MESSIAH AND THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES



The Jewish historian Josephus referred to Tabernacles, or Sukkot, as "A feast very much observed among us."  (Ant. 15.3.3)  From the time it was first instituted at Mount Sinai, this feast has held a unique and special place among the festivals of Israel.  Its legal structure was given by God, its future significance expounded by the prophets, and its spiritual substance exemplified by Jesus during His brief life on earth. This paper will consider first the origins of the Feast of Tabernacles, then its role in prophecy, and finally its use by Christ as an object lesson to reveal to a darkened and spiritually thirsty nation the truth about Himself.  

The Feast of Tabernacles was instituted by divine command, one of three major feasts in Israel's annual cycle which required that every male in the nation appear before the Lord in Jerusalem (Deut. 16:16). The last feast in the yearly series, it was held for seven days in the seventh month, from Tishri 15 to 21 (Lev. 23:34).  This placed Sukkot in the pleasant weather of early autumn, after the completion of the harvest (Deut. 16:13).  Beginning with a day of rest, it was concluded by an eighth day, also a day of rest, featuring a closing assembly accompanied by the relevant sacrifices (Lev. 23:36).  

A time of universal joy and celebration (Deut. 16:14), the Feast of Tabernacles commemorated the wanderings of Israel in the wilderness, during which they lived in temporary shelters (Lev. 23:43).  Though life in the desert was hard, it was a time at which Israel depended wholly on God for her sustenance and direction -- a situation spiritually ideal for the infant nation.  The settled inhabitants of the Promised Land, therefore, were to remember the lessons learned during their years in the wilderness by taking seven days out of the year to live in ramshackle dwellings as their wandering ancestors had done.  

In Jesus' time, Jewish pilgrims came from the farthest distances, representing a multitude of nations.  Many would leave weeks in advance, so as to reach Jerusalem and complete the necessary preparations before the Feast began.  Upon arrival in the great city, each family would construct its own tabernacle, or booth, in which to live.  They would move into the booth on the first day of the Feast and stay there for the rest of the week -- effectively going camping with God.  

The ritual associated with the Feast was nothing short of spectacular. Thousands of "tabernacles" made of olive, myrtle, palm and other branches (Neh. 8:15) dotted the streets and roofs of Jerusalem, as the Feast opened with an exuberant celebration at the Temple.  Leaping flames from four gigantic menorot flooded the Temple Mount with daylight brilliance, while beneath the great lampstands the people danced and sang to the Lord.  Through the open gates leading from the Court of the Women the illumination of the candelabra and the sounds of worship and praise spilled out into the Court of the Gentiles.  

Over the course of the Feast of Tabernacles no less than 189 animals were sacrificed to God -- more than at any other festival in Israel's calendar.  These sacrifices included 70 bullocks, which rabbinical tradition claims were offered for the "70 nations" of heathendom (Sukk. 55b).  Every sabbatical year, the Feast also included a public reading of the entire law (Deut. 31:10-13).  The whole emphasis of the Feast of Tabernacles was that of spiritual revelation and enlightenment, given first to Israel, then through her to all the nations of the world.  

This point was further illustrated by the daily outpouring of water. Each morning the High Priest, accompanied by a procession from the Temple, went down to the Pool of Siloam and filled a golden pitcher full of water.  As the sweet savor of the last morning sacrifice rose from the altar of burnt offering into the sky, the High Priest re-entered the Temple through the Water Gate on the south side.  There he was met by another priest bearing wine for a drink offering, crushed from the grapes gathered in just before the Feast. Through silver funnels the priests simultaneously poured their libations out at the base of the altar.  The water, symbolizing the Holy Spirit poured out upon men, flowed down the Temple steps into the outer courts.  Though introduced solely by tradition, this outpouring aspect was regarded as one of the Feast's most significant features.  

On the "last and greatest day" of the Feast, the people gathered at the Temple, bearing lulav, a cluster of palm, myrtle and willow branches, in one hand and ethrog, or citron fruit, in the other.  As the libations of water and wine were poured out, the priests sang the Hallel psalms, remembering God's mercies to Israel and praising Him for His greatness.  As the singing drew to a close, the people vigorously shook their palm branches toward the altar, with the possible intent of ritually reminding God of His promises to the nation.  

