The Table of Shewbread
Dr. Joe Temple

Introduction

Open your Bibles, please, to the book of Exodus, chapter 25:

Exodus 25

23Thou shalt also make a table of shittim wood: two cubits shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof.
24And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, and make thereto a crown of gold round about.
25And thou shalt make unto it a border of an hand breadth round about, and thou shalt make a golden crown to the border thereof round about.
26And thou shalt make for it four rings of gold, and put the rings in the four corners that are on the four feet thereof.
27Over against the border shall the rings be for places of the staves to bear the table.
28And thou shalt make the staves of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold, that the table may be borne with them.
29And thou shalt make the dishes thereof, and spoons thereof, and covers thereof, and bowls thereof, to cover withal: of pure gold shalt thou make them.
30And thou shalt set upon the table shewbread before me alway.

Then will you turn, please, to the book of Leviticus, chapter 24, verse 5:

Leviticus 24

5And thou shalt take fine flour, and bake twelve cakes thereof: two tenth deals shall be in one cake.
6And thou shalt set them in two rows, six on a row, upon the pure table before the LORD.
7And thou shalt put pure frankincense upon each row, that it may be on the bread for a memorial, even an offering made by fire unto the LORD.
8Every sabbath he shall set it in order before the LORD continually, being taken from the children of Israel by an everlasting covenant.
9And it shall be Aaron's and his sons'; and they shall eat it in the holy place: for it is most holy unto him of the offerings of the LORD made by fire by a perpetual statute.

This passage of Scripture describes the bread upon the table as the passage in Exodus, chapter 25, describes the table itself.

Significance of the Shewbread

We have been studying the pieces of furniture in the Tabernacle. We have studied the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat which were in the second room of the tabernacle, the Most Holy Place. The next piece of furniture at which we looked was the altar of incense that was immediately before the curtain. Now we want to look at the table of shewbread. As I have already suggested, we are talking about a piece of furniture. But exactly what significance does this piece of furniture have? Why is it called the “table of shewbread”? You will notice that it is spelled “shew”. That is the Old English word that was used in place of the word “show” which we use today.

Why is this called the “table of shewbread”? The answer will be found, I think, in three Hebrew words which are translated by this one compound English word. If you have the meaning of those, you will understand the significance of the table of shewbread. Turn, please, to the book of Nehemiah, chapter 10, verse 33. Here we find recorded the rules and regulations for the activities of the sons of Aaron, who were known as the Levites:

Nehemiah 10

33For the shewbread, and for the continual meat offering, and for the continual burnt offering, of the sabbaths, of the new moons, for the set feasts, and for the holy things, and for the sin offerings to make an atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God.

Ordinances were made for these various things, including the shewbread. “Shewbread” is the same word, English-wise, that we noticed in chapter 25 of the book of Exodus. If we were reading this in the original Hebrew, we would find tht it is a translation of a Hebrew word which means “food”. It has no particular significance; it simply means “food”.

Food Kept Before the Lord

That will become clearer if you will turn to the second book of Samuel, chapter 9. This chapter tells the story of the provision that David was to make for Mephibosheth. Mephibosheth was the lame son of Jonathan, and he had been an exile, so to speak, since David ascended the throne. Jonathan was the son of Saul, and Saul's house had been brought into disrepute; but now that David was on the throne his heart was warmed, and he wanted to do good things and to encourage folk who were in need. He did that for Mephibosheth because of his love for Jonathan, taking him into his own home and making him a part of his own family:

II Samuel 9

10Thou therefore, and thy sons, and thy servants, shall till the land for him, and thou shalt bring in the fruits, that thy master's son [that is, Jonathan's son] may have food to eat: but Mephibosheth thy master's son shall eat bread alway at my table. Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants.

Notice in this verse the word “food”. Then notice the word “bread”. Both of those English words are the translation of the same Hebrew word which indicates that the shewbread upon the table was meant for food. In Nehemiah, chapter 10, verse 33, it was exactly that–shewbread, or food. In Exodus, chapter 25, verse 30, we read:

Exodus 25

30And thou shalt set upon the table shewbread before me alway.

In Psalm 27, verse 8, we find another enlightening fact about the word “bread”:

Psalms 27

8When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, LORD, will I seek.
9Hide not thy face far from me; put not thy servant away in anger: thou hast been my help; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation.

In this resolution of David's, which we all ought to follow, you will notice tht the word “face” is used twice. It is the translation of the Hebrew word which is translated “shewbread” in Exodus, chapter 25, verse 30.

