Going inside the Tabernacle through the curtains is only allowed if you are a priest from the tribe of Levi. The priests assume the duties inside the first room called the Holy Place. We will examine those duties as we observe and inspect each of the furnishings.
The Holy Place
The Holy Place was the first room of the Tabernacle sometimes referred to as the "Golden Room." It was 22.5 feet high by 22.5 feet wide and 45 feet long. Unlike the outer court furnishings made of brass and which dealt with washings, judgment and death, the Holy Place was about life, food, and incense.
Passing through the curtain, we notice three important pieces of furniture. The Table of Showbread, the Golden Lampstand, and the Altar of Incense.
The Table of Showbread
On the north or right side of the Holy Place was the Table of showbread. It was sometimes referred to as the "Shewbread" or "Bread of Presence." Interestingly, it is the first mention of the word "table" in the Bible. It stood for "communication" and "fellowship." The showbread was to be shared among the priests linking food, communication, and fellowship which drew the priests closer to each other, their devotions as well as their duties to the tabernacle. Christ became fully man to become "living bread."
Again, we find acacia wood as the base material, but this time the table is covered with pure gold, not bronze or brass. All of the furniture in the Holy Place is covered with gold, a material worthy of the King of Creation.
The table of showbread was three feet long by one and a half feet wide by two and a quarter feet high. It was about the size of a coffee table. The table had a border, called a crown, around the table's top. Crowns were associated with the power and authority of a king to rule. It helped transporting the showbread. The table was made of acacia wood and gold covered poles, which remained attached to the table. During transport, the table was hidden with a blue cloth which represented heavenly things.
The crown was measured in handbreadths instead of cubits. It was about six inches high and the only measurement in the tabernacle not in cubits. It enclosed 12 loaves of showbread which represented the 12 tribes of Israel. Again, we must rely on the various artists' renditions of the table of showbread as well as the showbread itself.
No one knows the exact shape of the loaves of the Presence, or the showbread. Some scholars believe that the bread might have been artistic as were other tabernacle furnishings.
As to the shape of the showbread: rabbinical writings suggest the loaves were works of art:
- Two-sided box
- Upper flaps pushed
- A narrow hull
- Sides rising straight
These were alternate shapes in addition to the traditional flat cakes or loaves (called common bread).
Leviticus 24:5-9 lists the recipe and instructions concerning the "Bread of Presence" – cakes or loaves baked of fine flour, about 18.5 cups per loaf. Sifted at least twice or more with no imperfections or lumps, representing divine perfection.
Showbread means "bread of the face" as these were set out before the "Face of God" in front of the Holy of Holies. (Exodus 25:30: and you shall set the showbread on the table before me always.") The table was in the Holy Place – while God occupied the Holy of Holies. Its loaves were hallowed because God sanctified (set them apart) as mentioned in I Samuel 21:6. In the New Testament, Jesus referred to himself as the "Living Bread."
The 12 loaves were shared by the priests and the High Priest after they were replaced each Sabbath. Every seven days symbolized complete perfection. God created everything in seven days, including a day in which He ceased to create.
Rabbinical writings claimed that this bread was just as fresh and warm as it was when it was placed on the table seven days prior. The loaves were then divided with the High Priest getting five loaves and the remaining loaves going to the Levites serving in Tabernacle duties that week.
They were to eat them in the Holy Place. It was a communion time with God. Eating a meal in God's house reminded them that God was in fellowship and at peace with His people. A shadow of Christians and the Lord's Supper.
Frankincense was placed on each stack of showbread. Frankincense was an aromatic resin used in incense and perfumes. Symbolizing equality, each stack of bread was to be exactly the same size and weight. The estimated weight of the cakes (showbread) was 1 pound.
The Talmud said the loaves had to be baked and the priests were to arrange them in two stacks of six loaves each, corresponding to the 12 tribes of Israel. They were to place them on the table while still hot and fresh. It was against the Law to bake bread on the Sabbath since it was considered work. So, they had to bake the showbread before 6 am on Saturday which was the beginning of the Hebrew day.
Pure frankincense was placed on each stack of bread. It was used as a sweet perfume to please God. Each stack was to be exactly the same size and weight demonstrating God's impartiality in regard to the 12 tribes.
There were four vessels on the Table of Showbread:
- Dishes (bread plates)
- Pans or spoons (to sprinkle the frankincense)
- Pitchers (for liquid offerings)
- Bowls (to hold frankincense)
Jesus became the "showbread" for Christians. We are allowed to feast on the "true bread" from heaven... God's Word!
"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst."
- John 6:35
"I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."
- John 6:51
The Golden Lampstand
God commanded that the Golden Lampstand was to be placed on the south side of the Holy Place. It is no coincidence that the Hebrew word for south means "bright and radiant". Across from the table of showbread, (the bright and radiant side) stood the source of light inside the Holy Place. It shined the light on the ceiling and on the veil which led to the Holy of Holies. This would always be a reminder to the Israelites that there was still a separation between man and God.
There were three types of light in the tabernacle complex: in the courtyard, natural light, the sun, furnished all the outside illumination. Inside the tabernacle, exclusively in the Holy Place, the inward light was provided by the Golden Lampstand. Finally, in the Holy of Holies where God dwelt, was "His Glory" – the divine light of God. It even had its own name: the Shekinah.
John described the Shekinah in his vision while in exile on the Isle of Patmos:
But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city had no need of the sun or moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it and the Lamb is its light.
