The Hebrew word kaphar (כָּפַר) means “to cover,” but it can also mean “to make an atonement” or “to make reconciliation.” The imagery is powerful: someone “covers” whatever is causing the rift, so that the relationship can be healed. In everyday English we sometimes use the word “cover” in a similar way. We may “cover the cost” for someone or we may be able to provide “air cover” for someone.
The related word kapporeth (כַּפֹּרֶת) means something that covers or that makes reconciliation. In the most holy room of the ancient tabernacle, there was a box called the ark of the covenant, which held sacred artifacts. On top of the ark was a kapporeth made of pure gold, with statues of cherubs on top. (See Exodus 25:17-20, Exodus 37:6-9.) This kapporeth was to sit on the ark, and God promised:
There I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the [kapporeth], from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark.Exodus 25:22
How would you translate that word into English? “Covering” may be accurate, but it doesn’t convey all of the implications of the Hebrew word. Some translations call it an “atonement cover” (NIV), an “atoning cover” (NASB), or a “propitiatory” (Literal Standard Version). But most translations follow the Tyndale Bible, and call it the “mercy seat.” (See Exodus 25:17 on biblehub.com.)
Once a year, on the day of atonement, the high priest would enter this holy room and sprinkle blood on the mercy seat, symbolically cleansing the sins of the people. (See Leviticus 16.)
The prophet Amulek prophesied that the Savior would be the “great and last sacrifice…infinite and eternal.” He said that this sacrifice would “bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice,… and thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety.” Then, he pleaded with his audience: “Call upon his holy name, that he would have mercy upon you…. Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save” (Alma 34:17-18).
The following hymns reference the mercy seat to remind us that the Savior invites us to receive His grace:
Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish;
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts; here tell your anguish.
Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.“Come, Ye Disconsolate,” Hymns, 115, italics added.
I think of his hands pierced and bleeding to pay the debt!
Such mercy, such love and devotion can I forget?
No, no, I will praise and adore at the mercy seat,
Until at the glorified throne I kneel at his feet.“I Stand All Amazed,” Hymns, 193, italics added.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf reminded us that we have all needed God’s forgiveness:
Haven’t we all, at one time or another, meekly approached the mercy seat and pleaded for grace? Haven’t we wished with all the energy of our souls for mercy—to be forgiven for the mistakes we have made and the sins we have committed?“The Merciful Obtain Mercy,” General Conference, April 2012
Today, as I approach God in prayer, I will remember the imagery of the kapporeth, the mercy seat, which covered the ark of the covenant and which can cover my sins and my shortcomings. I will be grateful for a merciful God, who can heal every wound and comfort every sorrow. I will approach Him with confidence that He can encircle me “in the arms of safety.”