The feast of tabernacles is rich with symbolism for believers in Jesus the Messiah. It speaks to us of the past, the present and the future – of the past because it recalls our deliverance from slavery; of the present – because it reminds us that we are sojourners; and of the future – because it foreshadows the celebration of the great spiritual harvest at the end of the age.
BACKGROUND TO THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES
Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden where they had dwelt in God’s presence. This was the beginning of man’s exile. Although there are over two thousand years from the creation of Adam to Abraham the link is actually quite short when we see that Abraham was contemporary with Shem, who was contemporary with Methuselah, who was contemporary with Adam. Thus the story of the exile from Eden and of God’s promise of redemption would have been quite familiar and personal to Abraham. The fathers of our faith lived as nomads, dwelling in temporary shelters (sukkot), looking ahead to the time when God would restore them to His paradise.
By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:9-10).
The literal meaning of the Hebrew word “Sukkah” is “woven. “ It refers to the temporary shelters which were woven together from branches and leaves to protect livestock.
Jacob, however, went to Succoth, where he built a place for himself and made shelters for his livestock. That is why the place is called Succoth. (Gen. 33:17)
After four hundred years of slavery in Egypt the story of the exile from Eden, which would have been retold to succeeding generations of Abraham’s descendants, must have been very much overshadowed by the misery of their present predicament. When they were finally led by Joshua into the promised land, they took possession of cities that others had built. The LORD instituted the Feast of Tabernacles to remind the Israelites of their complete dependence on the Lord’s daily leading and provision during their sojourn through the desert.
When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you; a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant; then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery (Deut. 6:10-12).
Having been delivered from four hundred years of slavery the Israelites must have thought that their journey had ended, but although they entered the promised land they did not enter God’s rest. This was not the restoration to the Garden of Eden and to God’s presence that Abraham was looking for: If Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day (Hebrews 4:8).
THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES IN THE LAW OF MOSES
Say to the Israelites: On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the Lord’s Feast of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days. … So beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the Lord for seven days; the first day is a day of rest, and the eighth day also is a day of rest. On the first day you are to take choice fruit from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and poplars, and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. Celebrate this as a festival to the Lord for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month. Live in booths for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in booths so your descendants will know that l had the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God (Lev. 23:34; 39-43).
The feast of tabernacles or booths was the last of the appointed festivals, Purim and Hanukkah being of post-Mosaic origin. It was one of the three feasts in which every male in Israel had to appear before the Lord. It closed the sacred cycle and Sabbatical year, occurring as it did in the seventh month. As the last feast on the Sabbatical calendar, representing the final ingathering of the great harvest and the joyful celebration that will follow, the number seven is imprinted in this feast. The feast was in the seventh month, lasted for seven days, and the number of sacrifices, of which there were more than for any other festival, were divisible by seven. Little wonder that it was also called the “Feast of the Lord”.
Following closely after Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), it was a particularly joyous celebration, representing the joy of those who have been reconciled to God through the forgiveness of sin. One of the names applied to this feast was “the season of our joy.”
According to Jewish tradition the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire which was given to guide the Israelites day and night first appeared to Israel on the 15th of Tishri, the first day of the feast. Moreover, Moses is said to have come down from the mountain and announced to the people that the tabernacle of God would be pitched in the midst of their tabernacles on this same day.
There are many aspects to this Feast, but the two main features mentioned in the Torah are:
- The taking of the choice fruit (etrog) from the trees and the waving of the lulav (palm fronds and leafy branches) in celebration before the Lord.
- The making of temporary shelters, “sukkot,” in which the people would live for seven days.
The festivals reflect the agricultural economy of Ancient Israel. The Feast of Tabernacles was also called the “feast of ingathering,” because it was a time of thanksgiving for the autumn harvest and of prayers for abundant rain to prepare the soil for the next harvest. It marked the end of the harvest and the start of a new season, foreshadowing the spiritual harvest at the end of the age which will take us into the season of joy at the renewal of all things.