- Revelation 21:22-23
The Golden Lampstand was a necessary, special, and very important part of the tabernacle furnishings. Besides the Ark of the Covenant, it is probably the most recognizable piece in the tabernacle complex. It is sometimes referred to as the golden candlestick or a candelabrum. Both names, though, are incorrect... candles were not invented until about 200 BC. The correct name is the Hebrew word "Menorah" which means "light bearer". It is still used today in Hebrew ceremonies and on feast days like "Hanukkah" the Festival of Lights.
The shedding of light from the Lampstand was to:
- "Shed light in front" – on itself thus displaying its beauty and its reflection from the golden boards (Exodus 25:37).
- "Shedding light on the table of showbread" – making visible the ornateness and craftsmanship of God's design and His empowering of the Hebrew builders (Exodus 26:35).
- "Shedding light before the Lord" – the light was continually shining on God's presence, reminding us of His continuing concern for all His people, at all times (Exodus 40:25).
The Golden Lampstand was a very valuable light. It was to be made from a single block of pure gold. The gold was to weigh one talent (75 to 100 pounds) depending on the research sources.
At the time of this writing, gold was trading at about $1,900 per ounce. In today's value, this would be approximately $30,400 a pound which means that it would be worth over $3 million dollars.
It was not to be cast from a mold but formed by the divinely guided hands of the Hebrew artists thus making it more valuable and precious than any dollar amount.
The Golden Lampstand and all its artwork: the shaft, the branches, the bowels, knops and flowers were to be "beaten." Scholars are still amazed at the skill required to hammer and form this piece out of one single block of gold. The symbolic analogy points to Christ – beating and hammering of nails at the cross, and still coming out as perfection.
The utensils used to "dress" the lamp were also to be "beaten" out of gold. To keep the lamp burning from evening until sunrise needed special tools. They were used exclusively by the High Priest to attend and maintain the lampstand (Leviticus 24:1-4). The specified tools were the gold pitcher, golden tongs and the snuff-dishes or censors.
We know nothing of the lamp's true dimensions except for its weight and appearance. Jewish tradition assigns it a height of about five feet and a width of about three and a half feet. We see an artistic rendition of it in the carving on the Arch of Titus in Rome which details the sacking of the temple in 70 AD. God did specify how He wished His lamp to be made.
What did the Golden Lampstand look like?
There was the shaft, this was the center column of the Lampstand. Attached to the shaft were the branches, three on each side. (Keep in mind this is made from one piece with no seams, only one continuous part). Six branches and the shaft, each containing a bowl for oil. The connection between Jesus and the Lampstand is obvious.
"I am the vine and ye are the branches."
- John 15:5
Why six branches?
Six in the Hebrew number system stood for "man" and the center shaft made the lamp complete. The number seven represented completion or perfection which referred to Jesus. Jesus said He was the "light of the world" (John 8:12). The Lampstand brought light into the darkness and so did the Christ (John 1:4-5).
The decorations on the Lampstand were: bowls or calyx; knops or buds and flower or cups. The bowls were patterned after an open almond flower. Almonds were the first things to bloom in the spring and to the Hebrews it meant "the awakening." An almond branch settled the people's mutiny against Moses and Aaron in Numbers 17. God caused Aaron's rod to bloom, flower and to produce almonds to show God's approval of Aaron to be High Priest.
The 33 bowls, the ends of the branches each contained about nine ounces of pure olive oil and a wick. The High Priest would trim the wicks and add more oil so the lamps would not go out. It may or may not be true but tradition claims that the wicks were made from the old robes of the priests. There was a particular routine in lighting and trimming of the bowls. This was in conjunction with the morning sacrifice.
The first light to be lit was the Shamash. It was the center lamp on the stem. The rest were lit from right to left. Fire from the altar of sacrifice, carried in a censor was used to light the Shamash and the other bowls were lit from the fire of the Shamash.
The Altar of Incense
The last piece of furniture in the Holy Place was the Golden Altar, or the Altar of Incense. This is not to be confused with the Altar of Sacrifice which was located in the outer court. It was built like the showbread table out of acacia wood and covered in gold. It was one cubit square by two cubits high, that is 18 inches square and three feet in height.
Its top ledge was a crown of gold and a gold horn on each corner. It was located in front and close to the veil (the final curtain). It was as close to God as anyone was allowed to be, with the exception of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. The smoke from incense was to provide a special, sweet smell rising to God. David asked for his prayers to be set before God as incense. Later, it was symbolized in the prayers of the saints rising to God (Revelation 5:8).
The priest would bring fire from the sacrificial altar in a censor to burn the incense inside the Holy Place. No other fire was ever allowed to be kindled. It always had to come from the bronze altar because God miraculously and originally lit the first fire in the sacrificial altar (Leviticus 9:24). Remember, the fire was to be perpetual, never to be extinguished. Offering the wrong fire cost the lives of Aaron's two sons, Nadab and Abihu who offered "strange fire."
God provided a special blend of incense, specifying its exact ingredients. There were three rich and rare spices, not identifiable today. These were mixed with frankincense, beaten into a fine powder and then salt was added. God commanded that no other incense was to be burned on the altar and only this incense be burned on the golden altar. Violation of any part of this ritual was punishable by death. This special blend of incense was not to be used privately by the Hebrew people. Violators would be "cut off" from the Israelite nation.
Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would bring blood from the sacrificial altar to the altar of incense. He would then apply it to the horns of the altar to cleanse it. It was also used on the "mercy seat" but more about that in our next lesson: the Holy of Holies.