The most considerable of the ornaments of the high priest was this breast-plate, a rich piece of cloth, curiously wrought with gold and purple, etc., two spans long and a span broad, so that, being doubled, it was a span square, Exod. 28:16. This was fastened to the ephod with wreathen chains of gold (Exod. 28:13, 14, 22) both at top and bottom, so that the breast-plate might not be loosed from the ephod, Exod. 28:28. The ephod was the garment of service; the breast-plate of judgment was an emblem of honour: these two must by no means be separated. If any man will minister unto the Lord, and do his will, he shall know his doctrine. In this breast-plate,
I. The tribes of Israel were recommended to God’s favour in twelve precious stones, Exod. 28:17-21, 29. Some question whether Levi had a precious stone with his name or no. If not, Ephraim and Manasseh were reckoned distinct, as Jacob had said they should be, and the high priest himself, being head of the tribe of Levi, sufficiently represented that tribe. If there was a stone for Levi, as is intimated by this, that they were engraven according to their birth (Exod. 28:10), Ephraim and Manasseh were one in Joseph. Aaron was to bear their names for a memorial before the Lord continually, being ordained for men, to represent them in things pertaining to God, herein typifying our great high priest, who always appears in the presence of God for us. 1. Though the people were forbidden to come near, and obliged to keep their distance, yet by the high priest, who had their names on his breast-plate, they entered into the holiest; so believers, even while they are here on this earth, not only enter into the holiest, but by faith are made to sit with Christ in heavenly places, Eph. 2:6. 2. The name of each tribe was engraven in a precious stone, to signify how precious, in God’s sight, believers are, and how honourable, Isa. 43:4. They shall be his in the day he makes up his jewels, Mal. 3:17. How small and poor soever the tribe was, it was a precious stone in the breast-plate of the high priest; thus are all the saints dear to Christ, and his delight is in them as the excellent ones of the earth, however men may esteem them as earthen pitchers, Lam. 4:2. 3. The high priest had the names of the tribes both on his shoulders and on his breast, intimating both the power and the love with which our Lord Jesus intercedes for those that are his. He not only bears them up upon his heart, as the expression here is (Exod. 28:29), carries them in his bosom (Isa. 40:11), with the most tender affection. How near should Christ’s name be to our hearts, since he is pleased to lay our names so near his! and what a comfort it is to us, in all our addresses to God, that the great high priest of our profession has the names of all his Israel upon his breast before the Lord for a memorial, presenting them to God as the people of his choice, who were to be made accepted in the beloved! Let not any good Christians fear that God has forgotten them, nor question his being mindful of them upon all occasions, when they are not only engraven upon the palms of his hands (Isa. 49:16), but engraven upon the heart of the great intercessor. See Song 8:6.
II. The urim and thummim, by which the will of God was made known in doubtful cases, were put in this breast-plate, which is therefore called the breast-plate of judgment, Exod. 28:30. Urim and thummim signify light and integrity; many conjectures there are among the learned what they were; we have no reason to think they were any thing that Moses was to make more than what was before ordered, so that either God made them himself, and gave them to Moses, for him to put into the breast-plate, when other things were prepared (Lev. 8:8), or no more is meant than a declaration of the further use of what was already ordered to be made. I think the words may be read thus, And thou shalt give, or add, or deliver, to the breast-plate of judgment, the illuminations and perfections, and they shall be upon the heart of Aaron; that is, “He shall be endued with a power of knowing and making known the mind of God in all difficult doubtful cases, relating either to the civil or ecclesiastical state of the nation.” Their government was a theocracy: God was their King, the high priest was, under God, their ruler, the urim and thummim were his cabinet-council; probably Moses wrote upon the breast-plate, or wove into it, these words, Urim and Thummim, to signify that the high priest, having on him this breast-plate, and asking counsel of God in any emergency relating to the public, should be directed to take those measures, and give that advice, which God would own. If he was standing before the ark (but without the veil) probably he received instructions from off the mercy-seat, as Moses did (Exod. 25:22); thus, it should seem, Phinehas did, Jdg. 20:27, 28. If he was at a distance from the ark, as Abiathar was when he enquired of the Lord for David (1 Sam. 23:6), then the answer was given either by a voice from heaven or rather by an impulse upon the mind of the high priest, which last is perhaps intimated in that expression, He shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel upon his heart. This oracle was of great use to Israel; Joshua consulted it (Num. 27:21), and, it is likely, the judges after him. It was lost in the captivity, and never regained after, though, it should seem, it was expected, Ezra 2:63. But it was a shadow of good things to come, and the substance is Christ. He is our oracle; by him God in these last days makes known himself and his mind to us, Heb. 1:2; John 1:18. Divine revelation centres in him, and comes to us through him; he is the light, the true light, the faithful witness, the truth itself, and from him we receive the Spirit of truth, who leads into all truth. The joining of the breast-plate to the ephod denotes that his prophetical office was founded in his priesthood; and it was by the merit of his death that he purchased this honour for himself and this favour for us. It was the Lamb that had been slain that was worthy to take the book and to open the seals, Rev. 5:9.