Summary: Memorial Day: Being remembered by those we love is something we hope will happen when we pass away, but the most important thing is to be remembered before God when we stand in His presence - to be carried on the heart of Christ before God.
In the year 1868, after the Civil War, General John A. Logan declared that May 30th would be a day to “decorate with flowers the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” After World War I the day was set aside to honor all of the American wars, and the custom was extended to pay homage to deceased relatives and friends, both military and civilian.(1)
On Memorial Day we recognize the names of those who have died in the armed services, and we recall all of our loved ones, young an old, who have gone on before us; but the main thing is we “remember” them. That’s why it’s called Memorial Day. It’s a day of remembering. Being remembered by the people we love is something we all hope will happen when we pass away, but the most important thing is to be remembered before God when we stand in His presence; and being remembered before God is what we’re going to see being emphasized in our passage from Exodus.
I’ve entitled our message for this morning, “Memorial Stones Before God,” and I want to get us started with a quick explanation, or a quick setup, of what’s to follow. In Exodus chapter 28, we read where the Lord commanded that Moses’ brother Aaron, along with his four sons, be set aside from the children of Israel as holy priests (vv. 1-2); and the Lord commissioned artisans to fashion sacred vestments for them, containing a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a tunic, a turban, and a sash (vv. 3-8); and we then start reading the following words of instruction beginning in Exodus 28:9-12:
Memorial Stones Carried on His Shoulders (vv. 9-12)
9 Then you shall take two onyx stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel: 10 six of their names on one stone, and six names on the other stone, in order of their birth. 11 With the work of an engraver in stone, like the engravings of a signet, you shall engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel. You shall set them in settings of gold. 12 And you shall put the two stones on the shoulders of the ephod as memorial stones for the sons of Israel. So Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord on his two shoulders as a memorial.
In verse 12, we encounter a word that some of us probably don’t recognize, which is the word “ephod.” Easton’s Bible Dictionary defines the word “ephod” as “a sacred vestment worn originally by the high priest, [and] afterwards by the ordinary priest . . . It was made of fine linen, and consisted of two pieces, which hung from the neck, and covered both the back and front . . . The two pieces were joined together over the shoulders by clasps or buckles of gold or precious stones.”(2)
These verses tell us that on the shoulder straps of the ephod, there would be two onyx memorial stones set in place, on which would be inscribed by an engraver the names of the twelve tribes of Israel; six names on each stone, in order of birth (vv. 9-11). There would be “the names of the six eldest on the stone upon the right shoulder” and “the names of the six youngest on the stone upon the left shoulder . . . so that, upon the first stone, were engraved the names of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, and Naphtali; and on the second stone, the names of Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.”(3)
Now, when I try to imagine what these onyx shoulder stones might have looked like, I envision something like the “epaulets” worn on the shoulders as part of military dress uniforms, such as what we wore on our Air Force “blues” when I was in the Civil Air Patrol. An “epaulet” is defined as “an ornamental shoulder piece on . . . the coat or jacket of a military uniform” (Lexico, Oxford). You will also see them on fire and police department uniforms, and on the shoulders of the white dress shirts worn by airline pilots; and they usually have small yellow bars across them indicating rank.
The text tells us about the purpose of these two onyx stones: They would be worn by Aaron as he entered the holy of holies; and thereby, the names of the twelve tribes of Israel would be seen by the Lord (v. 12). The reason for displaying these two onyx stones before God in His holy tabernacle is so they would serve as “memorial stones” to the Lord (v. 12), so that the Lord would extend His mercy and favor toward Israel. But, according to commentator John Gill, these stones were not meant “to put the Israelites in mind [on account of] the merits of their ancestors . . . for none of their works were meritorious, and some were not good, and not worthy of remembrance.”(4)