That gives us another suggestion about the purpose of the table of shewbread. The shewbread was food. We will see that the priest ate it, but it was food that was kept always before the face of the Lord. As a matter of fact, some Hebrews refer to it as “the bread of the face”.

If you will turn to Psalm 16 you will see an additional reference that will help to amplify this.

Psalms 16

11Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.

Notice the word “presence”. It is the translation of the same Hebrew word for “face”, and it refers to the purpose of the bread. The bread was put on the table for food. It was put on the table before the face of God. It was put on the table always in the presence of God, so oftentimes it was referred to as “the bread of the presence”.

Symbolic of Orderly Arrangement

Turn, please, to I Chronicles, chapter 9. Here we are reading not about the tabernacle, but about the temple which Solomon built and which replaced the tabernacle. The temple and the tabernacle were alike in many respects, including the furniture which they both contained. In verse 32, you will notice a description of the men who worked in the tabernacle or the temple and who were Kohathites. Notice in verse 32:

I Chronicles 9

32And other of their brethren, of the sons of the Kohathites, were over the shewbread, to prepare it every sabbath.

Notice the word “shewbread”. It is our same English word, but if you were reading this in the original Hebrew, it would be a different word, one which is translated by our English word “row”. Turn to the book of Leviticus, chapter 24:

Leviticus 24

6And thou shalt set them in two rows, six on a row, upon the pure table before the LORD.

Notice the word “row”. It is a translation of our Hebrew word which is also translated “shewbread”. Again, the shewbread oftentimes was called “the bread of the row” because it was placed in two rows, six loaves in each row.

Turn to the book of Numbers, chapter 4, for the last reference to the name. This is not a word that is translated “shewbread”, but it is a description of the table:

Numbers 4

7And upon the table of shewbread they shall spread a cloth of blue, and put thereon the dishes, and the spoons, and the bowls, and covers to cover withal: and the continual bread shall be thereon:

Notice in the last statement of the verse the words “the continual bread”. This is another name for shewbread. This passage of Scripture is talking about how the table of shewbread was covered in preparation for moving. So you see that the English word “shewbread” is translated from three different Hebrew words that speak of food, the presence of the Lord, and the orderly arrangement of the bread. All of these, along with the last word, “the continual bread”, should indicate to us the general symbolism of the table of shewbread.

Representative of Communion

Generally speaking, the table of shewbread represented fellowship. It represented communion. When we were in the Most Holy Place, we found the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat, and we said that they represented the place where communion began. Then we went to the altar of incense, which represented prayer. We said that that was the means by which communion was maintained. Now we go to the north side of the tabernacle to the table of shewbread, and we think together about how communion is sustained. There can be no communion without the table of shewbread.

Let us say in just one statement, and then not think any more about it, that as the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat and that altar, the golden altar, the altar of incense, portrayed the Lord Jesus Christ because of the materials of which they were made, so does the table of shewbread because it also was made of the same materials as were the altar of incense, the Ark of the Covenant, the Mercy Seat.

We said that the Ark of the Covenant and the things which it contained represented the Lord Jesus Christ. Not only did the piece of furniture represent it, but the contents represented the Lord Jesus Christ. When we come to the shewbread, we find again that both the furniture and the contents of the furniture represented the Lord Jesus Christ. We will not pause in our discussion always to say when we are talking about the furniture and when we are talking about the contents of the furniture because the characteristics will be somewhat the same.

Twofold Presentation of Christ

Turn with me, please, to the Gospel of John, chapter 1, as I remind you that the Bible presents the Lord Jesus Christ in a twofold way. The Bible presents the Lord Jesus Christ as the written Word and it presents the Lord Jesus Christ as the living Word:

John 1

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2The same was in the beginning with God.
3All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

These verses of Scripture, as you would clearly see if you should take time to read the remaining portion of the chapter, refer to the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Word; that was one of the titles He bore. We speak of the Lord Jesus Christ as the living Word, and we are scriptural when we do that.

Now turn, please, to chapter 6 of the Gospel of John and notice the story which grew out of the comments on the feeding of the five thousand. The Pharisees were not too impressed with that miracle:

John 6

31Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.
32Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven.
33For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.
34Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread.
35And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.

Turn, please, to the book of Hebrews, chapter 9. In this chapter we have the New Testament description of the tabernacle:

Hebrews 9

2For there was a tabernacle made; the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the shewbread; which is called the sanctuary.

