Jesus in the Feasts of Israel: Tabernacles (Sukkot)

Name Scriptures Time / Date Purpose Fulfillment
Tabernacles Lev. 23:33-43; Num. 29:12-39; Deut. 16:13-17, 31:10-13 15th – 21st of Tishri, with an 8th day added as a climax to all the feasts (September/October). To commemorate God’s protection during the wilderness wanderings and to rejoice in the harvest. Restoration: The peace and prosperity of God’s Kingdom on earth.

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Background

The Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, is the seventh and final feast God gave Israel. It is the most festive of all the feasts and is mentioned more often in scripture than any of the others. The word sukkot in Hebrew is translated “tabernacles” in English and means booths or huts. Throughout this seven-day feast, the Jews are required to live in temporary shelters to remind them of God’s provision during their 40 years of wilderness wandering. The holiday also is called the Feast of Ingathering (Ex. 23:16; 34:22) because it is observed after all the fall crops are harvested. This happy feast commemorates God’s past provision in the desert and His present goodness in providing the fall harvest.

The feast begins on the 15th day of Tishri (September/October), five days after the Day of Atonement. The first day of Tabernacles and the day after Tabernacles (known as Shemini Atzeret) are sacred assemblies, or Sabbaths. No work is permitted on these days. This is one of three pilgrim feasts, along with Unleavened Bread and Weeks (Pentecost), requiring all Jewish males to appear before the Lord in the Temple.

The Biblical Observance

Four passages of scripture outline the observance of Tabernacles: Lev. 23:33-43; Num. 29:12-39; Deut. 16:13-17, and Deut. 31:10-13. A great number of sacrifices are required each day: one goat, 14 lambs, two rams, and a number of bulls – 13 on the first day, then decreasing by one each day. In addition, the accompanying meal offerings and drink offerings are presented. The work is so intense that all 24 divisions of priests help carry out the sacrificial duties. 

It is during the Feast of Tabernacles that Solomon dedicated Israel’s first Temple. The Shekinah glory of God descended from heaven to light the fire on the altar and to fill the Holy of Holies (2 Chron. 5:3; 7:1-4).

Jewish pilgrims from around the world travel to Jerusalem for this feast. They build booths, or huts, in which they live for one week – all carefully located within a Sabbath day’s journey (a little more than half a mile) of the Temple. At sundown, the ram’s horn (shofar) blasts and the celebration begins as fires from thousands of Jewish camps blaze in a half-mile radius around the Temple.

Water-libation ceremony. Israel’s rainy season is from November through March. Tabernacles gratefully acknowledges the harvest and, at least in part, beseeches God for the coming moisture necessary for future harvests. So each morning of the feast, the high priest pours a pitcher of water from the Pool of Siloam into a special basin in the inner court of the Temple as a visual prayer for rain. At the same time, a drink offering of wine is poured into another basin. Three blasts of a silver trumpet follow, and the people listen as the Levites sing the Hallel (Ps. 113-118). The congregation waves palm branches toward the altar and join in singing Psalm 118:25: “Lord, save us! Lord, please grant us success!”

Psalm 118 is a messianic psalm and gives the feast a messianic focus. Centuries after this Psalm was penned, the crowds in Jerusalem greet Jesus with shouts of Hosanna (“save now”) and wave palm branches as He enters the city triumphantly (Matt. 21:8-9; Luke 19:37-38; John 12:12-13). This imagery continues in heaven where the saints worship around the throne with palm branches in hand (Rev. 7:9-10).

Temple-lighting ceremony. On the second night of Tabernacles, the people gather in the spacious outer court of the Temple known as the Court of the Women. Four towering lamp stands are in the center of the court, each with four branches of oil lamps. The wicks are made from the worn-out linen garments of the priests, who ascend tall ladders to keep the lamps filled with olive oil. The elders of the Sanhedrin perform torch dances all night long. Levites stand at the top of the 15 steps leading down to the Court of Women. As flutes, trumpets, harps, and other stringed instruments accompany them, they sing the “Fifteen Psalms of Degrees” (Psalms 120-134). With each psalm, they descend one step.

This celebration is repeated every night from the second night to the final night of Tabernacles. The brilliant lights, bathing the Temple and flooding the streets of Jerusalem, remind the Jews of the descent of the Shekinah glory in King Solomon’s day as the people look forward to the return of the Shekinah in the days of the Messiah (Ez. 43:1-5).

