (37:1). This protected tree of the desert is one of the few that can grow in the harsh desert climate. It has natural “barbed wire” in the long and piercing thorns that are used today by the Bedouin as sewing needles.
  2. Bezalel coated the wood box with gold, and then made a delicate molding around the box for decorative purposes (37:2). Using the donated gold brought out from Egypt, he made the box similar to the many pieces of gold overlay furnishings found in the Cairo Museum that once belonged to Pharaohs.
  3. He melted and cast rings to attach to the four corners on the bracing of the legs of the box where poles could be inserted to carry the box (37:3). The box was specifically designed for transport – and the carrying handles were removable, but integrated into the design.
  4. The poles were lathed and then coated with gold as well, in a size that could slip into the rings and bear the whole box (37:4).
  5. They slipped the poles into place for a test as a wise precaution, and they fit perfectly in the summary we have in the text (37:5).
  6. A large cover for the whole box was fashioned from gold, and made to fit snugly on top – for this box was not going to remain stationary (37:6).
  7. Made separate from the top, but then affixed to it, were two cherubim – angelic beings that guard God’s throne and holiness – based on the way they are perceived when seen by men (37:7).
  8. Bezalel fashioned the angels, then placed them facing each other on the two ends of the box – as if the attention of the angels was to whatever the center of the top had on it. The funny thing was that Bezalel left the area between the angels unadorned (37:8-9). Both angels looked at a spot that was essentially flat and thoroughly uninteresting in design, for one symbolic use of the box would later reveal the importance of that little spot.

There it is – a simple wood box adorned with expensive plating and some decorative winged angels.

Why would God take the time to describe the making of it to us? What possible difference could it make in our lives? I would like to suggest that God was telling His story in the symbols, the way we tell of the love of our lives by a simple band of God. God had a story to tell to Israel and the nations around them, and He chose to use a box the way Nike chose to use a “swoosh” symbol. It is a small and simply marker of a more elegant communication.

The Ark of God had two essential uses in the Bible – to transport and store the Word of God with some other important memorabilia, as well as localize in a symbolic way the covering of the nation’s sins through blood atonement.

The box was about the things most important to God – His Word and His promise to His people to judicially care for their sins. God revealed six truths through the decorated golden box:

Truth #1: God chose to use normal things to bring about His plan.

Essentially the box was nothing more than decorated and overlaid WOOD. The value was not in the intrinsic nature of the wood, but in the use God intended for it.

Maybe you have been led to believe that God performs only through the extraordinary. Read the Christian magazines and it may seem that way. Watch the Christian film and you will see stars with better skin than you have and less fat than I carry. God doesn’t only use the extraordinary… it just isn’t true!

Go back to the early days of the church, and you will see God working uphill in the lives of painfully ordinary and easily misrepresented people.

  • Start in Acts 1, and peer into the window as the disciples tried to pick a successor to the suicidal former treasurer named Judas. They cast lots and picked Matthais – a guy who was never heard from again in the Holy Book! No doubt the best way to get people of good character to lead is shooting craps!
  • Then there was the great move of the Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2 – reputed in the crowd to be a move of “spirits” as the men were accused of drunkenness.
  • By Acts 3 and 4, there as a bright spot as God used Peter and John to bring healing to a lame man, but within hours the movement was being led by jailbirds – as the leaders were scooped up and detained.
  • In other words, by four chapters into the Book of Acts the movement of the church appeared to be formed by the likes of gamblers, drunks and ex-cons, and we haven’t even gotten to chapter five… oh this is rich! Bring in the BODY BAGS! People were literally DYING to get out of their early meetings.
  • In Acts 6 the early beleivers were already squabbling over racism and uneven benefits – the smell of nepotism was strong in the air.
  • By Acts 7, the response to a rousing historical sermon by Stephen brought a pummeling of stones until he was dead – surely not the response any preacher would be hoping for.
  • By Acts 8, persecution began falling like rain in the houses of early believers, and the movement was being spread by civil servant eunuchs from far away. It didn’t look promising at all.
  • In Acts 9 another reputed ex-killer joined the group, but most were afraid to even acknowledge him. Add to that the people who exemplified Jesus, like Tabitha, were not exempt from falling dead of disease. Resurrecting people was not going to keep the place going very long.
  • In Acts 10, a Roman centurion joined the band – but he could have just as easily been an infiltrator. Then came the pig eating pagans, and all Heaven broke loose.

My point it: even when told in a sarcastic voice, that God’s story wasn’t passed “in the early days” by people that floated above the earth. God’s early church was filled with all kinds of ordinary and flawed people – just like it is today. God used a WOOD BOX, and God can use your life. Don’t get distracted by the gold covering, underneath every one of us is stuff made on earth… clay pots that belong to the King!

