The Significance of the Sanctuary in Scripture



The ultimate meaning of the sanctuary is personal communion with the God of the sanctuary.

Richard M. Davidson

If you had only one request to make of the Lord, one thing you would like to ask of Him, only one goal to seek after in life, what would you choose? Happiness? Fame? Fortune? Health? Peace? Holiness? Salvation? A whole array of possibilities come to mind. But in Scripture there is a singular and striking inspired answer to this question. In Psalm 27:4, David unequivocally stated, “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek . . .” (Ps. 27:4, NIV).Here “the Psalmist makes one of the most single-minded expressions of purpose to be found anywhere in the Old Testament.”2 Nowhere else in Scripture is the expression “This one thing I have asked.” Under inspiration David stated his one request, the single goal of his life search. His single-minded purpose may come as a surprise: “That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple” (vs. 4).

David’s singular focus was upon “the house of the Lord”—the sanctuary! In no other psalm is the terminology for the sanctuary (temple, tabernacle, tent) used more often than here in Psalm 27. “In no other psalm is David’s yearning after the service of the sanctuary as intensely expressed as here.”3 The leaders of Jewish worship in later centuries recognized the intimate connection of this psalm with the sanctuary, especially with the services at the end of the Hebrew religious year. In modern Jewish practice, which possibly goes back to biblical times, Psalm 27 is recited each day throughout the sixth month of the Jewish year (Elul), as well as on the High Holy Days of the seventh month, climaxing in Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), which in the Jewish understanding is a time of judgment. Thus Psalm 27 is indeed the quintessential “Song for the Sanctuary” in the setting of the endtime day of judgment.

When we think of the term sanctu­ary in our contemporary setting, we often think of a place of refuge, such as a bird sanctuary or wildlife sanctuary. We also think of a sanctu­ary as the residence of a deity. For David, the sanctuary had both of these connotations. When David wrote this psalm, he was “a hunted fugitive, finding refuge in the rocks and caves of the wilderness.”4 His greatest longing was to continually be in the presence of the Lord in His sanctuary—His residence—which would be for him a place of refuge. David wrote, “For in the time of trouble He shall hide me in His pavilion; In the secret place of His tabernacle [sanctuary] He shall hide me” (vs. 5).

In David’s time, the sanctuary tent/tabernacle was probably pitched on one of the highest hills surrounding Jerusalem (approximately three thousand feet above sea level, now called Nebi Samwil, the traditional burial place of the prophet Samuel), near Gibeon (1 Chron. 16:39; 21:21; 2 Chron. 1:3–6). One might be tempted to suggest that David’s focus upon the sanctuary was only be­cause he needed a place of refuge from King Saul, who was trying to kill him, or because he had been absent from God’s visible presence at the sanctuary while a fugitive in the wilderness. Did David merely miss being at the house of worship, as the old adage puts it, because “absence makes the heart grow fonder”? As we fast-forward the chronicle of David’s life, we find the answer. David’s central focus upon the sanctuary was not unique to this time of special circumstances. After Saul’s death, David was crowned king—first at Hebron and seven-and-a-half years later at Jerusalem—and his most immediate concern was to subdue the Philistines. But that being accomplished, David turned his attention again to the sanctuary. He brought the ark to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6), and then consulted with the prophet Nathan about his strong desire to build a permanent house for the Lord (7:2).

Nathan at first gave enthusiastic support, but God revealed to him that David could not build a temple for Him to dwell in because he was a man of war and had shed much blood. David’s son Solomon, a man of rest and peace (the name Solomon means “peaceable one”), would build God’s house (2 Sam. 7:3–29; 1 Chron. 17; 22:6–9). In this story God reveals His great sense of humor as He plays on the two meanings for the word house: He promised David that instead of David building God a house (a temple), God would build David a house (a dynasty), from which the Messiah would come.

