Grasping God's Purpose: "It's Time to Set the Table!" – Exodus 37:10-16

A recent commercial highlighted one of the most important pieces of furniture in our homes – the kitchen table. I have to admit, their words struck a chord in me. You see, not only is our table the centerpiece of the mealtime discussions of my family, but it is the place, often over an espresso, where many of our most critical family decisions have been made. It has been the center stage for more than one family “discussion” when a problem arose between members of our normally happy home. It has been an altar for prayer, when worries surrounded us and we were unsure of God’s direction. It has been a safe haven when we were experiencing the enemy’s attack on our children. It has been a place of sweet desert, and a place of bitter tears. Our table, perhaps more than any other place, has symbolized the communion of the Smith family.  As we read today from the story of the Tabernacle’s construction, it is nice to know that God included in His design, a simple table upon which priests would place bread.  God has a table, and He left particular instruction as to its design and setting. That table was meant to lead His people into a better understanding of Who He is. Today we want to focus on what God revealed about Himself by the instructions and references to His table of bread.

Key Principle: God instructed a table be made to keep His ongoing provision in front of His people and remind them of His enduring holy attention to them!

This isn’t a dry study of furnishings, it is a glimpse into their Divine designer and what He wanted known of Himself.

A Brief Look Back

Step back and look at the road behind us for a moment. It has been a long road through the wilderness, and the thin trail traversed by our camels and caravan extends as far as the eye can see. We have tasting the sand and wiping the sweat from our faces as we have been following Moses and the children of Israel out of their former slave tents in Goshen to the Promised Land  – all the way through our study in the book of Exodus. The book contains the unfolding of God’s redemption from slavery of the people of Israel. It begins with a sense of abandonment – a ringing in the ears of the cries of bitter bondage. It ends, in complete contrast, with the peaceful settling of the glory of the Lord on the Tabernacle in the last lines of the book. It began in stone and mud brick cities built with the trembling hands of mal nourished slaves. It ends with the woven tent and golden furnishings of a moveable structure of worship – made by the Spirit-empowered hands of craftsmen on a mission. What began in a haze of brown dust, ended in a golden glow of glory. They that sowed in tears reaped in joy.

As we pick up our reading in the middle of Exodus 37:10, the Tabernacle building has already been erected. The gold laden ark (the box that held the promises and Law of God) was set up for use. Our lesson focuses our attention on the next piece of furniture handed down from God’s design studio from above called “the Table of Shewbread” in older English translations. Technically, there is no proper word in English like “shewbread”, but the word was forced into the text by the translators of the King James Bible long ago to identify this unique item. The Hebrew “lechem haPānīm” is literally: “the bread of the Presence” – a name that showed something of its importance and function. Take a moment and look at the account as Moses related it:

Exodus 37:10 “Then he made the table of acacia wood, two cubits long and a cubit wide and one and a half cubits high. 11 He overlaid it with pure gold, and made a gold molding for it all around. 12 He made a rim for it of a handbreadth all around, and made a gold molding for its rim all around. 13 He cast four gold rings for it and put the rings on the four corners that were on its four feet. 14 Close by the rim were the rings, the holders for the poles to carry the table. 15 He made the poles of acacia wood and overlaid them with gold, to carry the table. 16 He made the utensils which were on the table, its dishes and its pans and its bowls and its jars, with which to pour out drink offerings, of pure gold.”

The table was beautifully constructed and carefully designed as a symbolic message of God’s presence with and provision for His people. God was ever with them, meeting their needs. People who don’t walk with God, don’t know what that feels like. They don’t even know what they are missing. It reminds me of an old story:

One Sunday morning an old cowboy entered a church just before services were to begin. Although the old man and his clothes were spotlessly clean, he wore jeans, a denim shirt and boots that were very worn and ragged. In his hand he carried a worn out old hat and an equally worn out Bible. The church he entered was in a very upscale and exclusive part of the city. It was the largest and most beautiful church the old cowboy had ever seen. The people of the congregation were all dressed with expensive clothes and accessories. As the cowboy took a seat, the others moved away from him. No one greeted, spoke to, or welcomed him. They were all appalled at his appearance and did not attempt to hide it. The preacher gave a long sermon filled with fire and brimstone and a stern lecture on how much money the church needed to do God’s work. As the old cowboy was leaving the church, the preacher approached him and asked the cowboy to do him a favor. “Before you come back in here again, have a talk with God and ask him what He thinks would be appropriate attire for worship.” The old cowboy assured the preacher he would. The next Sunday, he showed back up for the services wearing the same ragged jeans, shirt, boots, and hat. Once again he was completely shunned and ignored. The preacher approached the man and said, “I thought I asked you to speak to God about what you should wear before you came back to our church.” “I did,” replied the old cowboy. “If you spoke to God, what did he tell you the proper attire should be for worshiping in here?” asked the preacher. “Well, sir, God told me that He didn’t have a clue what I should wear. He says He’s never been here before.” (sermon central illustrations).

