There was only a river between the Israelites and the Promised Land. But that river was in full flood mode, filling the whole valley and spreading beyond the banks. Joshua told the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant to march straight into the water and told the people to follow. It wasn’t until the priest’s feet touched the water that a path opened through the flood and that great mass of people crossed over on dry land. It was clear to all that God was leading, His Shekinah presence visible as a cloudy pillar above the mercy seat on the Ark.
A few days later, the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant were again on the march, walking around the fortified and walled city of Jericho, the people following silently behind. We know the story, once around the city for six days, seven times the seventh day, and the walls collapsed inwards. Once again it was evident that God was leading.
On both of these occasions, the people sanctified themselves before God led them in such miraculous fashion. Several generations later, the people were manifestly unsanctified, yet thought that if they took the Ark of the Covenant into battle against the Philistines God would surely give them the victory. This was a lapse into pagan thinking, that somehow they could manipulate their God into doing what they wanted.
It didn’t work. The Israelites were defeated and the Ark captured by the Philistines. Now the presence of God above the mercy seat was manifested: the statue representing the god of the Philistines toppled, breaking in pieces and wherever the Ark went the Philistine people suffered plagues. The Ark was returned to Israel in a manner clearly showing God was in control. His power was shown again in the deaths of the Israelites who presumed to open the Ark and look inside.
The Ark was removed from the tabernacle of Moses to be taken into battle against the Philistines and it never returned. Eli, the high priest died upon hearing of the capture of the Ark and his place as spiritual leader was taken by Samuel, who was not of Levitical or priestly lineage. All the time of Samuel’s ministry and through the reign of David, the Ark remained separated from the tabernacle of Moses.
When David captured Mount Zion and made it his home, he installed the Ark in a new tabernacle he built on Mount Zion. King David put on priestly robes and offered sacrifices to sanctify the new tabernacle. No other sacrifices were ever offered at the tabernacle of David. In their place, a form of worship was established that included songs, prayers and preaching (this is the true meaning of the word rendered “record” in the AV). Meanwhile, the high priest continued offering the daily sacrifices before the tabernacle of Moses located at Gibeah, a tabernacle that did not contain the Ark and the mercy seat.
Solomon built the temple on Mount Moriah, brought the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy of Holies and established the priests in their functions. It is notable in Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the temple that he included all mankind in the promise of salvation: “For they shall hear of thy great name, and of thy strong hand, and of thy stretched out arm” (1 Kings 8:42).
It is also notable that when the walls of Jerusalem were built, Mount Zion was outside those walls. Yet the memory of David’s tabernacle upon Mount Zion, where God dwelt above the mercy seat among His people without the sacrifices and rituals of the law, thrilled the heart of the prophets. “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” (Isaiah 33:20). “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” (Amos 9:11-12).
Many years later, the followers of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem, in the shadow of the temple, to consider whether Gentile believers needed to be circumcised and follow all the laws given to Israel. James, the brother of our Lord, recalled those prophecies and saw their fulfilment in the salvation of the Gentiles and came to this conclusion: “Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, after this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: that the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God” (Acts 15: 14-19).