Having been forbidden to build the house of the Lord, David did not forget his single-minded quest. If he could not actually build the temple, at least he could make all the preparations so that his son could build it. So, David did all he could short of actually building the temple. God gave David the plans or blueprints for the building project (1 Chron. 28:12, 19). David appointed masons to cut the hewn stones (22:2), prepared iron for the nails used in the gate doors and bronze “beyond measure” (vs. 3), ordered cedar wood from Tyre and Sidon (vs. 4), and collected a fabulous amount of gold and silver (vs. 14) and other precious stones (29:2). David also appointed and organized into divisions the four thousand gatekeepers and four thousand instrumental musicians, and even in­vented new musical instruments especially for the temple worship (1 Chronicles 23). He set aside 288 of the most skilled vocal musicians to be “instructed in the songs of the Lord” (25:7) and organized the 24 divisions of the priests as well. And David also composed much of the music for the collection that was to become, in effect, the temple hymnal. (Approximately two-thirds of the Psalter is attributed to David.) Many of David’s psalms focus upon the sanctuary.

David summed up his passion for the sanctuary/temple: “‘The work is great, because the temple is not for man but for the Lord God. Now for the house of my God I have prepared with all my might. . . . I have set my affection on the house of my God’” (1 Chron. 29:1–3).

Throughout his psalms, David extolled the importance and glo­ry of the sanctuary. In Psalm 20:2, he prayed, “May He send you help from the sanctuary.” In Psalm 63, David described his longing for God while in the wilderness of Judah, and affirmed that he had indeed en­countered Him (by faith) in the (heavenly) sanctuary even in his wil­derness distress: “So I have looked for You in the sanctuary, to see Your power and Your glory” (vs. 2). As an earthly king, David marveled at God’s triumphal royal entry into the sanctuary: “They have seen Your procession, O God, The procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary” (Ps. 68:24).

Some might argue that David’s attitude was an exception in Old Testament times, a fanatical fervor for the sanctuary, and that such single-minded focus did not characterize others in biblical history. But the inspired record shows otherwise.


The Sanctuary Motif Permeates Scripture

Other psalmists besides David expressed an equally passionate long­ing for the courts of the Lord (Psalm 42, 43, 84, and elsewhere). For example, Asaph, David’s chief choir director (1 Chron. 16:5), wrote of the significance of the sanctuary as demonstrating God’s way: “Your way, O God, is in the sanctuary; Who is so great a God as our God?” (Ps. 77:13). In another psalm, Asaph wrestled to understand why the wicked appeared to prosper, “Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end” (73:17). The Book of Psalms is suffused with sanctuary imagery: It contains more than 150 explicit references to the sanctuary—an average of one reference per psalm.

The written testimony of the rest of Scripture also highlights the centrality of the sanctuary in Israel’s religion. As one looks at the Torah, the five books of Moses, some 45 entire chapters are devoted en­tirely to the subject of the sanctuary and its services. Some 45 additional chapters in the Prophets and Writings (the two other major divisions of the Hebrew Bible) focus upon the same subject—not to men­tion the whole Book of Psalms, comprising the music of the sanctuary. The Old Testament is, in fact, saturated with hundreds, perhaps thou­sands, of sanctuary references and allusions, forming a dominant motif throughout its 39 books.

In the New Testament the Messiah is proclaimed as the one who brings fulfillment to the typical meaning of the sanctuary and its servic­es. The Gospels often describe His earthly ministry and passion and His heavenly work largely in language of the sanctuary—temple, sacrifice, priesthood, festivals. A large part of the Gospel of John is structured around Jesus’ fulfillment (at least in principle) of the various festivals of the Old Testament sanctuary. The Book of Acts makes frequent references to the earthly and heavenly temples, and the Epistles of Paul and the General Epistles are suffused with sanctuary imagery. In the climactic Apocalypse of John, every major section of the book is intro­duced by a scene from the sanctuary, and the entire book is saturated with sanctuary references and allusions. It is probably safe to say that more is written in Scripture on this subject than on any other. Fur­thermore, the sanctuary motif is central to the development of thought in the entire Bible, as it embraces and structures many other important biblical themes.


The Sanctuary: Center of Israel’s Life

The whole life of Israel in biblical times revolved around the sanc­tuary. Since its first piercing blast blown by a heavenly being on Mount Sinai, the shofar (ram’s horn) for nearly 1,500 years sounded from the sanctuary/temple precincts—daily at the time of the morning and evening sac­rifice, weekly to announce the approach of the Sabbath, monthly to signal the arrival of the new moon, yearly in connection with each of the religious festivals (in particular the High Holy Days of the seventh month), and ev­ery half-century at the commencement of the great Jubilee.