It is the day after Tabernacles that Jesus proclaims in the Temple, “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Later that day, He heals a blind man and declares, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). The Pharisees bristle at both statements. The best they can do is to accuse Him of healing a man on the Sabbath. Incidentally, there are no Mosaic laws against healing on the Sabbath; the tradition of the Pharisees is the only thing Jesus violated.

Hoshana-Rabbah ceremony. On the seventh day of the feast, the Temple water-pouring ceremony, which is performed each morning throughout the week, takes on great importance. Jewish tradition holds that it is on this day that God decides whether there will be rain for the next year’s crops. Instead of three silver-trumpet blasts, there are seven sets of three blasts. Rather than one circuit around the altar, the priests make seven circuits. The day is known as the Hoshana Rabbah, or “Great Hosanna.”

It is during this ceremony that Jesus stands up and shouts, “If anyone is thirsty, he should come to Me and drink! The one who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within” (John 7:37-38). The Jewish leaders are infuriated; some want to seize Him, but no one lays a hand on Him  A debate ensues among the people, many of whom do not realize, or will not believe, He is the Son of David, born in Bethlehem, the Messiah (John 7:40-44). The chief priests and the Pharisees rebuke the Temple officers, who had the authority to arrest Jesus for disturbing the ceremony, but the officers reply, “No man ever spoke like this” (John 7:46).

The Modern Observance

The sukkah, or tabernacle, is the primary symbol of the feast today. As soon as Yom Kippur is past, observant Jews build rough booths in their yards or on their patios. The booths are three-sided and covered with branches. The roofs are thatched so that there is partial shade in the daytime, and so the stars can be seen through it at night. Throughout the feast, Jewish families eat their meals in the booths, and some even sleep there. These booths remind the Jews of their hastily built housing in the wilderness.

Leviticus 23:40 instructs the Jews to take fruit, palm branches, the boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook and rejoice for seven days. Observant Jews may build their booths with these items, or carry them in their hands as they rejoice, or both.

At the synagogue, congregants circle the building and sing Psalm 118. The Torah scroll, rather than the ancient altar, is the center of the ceremony. Since the destruction of the Temple, the feast is more closely connected to Yom Kippur. Hashanah Rabbah, the last day of the feast, is seen as the last day on which the judgments God declared on Yom Kippur could be reversed, so observant Jews ceremonially beat willow branches on the synagogue pews to remove the leafs, symbolizing repentance and the removal of sin.

 

The Fulfillment

The Bible often compares the harvest with God’s judgment (Hos. 6:11; Joel 3:13; Matt. 13:39; Rev. 14:14-20). In keeping with this imagery, God designed the Feast of Tabernacles to foreshadow the day in which He will gather His people to Himself and send away the wicked (Mal. 4:1-3). When the Messiah returns and sets up His earthly kingdom, He will bring together Jew and Gentile to worship Him in Jerusalem (Zech. 14:16-17).

Further, the Lord Himself will tabernacle, or pitch His tent, with the redeemed (Ez. 37:27-28; Rev. 21:3). The Shekinah glory will be seen again (Isa. 60:1, 19; Zech. 2:5), covering Mount Zion with a cloud by day and a fire by night (Isa. 4:5-6). God’s people will enjoy intimate, face-to-face fellowship with their Savior.

An interesting observation: Some believe Jesus was born during the Feast of Tabernacles, based on scriptural information regarding the timing of John the Baptist’s birth. If that’s true, it more fully illustrates the truth that Jesus is the Tabernacle of God. John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and took up residence (lit. and tabernacled or and dwelt in a tent) with us.” Col. 2:9 states, “For in Him the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily.” Jesus will again tabernacle with us when He returns in power and great glory.

In another way, the shelters that are built represent the physical bodies in which we temporarily live today – bodies that eagerly await their glorification at the return of Christ (Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 15:51-57; 2 Cor. 5:1-4).

The Old Testament visions of the coming of all nations to worship at Jerusalem refer to the Feast of Tabernacles on the occasion of their pilgrimage (Zech. 14:16-21). This feast speaks of Christ’s millennial reign – a new beginning without the ravages of sin. The earth gives bountifully, all animals are docile (Isa. 65:25), armies no long march against each other, every man sits under his own fig tree (Micah 4:4), and righteousness becomes a lasting reality on the earth. As the Apostle John wrote in Rev. 22:20b: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

 

This concludes our study of the Jesus in the Feasts of Israel.