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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Mercy-Seat

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(ἱλαστήριον, propitiatorium)

The mercy-seat was the cover of the Ark (q.v. [Note: .v. quod vide, which see.] ) of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. It was sprinkled with the blood of the victim slain on the annual Day of Atonement (Hebrews 9:5). ‘Mercy-seat’ is admitted on all hands to be an imperfect translation of the Greek word, being rather, like Luther’s Gnadenstuhl, equivalent to θρόνος τῆς χάριτος (Hebrews 4:16). It is also frequently contended that ἱλαστήριον, which is the Septuagint rendering of כַּפֹּרָת, is itself a mistake. In the view of Rashi and Kimchi, followed by many Christian scholars, the Heb. word means no more than a literal ‘covering’ (so Revised Version margin in Exodus 25:17, etc.). Ritschl maintains that in both the OT and the NT ἱλαστήριον designates ‘the piece of furniture over the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies’ (Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung3, ii. [1889] 168). Nowack (Heb. Archäologie, 1894, ii. 60 f.) also gives the word a material sense, regarding it, however, as denoting a kind of penthouse (Schutzdach, Deckplatte) for the ark. But the analogy of the Arabic kaffârat seems to justify Lagarde (and many others) in holding (1) that the Septuagint has rendered the original quite accurately, and (2) that ἱλαστήριον means ‘the propitiating thing,’ or ‘the propitiatory gift.’ Wherever the word is used by Philo (de Vit. Mos. iii. 8, de Profug. 19, de Cherub. 8, etc.) this is the meaning indicated by the context, and recently discovered inscriptions (W. R. Paton and E. L. Hicks, The Inscriptions of Cos, 1891) prove that ἱλαστήριον ordinarily bore this sense in the early Imperial period (cf. Dio Chrysostom, Or. xi. 355 [Reiske]).

With such a connotation the word lies at the heart of St. Paul’s gospel (Romans 3:25). When he depicts Christ Jesus as set forth to be a ἱλαστήριον (or his word may be an adj., ἱλαστήριος), it is scarcely possible that he conceives the Messiah as a ‘mercy-seat,’ or ‘covering of the ark,’ sprinkled with blood-His own blood. The figure is inappropriate and unintelligible. But the Apostle’s thought is at once apparent and impressive if he represents Christ as a Propitiatory. The exact shade of meaning which may thereafter be detected in the word-whether ‘the means of propitiating,’ or ‘the propitiatory gift,’ or ‘the propitiatory One’-is of less importance. What is essential is the large and luminous idea of atonement. The Pauline teaching and the Johannine are here in agreement, each emphasizing the same central thought. Christ as the ἱλαστήριον (propitiatory) is the ἱλασμός (propitiation) for our sins (1 John 2:2).

Literature.-P. de Lagarde, Uebersicht über die im Aram., Arab. und Heb. übliche Bildung der Nomina, Göttingen, 1889; H. Cremer, Bibl.-theol. Wörterbuch8, Gotha, 1895, p. 474 ff.; G. A. Deissmann, Bible Studies, Eng. translation , 1901, p. 124 ff., also article in Encyclopaedia Biblica .

James Strahan.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Mercy-Seat'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/m/mercy-seat.html. 1906-1918.

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