The Old Testament sanctuary was built to be the earthly dwelling place of Yahweh, the place where Israel came to encounter and worship their Creator/Redeemer. And come they did—some who lived farthest away spending more than two months a year just traveling to and from and attending the yearly festivals. At the sanctuary there was joyous commemoration of God’s mighty acts in the past. From the sanctuary came present forgiveness, peace, and assurance. Through the earthly sanctuary the worshiper was pointed upward to the heavenly sanctu­ary, which in the Old Testament is mentioned nearly fifty times. And through the earthly sanctuary the worshiper was also pointed forward to the great antitype, the Messiah, who would give ultimate meaning to the Old Testament ritual.


The Sanctuary: Center of Adventism

Since 1844, Adventists, like Israel since Sinai, have had their hopes centered on the sanctuary. For the Adventist pioneers, “the subject of the sanctuary was the key which unlocked the mystery of the disappointment of 1844. It opened to view a complete system of truth, connected and harmonious, showing that God's hand had directed the great advent movement and revealing present duty as it brought to light the position and work of His people.”5

In 1906, Ellen G. White wrote, “The correct understanding of the ministration in the heavenly sanctuary is the foundation of our faith.”6


The Sanctuary: Center of Scripture

Adventist pioneer Uriah Smith forcefully illustrated the centrality he found in the sanctuary, using the imagery of a wheel: “There is no one subject which so fully as this [the sanctuary] unites together all parts of revelation into one harmonious whole. The spokes of a wheel, considered by themselves and apart, may be symmetrical and beautiful; but their uses are made ap­parent and their utility demonstrated only when, fixed together by a central hub and exterior fellies, they appear as component parts of a perfect wheel. In the great wheel of truth, the sanctuary occupies this central position. In it, the great truths of revelation find their focal point.”7


The Sanctuary and Jesus

Some may wonder at this point: Isn’t the Cross, isn’t Jesus, the center of Scripture? Yes! This is argued vigorously elsewhere. Indeed, the cross of Christ is central to Scripture. But according to Hebrews 13:10, the Cross is the antitype of the Old Testament sacrificial altar! And where is Jesus now? In the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 8:1–5). So, to focus upon the sanc­tuary is to focus on Jesus—both His atoning work on the Cross and His heavenly ministration for us. Jesus and the Cross and the sanctuary can­not be separated! If we truly want to focus upon Jesus and the Cross, then we need to concentrate on where Jesus is now, applying the benefits of His atoning work on Calvary for us personally in the heavenly sanctuary.

Uriah Smith elsewhere waxed eloquent on the importance of the sanctuary, and its relationship with the ministry of Jesus: “The Sanctuary! Momentous subject! Grand nucleus around which cluster the glorious constellations of present truth! How it opens to our understanding the plan of salvation! How it lifts the vail [sic] from the position of our Lord in heaven! What a halo of glory it throws upon his ministry! What a divine harmony it establishes in the word of God! What a flood of light it pours upon past fulfillment of prophecy! How it fortifies the mighty truths of these last days! What a glory it sheds upon the future! With what hope and joy and consolation it fills the heart of the believer! Glorious subject! Its importance can neither be over­drawn nor overestimated.”8

According to David in Psalm 27:4, the “one thing” he sought was found in the sanctuary. What is the nature of the sanctuary experience that David asked for and sought? Fortunately, we do not have to guess; the psalmist makes it clear in Psalm 27. In the space of a few verses, he draws together all the major strands of the sanctuary message and experience. In the process, David reveals how the sanctuary message is the encapsulation of what the classical philosophers call the “triple star of value” in human experience. The philosophers summa­rize what is of worth in life in three words: beauty, truth, and goodness. David found the embodiment of all these in the sanctuary.


The Sanctuary: Bethel of Beauty

Psalm 27:4 provides the first goal of David in the sanctuary experience: “to behold the beauty of the Lord.” The Hebrew word here translated “beauty” refers to more than abstract aesthetic form. It is a dynamic term, describing beauty that moves the beholder by its loveliness, its pleasantness. Beauty with emotive power—aesthetic experience. David longed to behold this beauty of the Lord in the sanctuary. It is a beauty that the Lord has within Himself, His character, but it is also a beauty that the Lord imparts.