Every male in Israel had to appear before the LORD, bringing with them their tithes and freewill offerings for the upkeep of the Temple and the Priesthood who performed the sacrificial rituals on behalf of the whole nation. No Israelite was to appear empty-handed before the LORD! They were to give in proportion to the blessing that they had received from the LORD. (Dt. 16:17) The people appeared before the Lord waving the lulav in one hand and carrying the etrog (citrus fruit) in the other, the lulav as a reminder of their sojourning in the desert, the etrog representing the fruitfulness of the land which the Lord had given them. The spiritual application of these things in the life of the believer is readily apparent. We have been appointed to bear fruit that will last. Jesus told his disciples, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (Jn.15:8).
As believers we celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles looking both forward and backward. We look back with thankful hearts to our deliverance from bondage to sin, but are conscious that the harvest has not yet been fully gathered in. We also look ahead in eager anticipation to the joyous celebration that will accompany the final ingathering of the harvest.
Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:37-38).
There is a beautiful allusion to the ‘feast of ingathering’ in the book of Revelation. The multitude of worshipers before the throne is pictured carrying palm branches and singing a song reminiscent of the great Hosanna.
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches (lulav) in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7: 9-10).
Further on in the passage it is said that the One who sits upon the throne “will spread his tent over them” and, “lead them to springs of living water.” Herein are represented all of the great themes of the feast of Tabernacles.
THE “SUKKAH” – OUR TEMPORARY DWELLING
The people were instructed to leave the security of their permanent dwellings and to live in booths made from leafy branches and palm fronds for seven days. This was to remind them that when they sojourned through the desert, living in booths, the Lord led and sustained them for forty years. The Lord is our strength and our refuge.
The spiritual lesson in this is that through faith in the atoning blood of Jesus the Messiah we have been delivered from bondage to sin, but we still live within this earthly tent, this body of sin, while we await the redemption of our bodies. As we sojourn in our earthly tent we are completely dependant on him to lead us safely to the promised land. Man’s sojourn in the desert began with the exile from the garden of Eden and will end with the restoration of all things to the state from which man fell. The Hebrew people were delivered from slavery in Egypt, but due to their slavery to sin were exiled once again from the promised land. By this, the Lord was showing that we need to be delivered from this body of sin. The tent in which we live is a temporary dwelling. The apostle Paul wrote: “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” ( Romans 6:6).
The Lord spoke through the prophets that He would make His dwelling with man in the person of the Messiah.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (Is.7:14).
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14).
Jesus, the Messiah King, took upon himself a lowly body and dwelt among his people in the humility of a servant. He was born in a manger where Joseph and Mary had taken temporary shelter. He did not live in a palace, nor did he indulge himself with the luxuries and pomp which the kings of this world are accustomed to.
As they were walking along the road, a man said to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:57-59).
We are still sojourners. We must not become complacent in this world this present world is not our permanent home. Meanwhile we rejoice in the certain promise of Jesus,
“In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-3).
Those who have their minds set on earthly things lose sight of the world to come. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven (Phil.3:19). Esau was faithless and willing to give up his inheritance in exchange for the immediate gratification of his earthly hunger. We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. It is very easy to become ensnared by the superficial trappings of worldly comforts so that we fail to realize just how vulnerable and naked we are in this world.
“You say, I am rich; 1 have acquired wealth and do not need a thing. “But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” (Revelation 3:17-18)
The sukkah reminds us of our weakness and vulnerability: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary, troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands” (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1).
The Feast of Tabernacles was not just to remind the people that they lived in booths, but also that God dwelt among his people. They were led by his glorious presence and the tabernacle of the Lord was pitched in the midst of their tents. The Sukkah reminds us that as we live within this mortal, temporary body, God also dwells with us as he leads us by His Spirit to our eternal dwelling.
Only when we put aside this earthly tent and receive our glorified immortal bodies will we rejoice in the ultimate fulfilment of the Feast of Tabernacles, yet we rejoice even now because we have been given the firstfruits of the Spirit guaranteeing our citizenship in the heavenly Jerusalem which is yet to be revealed.
Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1:14).
The three apostles were given a glimpse of the glory to come when they witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus on the Mountain.
