When Moses was up in the mountain communing with God during the Exodus, God gave him detailed directions for the structure that should be the centre of the people’s worship. He was to build a long tent, or tabernacle. The inside was of gold and beautiful tapestry, the outside was a drab, waterproof covering.
At one end, separated from the rest by a thick woven curtain, was the ark of the covenant with the mercy seat above it. To an onlooker, the tent would not have been particularly noteworthy, except for the Shekinah, the glory of God in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that always stood above the mercy seat.
This tabernacle was of central importance to the people during their time in the wilderness, during the conquest of Canaan and throughout the time of the judges.
Then came the time when the ark was removed from the tabernacle and taken into battle against the Philistines. The Philistines were victorious in the battle, to the point of capturing the ark. Eli, the high priest and spiritual leader of the Israelites, died upon hearing this news. At this point the worship of the Israelite people took a turn for which no recorded instruction had ever been given.
Eli’s place as spiritual leader was taken by Samuel, who was not of the priestly lineage. The ark was returned to Israel, but never put back in place in the tabernacle. Samuel went from place to place throughout the land to offer sacrifices and teach the people.
Samuel was a true prophet and spiritual leader, but as he grew old and had no obvious successor, the people began to call for a king. God granted their wish and Saul became king. Things soon went bad with Saul and God sent Samuel to anoint David to be king.
When David became king over all Israel and had conquered mount Zion, he decided to build a new tabernacle. He brought the ark and placed it in the tabernacle he had built, with no curtain to separate it from the people. The first time David tried to bring the ark to his new tabernacle, God smote Uzzah for trying to steady the ark, showing that the ark still denoted the presence of God. The second time was successful. David put on priestly garments of linen and an ephod and offered sacrifices to sanctify the tabernacle.
This is the only time that sacrifices were offered at the tabernacle of David. Thereafter it was a place of worship, where prayers were made, psalms sung and possibly the Word of God was read. Jehoshaphat is called the recorder, a word whose meaning might also mean one who causes to remember.
Here we see David acting as prophet, priest and king. Many of the Psalms are prophetic, he is called a prophet in Acts 2:30. We read in 1 Chronicles 16:39-40 that the tabernacle of Moses still stood at this time, located at Gibeon, and Zadok the high priest was still offering the sacrifices called for in the law. But since the mercy seat was no longer in the tabernacle of Moses, they were just going through the motions. The mercy seat was in the tabernacle of David.
This strange anomaly in the Israelite worship came to an end when Solomon built the temple and installed the ark in the holy of holies in the temple.
In later years prophets reminded the people of the tabernacle of David. Isaiah 16:5 says: “And in mercy shall the throne be established: and he shall sit upon it in truth in the tabernacle of David, judging, and seeking judgment, and hasting righteousness.” Chapter 32:20 says: “ Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities: thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down; not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken.” Amos 9:11-12 says: “ In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old: that they may possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen, which are called by my name, saith the LORD that doeth this.”
We can interpret the references to Zion as referring to Jerusalem and the temple mount, and the references to the tabernacle of David as prophesying the restoration of the Davidic kingdom in Christ. Many people do.
But the parallels are too striking. David as prophet, priest and king sanctified the tabernacle with a one time sacrifice. A new form of worship, completely separate from the tabernacle of Moses. Access to the mercy seat without a veil between it and the worshippers.
Isn’t this what the leaders of the early church recognized at the meeting in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15? James quoted the passage from Amos and recognized it as a prophecy of what was then happening. The tabernacle of David had been restored, a place where all people, including the Gentiles, could freely worship God without having to approach Him by means of the Jewish form. Just as the tabernacle of Moses was empty in the time of David, the worship in the Jerusalem temple was now empty after the one time sacrifice made by Jesus, the true son of David and our eternal prophet, priest and king.