The Feast of Tabernacles has a fuller and deeper significance than a mere memorial celebration, however.  It also holds a future meaning, as Zechariah the prophet made clear -- a meaning not only for Israel, but for all nations.  When Messiah comes to reign over the earth, God tabernacling in the midst of men, He will insist that the Gentile nations make a universal pilgrimage to Jerusalem to join Israel in celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles.  If any nation rebels, it will be severely punished (Zech. 14:16-19).  Jerusalem will then be the spiritual centre of the world.  

In light of the symbolic and prophetic aspects of the feast, Jesus's words and actions as recorded in John 7:2 - 10:21 take on new and profound significance.  He, God in human form, came to Jerusalem to tabernacle with the nation of Israel.  In keeping with his first advent He did not come with fanfare as a conquering King, but quietly as the Son of Man.  However, as the feast progressed He began to teach, offering spiritual light to a people in darkness.  Those with eyes to see were amazed at the brilliance of His revelation.  On the final day of the Feast, very possibly at the climactic moment of silence after the last ritual outpouring, He announced in a ringing voice that He had "living water" to offer to any thirsting soul who would come to Him and drink.  Those with ears to hear would understand His promise to pour out the Holy Spirit on those who would place their trust in Him (Jn. 14:16-17).  As if this were not clear enough, He turned to the great candelabra for another metaphor, claiming, "I am the light of the world" (Jn. 8:12).  Just as the light from the Temple shone out into the Court of the Gentiles, so the spiritual light Jesus brought would illumine the hearts of all men.  

Sadly, however, the majority of Jews were not prepared to receive the gifts Christ offered.  Though His message had come to them in the clearest possible terms, they refused to admit either their thirst or their blindness. As a final demonstration of the genuineness of His offer, and a final rebuke to those physically sighted but spiritually in the dark, Jesus made use once more of the symbols of water and light as he healed the man born blind (Jn. 9:1-7).  

The religious establishment understood what Christ was saying (Jn. 9:39-40), but stubbornly refused to accept it for themselves.  They had forgotten the lessons their ancestors learned in the wilderness, the very lessons of which the Feast of Tabernacles was designed to remind them:  the principles of humility and simple faith in God's provision. Instead, they arrogantly relied upon their own self-righteousness, denying their need of spiritual refreshment and illumination.  As a result, Christ's message would go out from Israel to those who would accept it -- just as the water flowed from the Temple into the outside world.  As He said:   

I am the good shepherd... I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen.  I must bring them also.  They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.  (Jn. 10:14,16)  

For a time the Gentiles would rejoice in the light of God's revelation and know the blessings of His Holy Spirit, while Israel stumbled about parched and unseeing.  However, in the day that the nations gather together in rebellion against the Lord to destroy Jerusalem, Israel's eyes will be opened to their Messiah (Zech. 12:10). As they cry out to their God in repentance, He will come to deliver them, trampling the pagan Gentiles in the winepress of His wrath (Rev. 19:15).  Then Jerusalem itself will become a source of living water (Zech. 14:8), and the Lord will reign supreme over the whole earth. Christ's offer, rejected once by Israel, will now be joyfully received, and the Feast of Tabernacles will find its ultimate fulfillment.   

Rebecca J. Anderson 1994


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Edersheim, Alfred.  The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.  Peabody,  Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

Master Search Bible [Computer Program]:  The Handbook to Bible Study,  The New Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, The NIV Scofield, The NIV Study Bible, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, The Wycliffe Bible  

Encyclopedia. McQuaid, Elwood.  The Outpouring.  Bellmawr, New Jersey:  Friends of Israel, Inc., 1990.

Ostrovsky, Solomon.  Moses on the Witness Stand.  Toronto:  Neon Graphics Ltd., 1991.

Whiston, William A. M., Trans.  The Works of Josephus.  Peabody, Mass.:  Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.


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