We are keeping in mind that the New Testament is written in Greek for the most part so when the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the Greek scholars used the Greek word which was translated “shewbread” in chapter 9 of I Chronicles and translated “bread” in chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. So when the Lord Jesus Christ said, “I am the bread of life, ”He was literally saying, “I am the shewbead.” We have gone this far in order that you may see that the table and the bread upon it are representative of the Lord Jesus Christ and also of the written Word of God.

The Temptation of Jesus

Turn, please, to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 4, for an illustration of the fact that the shewbread on the table represented not only the living Word but the written Word as well. Matthew, chapter 4, tells the story of the temptation of the Lord Jesus Christ in the wilderness. He had fasted forty days and nights before the temptation began:

Matthew 4

2And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.

You can understand why He would be. So the first temptation that was presented to Him was to His physical appetite.

Matthew 4

3And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.
4But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.

The first word “bread” refers to physical bread. The second word “bread” refers to spiritual bread.

Will you turn back, please, to Deuteronomy, chapter 8, verse 1, and notice the statement that was quoted when the Lord Jesus Christ said that man shall not live by bread alone:

Deuteronomy 8

1All the commandments which I command thee this day shall ye observe to do, that ye may live, and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the LORD sware unto your fathers.
2And thou shalt remember all the way which the LORD thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no.
3And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.

So you can see that ordinary bread and the Word of God are used interchangeably, the one being a symbol for the other.

You should be able to see in these passages that the bread upon the table was representative of both the living Word and the written Word. I want to say again that we will not say whether we are talking about the living Word or the written Word because the characteristics are interchangeable.

Design of the Table

We spoke of the material out of which the table was made, and said we would not go back over that because we saw its significance when we studied the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat. But the table is worthy of our consideration because of its peculiarities. It was not made like an ordinary table. If you will go back to chapter 25 of the book of Exodus, you will notice the first peculiarity, if we may call it that, when Moses was told:

Exodus 25

25And thou shalt make unto it a border of an hand breadth round about, and thou shalt make a golden crown to the border thereof round about.

That crown kept the bread from falling off when the table was carried; the bread remained on it even when the table was carried. Then approximately four and one-half cubits from that crown all the way around there was another crown; there was a ledge between the two crowns. The purpose of this ledge, which is what we will call it, was for the vessels which were used in connection with the bread upon the table and the table of shewbread itself.

This indicates that this was a peculiar table, different from the others and that is why we want to notice it. First let me call to your attention the size of the table. Roughly it was the same size as the Ark of the Covenant, the same height and, including the ledge, the same width. That suggests to my mind that communion, which is the purpose of the table of shewbread, is on the basis of what occurred at the Mercy Seat. There is no fellowship, there is no communion, unless the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ is applied to the heart. That is why I said in the beginning that communion began at the Mercy Seat and continued at the table of shewbread.

The Table of Fellowship

We notice that this table had a very definite size. We will not go into the significance of the figures because we did that in connection with the Ark of the Covenant. But the table was a definite size, which indicated that it was used for a limited purpose. Since everything is of significance, I don't think we should pass that by.

The table of shewbread in the Old Testament had the same purpose as the communion table in the New Testament. We speak of the observance of the Lord's Supper as the communion, and rightly so, because it is a time when we should be communing with and fellowshipping with our God. In I Corinthians, chapter 10, there is a passage of Scripture which describes the communion observance. This is one of several such descriptions:

I Corinthians 10

15I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say.
16The cup of blessing which we bless [the little cup that contains the fruit of the vine which we bless, or pray over, before we partake of it] , is it not the communion of the blood of Christ [because the fruit of the vine represents the blood of Christ] ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ [for the bread when we break it is representative of the broken body of the Lord Jesus Christ] ?

Notice the emphasis Paul puts on communion:

I Corinthians 10

17For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.
18Behold Israel after the flesh: are not they which eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar?
19What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing?
20But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils [when you see the word ”devils” in your English text, translated it ”demons”; there is only one Devil, but many demons] , and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils [demons] .
21Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils [demons] : ye cannot be partakers of the Lord's table, and of the table of devils [demons] .

So you see, just as the table of shewbread was limited in size, the communion is limited to those who are believers. Individuals cannot partake of the table of the Lord and of the table of demons at the same time.

If we were to anticipate ourselves for a moment and notice Leviticus, chatper 24, we would find that the priest partook of the bread that was on the table, and only the priest. This reminds us that the communion table, the table of the Lord, is only for believers. Unbelievers should never sit down at the Lord's table. It is a table of fellowship. That is why in I Corinthians, chapter 11, we are told that a man should examine himself, and then eat of the bread and drink of the wine.