Truth #2: God shared Himself with the world through the cooperation of a servant dedicated to the work.

The labor for the box was that of a man. The man was made by God. The tree was made by God. The story God wanted to tell was God’s story… but at the end of the day the whole of ministry to the people was offered in collaboration with a man. God works through people – that is His instrument of choice.

When God wanted to bring a message to Canaanites about the One True God, he called Abram. When He wanted to rescue His people from Pharaoh, he called Moses. When He wanted to route Jabin, King of Hazor, he called Deborah to get Barak. When He wanted to kill Goliath, He summoned David. When He wanted to bring a Savior, he called on Mary…. God is in the business of bringing Himself and His power to the world through collaboration with men and women. He loves to share life in relationship with us! While He enables us to do the extraordinary, we must remember that it is only our surrender to Him that is required – He does all the rest.

In making the box – Bezalel shared God’s huge vision with his little splintered hands. He cut, glued, planed and affixed with skills given by God through mentors and through Spirit empowering. The preparation of Bezalel’s life was no doubt used for this – but the secret was in his obedience to God as the Lord enabled him to do more than he could have ever thought of before. God delights in using people, walking with people, sharing vision with people, and celebrating victory with people.

Truth #3: God showed what He prized in the making of the box.

The overlay of gold without was impressive to others who beheld it, but the overlay of the interior was only to express the value God placed on His Word – the tablets and scrolls it was designed to house. The added weight would slow down the movement of the box without extreme effort – but the prized contents were shrouded in rich gold because God wanted people to understand how important His Word is to Him and to them.

A student of the Word of God need not dive deeply to find God’s affection for the Scriptures. If we love Him, we will learn to love what He loves – and God delights in His Word. GOD IS A POET AT HEART and a bit of a romantic one at that. Beyond the pure benefits of deeply drawing from it (cited in Psalm 1), there is celebration in their power and effect in Psalm 19, and sobering reminders of their deep need in Psalm 119.

Wise is the man or woman that seeks God’s will through God’s Word. Dreams will leave you with doubt. Advice may be filtered from lips that reflect a selfish heart and be uncertain in their directives. The mind, even the one occupied with God’s Spirit can be easily swayed. It is God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures, to whom men have turned to know the heart of God for generations.

  • George Washington said: “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible”.
  • John Quincy Adams said: “So great is my veneration for the Bible that the earlier my children begin to read it the more confident will be my hope that they will prove useful citizens of their country and respectable members of society…” —
  • Andrew Jackson argued: “That book, sir, is the rock on which our republic rests”
  • Abraham Lincoln acknowledged:  “I believe the Bible is the best gift God has ever given man. All the good from the Savior of the world is communicated to us through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong” — “It is the duty of nations as well as men to recognize the truth announced in Holy Scripture and proven by all of history that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.”
  • President Ulysses S. Grant warned: “Hold fast to the Bible as the sheet anchor of your liberties. Write its precepts in your hearts, and practice them in your lives. To the influence of this book are we indebted for all the progress made in true civilization, and to this we must look as our guide in the future. Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a  reproach to any people”

Regardless of how embarrassed our modern university professors may be, our Founding Fathers knew the Bible was more than great literature. They knew it transformed lives, and guaranteed their freedom.

It was the underpinning of their Constitution. It is therefore no surprise that as we move the Bible’s presence and influence from the center stage of our republic, we find ourselves bound in ever increasing legal cement and moral gridlock. None of our fathers practiced the truths of the Bible wholly – there were still the scars of slavery and injustice that festered like sores. Yet even in this hypocrisy, it was the voices like that of William Wilberforce in England that forcefully stood opposed to the ungodly discrimination of color based on the Bible itself. The Bible led men to both correction and redemption. The Bible didn’t allow men to be summarily bought and sold – despite what you have heard from the ill-informed script writers of modern television. The Bible was – and I would argue still IS – the answer – not the problem.

Try to silence the sheer power of its pages. It has all been done before. While you do, you must remember soberly, Mister and Madame Justices of our courts, “It is appointed unto man once to die, then the judgment.” The FINAL gavel sits on the desk of the ULTIMATE JUDGE. God treasures His Word, and it is incredibly dangerous for any people to stick their finger in the eye of the Holy One AND BELIEVE THAT HE WILL NOT NOTICE.

Truth #4: God desired to express both purpose and elegance in the box.

He didn’t want a clunky slapped together contraption roped to a cart by Jed Clampett (an old television character of the “Beverly Hillbillys”). He wanted something carefully, delicately, intricately formed and fashioned – worthy of the majesty of a King. The wood box held the FUNCTION, but the gold overlay offered a REGAL quality that befits a great Master of the people. Note the work had a CROWN placed on its edges.

