Running to the Mercy Seat

Hymnology: The Mercy Seat

I’m deviating a bit from the usual format today, to post an article I wrote several years ago about this song celebrating the tearing of the veil which kept sinful men from the presence of God.

Here’s a performance by the Prestonwood Baptist Church youth choir:

Song Study

The Mercy Seat, composed by Steve Richardson, Mark Carouthers and Jeff Harpole, and first popularized by Vicki Yohe, speaks of Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice as a replacement for the Old Testament sacrificial system. We learn about this in Hebrews 9, one of the most profound passages in the entire Bible. If we imagine someone who has lived their entire life in the Jewish sacrificial system who is hearing this passage for the first time, the shocking message would likely produce a response similar to what we find in the first verse.

In the darkness, where everything is unknown
I face the power of sin on my own
I did not know of a place I could go
Where I could find a way to heal my wounded soul.

He said that I could come into His presence without fear
Into the holy place where His mercy hovers near

Do we realize how amazing this Truth is? The Most High God allows us into His holy presence, even telling us we can approach without fear? Under the Levitical Law of the Old Covenant, God’s people were required to observe a complex sacrificial system in order to receive atonement for their sins. They understood that their God was Holy, and would not tolerate the presence of sin. They understood that, apart from God’s mercy, they would be held accountable for each of their sins, and that a Righteous Judge required a payment for sin that they could not possibly make.

Because of His love for His people, though, God made a way for their sins to be covered. He made a covenant with Israel that, though the penalty for sin is death, He would mercifully allow for the death of an innocent animal to temporarily atone for their sin. In Exodus 25, God tells Moses how to build the Ark of the Covenant, upon which was found the “Mercy Seat”. It was from this mercy seat that God would meet with the High Priest to communicate with His people. Below the seat — inside the Ark — were the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, which God would see and remember His promise to offer forgiveness for sins.

This mercy did not come easy or without cost. Most of the book of Exodus after chapter 25 (see also Lev. 16) details how the people of Israel were to transport and store the Ark, and the process by which the priests could make sacrifices on behalf of the people. The author of Hebrews summarized this in the first half of chapter 9. The Ark was held inside the tabernacle, which was a portable tent that the nomadic Jews carried with them wherever they went. The tabernacle had two rooms: the “Holy Place”, which contained the golden lampstand, the table for the bread of the Presence, and the alter of incense; and the “Most Holy Place”, which contained the Ark of the Covenant. These  rooms were separated by a veil. The basic design and elements of the tabernacle were re-created in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem which was still in operation during Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Levitical priests entered the Holy Place daily to perform their rituals, burning incense and making the daily sacrifices. Once per year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest was permitted to enter the presence of God in the Most Holy Place, in order to make a sacrifice for the sins of the Israelites. Even then, the High Priest could enter only after having made a sacrifice for his own purification. This was done with much fear, as God had said (and demonstrated) that if the priests varied in any way from the prescribed method, they would be killed instantly.

With this background in mind, can we imagine being told that suddenly God had opened the door so that everyone could enter into His very presence, at any time, without fear? Yet this is exactly what the second half of Hebrews 9 is saying! We are told that the tabernacle and all that was within it were earthly things which were but a foretaste of the Heavenly things to come. The Jewish priests were imperfect, but Jesus Christ is the perfect High Priest (Heb. 4:14-16). The tabernacle and the temple which were made by human hands were imperfect, but Jesus Christ has built a perfect temple in Heaven (Mk. 14:58). The old sacrifices were imperfect and their blood insufficient. They had to be repeated over and over. Jesus Christ’s sacrifice was perfect, and once for all atoned for sins with his own blood (Heb. 9:25-26). Through the mediation of the Jewish priests, God’s people had access to His presence once a year. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, God’s people now have access to His presence at all times (1 Tim. 2:5)!

Hebrews 9:16-20 tells us that every covenant required a death in order to take effect. God’s first covenant with his people was inaugurated by the sacrifices Moses made on behalf of the Israelites. Likewise, God’s new covenant was inaugurated by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Upon his death, the veil in the Jewish temple was torn in two — a sign to us that the old ways have been abolished and made unnecessary. No longer must anything stand between God’s presence and His people, save for Christ alone!

The Greek word which in the New Testament is translated several times as “propitiation” (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 Jn. 2:2; 1 Jn. 4:10) comes from the Hebrew word that is translated “mercy seat”. Jesus Christ, the propitiation for our sins, is literally our mercy seat! It is His grace that covers us. It is His blood that washes over our sins. It is He who takes our concerns before His Father, and it is He who will be our defender on the day of judgment. It is He who calls us, and it is to Him that we run! This is the Good News!

I’m running, I’m running, I’m running to the mercy seat
Where Jesus is calling; He said His grace would cover me
His blood will flow freely; it will provide the healing
I’m running to the mercy seat
I’m running to the mercy seat.

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