What happened to the ark of the covenant?

This post is the third and last in reply to a series of questions asked by someone who’s reading through the book of Jeremiah. The first post, about whether Jeremiah was a protester, is here. The second post, about what Jeremiah was doing in Egypt, is here.

Q. What happened to the Ark of the Covenant when the temple got destroyed? Did Jeremiah have any role protecting it?

As I write this last post in response to your questions about the book of Jeremiah, let me commend you again for reading through the whole book thoughtfully and asking good questions about it. That’s exactly how we should be reading the Bible.

Contrary to what movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark would suggest, the ark of the covenant was almost certainly destroyed when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. It’s not “lost” and waiting to be discovered somewhere.

We can infer this with a high degree of certainty from the biblical text itself, because it actually lists for us what the Babylonians took out of the temple before they destroyed it. We’re told at the end of the book of Jeremiah, “The Babylonians broke up the bronze pillars, the movable stands and the bronze Sea that were at the temple of the Lord and they carried all the bronze to Babylon. They also took away the pots, shovels, wick trimmers, sprinkling bowls, dishes and all the bronze articles used in the temple service. The commander of the imperial guard took away the basins, censers, sprinkling bowls, pots, lampstands, dishes and bowls used for drink offerings—all that were made of pure gold or silver.

Later in the Bible we get an actual inventory of these articles, which “Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god.” This was the typical thing to do in the ancient world with articles taken from a conquered nation’s temple. They were displayed as trophies to show how much more powerful the conquering nation’s god was than the conquered nation’s god. (The Philistines followed a similar practice when they displayed Saul’s armor in the temple of their god after killing him in battle.) When the Persians conquered the Babylonians and allowed exiled peoples to return home, King Cyrus sent the articles from the Jerusalem temple back with the returning Judeans. There’s even a detailed inventory at the beginning of the book of Ezra: 30 gold bowls, 410 silver bowls, etc.

What’s significant is that there’s no mention of the ark of the covenant in any of these passages. The Babylonians probably understood that it was not meant to be a depiction of the God of the Israelites. If it had been, they would certainly have put it in their temple as a highest-value trophy. But they probably knew that the Israelites never had any idols representing Yahweh. Instead, the ark was a sacred object intended to represent his presence. As such, the Babylonians would not have put it in their own temple. Instead, they would have treated it as an object made of precious metal and cut it up or melted it down, the way they did the bronze objects. The Hebrew Scriptures don’t depict this destruction, probably out of reverence for the ark and its meaning.

But significantly, early in the book of Jeremiah, there’s a prophecy about the time when Israel will be restored and “all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honor the name of the Lord.” At that time,” Jeremiah says, “people will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made.” Jeremiah is foreseeing the time when God’s redemptive purposes will open up to include all nations. The ark will no longer be referenced, because it was a symbol of the “particular” phase in redemptive history, when God was reaching out to the whole world through one single nation. In the “universal” phase, God reaches out directly to all nations. (There’s a symbol of this in the book of Revelation when an angel declares, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,” and then “God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant.” The true ark is now in heaven, and it speaks of God’s redemption extending to all nations.)

So even if Jeremiah could have had some role in preventing the Babylonians from destroying the ark (which is unlikely, since Jeremiah was kept under guard by the Judeans until the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and set him free), he probably wouldn’t have tried to do so. That would have been working against his own prophecy!

Illuminated manuscript page from the Apocalypse of 1313 (Bibliothèque nationale de France) depicting “the temple opened in heaven” and the “great sign” that followed, of a woman and her child. The image does not show the ark within the temple as the book of Revelation describes, but perhaps that’s appropriate in light of this post, since Jeremiah said the ark wouldn’t be remembered or missed.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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