This bread consisted of twelve loaves made of the finest flour. They were flat and thin, and were placed in two rows of six each on a table in the holy place before the Lord. They were renewed every Sabbath (Le 24:5-9), and those that were removed to give place to the new ones were to be eaten by the priests only in the holy place (see 1Sa 21:3-6; comp. Mt 12:3-4).
The number of the loaves represented the twelve tribes of Israel, and also the entire spiritual Israel, "the true Israel;" and the placing of them on the table symbolized the entire consecration of Israel to the Lord, and their acceptance of God as their God. The table for the bread was made of acacia wood, 3 feet long, 18 inches broad, and 2 feet 3 inches high. It was plated with pure gold. Two staves, plated with gold, passed through golden rings, were used for carrying it.
Illustration: Table of Shewbread
Bread of the faces or "presence" of God (Ex 25:30). "Bread of ordering" (1Ch 9:32). "The continual bread" (Nu 4:7). "Hallowed bread" (1Sa 21:4-6; Mt 12:4; Heb 9:2 "the shewbread," Greek "bread of setting forth".) The table was of acacia or "shittim wood," two cubits long, one broad, one and a half high, overlaid with pure gold, with a golden crown to the border round about, to hinder any bread falling off (but see below); Ex 25:23-30. The border was to be "of a handbreadth"; so in the sculpture on Titus' Arch the slave's hand that holds the table is just the breadth of the border. "The pure table" (Le 24:6), both because of its unalloyed gold and because of the "pure offering" on it (Mal 1:11). The table stood in the holy place on the N. side (Ex 26:35). The 12 cakes of unleavened bread, arranged in two piles, with a golden cup of frankincense on each (Josephus Ant. 3:10, section 7), were renewed every sabbath, and the stale loaves given to the priests.
They represented the 12 tribes before Jehovah perpetually, (see Re 21:12) in token that He was always graciously accepting His people and their good works, for whom atonement had been made by the victims on the altar outside. They were the national meat offering (Le 24:5-9). Each cake contained two tenths of an ephah, about six pounds and a quarter, of fine flour. The frankincense as a memorial was probably cast upon the altar fire as "an offering made by fire unto the Lord," when the bread was removed from the table on the Sabbath. Ahimelech stretched the law in giving the stale loaves to David's men, as free from ceremonial defilement (1Sa 21:4-6; Mt 12:4), for they should have been eaten by the priests, in the holy place (Le 24:5-9). Bahr thinks the loaves symbolized the Holy One in His sanctuary as the Bread of life to His people (Joh 6:35,47-51; Mt 4:4; De 8:3).
But the loaves were taken from Israel, not presented by God to them; and one loaf would suit his view rather than twelve (1Co 10:17). Still, on their presenting themselves before Him in the bread symbol, He feeds them represented by their priests. As they are a bread offering to Him, so He gives Himself as the bread to feed them. In 2Ch 4:8,19, ten tables are mentioned "whereon the shewbread was set," i.e., Solomon made a number of tables, and one great golden one on which they set the loaves. In the parallel passage, 1Ki 7:48, "the table of gold" alone is mentioned, as in 2Ch 29:18. "Ten" is the number also of the candlesticks. The tables were probably made of cedarwood overlaid with gold (see Josephus Ant. 8:3, section 7). As it is omitted in the list of articles restored from Babylon (Ezr 1:9-11), it was doubtless remade by Zerubbabel. Antiochus Epiphanes carried away the table of the second temple (2Ma 1:22). Anew one was made at the restoration of the temple by Judas Maccabeus (1Ma 4:49).
Afterward Ptolemy Philadelphus presented a splendid table (Josephus Ant. 12:2, section 8-9). In the Arch of Titus, the sculptor in defiance of perspective exhibits the two ends. Speaker's Commentary (Ex 25:23-30) for "crown of gold" translated "moulding of gold"; for "border," "a framing" which reached from leg to leg, to make the table firm, as well as to adorn it with a second moulding of gold; two fragments of such a framing appear half way clown the legs in the Titus' Arch sculpture. "Over against the framing" the rings were "upon the four extremities (KJV "corners") that were at the four (clawlike) feet," answering to each corner of it. The staves were never taken out of the golden rings by which the ark was to be borne; so translated Nu 4:5-6, "put the staves thereof in order," not "put in," they would need merely adjustment after motion (Ex 25:14-15).
The "dishes" or bowls were probably the measures for the meal used in the loaves. For "spoons" translated "cups" filled with frankincense, represented on Titus' Arch. For "covers" and "bowls" and "to cover withal" translated "flagons and chalices, to pour out withal." These were for the drink offering which accompanied every meat offering, for the shewbread was a true meat offering. In Nu 4:7 the Hebrew means "the shew table" or "table of the faces" or presence, namely, of God manifested. Similar is the phrase "the Angel of His presence" (Isa 63:9; Ex 33:14-15; 23:20; De 4:37, "in His sight".) The "face" stands for the Person. "The bread of the face" on the table in the sanctuary symbolizes that man is admitted to God's holy table and presence, seeing and being nourished by God in the person of Christ, the Bread of life.
The priests, Israel's representatives, alone ate this sacramental pledge in the Old Testament. The whole church as "priests unto God" offer themselves before God and are fed at the Lord's table with the sacramental symbol of Christ's body, our true food (Ps 23:5; Lu 22:30; 1Co 11:26). The continued renewal every Sabbath testified to the design of that holy day to renew men afresh to self dedication as in God's immediate presence; as Israel by the candlestick appeared as a people of enlightenment, and by the incense altar as a people of prayer. The frankincense always on the shewbread, and consumed when the bread was to be eaten, symbolized that prayer must ever accompany self dedication, and that the fame of love must kindle prayer when we are about to hold communion with and to be nourished by Him.
In one of the oldest historical documents preserved in the OT we find, in a passage telling of David's flight from Saul, the first mention of an offering in the shape of 'holy bread,' which was presented to Jahweh in the sanctuary at Nob (1Sa 21:1-6). Here this holy bread is also termed 'the bread of the presence' (1Sa 21:6), i.e. of Jahweh, which appears in English Version as 'shewbread'
etc. literally "bread of the face" or "faces." Shew-bread was unleavened bread placed upon a table which stood in the sanctuary together with the seven-branched candlestick and the altar of incense. See
for description of this table. Every Sabbath twelve newly baked loaves, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, were put on it in two rows, six in each, and sprinkled with incense, where they remained till the following Sabbath. Then they were replaced by twelve new ones, the incense was burned, and they were eaten by the priests in the holy place, out of which they might not be removed, The title "bread of the face" seems to indicate that bread through which God is seen, that is, with the participation of which the seeing of God is bound up, or through the participation of which man attains the sight of God whence it follows that we have not to think of bread merely as such as the means of nourishing the bodily life, but as spiritual food as a means of appropriating and retaining that life which consists In seeing the face of God.