We must be creative and elegant when expressing to our world Who our Father is. We must press harder and harder to do what we do in worship well. We do not offer a concert, but nor should it be a slapped together barn dance. We must seek to have the delicacy and elegance shine through as we exalt Him and proclaim His work. He is a God of rich texture and beauty. He is a God filled with regal majesty! Our celebration of Him must be more than a dry rehearsal of overused words. There must be a ring of His PERSON in His praise!

Listen to some simple words by Matt Redman on his intimate walk with God:

I’m standing on this mountaintop looking just how far we’ve come – knowing that for every step You were with us. I’m kneeling on this battle ground seeing just how much You’ve done – knowing every victory is Your power in us. Scars and struggles on the way but with joy our hears can say…Yes, our hearts can say: Never once did we ever walk alone! Never once did you leave us on our own! You are faithful, God, You are faithful! Never once did we ever walk alone! Never once did you leave us on our own! You are faithful, God, You are faithful! Carried by Your constant grace! Held within Your perfect peace! Never once, no, we never walk alone! You are faithful, God, You are faithful!

Can you hear it? Simple but elegant words celebrate the faithfulness of God. I sang them this week standing beside a career missionary, and we both knew how very true they were! Such truths can come from the deep words of Isaac Watts, or the simple frames of Matt Redman. It is not in the lighting and the sound that they connect with our hearts – it is in their TRUTH. Thank God that He adorned truth with beauty, and that it connects with us in elegant ways.

Truth #5: God reminded the spiritual leaders that He desired to go WITH them on the journey.

He was not simply the “God of the Mountain” – but also the “God of the Journey” as well. He did not want to speak to them profoundly and then be left parked in the occasional camp meetings of their lives. God intended to make the whole journey with them, and marked His presence – once only detected in pillars of fire and clouds – by the box. Israel so identified the box with God’s presence, that much later they took it to war, thinking of it as a “good luck charm” or talisman instead of truly grasping its meaning. At least they remembered the connection the box had to a God who is present with us!

Truth #6: God preaches through the angels a prime purpose for the box – to get Heaven to observe His atonement and mercy.

Men don’t often look beyond themselves in the purposes of God. We don’t often ask, “How will this affect the angelic world?” We see what God does for MEN and what God speaks to MEN. Here is that rare place in Scripture, where God shows through a simple symbol something MORE. God is using symbols for a larger theatre than men can see. He ordered two angels to be positioned to stare down at a place on the top of the Ark that was essentially barren. Later God explained the use of that flat and barren place – it was the place where the blood of atonement would be poured our as the judicial payment for the sins of God’s people. That blood would atone, or cause God to look away from their sin for a time. It was temporary, but it was effective in its use.

Believers today enjoy a BETTER covenant of God. We don’t keep killing animals to turn away God’s wrath. We have a sacrifice – but it was made ONCE FOR ALL. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tried to explain this very truth to those who were used to offering at the Temple long ago:

Hebrews 10:1 For the Law (referring in context to Atonement Laws), since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? 3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins…

The writer argued that the atonement law foreshadowed a permanent cleansing from sin brought by Jesus (as the passage goes on to explain). He said the offerings of atonement law could not take away sin, but were constantly needed – without repetition the new sins would not be covered by the old offerings. Then he said something you may have missed. One of the purposes of the atonement law’s continual sacrifice was to remind you of your sin. You were to FEEL GUILT. That guilt was to motivate you to a better future walk, as well as remind you of your need of another sin offering. If you keep reading in the passage, you will see a startling truth about God’s desire for you:

Hebrews 10:11 Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; 12 but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD, 13 waiting from that time onward UNTIL HIS ENEMIES BE MADE A FOOTSTOOL FOR HIS FEET. 14 For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified…

You read that God accepted the sacrifice of Jesus as a “one size fits all” offering to remove sin’s stain. Most of you who have studied even a small amount of Scripture know that. Don’t stop reading… there is something ahead:

Hebrews 10:18 Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin. 19 Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; 24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”

Do you see it? God doesn’t want you to walk in GUILT, but in CONFIDENCE. Your salvation is not based on your consistent walk – but upon the POWER and PERMANENCE of the sacrifice of Jesus.

I am not suggesting that God would desire you to live less than a surrendered life. I am not licensing your spiritual laziness not authorizing your deliberate willfulness against God – you know me better than that. What I am saying is this: Stop clinging to GUILT. Let it GO. If you are wrong, ask God to fill you with power as you draw near to Him and stand beside Him. We are foolish to run from God in guilt. He offers cleansing – not to those who are clean – but to those who are filthy. Hiding from God because of guilt will keep you from the very thing you most want – intimacy with Him.