Men and women, people were never designed to handle life disconnected from God. Believers, who have tasted intimacy with God and then wander off, find themselves to be some of the most miserable people in the world. God has some important words about WALKING IN HIS PRESENCE from that little golden table, and we want to look at those words in this lesson.

First a word about the table

Scripture says that Bezalel took the acacia wood from the sparse groves of the Sinai Peninsula, and cut them into plates of wood. Distilling the sap into thick glue and perhaps using mortise and tenon joints, he assembled the table. The legs were set into the corners with a top height of about twenty-seven inches. The surface of the table was about eighteen inches wide by about thirty-six inches long (37:10).

After that, Bezalel took the purest smelted gold and heated it to the perfect temperature to allow all of the dross and impurity to float to the liquid surface. He probably poured the molten gold into a framed area on flat rock, using some oils and pastes that would help the gold separate from the rock for pounding, shaping and framing. When still malleable but cooled sufficiently, he placed the thinned sheet of gold over the wood surfaces and worked them with a combination of hammer and heat, to bond them to the surface. Some pins were probably installed into the wood to allow the fixing of the gold plate to set properly and securely. In the end, a delicately decorated border lined the top of the table, near the edge and about one hand breadth in height, to hold the bread in place and keep it from sliding off the slick gold surface (37:11-12).

Near the rim at the top of the table, and affixed to the four vertical legs rings were mounted at the corners, like that of the ark – for this was a table for a journey. Poles were lathed and shaped, covered with gold and slid into position (37:13-15). Then came the fine work needed for the table setting. Utensils were fashioned, including some flat dishes, pans with handles, bowls and jars for liquid. All of them were shaped and buffed to a shiny and slick surface, allowing them to be more easily kept polished and clean (37:16).

That is the simple description of the piece of furniture that God ordered to REPRESENT HIS DAILY PROVISION and HIS ACTIVE PRESENCE among His people. God commanded in Exodus 25:30 “You shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before Me at all times.”

Here is a question: “How do we know that was the message God was trying to give them?” A careful look at Scriptures about the table will unfold the story:

First, the table was made to place baked bread loaves – and those loaves had a very SPECIAL MEANING to Israel.

Bread was the symbol of their daily needs. Bread in Hebrew culture was an idiom for the basic needs to sustain life. When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread”, He was teaching them to ask for all their basic needs – not just cooked dough. In addition, in the harsh and barren desert, God miraculously supplied bread for the people when they had no way to grow and harvest crops. Exodus 16:35 reminds: “The sons of Israel ate the manna forty years, until they came to an inhabited land; they ate the manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.” What we are looking at was a table to remind Israel that God was present because their needs were met in the daily manna ingredients of the bread.

Tabernacle “manna bread” was a symbol of God’s miraculous daily provision and people’s daily attention to His commands. Do you recall the passage where God instructed the making of the table? In the heart of the book of Exodus, back in chapter 16, there were a series of tests presented by God to the people. The instructions to build the table came from that passage. The test, you may recall from earlier studies, was what we simply referred to as “The Consistency Test (Exodus 16:4 and 16:27). When we read the passage some time back, we reminded ourselves that God offered Israel a “use only as directed” test. The text shares: Exodus 16:4 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in My instruction. The clear point of the Consistency Test is obedience – not once, but ongoing and continual obedience.

Tabernacle bread was a symbol of God’s participation with the priestly meal. Look a bit deeper into the Bible and the picture of the bread as a symbol is even richer. Leviticus 24:5 “Then you shall take fine flour and bake twelve cakes with it; two-tenths of an ephah shall be in each cake. 6 “You shall set them in two rows, six to a row, on the pure gold table before the LORD. 7 “You shall put pure frankincense on each row that it may be a memorial portion for the bread, even an offering by fire to the LORD. 8 “Every Sabbath day he shall set it in order before the LORD continually; it is an everlasting covenant for the sons of Israel. 9 “It shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place; for it is most holy to him from the LORD’S offerings by fire, his portion forever.”

The frankincense was most likely cast upon the altar-fire as “an offering made by fire unto the Lord,” when the bread was removed from the table on the Sabbath-day, and represented the offering of fire – without burning up the bread itself. (cp. Leviticus 24:8; 1 Samuel 21:6). The frankincense represented the part the Lord enjoyed, as He could inhale the white smoke into His nostrils (poetically speaking), while the priests were able to eat the bread. God participated in the consumption, and they all delighted together!

What is clear is this: the bread was a symbol of need, and collection of that manna ingredient was a symbol both of daily obedience and God’s participation with His people.

