Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Exodus 40:1 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
2 “On the first day of the first month you shall erect the tabernacle of the tent of meeting.
3 And you shall put in it the ark of the testimony, and you shall screen the ark with the veil.
There are two Hebrew words that get translated as “tabernacle.” One could be rendered “tent” and the other could be rendered “dwelling place.” God’s people are being given instructions for setting up and furnishing God’s visible place of dwelling among them.
A tendency to turn the OT into a series of symbolic pictures is largely misguided. We ought instead to read it for its plain meaning and see what the record of God working in the lives of and revealing Himself to real people tells us about ourselves and our real relationship to Him. But the Jewish worship practices, the sacrifices, the articles of the tabernacle (and temple) are things that the book of Hebrews tells us do amount to shadows and pictures of the reality in Jesus. God dwells with His people Israel in the tabernacle. It’s a picture of His presence with the church, God’s dwelling place on earth through His Son.
The ark of the covenant, the ark of testimony, was the specific localized place where God’s presence was specially to be with the Israelites, between the two cherubim that covered it. God’s Holy awesome presence was shielded by the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place. The Holy of Holies was entered only once per year by the high priest on the day of atonement to roll back sin. Hebrews tells us that Jesus has done that work permanently. And the curtain was torn in two from top to bottom on Good Friday. We’re no longer separated from the most intimate presence of a Holy God.
4 And you shall bring in the table and arrange it, and you shall bring in the lampstand and set up its lamps.
The table and the shewbread were to be brought in. This was a reminder, in a loaf per tribe, that they were always in the presence of God.
The lampstand was brought in. There’s light in the tabernacle, not light coming into it, but rather light from within it. John tells us that Jesus is the light of the world. If we are going to find our way to the presence of God, it will only be possible as He provides His light for us.
5 And you shall put the golden altar for incense before the ark of the testimony, and set up the screen for the door of the tabernacle.
Here in the Holy place stands a small gold altar of incense before the curtain that separates the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. Rev 5:8 refers to the prayers of God’s saints as incense.
6 You shall set the altar of burnt offering before the door of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting,
In front of the tabernacle stood the large bronze altar, on which were burned the carcasses of animals sacrificed for the sins of the people. The way into the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies was past this altar. There was one way in, and that way involved blood sacrifice.
7 and place the basin between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it.
This is the brass basin made from the freewill offering of the brass mirrors of the Israelite women. It was there for the washing of the priests before they entered the Holy place. It was serious business to be ceremonially clean before entering the presence of God.
8 And you shall set up the court all around, and hang up the screen for the gate of the court.
Around the tabernacle was a large courtyard created by a high fence made of fabric. The presence of God was among the people, but it wasn’t ordinary. Kids playing soccer didn’t just go running by the altar of burnt offering and kick dust on it. Guys haggling over the price of a goat didn’t do it at the front door of the Holy Place. The courtyard created a buffer and guaranteed a solemn, reverent atmosphere.
9 “Then you shall take the anointing oil and anoint the tabernacle and all that is in it, and consecrate it and all its furniture, so that it may become holy.
It will be holy. It will be special. It will be set apart. Two things come to mind about this passage. For one, this was and is serious business. The worship of God is an awesome privilege and ought to be approached reverently. Secondly, in this passage it is God who is prescribing how things are to be in and around the tabernacle. Consider the extent to which post-moderns fail to see the church in this same light. In the post-modern mind, is the church our playground, that we order to suit our whims and current human fashions? Or is it truly God’s creation and property? These folks aren’t saying “Why don’t we make such and such an innovation?”
10 You shall also anoint the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and consecrate the altar, so that the altar may become most holy.
11 You shall also anoint the basin and its stand, and consecrate it.
12 Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting and shall wash them with water
13 and put on Aaron the holy garments. And you shall anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve me as priest.
