Q: #563. Did God's presence still dwell in the Holy of Holies when the curtain was torn at Jesus' death (Mt 27:50-51)?
A: In the Old Testament, within both God Tabernacle, and later His Temple were two rooms: the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. These two rooms were separated by a large, thick veil (description in Ex 26:31, 2 Chr 3:14).
Within the Holy of Holies was placed the most sacred object: the Ark of the Covenant (description in Ex 25:10-22, Ex 37:1-9). The Ark of the Covenant contained (at least at one point) the two tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were written, a pot of Manna, and Aaron’s rod which had budded (Heb 9:4). The Ark was a symbol of God’s presence.
Entry into the Holy of Holies was forbidden by God, except for once a year, when the High Priest was allowed into it on the Day of Atonement to make atonement for the sins of the people (Lev Ch. 16). God warned that anyone who entered at any other time would be killed (Lev 16:2,13).
Now, having explained this, let’s get to the question. I believe the key to answering this is two things: the “Ark of the Covenant,” and the “glory of the Lord.” Looking at the construction of the Tabernacle, we see that when it was completed, and all of the furnishings were placed within the Holy Place, and the Ark of the Covenant was placed into the Holy of Holies (Ex 40:1-33), that the “glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle” (Ex 40:34-35). This was a visible sign to the Israelites of God’s presence within the Tabernacle.
Later, we see this same thing occurring when Solomon built the Temple. When construction of the Temple was completed (in 957 B.C.), and all of the furnishings were placed within the Holy Place, and the Ark of the Covenant was placed into the Holy of Holies (1 Kin 8:1-9), we see that the “glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (1 Kin 8:10-11)(also see: 2 Chr Ch. 5, 2 Chr 7:1-3).
In both the Tabernacle, and the Temple, the “glory of the Lord” filling them was a sign of God’s “presence” within them. However, it is clear from Scripture that shortly after both of these appearances, the “glory of the Lord” (God’s presence) withdrew from the “whole” Tabernacle/Temple (the Holy Place and The Holy of Holies), and moved to the Holy of Holies alone. We know this because: #1. the priests ministered in the Holy Place daily (Heb 9:6-7), and if the “glory of the Lord” had remained in the “Holy Place,” they could not have done so, and #2. Scripture tells us that this is the case (Lev 16:2)(Ex 25:21-22)(Heb 6:19).
I also need to add here that in (Lev 16:2)(Ex 25:21-22), God’s “glory” (presence) within the Holy of Holies is tied to the “Ark of the Covenant” (the “Mercy Seat,” which was the cover of the Ark). (Lev 16:2) “I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat” / (Ex 25:21-22) “And thou shalt put the mercy seat upon the ark…. and there I will meet with thee.”
We also see “God’s glory” tied to the “Ark” in the book of 1 Samuel Chapter 4, when the Ark was briefly captured by the Philistines after the Israelites went to war with them. After losing this war, and the Ark of the Covenant, the wife of Phinehas, whose husband was killed in the war, gave birth and said the following: “And she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father in law and her husband. (22) And she said, The glory is departed from Israel: for the ark of God is taken” (1 Sam 4:21-22).
The “glory of the Lord,” and the “Ark of the Covenant,” (both symbolizing God’s presence) remained in the Temple for many years after this. However, we are told in Ezekiel Chapters 10 & 11 that because of the sins of the Israelites, God removed “His glory” from the Holy of Holies. (For more specific verses see: Ezek 9:3, Ezek 10:1-4, 18-19, Ezek 11:22-23.) Shortly after this, in 586 B.C., the Babylonians captured Jerusalem, and totally destroyed the Temple.
Seventy years later, in 516 B.C., the Israelites were allowed to return to Jerusalem, and construction began on a new Temple (the 2nd Temple) (seen in the Book of Ezra). This new Temple (not nearly as big or ornate as Solomon’s Temple) had the same two rooms: the “Holy Place,” and the “Holy of Holies,” but two things were missing from the 2nd Temple:
#1. The Ark of the Covenant (a sign of God’s presence) was not in the Holy of Holies.
***Note: No one knows what happened to the Ark of the Covenant after the Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s Temple (I discuss what might have happened to it here.) The last place we see it mentioned is in (2 Chr 35:1-3).
#2. The “glory of the Lord” is never shown to have filled it, and as “the glory” was tied to the “Ark of the Covenant” in the Holy of Holies, God’s glory (a sign of God’s presence) was not in the Holy of Holies. From all I can gather, the Holy of Holies was simply a “dark, empty room.” (Wikipedia [no source mentioned] says that “a portion of the floor was raised slightly to indicate the place where it [the Ark of the Covenant] had stood.”)
The 2nd Temple was still in existence when Jesus came to earth (although Herod extensively enlarged and renovated it beginning in about 20 B.C.).
NOW, we come to the veil, which separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, being torn when Jesus died (see: Mt 27:50-51, Mk 15:38, Lk 23:45). We are told that the veil was torn from the top to the bottom, which opened the entrance to the Holy of Holies. There is great significance to this. As we mentioned above, no man could enter into the Holy of Holies, except for the High Priest, who entered into it once a year to make atonement for the sins of the people (Lev Ch. 16).
However, Jesus is now our High Priest, and He has entered into the Holy of Holies to make atonement for sins “once for all” (Heb 9:11-12). Because of this, all who belong to Jesus can now enter into the Holy of Holies (into God’s presence) (Heb 10:19-20).
So, back to the question, when the veil covering the entrance to the Holy of Holies was torn in half, there is no doubt that the Holy of Holies is meant to “signify” God’s presence, just as it did in the Old Testament in both the Tabernacle, and in the Temple. However, while “the room” may have been a “symbol” of God’s presence, since neither the “Ark of the Covenant,” nor the “glory of the Lord” are ever shown to be in the 2nd Temple, I believe it is clear that God’s presence was not in the Holy of Holies when the veil to the entrance torn.
(Mt 23:37-38) seems to confirm this, saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! (38) Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.”
In addition, while not in the Bible, some evidence to back this up may be found in historical writings, in particular the writings of Josephus, who says in two different writings that in about 63 B.C., “Pompey, and those that were about him, went into the temple itself whither it was not lawful for any to enter but the high priest…” (The Book Of Wars, Book 1, Chapter 7, verse 6) (Antiquities, Book 14, Chapter 4, Verse 4).
If this was the case, Pompey was not killed by God for doing so, which God said He would do to anyone who entered into the Holy of Holies, where His glory and presence were. (In other words, proof that God’s presence was not in the Holy of Holies in the 2nd Temple.) In addition, while after the time of Jesus, when the Temple was destroyed by Titus in 70 A.D., it is said that “Roman soldiers took down the curtain (which covered the entrance to the Holy of Holies) and used it to wrap therein golden vessels retrieved from the Temple” (Wikipedia). If true, those that did this did not immediately die either.
We are told in (Ezek 43:1-5), that in the end times, another Temple will be built, and the “glory of the Lord” will again fill it.
P.S. It should be noted that in a sense, since Jesus was/is God, whenever He was in the Temple while on earth, His “glory” (as God) was there (Jn 1:14)(Lk 9:32)(Mt 17:1-2)(Jn 17:5)(Heb 1:3). However, I don’t think this pertains to the question of whether or not God’s presence was in the Holy of Holies when the veil was torn. It is important to understand that the tearing of the veil symbolized that through Jesus’ death on the cross, and His shed blood, we have access to God the Father through Jesus. (Access to the Father = the Father was in the Holy of Holies [Heb 6:19-20]. It was the Father’s “glory” that was in the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament.)