Question: "What happened to the Ark of the Covenant?"
Answer: What happened to the Ark of the Covenant is a question that has fascinated theologians, Bible students, and archeologists for centuries. In the eighteenth year of his reign, King Josiah of Judah ordered the caretakers of the Ark of the Covenant to return it to the temple in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 35:1-6; cf. 2 Kings 23:21-23). That is the last time the ark’s location is mentioned in the Scriptures. Forty years later, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon captured Jerusalem and raided the temple. Less than ten years after that, he returned, took what was left in the temple, and then burnt it and the city to the ground. So what happened to the ark? Was it taken by Nebuchadnezzar? Was it destroyed with the city? Or was it removed and hidden safely away, as evidently happened when Pharaoh Shishak of Egypt raided the temple during the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam? (“Evidently” because, if Shishak had managed to take the Ark, why did Josiah ask the Levites to return it? If the Ark was in Egypt—à la the plotline of Raiders of the Lost Ark—the Levites would not have possessed it and therefore could not have returned it.)
Interestingly, Revelation 11:19 mentions the ark as being in heaven: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a severe hailstorm.” This verse has led some to speculate that the ark was taken up to heaven to be preserved there. But the ark that John sees in his vision of heaven is probably not the same ark that Moses constructed. We know that the articles in the tabernacle were “copies of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 9:23) and that the sanctuary itself was but “a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (Hebrews 8:5). Revelation 11 deals with the sounding of the seventh trumpet, which ushers in a final round of judgments upon the earth. John’s glimpse of the ark is probably meant as a reminder that God has not forgotten His people, that He is present with them, and that true worship will soon be restored.
The non-canonical book of 2 Maccabees reports that just prior to the Babylonian invasion, Jeremiah, “following a divine revelation, ordered that the tabernacle and the ark should accompany him and...he went off to the mountain which Moses climbed to see God's inheritance [i.e., Mt. Nebo; cf. Deuteronomy 31:1-4]. When Jeremiah arrived there, he found a room in a cave in which he put the tent, the ark, and the altar of incense; then he blocked up the entrance” (2:4-5). However, “Some of those who followed him came up intending to mark the path, but they could not find it. When Jeremiah heard of this, he reproved them: ‘The place is to remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows them mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord will be seen in the cloud, just as it appeared in the time of Moses and when Solomon prayed that the Temple might be gloriously sanctified’” (2:6-8). It is not known if this secondhand (see 2:1) account is accurate; even if it is, we will not know until the Lord comes back, as the account itself claims.
Other theories concerning the whereabouts of the lost ark include Rabbis Shlomo Goren and Yehuda Getz’s claim that it is hidden beneath the temple mount, having been buried there before Nebuchadnezzar could steal it away. Unfortunately, the temple mount is now home to the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic holy site, and the local Muslim community refuses to allow it to be excavated. So we cannot know if Rabbis Goren and Getz are correct.
Explorer Vendyl Jones, among others, believes that an artifact found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the enigmatic “Copper Scroll” of Qumran Cave 3, is actually a treasure map of sorts detailing the location of a number of precious treasures taken from the temple before the Babylonians arrived, among them the lost Ark of the Covenant. Whether or not this is true remains to be seen, as no one has yet been able to locate all of the necessary geographical landmarks listed on the scroll. Interestingly, some scholars speculate that the Copper Scroll may actually be the record referred to in 2 Maccabees 2:1 and 4, which describes Jeremiah hiding the ark. While this is an interesting speculation, it remains unsubstantiated.
Former East African correspondent for “The Economist,” Graham Hancock, published a book in 1992 entitled The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant, in which he argued that the ark had been stowed away in Saint Mary of Zion's Church in Aksum, an ancient city of Ethiopia. Explorer Robert Cornuke of the B.A.S.E. Institute, also believes the Ark may now reside in Aksum. However, no one has yet found it there. Similarly, archaeologist Michael Sanders believes the ark is hidden away in an ancient Egyptian temple in the Israeli village of Djaharya, but he has yet to actually find it there.
A doubtful Irish tradition maintains that the Ark is buried under the Hill of Tara in Ireland. Some scholars believe that this is the source of the Irish “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow” legend. Even less believable are the claims of Ron Wyatt and Tom Crotser, Wyatt claiming to actually have seen the lost Ark of the Covenant buried under Mt. Calvary and Crotser claiming to have seen it on Mt. Pisgah near Mt. Nebo. Both of these men are held in low esteem by the archaeological community, and neither has been able to substantiate the wild claims with any evidence.
In the end, the ark remains lost to all but God. Interesting theories like the ones presented above continue to be offered, but the ark has yet to be found. The writer of 2 Maccabees may very well be right; we may not find out what happened to the lost Ark of the Covenant until the Lord Himself returns.