The bread from the table had to be replaced every Sabbath, with the collected manna from that week’s provision. What a picture! Every week, the continual GRIND of following God’s plan was required. Serving another’s plans goes against our nature, but it is the PROPER position of a servant of God. Those who master this are remembered as great men and women by God. God doesn’t simply want us to have moments of contact and growth followed by long walks alone. Our life with Him must, as we mature, become more steady and continuous – a walk hand in Hand. With that in mind, let me ask you something: “Are you steady in your walk with God?” Are you finding that you seek Him daily and hourly or more like Sunday and perhaps when you are in trouble? Maturity can be measured by consistency – and it is worth taking a moment to measure ourselves.

In another less personal way, we should step back and address a problem that we face on a greater scale than ourselves as well. We live in times where God’s placing of such tests like the provision that needed to be collected would be considered by some both unfair and even cruel. Our world has somehow communicated the notion that wealth should be WON not EARNED, and that work is a PENALTY not a BLESSING. We are in danger of raising a generation to believe that a JOB is for the stupid while gain without work is the WAGE of the CLEVER. God’s economy for people in a dangerous and tough situation was a WORK PROGRAM. He required them to get up DAILY, collect manna DAILY, and learn the pattern that would pay off greatly when they entered the land and needed to work a farm for crops to feed their family. Can you imagine what would have happened if God simply delivered the manna in pots to their door each day? What if he delivered the manna in a pot once a month and called it a FOOD PROGRAM. I am not arguing that our country should not help those who struggle – no decent human being could watch others go hungry without caring. I am arguing that such programs come with inherent dangers that we need to be aware of. If we increase the payments for those unwed mothers who have more children, we keep those children alive and perhaps healthy. At the same time, the perverse effect is that we reward people for making unhealthy and ungodly choices. God’s sensible solution was to offer people the opportunity to help themselves – and that pattern has some merit even now.

What about the people that couldn’t help themselves? Surely the blind or lame couldn’t collect manna. That must be true. I have traveled that desert, and it simply would have been unsafe. How did they get cared for? The answer is as simple and un-dramatic as this: the people around them collected what they needed. Neighbors helped each other. God allowed people to gather extra to help others – just not to hoard for themselves. Why didn’t they simply establish a council to care for such things? Because the further away from the need the decisions are made, the less efficient and accurate the meeting of that need. When local people meet local needs, people who are milking the system get found out quickly. We have steadily moved from that premise for more than fifty years, and LBJ’s “Great Society” has become an institutionalized form of limitation – holding people DOWN instead of bringing them up. They have neither seen a model of work, nor have a MINDSET to work or now even the OPPORTUNITY to work. Our national HELP has literally crippled a generation. We need to spread manna in the daily field and let people have a way back to work. Our future as a country depends on it.

Are you feeling victimized? Don’t be! Let me say it plainly: in the church, we must teach that WORK IS GOOD. Our youth need to be taught to work hard, and to take God’s provision seriously. We are not ENTITLED to excess – we have greater responsibility with God’s greater provision. “To whom much is given, much is therefore required.” One of the ways we should recognize God’s hand is PROVISION.

A desire to do something is not the same as a CALL to do something. If you want it, but God is not providing, perhaps God does not WANT YOU TO HAVE IT. Perhaps He is not leading you to go where you cannot afford to go. We need to stop assuming that God wants us to have whatever we want to have, and work hard. We need be thankful for the provision He has made. In the first Epistle of Paul that we have in the record of the New Testament, Paul argued for believers to show their faith by their WORK ETHIC. It is time for us to assert this anew: Real followers of Jesus aren’t trying to get something for nothing – they work to honor their Savior. They follow His provision. They celebrate His goodness and sleep well at night from a hard day’s labors. The bread of the table has had much to say.

Second, the table was surrounded with a protecting crown – a rim that held the bread from sliding off of the table.

The symbol of God’s presence demanded protection, because God’s presence is a privilege and an honor that must be both cherished and guarded. The rim was a gold fence, creating a space between those moving around in the room as they passed the edge of the table, and the bread that was carefully prepared and placed inside the inner rim. The rim also had a second purpose. The table was never to be emptyEven when they moved the table. The bread had to be “ever present” – and the rim showed that it needed to be ever protected.

Without stretching the point, it may be worth asking a question right about now….Are you carefully protecting your time with God? Do you value His presence enough, and live in the conscious presence of God so as to be carefully protecting your walk with Him?

Many believers act like it is God’s privilege to have OUR attendance. They act as though God should be sitting in Heaven waiting on them, whenever they get around to worshipping, praising or praying. We need to check our hearts to be sure that we know the difference between a genie and our God. The Lord God does not sit within a bottle waiting for the warm hand to rub and summon Him. He is not at our beck and call – we are to be at HIS.

Third, rings were mounted on the table because it was to be carried, joining the people where ever the camp went.