Throughout the Old Testament, the experience of worship and sal­vation and becoming like God in character is described in the language of aesthetics or beauty. So, David called for created beings to worship the Lord “in the beauty of holiness” (29:2)—perhaps better translated “in holy beauty.” Psalm 149:4 calls for praise to God because “he will beautify the meek with salvation” (KJV). Isaiah repeatedly described salvation in terms of beauty: “Awake, awake, . . . O Zion; put on your beautiful garments” (52:1); “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord” (62:3, NRSV); “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation” (52:7).

Correct doctrine and flawless ethical systems by themselves will never move hearts. It is the beauty of the truth, the beauty of the char­acter, that captivates the senses and draws and attracts the behold­er. The message of Scripture regarding worship and salvation is not in abstract tenets of faith, but it is placed in an aesthetic medium of the sanctuary and its services. “Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” (Ps. 96:6). In the spectacular pageantry of the sanctuary, God enacted be­fore Israel’s eyes the awesomeness of worship and the drama of salvation. Typology is actually a species of aesthetics—to reveal the embodied beau­ty of the Lord. Through the aesthetic symbolic types of the sanctuary, the plan of salvation is made vivid and real.

Especially in the Pentateuch and the Book of Hebrews is the message of salvation and worship, the holy beauty of the Lord, set forth in the aesthetic media of type (or foreshadowing) and antitype (or fulfillment). The books of Exodus and Leviticus in particular describe the aesthetic structures, services, and personnel of the sanctuary; the Book of Hebrews indicates how these types and symbols find their fulfillment in the New Testament.


The Sanctuary: Temple of Truth

Of course, the aesthetic experience is not enough. David desired not only “to behold the beauty of the Lord,” but also “to inquire in His temple” (Ps. 27:4). The Hebrew word translated “inquire” is rare in the Old Testament and has a rich meaning. It refers not merely to making inquiry, but also has implications of intellectual reflection, diligent seeking or searching out, and detailed examination of evidence to determine the truth of a matter (Prov. 20:25; Eze. 34:11). The sanctuary message is not only an experience of awesome beauty; it is also a reflective, diligent search for truth.

The present truth of the sanctuary message is particularly concen­trated in the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation—books with messages specifically addressed to those living in the last days of earth’s history. The sanctuary is at the heart of each of these books. What is the truth of the sanctuary message for the present time? Is the doctrine of an investigative judgment going on now in the heavenly sanctu­ary supported by Scripture? What are the biblical facets of such a pre­-advent judgment? What are the unique contours of the sanctuary that comprise the special truth for these last days? There is need for rigor­ous testing of our understanding of the sanctuary doctrine in light of Scripture. The third section or “stanza” of our “Song for the Sanctu­ary” joins David as we “inquire [regarding the truth of the sanctuary] in His temple”—looking particularly at the sanctuary message in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation.


The Sanctuary: “Great House” of Goodness

In Hebrew the word for “temple” comes from a Sumerian word meaning “great house.” Throughout the Old Tes­tament the sanctuary/temple is often (more than two hundred times) called the “house of the Lord.” The sanctuary experience concerns this “great house” of God’s goodness, the good news regarding the God of the sanctuary. It is not enough to see the beauty of sanctuary typology, or to see the truth of sanctuary eschatology. The sanctuary is not just an activity of the mind—aesthetic contemplation and intellectual stimula­tion. For many Christians, the sanctuary doctrine has been just that—an object to look at, but not a living reality. What is the relevancy of the sanctuary doctrine? What difference does it make to how I live and what I do? What is the good news about God that we may discover in His “great house”?

David addressed these questions in Psalm 27:5 and 6. He introduced the verses with the words for or because. Here is the practical reason for him to believe the sanctuary doctrine, the personal application of the sanctuary message in his own life: “For in the time of trouble He shall hide me in His pavilion; in the secret place of His tabernacle He shall hide me; He shall set me high upon a rock. And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me.”

David wrote this psalm while he was a fugitive hiding from King Saul. Saul and his army—David’s enemies—were malicious witnesses (vs. 12) who had falsely accused David of insurrection against the government. David desperately needed protection in his “day of trou­ble.” He also needed vindication from the false charges brought against him. For David, the message of the sanctuary was a promise of protection in God’s tent, and vindication in His tabernacle.

