The ark of the covenant
Exodus 25:10-22 describes the construction of the ark of the covenant. The Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, during which time the ark was carried from place to place. After they entered the promised land the tabernacle was set up at Shiloh and the ark remained there for many years. King David eventually brought it to Jerusalem. When King Solomon built the temple the ark was placed in it.
Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the Most Holy Place, underneath the wings of the cherubim. (2 Chronicles 5:7)
The king and the people probably thought the ark had found a permanent resting place and the days of its being carried from place to place were over. That turned out not to be the case. Here is an incident that took place during the reign of King Josiah.
Josiah kept a Passover to the LORD in Jerusalem. And they slaughtered the Passover lamb on the fourteenth day of the first month. He appointed the priests to their offices and encouraged them in the service of the house of the LORD. And he said to the Levites who taught all Israel and who were holy to the LORD, “Put the holy ark in the house that Solomon the son of David, king of Israel, built. You need not carry it on your shoulders. Now serve the LORD your God and his people Israel.” (2 Chronicles 35:1-3)
He told the Levites that they should put the ark in the temple and that they no longer needed to carry it. How could this happen if the ark had been placed in the temple right after Solomon finished building it?
To find the answer we need to look at some of the things that happened between the reigns of Solomon and Josiah. During the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam, Shishak the king of Egypt invaded Jerusalem.
So Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem. He took away the treasures of the house of the LORD and the treasures of the king’s house. (2 Chronicles 12:9)
He took the treasures from the temple but apparently didn’t take the ark. This could only happen if the priests and Levites had removed the ark and hidden it. This happened several times. The latest invasion of the temple recorded before Josiah’s time was by his grandfather, King Manasseh.
And he built altars in the house of the LORD, of which the LORD had said, “In Jerusalem shall my name be forever.”And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the LORD. (2 Chronicles 33:4,5)
If the ark had been in the temple he would certainly have destroyed or desecrated it.
Manasseh’s son Amon followed his father’s example, so the ark must had still been hidden when Josiah became king. It was only after Josiah showed his faithfulness to God by restoring the true worship of him that the ark was brought out of hiding and returned to the temple.
After Josiah’s death the ark had to again be hidden to protect if from Nebuchadnezzar.
Nebuchadnezzar also carried part of the vessels of the house of the LORD to Babylon and put them in his palace in Babylon. (2 Chronicles 36:7)
Judah was conquered by the Babylonians and experience a 70 year exile from their land. The Persians conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to their land. The account of their return is found in Ezra and Nehemiah. The ark is never mentioned in these books. In 63 BC the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem and enter the Holy of Holies where the ark was supposed to reside and found the room empty. Evidently during the time of exile those who knew where the ark was hidden died and failed to pass on this information to their successors.
There has been much speculation about the location of the ark but no one knows were it is. This might not be a bad thing. Consider the purpose of the ark.
There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel. (Exodus 25:22)
It was the place where God met with his people to communicate his will to them. The death and resurrection of Jesus has opened up a new means of access to God. When Jesus died the curtain in the temple was torn in two to signify that new access. At Pentecost all believers received the baptism of the Holy Spirit to enable them to keep in contact with God. The ark is no longer needed.
What would happen if the ark were found? The most likely result would be that people would focus their attention on the ark rather than on the God who ordered it made. There is a precedence for this in Jewish history.
And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.”
Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.”
So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”
So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:5-9)
Looking at the bronze serpent to be healed of being bitten by the fiery serpents symbolized being saved from sin by faith in Jesus Christ. Later generations stopped looking at the serpent as a way of showing faith in God and began seeing the serpent itself as being a god.
Hezekiah removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). (2 Kings 18:4)
The serpent had become a god to the people and needed to be destroyed. The same thing would probably be true of the ark if it were found.