God’s people were not to go where God did not direct, and where God did not join. If God wasn’t comfortable there, they shouldn’t have been there. How about that as a rule for our lives? Believers were meant to follow His lead and constantly acknowledge, through the bread on the table, His accompaniment. Though we all live in the presence of God’s face continually, many of us don’t live like we realize it. We act as though God didn’t hear the gossip we spread yesterday, or the lie we told last night. We forget His presence – but they were called to continually mark it out.

Fourth, every bowl, pan or utensil associated with the table was to be fashioned of pure gold.

Walking in the conscious presence of God was, and is, to be the highest value of our lives. Gold was not only beautiful, it was precious. God’s utensils were made of gold. How we treat God is reflected in every attitude of our lives, every relationship with other people, and even our reflective relationship within our own hearts. Our values are shaped by our desire to please a very present God, and walk through life with Him. Our biggest failure is not to do or say something that displeases Him – it is to live life without caring about His presence. As Dietrich Bonheoffer brilliantly said: “When we sin, we don’t hate God, we forget God.

Fifth, the command was made that the table was never to be empty- but full at all times.

It was to be kept supplied even during a journey, because it represented the people’s knowledge of the unfailing presence of the Holy One with them. Bread took work to make, and so it takes work to constantly recall God is very present with man. it is easy to forget God. It is easy to live life with God on the periphery of important decisions. He is always there, but many of us only think about Him at times of pain, trouble or distress.  After the Fall of man in the Garden of Eden, the default position of fallen man is independence from God – living in the deception of self-reliance. Walking with God takes effort, and it takes practice.

Hebrews 9 underscored the idea that the place for the table was a holy place: Hebrews 9:2 For there was a tabernacle prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the sacred bread; this is called the holy place. Any place where I thankfully acknowledge God’s provision and celebrate God’s goodness is a holy place.

True communion with God is worship. True worship requires constant and deliberate effort. True worship is holy and as such was always guarded. It was to be treasured, but had to be forcibly recalled in a life that defaults to self-reliance. It isn’t simply an emotional response – it is a deliberate call to truth, whether I feel warm and fuzzy toward God or not. God IS great, when I feel it, and when I don’t. True worship demands that I face the facts. One of the things it cannot truly be – it must never be – is BORING. Boring worship is an oxymoron – a self-contradicting phrase. I remember a Pastor sharing this little story:

A little boy asked his mother if she could remember the highest number she ever counted to. The mother didn’t know so she asked him about his highest number. He answered, “5,372.” The mother was puzzled and asked him why he stopped at that particular one. The boy responded, “Well…church was over.” (A-Z sermon illustrations).

Our world is filled with contradictory statements and oxymorons: Jumbo shrimp, Freezer burn, White chocolate, Plastic silverware, Airline food, Sanitary landfill, Truthful tabloids, Professional wrestling – and we have learned to accept them all. There is one that is entirely unacceptable: boring worship. Worship is about emptying myself of self-reliance and self-dependence and wholly leaning on God. Worship is about thanking God for His gentle presence in spite of my unworthiness. It is about crying out to Him in recognition of His constant goodness.

Around the table of God we can see His provision and celebrate His presence. We can sing of His redemption and look forward to our Promised Land. We are on the journey, but we are NOT ALONE.

Can I ask you another question? How fresh is the bread of God’s presence in you? Martin Luther has said, “Christ is now as fresh unto me as if He had shed His blood but this very hour.” Is that true of YOU? Is time with Him sweet and fresh or stale and frozen? If you are cold toward God, let me call you to a new and fresh loaf of bread. Let me share with you a word of excitement…

Stand before God and worship Him in great amazement. We live in a marvelous hour! Stop hanging your head because you feel darkness closing in. Let the night fall. It has all been done before – and Jesus’ reign in the Heavenly places still remains secure. We have the great privilege to exalt His Name as we extend His Kingdom. No one will stop His love from reaching through us into the darkest places – if we will but allow His power to work through us. We can express His Greatness as we sing praises through the day. We can wait with anticipation as we expect His Coming. Lift up your eyes to the Exalted One. Hear the song of the Heavens as His Presence fills this place!

Psalm 96 says: 1 “Sing to the LORD a new song; Sing to the LORD, all the earth. 2 Sing to the LORD, bless His name; Proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day. 3 Tell of His glory among the nations, His wonderful deeds among all the peoples. 4 For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised…6 Splendor and majesty are before Him, Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary…9 Worship the LORD in holy attire; Tremble before Him, all the earth. 10 Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns; Indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved…12 Let the field exult, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy 13 Before the LORD, for He is coming, For He is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in His faithfulness.”

God designed a little gold table to remind His people of His ongoing provision in front of His people and His enduring holy attention to them! Aren’t you glad He did!