God Protects His Word

We said that the table of shewbread had the ledge around it, separating two crowns. I would suggest that that ledge between two crowns was meant for the protection of the bread upon the table. It would be impossible, would it not, for he bread on the table to fall to the floor? If it should fall from the table, it would have to fall on the crown. If it should fall on the ledge, it could not fall off because the crown was around the ledge.

I think that it was to remind us that God watches over His Word, and protects it. Have you ever wondered why it is that we have a Bible, one almost as clear as the original manuscripts, which has come to us through many centuries? There is only one answer to that. God watches over His Word to protect it. God said in Jeremiah, chapter 1, verse 12, “I will hasten my word to perform it. I will protect my word to perform it.”

Psalm 119 is a Psalm dedicated to the Word of God. The entire Psalm talks about the Word of God. It is divided into paragraphs presented under Hebrew letters, and each paragraph presents a particular phase of the Word of God. The paragraph which begins with verse 89 emphasizes the fact which we are emphasizing when the Psalmist says:

Psalms 119

89For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven.

Oh, the attacks that have been made upon the Word of God down through the centuries! But the Word of God remains. God watched over His Word to perform it as He put the ledge around the table of shewbread to provide for its protection.

Significance of the Vessels

I would like to say one other thing about this ledge before we leave it. I told you that the vessels–bowls, flagons or cups–and food were all placed upon this ledge around the table. Literally, those vessels and those spoons were used in connection with the bread. The spoon was used to dip the incense from off the altar of incense, put it into the cup, bring it over, and pour it over the bread on the table of shewbread; thus the bread was made more palatable.

The vessels were set on the ledge that went around the table. Again, I do not believe that this was recorded simply that we might know a basic fact. Since we are told in the New Testament that the tabernacle was meant to be an illustration, we should see something illustrative about it. I would like to suggest that the utensils that sat upon the ledge to dispense the shewbread be likened to all utensils that are made available to help us better understand the Word of God. Good Bible commentaries, good Bible expositions, concordances, texts, etc., are all of them instruments that help us understand the Word of God.

This I want you to get: The table sat upon the legs, or the feet as it says in the text, but the ledge did not. The table was on a sure foundation, as the Word of God always is, and it never changes. It is always the same, for the Word of God is inspired. But we must keep in mind that no matter how helpful these helps may be, they are not inspired. They are subject to human failure. For example, this very Bible talk might be considered a utensil that sits upon the ledge because it could help you understand the Word of God and make it more palatable.

Some of you are in the habit of saying, “Joe said so and so.” Of course, we want you to believe what we say. We ought not to say it if we did not expect you to believe it. But at the same time, you need to keep in mind that what Joe says is human. What the Word of God says is divine, and there is a vast difference. I think the Lord would have us know that.

Accessibility of the Word of God

One other thing about the table is that it had four rings, one in each corner, as did the other pieces of furniture with the exception of the altar of incense. Staves went through the rings, and the table was carried everywhere the Israelites went; we don't want to pass over that. You have a good opportunity in regard to the Word of God which you should remember. The people of this generation are most fortunate in having the Bible in a form that can be carried about with great ease. It has been only 300 years since the only Bible that was available to people was one that was chained to the table upon which it rested. Think about how handicapped we would be if that were the only source of the Word of God we had. But you are able to carry it about.

May I remind you that there is a much better way to carry your Bible than in printed form. It is suggested in verse 11 of Psalm 119:

Psalms 119

11Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.

Hide the Word of God in your heart and you will find that that is the easiest way to carry it.

Turn back to chapter 24 of the book of Leviticus and notice again what is said about the bread that was upon the table. Remember that the table and the bread are typical of the living Word and the written Word of God. In verse 5, we find this statement:

Leviticus 24

5And thou shalt take fine flour, and bake twelve cakes thereof: two tenth deals shall be in one cake.

The bread was made of fine flour. There is only one way to get fine flour and that is to grind grain, to put it through a real trial and a real test. As we think about the living Word, we are reminded of the suffering of Christ. As we think about the written Word, we are reminded that the Psalmist says, “Thy Word is as silver tried in a furnace. purified seven times” (Psalm 12:6). The Word of God has been tried.

