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Many have attempted to say that the hilasterion is a 'mercy seat' but the word ilios does not mean 'mercy'. That word is eleos. Strong 1656. What does this Ilios mean and how does it differ from hilasterion? I know that the term propitiation is a specialized term used in English.

Romans 3:25 KJV

Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;

1 John 2:1-2 KJV

1 My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: 2 And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

Hebrews 9:5

And over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercyseat; of which we cannot now speak particularly.

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  • I agree with you. Up-voted. Ilios is a matter of composure. Its usage in the New Testament writings is clear from how Peter uses it 'Contain thyself' as he says to the Lord. The hilasterion represents the composure of God due to the containment of sin. I have researched the word and I agree.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 4, 2023 at 3:02

2 Answers 2

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The OP is correct that the words often translated "mercy seat" (meaning the lid for the Ark of the Covenant) means nothing of the kind. So, why do most English translations translate them thus in the NT, instead of the more accurate, "propitiation sacrifice" or similar (which NONE actually do.

The reason is old and complex but is equally true in the OT. So let us begin there.

In Ex 25:20, we find the first mention of the "mercy seat" (so called) which is translated from the Hebrew סָכַךְ (chakak) meaning, "to cover". This was literally true in two important ways:

  • the lid of the Ark of the Covenant was a covering for the box!
  • the lid was a covering for the law of 10 commandments which the box contained, Ex 40:20.

Further, by comparison with the several theophanies in the OT (eg, Eze 1, Isa 6) it becomes clear that the Ark of the Covenant was a symbol of the throne of God. Thus, when God dispensed judgement but heavily slanted toward forgiveness and kindness, the Cover of the Ark of the Covenant also became known as "The Mercy Seat." Indeed, Heb 4;16 calls God's throne, the "Throne of Grace".

Now, as mentioned above, the original language in the Hebrew and Greek does not indicate "mercy", but propitiation by covering of sin and the covering of the law! Thus, without defending the highly interpretive translation of "mercy seat", it is historically understandable.

Despite the above, a few conspicuous versions correctly translate the Hebrew in places like Ex 25:20, 21 as "cover" or similar such as: NIV, NLT, NASB, Brenton (of LXX), CEV, etc.

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All of the below is taken from my book 'The Cherubim of Glory' pp56-62 all of which book is available, free of charge, on my website. See my profile for the link to my website.


The word hilasterion does not convey the Greek word for mercy, eleos; the word hilasterion is derived from hilaros which in turn is derived from hilews. And hilews does not mean ‘mercy’. The w is omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet and is a long ‘o’, as in ‘post’ rather than a short ‘o’ as in ‘stop’.

The word hilews :

  1. Matthew 16:22 Hilews to thee, Lord. In no wise shall this be to thee.
  2. Hebrews 8:12 I will be hilews to their unrighteousness.

The word hilaros: 3. II Corinthians 9:7 God loveth a hilaros giver.

The word hilarotes: 4. Romans 12:8 He that showeth mercy with hilarotes 5. I John 2:2 He is the hilasmos for our sins 6. I John 4:10 His Son, to be the hilasmos for our sins

The word hilaskomai: 7. Luke 18:13 God be hilaskomai, to me, a sinner. 8. Hebrews 2:17 Make hilaskomai for the sins of the people.

The word hilasterion: 9. Romans 3:25 A hilasterion, through faith in his blood. 10. Hebrews 9:5 Cherubim of glory, shadowing the hilasterion.

It is plainly evident that, regarding the word hilasterion, two root words are important: a. Hilews b. Stereos

There is, indeed, a difficulty. The difficulty is to perceive exactly what hilews means. I grant, the word eleos is much easier. But that is no excuse for substituting it into the English translation where it does not belong. Any more than is substituting the unhelpful wording ‘make an atonement’ for the verb kathar and, also, for the plural expression kippurim.

Stereos is quite obvious. There is no excuse for attempting to call this a ‘seat’. Stereoma and sterigmos are both translated ‘steadfastness’; stereoo is rendered ‘establish, make strong, receive strength’; sterizo is given as ‘establish, fix, set steadfastly, stablish and strengthen’; stereos itself is represented as ‘steadfast, strong and sure’. This collection of words is used twenty two times in the Greek scripture and in every case, they are accepted as meaning, overall, ‘strong and steadfast’. That is, something has strength and because of that strength, it does not move.

The main - and, indeed, the only - feature of a ‘seat’ is - that it is a place to sit upon. There is no other feature to a seat. A ‘seat’ could be an upturned log temporarily placed there to - sit upon. References to the kapporeth in the Hebrew are that God dwells between the cherubim. And that God will meet with men there. From between the cherubim, from above the kapporeth, is the dwelling of almighty God. That is what the Hebrew conveys by the wording me-al in both Exodus 25:22 and in Numbers 7:89. Me-al conveys ‘from above’. But both the AV and Robert Young have translated the prepositions as ‘from off’ the ‘mercy seat’. There is nothing at all within the word kapporeth which would convey that it is a seat. Nor does me-al convey ‘from’ ‘off’. Not that ‘from off’ sounds like proper English to me, in any case.

The Septuagint in those two places translates me-al with the Greek anothen. In Greek scripture, anothen is rendered in English ‘from above’, generally, or sometimes ‘from the beginning’ or ‘from the first’, or simply ‘the top’. Anoteron is ‘above’ or ‘higher’ and anoterikos is ‘upper’. My impression is that translators rendering me-al as ‘from off’ are interpreting, not translating.

It is clear to me that they are insisting on the idea of a seat and in order to do it, they are forcing both Hebrew and English to mean what they do not mean. God is a spirit, I must point out. And, to me, the ark, complete with kapporeth, is a coffer, not a sedan 62 chair. Rightly seen, the coffer ends in the sepulchre where one was at the head and one at the feet and they said, He is not here, he is risen.

The Everlasting Testament, of which the ark and the kapporeth and the kerubim testify, requires a Testator. And the Everlasting Testament cannot be initiated until the death of the Testator. It is prevented from operating until the death of the Testator. See, ‘The Everlasting Testament’, Belmont Publications.

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