This is precisely the message of the heavenly investigative judgment that emerges in exploration of the prophetic literature of Scripture. In the final day of trouble, God’s people will be protected and “find sanctuary” in His sanctuary. And from that heavenly sanctuary will come vindication from false charges of Satan against God’s people and against the new David, the Messiah and King of the universe.

David’s practical experience of protection and vindication is summarized later in the psalm as “the goodness of the Lord” (27:13), the verse that parallels verses 4 and 5 in the symmetrical structure of the psalm. Here is the third of the triple star of value. Not only does David see the beauty of the Lord in the sanctuary; not only does he inquire into the depths of sanctuary truth; he also experiences the goodness of the Lord. The thought of God’s goodness in Psalm 27 leads David spontaneously into an experience of joyous celebration: “At his tabernacle will I sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to Lord” (vs. 6, NIV).

Adventists, along with other Christians, have too often become so enamored over the details of the sanctuary typology and symbology, so exercised over the intricacies of eschatological events in the heavenly temple that they have forgotten to praise the goodness of God, to celebrate. But we only need to go to the Book of Psalms, where we look into the heart of the true worshiper, and we see that the Holy One is “en­throned in the praises of Israel” (22:3). Both heavenly sanctuary and earthly counterpart are overflowing with paeans of pure praise. The sanctuary is not only soteriology, not only eschatology; it is preeminently, and eternally—doxology!

For all that has been said about the centrality of the sanctuary, we must hasten to add that it is not the ultimate reality. The apex of the sanctu­ary message is not the sanctuary itself. Often in the Psalms (and elsewhere in Scripture), the biblical author structures the literary message in a spe­cial pattern called a chiasm, with the first half of the psalm like a mirror image of the second half. In a chiastic structure the central member of the chiasm forms the climax and indicates the main focus of the psalm. Psalm 27 was composed in this beautiful chiastic structure:


A. “The Lord is the strength of my life” (vss. 1–3)

  B. Beauty of the Lord (vs. 4)

    C. “My enemies” (vss. 5, 6)

      D. Three positive petitions (vs. 7)

        E. “Seek my face” (vs. 8)

      D'. Three negative petitions (vs. 9, 10)

    C'. “My enemies” (vs. 11, 12)

  B'. Goodness of the Lord (vs. 13)

A'. “He shall strengthen your heart” (vs. 14)


What is significant for our purposes here is that the sanctuary itself, though a prominent feature of the psalm, is not the apex. The central focus of the psalm is in verse 8: “You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your face, Lord, do I seek’” (ESV).

The ultimate meaning of the sanctuary is personal communion with the God of the sanctuary. The sanctuary is where He is ministering for us now. Beckoning us to enter the Most Holy Place by faith, He invites us, “Seek my face.” He invites us to dwell spiritually “in heavenly places,” in the house of the Lord. The sanctuary is not just an object of beauty, a doctrine of truth, correct ethical behavior, or occasional celebrations. It is a way of life, in constant intimate fellowship with our beloved in His heavenly abode, the temple.

Yet we wait for the consummation. As David did, we encourage ourselves with the final words of Psalm 27: “Wait for the Lord: be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord” (vs. 14, NIV).

“Wait”—the Hebrew word denotes not quiet inactivity, but eager anticipation, standing on tiptoes, as it were, to watch expectantly in hope, waiting for the full revelation of the Lord in His sanctuary—for the ultimate “Song of the Sanctuary.”

Psalm 27 has set the tone. Let us follow David in his single-minded quest; let us sing his Sanctuary Song, all the while experiencing God’s presence more fully as incomparable vistas of His beauty, truth, and goodness open before us in the sanctuary.


Richard M. Davidson, PhD, is the J. N. Andrews Professor of Old Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.



1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.

2. Peler C. Craige, Psalms 1–50, Word Bible Commentary (Waco, Texas: Word, 1983), 232.

3. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1977), 3:695.

4. Education, 164.

5. The Great Controversy, 423.

6. Evangelism, 221.

7. Uriah Smith, The Sanctuary and the Twenty Three Hundred Days of Daniel 8:14 (Battle Creek, Mich.: Steam Press, 1877), 10, 11.

8. Uriah Smith, “Reflections on the Sanctuary,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald 11:10 (March 25, 1858): 148.