Several months ago, the topic of the mercy seat came to my mind for a potential blog post. As you’ll see, a recent event lead to a connection with this, which I thought was pretty cool. Then God placed another word in my mind; a word I knew I was to pair with the mercy seat. I had no idea exactly how these two ideas connected to one another, but I knew somehow they did. As I researched these topics, God ushered me deeper into the truth of His perfect provision for our greatest need. I pray this post will lead you, as it did me, to more knowledge and more love for our God and our Savior.
It was one of those grumpy quarantine days fueled by gloomy weather. My son and I were both feeling it. He had been a little on the mopey side but couldn’t quite articulate what was wrong. I could relate. Around 7:30pm I found him upstairs laying on his bed and listening to the radio. That looked like a great idea to me. I curled up beside him and for several minutes focused on the lyrics filling his bedroom. Those moments were just what my soul needed. Peace. Stillness. Truth.
One song in particular was a wave of refreshment:
It’s a new horizon, I’m set on you. And you meet me here today with mercies that are new. All my fears and doubts, they can all come too…because they can’t stay long when I’m here with you.*
A few hours later I settled into my own bed. I read a short devotional, and as I turned off the light, the above lyrics floated back into my mind. With mercies that are new. That truth was a breath of fresh air mixed with peace and love. With my head on my pillow, I thought of Lamentations 3:22-23, which speaks of God’s mercies being new every morning. I had to smile because it was now after 10:30 at night. While the morning indeed brings fresh mercies, in that moment I felt grateful that God’s mercies show up at any time of the day.
Mercies. Those acts of kindness, compassion, and favor given to us by God. Acts we are so undeserving of. Even after a day of irritability, selfishness, and ingratitude, He still lovingly reminds us of His goodness and unfailing love. He does this through His Spirit and His Word, through our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and even, through songs. His mercies are displayed in a million different ways.
Over the next few days I reflected on the above mentioned night and the deep meaning of mercy. And then it hit me: for months the words mercy seat had been patiently waiting their turn at the top of my “blog idea list.” What perfect timing. For not only is mercy comprised of acts of kindness, but it is also defined as “compassion or forgiveness toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” In short, it is not receiving what is justly deserved. Every soul is in need of mercy because all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23); and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Our only hope is in the kindness of a Savior.
Amazingly, we see a glimpse of this hope in the months following the exodus- that glorious deliverance of the Israelites from 400 years of Egyptian slavery. Yet, this was only the beginning of their story. Imagine, even after centuries of slavery, what the Israelites really needed was a better deliverance; for they, like us, needed forgiveness of sin, and reconciliation with their Creator. To this end, God instructed them in the ways of sacrifice and offerings. This was an elaborate- yet necessary- system which required the blood of animals. Necessary, because as we learned in the Garden of Eden, sin separates us from God and results in spiritual death. And without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin (Hebrews 9:22).
If you would like to learn more about the sacrifices of the law, the book of Leviticus is an excellent read. But for now, I want to focus on two pivotal offerings: the sin offering, and the burnt offering.
The burnt offering was made by killing an animal from a herd or flock, such as a bull. In this act, the worshiper would place his hands on the victim’s head, symbolizing his identification with the animal. This gave full acknowledgment that the animal represented himself, and that he, the worshiper, was deserving of death. The animal’s substitute death (known as propitiation) satisfied God’s wrath. If you’re wondering about the necessity of God’s wrath, I think the following is a wonderful explanation:
“For God to maintain His justice, He must punish sin. To forgive at the expense of His just wrath would be inconsistent with His character; according to His holiness, those who have sinned must die.” (ligonier.org)
The animal became the substitute which covered the sinner from God’s holy wrath (this is known as atonement). This bloody ordeal was a beautiful gift of God’s mercy- for now fellowship was possible between God and His people.
Although the burnt offering satisfied the wrath of God, it did not purify the worshiper. Enter the sin offering. The sin offering is best thought of as a purification offering and was made by killing a young bull, ram, or goat. The blood from this sacrifice was used to purify the sanctuary so that the worshiper could stand in the presence of God. The sin offering was a sacrifice of expiation- the removal of sin’s pollution.
I briefly bring up these two sacrifices as a way to offer insight to what I really want to talk about- The Day of Atonement. This was a special day that happened once a year when atonement was made for all the sins of Israel. The day in which communion with God was renewed. This was done through both the sin and burnt offerings. On this day, a burnt offering would be made in which a ram would be sacrificed. Of note, this was a costly sacrifice because meat was a valuable commodity. Every part of the ram (except the skin) was consumed by the flames in the burnt offering. The ram represented Israel and was the propitiation for their sins.
The second part of the Day of Atonement was the sin offering. On this day, two male goats were utilized- one for sacrifice, whose blood would be spread on the mercy seat.
Ahhhh the mercy seat. This was the lid of the Ark of the Covenant and the place where God came to be seated among His people. Located in the Most Holy Place behind the curtain of the tabernacle, it was from here God’s mercy was dispensed to man through the blood of the atoning sacrifice. In Exodus 25:22 the mercy seat is described: “There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.” The mercy seat- where God met with His people, and where mercy flowed abundantly from the sacrificial blood.
In case you were wondering about the purpose of the second goat of the sin offering, don’t worry…I’m not about to leave you high and dry. It was perhaps twelve years ago when I first learned about these two goats, and I can still remember sitting in the pew and thinking, “How have I never known this? This is amazing!” The second goat made atonement through being a scapegoat. As the first goat, this goat also represented Israel and symbolically carried all of Israel’s sins. But this goat was not to be sacrificed- this goat was to be sent into the wilderness to signify that Israel’s sins had been removed. This goat brings tears to my eyes.
Can you see it all unfolding? Can you hear the bleets of the goats and the ram? Can you see the slaughter of these animals of propitiation and the bloody hands of the priest? Do you envision the blood dripping down from the mercy seat? Can you see the goat of expiation, running free in the wilderness symbolically carrying away the sin of God’s people? All of it was necessary. All of it was needed for atonement and restoration of a right relationship with God.
And just like the Israelites, we are in need of the same. But unlike the Israelites, we have something better; something that can purify our conscience. As amazing as the Old Covenant system of sacrifice was, the Day of Atonement and the significance of the mercy seat was only a shadow- a mere copy- of what was to come…