Whenever an Israelite sinned, his communion with God was broken. Consequently, the sacrifices for sin were never finished and the priests’ work was never done. In spite of the continual sacrificing, however, many unknown or forgotten sins would accumulate, for which no sacrifice had been made. The Day of Atonement was intended to make sacrifice for all those sins that had yet not been covered.
It was a great day of liberation of the conscience. The Israelite knew that whatever sins may have been missed in the daily sacrifices would now be taken care of. The slate would be completely clean, at least symbolically for a while. Yom Kippur was a time a release and relief. The devout Jew longed for the Day of Atonement. He could not himself go into God’s presence, but the high priest would go in for him and he would be delivered.
Very early on the Day of Atonement, the high priest cleansed himself ritually and put on his elaborate robes, with the breastplate (near the heart, signifying that he carried the people in his heart) and ephod ( on the shoulder, signifying that he had power on their behalf) representing the twelve tribes. Then he began his daily sacrificing. He, the priest would have to sacrifice for his own sin. Very likely he would have already slaughtered twenty-two different animals by the time he reached the event known as atonement. It was an exceptionally busy and bloody thing that he did on this day. After finishing all these sacrifices, he took off the robes of glory and beauty and went and bathed himself again completely. He then put on a white linen garment, with no decoration or ornament at all, and performed the sacrifice of the atonement.
When the high priest was done with the sacrifice of atonement, he put the robes of glory back on. In the garment of white linen, the high priest took the coals off the bronze altar, where the sacrifice was going to be made. He put them in a gold censer with incense and carried it into the Holy of holies. Then the high priest went out and took a bullock purchased with his own money, because it was to be offered for his own sin. After slaughtering the bullock and offering the sacrifice, he had another priest assist him in catching the blood as it drained off. He swirled some of it in a small bowl and carried it into the Holy of Holies, where he sprinkled it on the mercy-seat. The people could hear the bells on his robe as he moved about. He hurried out, and the people breathed a sigh of relief at seeing him. Had he entered the Holy of Holies ceremonially unclean, he would have been struck dead.
When he came out, two goats were waiting for him by the bronze altar. In a small urn were two lots to determine which goat would be used for which purpose. One lot was marked for the Lord and the other for Azazel, for the scapegoat. As each lot was drawn it was tied to the horn of one of the goats. The goat designated for Jehovah was then killed on the altar. Its blood was caught in the same way as that of the bullock and was swirled in the bowl as it was carried into the Holy of Holies. This blood, too, was sprinkled on the mercy-seat, but this time for the sins of the people. Again he hurried back out.
He then placed his hands on the goat that remained, the scapegoat, symbolically placing the sins of the people on the goat’s head. That goat was taken far out into the wilderness and turned loose, to be lost and never to return.
The first goat represented satisfaction of God’s justice, in that sin had been paid for. The second represented satisfaction of man’s conscience, because he knew he was freed of the penalty of sin.
The two goats actually are two parts of one offering (Leviticus 16:5). They represented propitiation and pardon, two aspects of the one atoning sacrifice.
The rabbis designated the Day of Atonement with the simple word Yoma, “The Day.” It was on this day that sin was dealt with in a more adequate way tan in any other ceremony of the Mosaic system.
The instructions and restrictions of this day grew out of the historical incident of the rebellion and disobedience of Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, when they intruded into the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle., and were immediately put to death by the direct judgment of God (Leviticus 10). The great Day of Atonement offered an explanation for the sudden death of these two men. The utter holiness of God and the utter sinfulness of man are made clear in this service.
The word for “atonement” is the Hebrew kaphar, which means ‘to cover,” or “to ransom, to remove by paying the price.” God did not take away sins in the Old Testament; He covered them until Christ came and removed them (Acts 17:30, Romans 3:24-25, Hebrews 9:8,9,15).