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of .lames, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters; one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:1-5)
It is significant that Peter’s immediate response to seeing Jesus transfigured, with his face shining like the sun, was to erect booths (sukkot). He saw in this event the ultimate fulfilment of the typology of the feast of booths – that God would dwell (tabernacle) among his people. However, the time of Messiah’s glory had not yet come – his journey to the cross as the suffering servant in a lowly earthly body still lay before him.
Despite the sophistication of this modern world we remain as naked as the day that Adam and Eve fell into disobedience. Only when Jesus, our Messiah and Redeemer, returns in glory will we, too, be clothed in the glory of our heavenly dwelling.
But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:4).
Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life (2 Corinthians 5:1-4).
POST-MOSAIC CUSTOMS IN THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES
Two very important features of the Feast of Tabernacles which were of post Mosaic origin had been included in the celebration by the time of Jesus. These were the Water Libation ceremony and the Illumination of the Temple. Together they symbolised the outpouring of the Spirit and the glory of God’s dwelling with men and Jesus used both of them to declare his Deity.
1. The Water Libation
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation (Isaiah 12:3).
The water libation had a twofold significance:-
Sukkot marked the change of seasons and the end of the agricultural cycle. It was believed that the annual rainfall, which Israel, lacking any natural reservoir, was completely dependant upon, was determined by God at that feast. Thus it was a symbolic and ritual prayer for the blessing of abundant rain.
Second and more important, the ritual of the water libation was prophetic of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as foretold by the prophets, with particular reference to Isaiah 12:1-6. Surely God is my salvation (literally “Yeshua” – the correct Hebrew name of Jesus); I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation (Yeshua). In that day you will say: “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted (Isaiah 12:2-4).
Alfred Edersheim notes that it was believed that it was only through joy that the Holy Spirit dwells in man, hence the singular joy attached to the water pouring ritual. The water pouring ceremony was celebrated with such joy that there was a proverb which said, “He that hath not seen the joy of the drawing and the pouring of the water; hath not seen joy in this life.” A priest, accompanied by a joyful procession of worshippers carrying palm branches was sent with a golden pitcher to draw water from the Pool of Siloam. As the priest entered the Water Gate, so-named in reference to this ritual, he was greeted by the blasts of trumpets. The water was poured out into a silver basin at the foot of the altar together with the wine of the drink offering. These mingled together and flowed back through special pipes to the Brook of Kidron. On the seventh day of the feast, called “the day of the great Hosanna,” while the water and wine was being poured out at the foot of the altar, the priests, in procession, circled the altar seven times chanting the words of the Hallel, “O Lord, do save we beseech Thee; O Lord we beseech Thee do send prosperity, Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord,” while the crowd of joyous worshipers waved their palm branches.
It was on the last and greatest day of the Feast, when the ritual of drawing water from the Pool of Siloam had been performed that Jesus stood up and declared in a loud voice: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive (John 7:37-39). One can imagine the riveting effect that these words must have had upon the throngs of worshippers.
Shortly after making this bold proclamation in the Temple Jesus encountered the man who had been born blind. After spitting on the ground to make a salve for the man’s eyes he told him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam (which means Sent). “So the man went and washed, and came home seeing (John 9:7). Jesus is the One sent by the Father. All of us were spiritually blind and deaf before we came to Him to receive healing. All of us need to be washed in the Pool of Siloam. It is indeed with joy that we draw water from the wells of salvation (Yeshua).
Outpouring of the Spirit
The disciples were filled with fear and sadness immediately after the crucifixion. Even after they had witnessed the resurrection and ascension they remained timid and fearful. However, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on them on the Day of Pentecost, they were transformed, filled with joy and boldly proclaimed the word of God in the power of his Spirit.
“The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).
It is ironic that when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the believers on the Day of Pentecost some of the onlookers mocked them, accusing them of having “consumed too much wine,” even though it was only nine in the morning.
You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound. (Psalms 4:7)
Joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. We are filled with inexpressible joy when God pours his Spirit into our hearts, cleansing and renewing us from within. Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “….God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (5:5).
