“What's a Mercy Seat?”

Categories: M. W. Bassford, Meditations

The other evening at Jackson Heights, we sang “From Every Stormy Wind” during worship.  I received it with great joy.  I remember singing it during my childhood out of Great Songs of the Church and not at all since, at least not congregationally.  It made my worship evening.

However, on the car ride home from services, Lauren and I were talking about it, and Zoë piped up from the back, “What’s a mercy seat?”  Zoë probably was not alone in her confusion, so I decided that it would be an appropriate subject for a blog post.

The first appearance of “mercy seat” in the Bible is in the context of Exodus 25:17-22.  The mercy seat (the usual English rendering for a Hebrew word that is derived from the verb “to make atonement”) was the lid of the ark of the covenant, decorated with two statues of cherubim, one at each end.  In the place where an idolatrous temple would have had an idol, there was nothing, signifying a God whose nature could not be represented.  The mercy seat was where God met with the Israelites, from which He spoke. 

However, the Israelites did not interact frequently with the mercy seat.  It, along with the rest of the ark of the covenant, was located within the Most Holy Place, first of the tabernacle, then of Solomon’s temple.  As related in Leviticus 16:11-19, only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place, and he only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.  On that day, he would sprinkle the mercy seat with sacrificial blood from a bull and a goat.  Thus, he would atone for his sins and the sins of the people.

This solemn ceremony, though, was nothing more than a type, a spiritual illustration of the atoning work of Jesus.  The tabernacle and its furniture were only a representation of the true Most Holy Place, the heavenly dwelling of God.  According to Hebrews 9:11-15, after His offering on the cross, Jesus entered that heavenly Most Holy Place, offering His own blood before the reality of God as the propitiatory sacrifice for our sins.  The high priest had to return to the earthly Most Holy Place year after year, but Jesus offered Himself once for all time.

As awesome as the above is, on that fateful journey, Jesus did still more.  Hebrews 10:19-22 explains that with His offered body, He opened a way for us through the veil that separated us from God.  Now, we can come into God’s presence with boldness.  Indeed, every time we gather in His name, we do exactly that.  Spiritually, we assemble around the true mercy seat in heaven. 

“From Every Stormy Wind” rightly observes that the mercy seat is a sanctuary in which God protects us from everything.  We rejoice in Jesus there, and we are united with beloved brethren who are far distant from us.  We ought to sing about such a place, not only as a reminder of the greatness of our blessings here, but in anticipation of the full joys of fellowship in heaven.