Arrangement of the Bible

You will notice that there were twelve loaves of bread. Much has been written about the significance of these twelve loaves, and it would be unwise, I think, to be dogmatic about it. Certainly we know that they did represent the twelve tribes of Israel, one loaf of bread for each tribe. Folk also see a reference to the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and perhaps we do no violence to the Scriptures to look at it in that fashion. Twelve, if you are interested in the numerical study of the Word of God, is the number of administration. We are reminded that the whole nation of Israel was provided for by these twelve loaves of bread. We are reminded also that these twelve loaves of bread were placed on the table in an orderly fashion, two rows of six each, and we are reminded of the Old and the New Testaments of the written Word, and the orderly arrangement of the Scriptures.

The arrangement of your Bible is not inspired; it is not at all in the order in which it was written. For example, Job is the oldest book in the Bible. If you were to arrange the books chronologically, Job should be the very first book in the Old Testament. The gospel of Mark was the first book in the New Testament, and if you are to arrange the books in the order in which they were written, Mark should be first instead of Matthew. But I do believe that though the arrangement of the Scriptures is not inspired, the Holy Spirit watched over the arrangement of the entire Bible so that the story could be complete.

For example, there are 66 books in the Bible–39 in the Old Testament; 27 in the New. I don't think it is mere chance that three times nine is 27. If you know that there are 39 books in the Old Testament, you will never forget that there are 27 in the New.

The first five books of the Bible are called the “Pentateuch”. They were written by Moses, and they tell the complete story of the beginning of man until man settled down with an orderly government. The books of poetry–the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon–are all arranged in perfect order.

The Psalms, which were not all written at the same time and are not arranged in the order in which they were written, are arranged in an orderly fashion of five books. Each of the books of Psalms compares with each of the first five books of the Old Testament. For example, if you look at the first book of Psalms, you will find many things that will remind you of what there is in the book of Genesis. If you look at the last book of the Psalms, you will find many things that will remind you of the book of Deuteronomy. So you see there is an orderly arrangement of the Word of God. I do believe that that should be suggested as we think about the rows of bread upon the table.

Study Seasoned With Prayer

Will you glance at verse 7 of Leviticus, chapter 24:

Leviticus 24

7And thou shalt put pure frankincense upon each row, that it may be on the bread for a memorial, even an offering made by fire unto the LORD.

The offering made by fire unto the Lord was ignited from coals from off the altar of burnt offerings. The priest took incense off the altar of incense and placed it on the top of the bread. If you will keep in mind that the thing that makes the Word of God palatable is the praying that you do as you study the Word of God. If you do not apply the Word of God to your life, you have an intellectual knowledge of it and not a heart experience, and it will not profit you as God intended that it should.

I cannot help but be impressed by the fact that the only thing that made the bread palatable for the priest was the frankincense that was put upon it. There were no spices, no mustard, no special dainties–just prayer. We have slipped, have we not? We have slipped a long way. Today in order to get people out to services we think we have to have a lot of spices. You don't get people out for just simple bread, for just the Word mixed with prayer. That is why services in many places today contain a long period of preliminaries and a brief sermonette with a catchy title that is intended to keep people awake. It is not enough to have just the bread with the frankincense. It was enough then, and it should be now. Notice chapter 25 of Leviticus, chapter 9:

Leviticus 24

9And it shall be Aaron's and his sons'; and they shall eat it in the holy place: for it is most holy unto him of the offerings of the LORD made by fire by a perpetual statute.

If we had time to examine all of the Scriptures related to Aaron's and his sons' eating the bread, we would find several things. One is that they ate the bread every day. It was not enough just once in a while. It was every day. You must learn to feed on the written Word that often. We would find also that they never ate of the bread until new bread had been put on the table, so that bread was always before the Lord; the bread which they took off was the bread which they ate. Every seven days new bread was placed upon the table.

I wonder whether we would be overdrawing on our imagination to suggest that if you are properly fed on the Lord's day when you come to the place of assembly, you can feed on that bread all during the week; then seven days from the time when you met before, you can gather together for fresh bread and feed upon new bread during the following week.

Conclusion

In verse 9, we are told that this particular observance, Aaron's and his sons' eating of the bread from the table, was the most holy act that was performed. Is that not significant? The most holy act that was performed was not performed at the Mercy Seat or at the altar of burnt offering in the courtyard; the act that was most pleasing to the Lord was the act of constantly feeding on the shewbread. Dare we look lightly at the need to feed upon the Word of God? Dare we look lightly at the need to understand the Word of God? I think not! As there was a table of shewbread in the tabernacle, there should be a table of shewbread in your life.


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