As he pours forth rain upon the earth so that we may enjoy a bountiful harvest, he pours forth his Holy Spirit to give abundant life to those who were dead in their transgressions and sins. It is the living water of the Spirit which wells up within us springing up unto eternal life. Those who thirst for truth and righteousness are exhorted to come to Jesus for the water that wells up to eternal life:
“. . . whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:10-13).
The drawing of the water from the Pool of Siloam is a very symbolic ritual when one considers the word of God spoken through Isaiah, chapter 8:
Because this people has rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloah and rejoices over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, therefore the Lord is about to bring against them the mighty floodwaters of the River – the king of Assyria with all his pomp. It will overflow all its channels, run over all its banks and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it, passing through it and reaching up to the neck. Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land. O Immanuel! (Isaiah 8:6-8)
The waters of Shiloah are the same as the Pool of Siloam. The gently flowing waters of Shiloah are a metaphor for the House of David, and represent none other than the Messiah whom Israel rejected. The gently flowing stream of Shiloah is unimpressive next to the mighty river Euphrates. Those who are impressed by the mighty kingdoms of the world overlook the gentle stream of Shiloah.
2. The illumination of the Temple
The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned (Matt. 4:16 / Is. 9:2).
The ceremony of the illumination of the Temple was instituted during the time of the second temple. It was symbolic of the Shechinah that once filled the Temple and was closely allied in symbolism with the water pouring ceremony. The dedication of Solomon’s Temple and the descent of the Shechinah occurred at the feast of tabernacles.
The well known Jewish Christian author, David Baron, described the illumination of the Temple as follows: “At the conclusion of the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles the worshipers congregated in the Court of the Woman, where a great illumination took place. Four huge golden lamps or candelabras were there, each with four golden bowls, against which rested four ladders. Four youths of priestly descent ascended these with large pitchers of oil from which they filled each bowl. The old worn breeches and girdles of the priests served for wicks for these lamps. So great and brilliant was the light that, according to a saying, “There was not a court in Jerusalem that was not lit up by the light of the ‘house of water-pouring’.”
Most scholars are convinced that it was against this backdrop of the glorious illumination of the Temple that Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8.12). Only the Messiah – God with us, could dare to make such a claim.
“In him was life, and that life was the light of men” (John I: 4).
Contemplating the words of Jesus within the framework of this ceremony gives us a wonderful picture of the glorious illumination that occurs when the light of the knowledge of God is shed abroad in our hearts:
“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness, ‘made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us (2 Corinthians 4: 6- 7).
We have this treasure and this bright light shining within us, but it is contained within the clay of this earthly body awaiting the glory that will be revealed. “. . . our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:18).
God has put his seal of ownership on us by putting his Spirit in our hearts. Although the glory is veiled in the flesh we have the assurance that we are being transformed into his likeness through the work of the Holy Spirit within us.
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
THE FULFILMENT OF TABERNACLES
Tabernacles pointed ahead to the time when people of all nations would flock to Jerusalem to worship the Lord (Zech. 14:16). This is being fulfilled as the Lord gathers people from every tongue, tribe and nation to worship in the new Jerusalem – “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly . . .” (Heb.12:22). At the end of the age the glory of this Jerusalem is unveiled:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4).
Jewish tradition also speaks of two Jerusalems: “For centuries, religious Jews have concluded their Pesach Seder as well as their services on Yom Kippur with the words ‘Lashanah haba-ah biru-shalayeem – next year in Jerusalem.’ Most revealing of all is the strange and wondrous anomaly that even Jews who already live in Jerusalem repeat this hope twice yearly. Our tradition speaks of two Jerusalems: Yerushalayeem shel matah, the earthly city, and Yerushalayeem shel ma-alah, its heavenly counterpart. A song composed in 1967, first popularized during the June war, has become almost a second national anthem for the Israelis. It is called Yerushalayeem shel zahav, ‘Golden Jerusalem.” (The Meaning of Judaism by Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn p.173).
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever (Revelation 22:1-5).
This will be the restoration of all things. The way to the tree of life is opened, the curse is lifted and man is fully restored to the glorious state from which he fell to dwell in the presence of God forever. There is no longer a temple for the Lord God is the temple, and there is no need for the light of a lamp or the light of the sun for He will give them light.