The Mercy Seat

The Mercy Seat Was Where God Dealt With Sin

Priests bear the ark outside the walls of Jericho. Photo: Getty Images

The mercy seat in the wilderness tabernacle was the lid on the ark of the covenant, the place where the high priest sprinkled a blood offering to atone for Israel's sin.

After the Jews escaped from slavery in Egypt, God the Father set up a formal system of animal sacrifice to address the nation's sin problem.  God ruled that only blood could pay for sin, and while the common people brought offerings to the brazen altar, that was not enough.

Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, Aaron, the high priest entered the holy of holies.  Smoke from incense hid God's glory from the high priest's vision because no one may see God and live.  Aaron sprinkled the blood of a sacrificed goat and young bull on the mercy seat and on the ground in front of it while pleading with God to forgive the nation's transgressions.

The Three-Purpose Cover

The mercy seat was a slab of solid gold, 45 inches long by 27 inches wide.  It served as the lid for the ark of the covenant, which contained stone tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them, Aaron's staff, and a gold jar filled with manna.

Atop the mercy seat were two golden cherubim, winged angels which faced each other. Their wings were spread, shadowing the ark's lid.

The mercy seat was a symbol for God's throne, on which he sat and ruled Israel.  Besides serving as a physical cover for the ark, the lid and the blood sprinkled on it also "covered" or resolved Israel's sins.

  Its name in Hebrew, from the word "kaphar," was similar to the Hebrew word for "defense," since it served as a defense against God's wrath.

In addition, the mercy seat was a place where God spoke with the people:

There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites. (Exodus 25:22, NIV)

Once-For-All Mercy Through Christ

Again, this element in the desert tabernacle was a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ, who, through his sacrificial death on the cross, became a mercy seat, or propitiation where sins would be atoned for:

God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:25-26, NIV)

The old covenant, with its requirement for continual sacrifices, was replaced with Jesus' once-for-all sacrifice for sins.  Intercession by a human high priest is no longer needed.  People can go directly to Christ, believe in him and have their sins covered forever.  

Bible References to the Mercy Seat:

Most Bible translations use the term "atonement cover" instead of mercy seat.  The ESV refers to the mercy seat at Exodus 25:17-22, 26:34, 30:6, 31:7, 35:12, 37:6-9, 39:35, 40:20; Leviticus 16:2, 13-15; Numbers 7:89; 1 Chronicles 28:11, and Hebrews 9:5.

Also Known As:

Atonement cover, throne of grace, propitiatory cover.


The mercy seat was God's place to deal with Israel's sin.

(Sources:,, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Trent C. Butler, general editor; JFB, The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, R.K. Harrison, editor; Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, Robert Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, and David Brown)

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