14 You shall bring his sons also and put coats on them,
15 and anoint them, as you anointed their father, that they may serve me as priests. And their anointing shall admit them to a perpetual priesthood throughout their generations.”
16 This Moses did; according to all that the LORD commanded him, so he did.
All of these things, objects and people were to be specially set apart to God, and this Moses did. He did exactly what he was instructed to do, recognizing the kingship of Him who instructed Him.
17 In the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month, the tabernacle was erected.
18 Moses erected the tabernacle. He laid its bases, and set up its frames, and put in its poles, and raised up its pillars.
19 And he spread the tent over the tabernacle and put the covering of the tent over it, as the LORD had commanded Moses.
20 He took the testimony and put it into the ark, and put the poles on the ark and set the mercy seat above on the ark.
21 And he brought the ark into the tabernacle and set up the veil of the screen, and screened the ark of the testimony, as the LORD had commanded Moses.
22 He put the table in the tent of meeting, on the north side of the tabernacle, outside the veil,
23 and arranged the bread on it before the LORD, as the LORD had commanded Moses.
24 He put the lampstand in the tent of meeting, opposite the table on the south side of the tabernacle,
25 and set up the lamps before the LORD, as the LORD had commanded Moses.
26 He put the golden altar in the tent of meeting before the veil,
27 and burned fragrant incense on it, as the LORD had commanded Moses.
28 He put in place the screen for the door of the tabernacle.
29 And he set the altar of burnt offering at the entrance of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, and offered on it the burnt offering and the grain offering, as the LORD had commanded Moses.
30 He set the basin between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it for washing,
31 with which Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet.
32 When they went into the tent of meeting, and when they approached the altar, they washed, as the LORD commanded Moses.
33 And he erected the court around the tabernacle and the altar, and set up the screen of the gate of the court. So Moses finished the work.
There is simply nothing left undone here. Moses was meticulous in following the direction of the LORD, and now follows the reality of which verse 9 was the foreshadowing. God anoints the tabernacle with His real presence.
34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
The cloud and the glory filled the temple. Here is the visible sign of the presence of God. It first appeared to lead the people as they marched out of Egypt, but hasn’t been seen by them since Sinai in Chapter 24. To this point it’s been in front of them, or behind them, or it’s been on the mountain. But now here it is, in the very center of the camp, on and in the tabernacle. God’s visible presence is with His people. The English “shekinah glory” is built on two Hebrew words, “shakan” that means “to dwell” and a shortened form of God’s personal name “Yahweh” (shakan-yah).
This is no light thing. This is the Creator of the universe present among His people that He has chosen. And not surprisingly, this is overpowering.
35 And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
Any human being with any sense, with any kind of realistic grip on the fact that he is but a creature and a sinful one at that, should have no trouble understanding this verse. Even Moses, the one God had chosen to lead this people, can’t presume to go waltzing into the presence of the Almighty uninvited. Kidner put it this way, “The LORD is sovereignly in charge of His own front door. He makes what arrangements He chooses as the conditions of entrance.”
36 Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out.
37 But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up.
The cloud not only shows God’s presence, but provides guidance for the Israelites. And guidance can’t get much plainer than this. Obedience couldn’t be much more clear-cut and in some sense “easy.” There is the visible presence of God. When He goes go, and when He stays stay. They were to be at His disposal. We tell ourselves that we wish it was that “easy” for us. But in so doing, we forget that in and of ourselves, we’re every bit as wayward as this people. And as soon as Numbers 11, they’re complaining about the hardships and the food, and by Numbers 13 they’re refusing to go into the promised land. But for the time being, they are obedient.
We speak much of looking for the LORD’s guidance. Kidner rightly noted ” … ‘guidance’ was not something they looked for but something they waited for.”
38 For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.
God’s presence is cloud by day and fire by night. In the day, the LORD is a shield from the withering desert sun. By night, He’s warmth and light against the dark cold wilderness night. He is that for His people in all times and places.