God back to that cool of the day in the Garden with Adam and Eve. God was calling out: “Adam, where are you?” Do you think that God was calling him because God didn’t KNOW where Adam was? Can you actually conceive of the Creator of the Universe lost without a GPS? He knew where Adam was, and He knew what Adam had done. Adam knew too. In fact, the only One that could cure Adam’s problem was the One calling out to him – but Adam hid. Adam was embarrassed. Adam was hurt. Adam was GUILTY.

Genesis 3:9 Then the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” 11 And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

You know this story. Man blamed his wife. His wife blamed the serpent. As God unfolded judgment He told the serpent – your body will be cursed and you will be dreaded. He told him something, that on the surface looks like man’s problem with snakes – we step on them, and they bite our heels… but that isn’t the whole story. Women got pain in their reproductive systems that was not part of their design. They got frustration in their spiritual position in the family and community, and man got cursed ground and harder toil. He got weeds, thorns and opposition from the soil beneath his feet. He also got the promise of DEATH and the GRAVE.

God clothed the man and woman, but to do it He took the life of another. An animal died so a skin could be their covering. Earth’s dissension into death and decay began. The angels of Heaven not only observed, but they were MOVED by the experience. Satan had seen the Garden before Adam did. He knew its beauty, and he knew its freedoms:

In a poetic story of Ezekiel 28, God revealed the story of Lucifer’s sinful beauty– and His subsequent casting from the service of God

Ezekiel 28:12 “…’‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “You had the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. 13 “You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering: The ruby, the topaz and the diamond; the beryl, the onyx and the jasper; The lapis lazuli, the turquoise and the emerald; And the gold, the workmanship of your settings and sockets, Was in you. On the day that you were created they were prepared. 14 “You were the anointed cherub who covers, and I placed you there. You were on the holy mountain of God; you walked in the midst of the stones of fire. 15 “You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created until unrighteousness was found in you. 16 “By the abundance of your trade you were internally filled with violence, and you sinned; therefore I have cast you as profane From the mountain of God. And I have destroyed you, O covering cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire. 17 “Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom by reason of your splendor. I cast you to the ground; I put you before kings, that they may see you…19 “All who know you among the peoples Are appalled at you; you have become terrified And you will cease to be forever.”’”

Now remember that God dwells beyond time. When He speaks, time has no meaning. He is not bound to it. Yesterday, today, tomorrow are inconsequential to One who made time the way He made trees. It is part of our nature – but not part of His. He can speak in any tense, or all of them in one sentence. He is GOD, and there is none like Him.

He said Lucifer, about whom the poem appears to be written, was perfect, beautiful and precious in God’s original design. Prior to his fall from God’s grace, he had been in the garden. Many scholars, I among them, believe God was speaking of a Garden in Heaven from which the Garden of Eden on earth was mimicked. The same holds true for the “Mountain of God” which may have an original in Heaven, with its copy on earth. Why is this significant? Clearly the Tabernacle that we are studying was a copy of the one in Heaven. It was apparently in that earlier garden that Lucifer beheld the beauty of God and His creation before His fall.

The point is this: Angels are observers, and were created to be servants of God. When they make up their own script for their own selfish reasons, they fail their purpose – just as a man or woman does. The end of selfishness is death and ruin. The end of rebellion is destruction and eternal desperation. Satan will one day be beheld by people of all nations and exposed for the fraud he is. Men will shake their heads when they see how fruitless a life lived to serve self and sin truly is. But wait, there is also a message for the angelic world. God has something to say to them – both fallen and faithful.

The message of God through the building of the Ark was this: “My Word, held inside this box, is the guarantee of My relentless grace and My obsessive mercy for mankind. I am not who you think I am. I am rich in forgiveness and soaked in love.

To men and women, duped by Satan’s false projections of God in His holiness, the Lord God says: “I will not cease loving you. I will not turn My face away from you – even when you will neglect Me and forget Me. I will chase after you even when you hate yourself for what you have become. I atoned before at the Temple and I cleanse now at the Cross – with a blood covering upon sin. The washing that overpowers sin’s stain is the very mystery I want all Heaven to gaze upon at the mercy seat – just as the eyes of the two cherubim see who endlessly stare upon that place. Look hard at its barrenness – a flat and useless place I have used to redeem man. It is empty of itself, but when the cleansing blood is poured upon it I will make it a place of rich mercy. I am the Savior. I am not the angry and vengeful God the deceiver says I am. I am the Lord, Great and Mighty, lover of lost ones and searcher of souls. All Heaven gaze – for this will proclaim My story!”

The box was a symbol to men of God’s Word carried with them, and God’s mercy offered to them. It was a symbol to the angels of God’s nature and Person as One who is drenched in love and offers forgiveness for heinous sin. God gave His people a small symbol that helped them understand large truths about HIM!