The following post is part two of a two-part series. Part one may be found here.
Last time we began a two-part series on the importance of Israel’s fall religious season by looking at the significance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We saw that these religious days demonstrate the gravity of sin and foreshadow in the prophets important ways that the coming Messiah would atone for iniquity. Today we want to continue our study with a look at how the final fall festival brings joy in the midst of anguish over sin.
Sukkot is the most joyous of the required Jewish festivals. Families observe the celebration by lodging in temporary huts adorned with leafy branches (called a sukkah from which the name Sukkot derives). The rituals include a daily waving ceremony with four kinds of fruit and boughs (citron, palm fronds, and myrtle and willow branches), and a nightly water-drawing rite (connected to Isa 12:3, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” [ESV]). The festive nature of Sukkot is underscored in its modern Jewish epithet: “The Time of Our Joy.”
The biblical prescriptions for Sukkot first occur in Exodus 23 (where it is called the “Festival of Ingathering”). From Exodus we learn several key features: (1) the festival occurred just after the turn of the Jewish year to consecrate the autumn harvest, (2) all Jewish males were required to attend, and (3) the festival provided occasion for great joy over God’s provision through the produce of the fields. In Leviticus 23 the festival is first called the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles (Hebrew sūkkôt). Further requirements include the fruit and leafy bough ritual (v. 40), additional sabbath and sacrifice stipulations (vv. 35–39), and the command to reside in huts or booths for seven days (v. 42). As motivation, Moses provides an explicit link to Israel’s remembrance of the exodus and wilderness wanderings: “So your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters [sūkkôt] when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Lev 23:43 [NIV]).
The Law provides further regulations for Sukkot in Numbers 29:12–40. Each day the priests sacrificed a prescribed number of bulls, rams, lambs, and goats, totaling 199 sacrificial victims by the end of the feast. The majority of these sacrifices (96%) were burnt offerings, functioning to propitiate for sin and to represent visibly the worshippers’ complete devotion to God (Lev 1:1–17; 6:8–13). Finally, in Deuteronomy 31:9–13 Moses commands that every seven years the priests must read aloud the Law at a centralized location during this festival.
While the festival gets scant attention through most of the OT, Nehemiah mentions that after a lengthy lapse the post-exilic Judahites revived the festival due to their renewed obedience to the Law (Neh 8:14–17). The post-exilic prophet Zechariah then draws a connection to the festival with a climactic messianic prophecy. Zechariah ends his book with a preview of the millennial kingdom in which all nations will make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival: “Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles” (Zech 14:16 [NIV]). Zechariah adds that the Lord will punish with drought and plague any nation that fails to observe the feast (14:17–18). In response to Zechariah’s warning, Jewish religious leaders over time developed a water libation ceremony for Sukkot. The mishnah Sukkah relates that each morning during the festival the priests transported water from the pool of Siloam to the Temple Mount. They poured out the water into a silver bowl on the altar while invoking the Lord to send the seasonal rains.
This water libation ceremony is important background for a significant event associated with the Festival of Sukkot in the New Testament. In John 7, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Booths (John 7:2, 10). He teaches publicly in the temple to the utter astonishment of the pilgrims thronging the city (7:14–15). On the final day of the festival, Jesus points to the vivid imagery of the water libation ceremony to proclaim that he alone offers the refreshment of true, living water. In referring to the Holy Spirit, Jesus declares: “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38 [NASB]). Jesus offers eternal life and the future ministry of the Holy Spirit for those who believe on him as Messiah in the church age. This promise of the Spirit is probably best seen as the new relationship believers enjoy with God following Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension when Spirit baptism is inaugurated on the day of Pentecost and the church is born (Luke 24:49; Acts 2:1–4).
What are some implications of Sukkot for the Christian? First, the festival displays God’s continuing faithfulness to his people. God cared for the Israelites in the exodus and wilderness wanderings first by removing their sin and then by meeting their needs for physical sustenance (Deut 29:5). Sukkot was a yearly reminder that God had blessed them abundantly through the harvest of summer fruits. Today God continues to meet graciously the needs of his people both spiritually and physically (1 Tim 6:17; Acts 14:17).
Second, the festival underscores that the believer’s life, while not without sorrows, is to be characterized ultimately by joy (Rom 12:12; 15:13; Phil 3:1; Phil 4:4; 1 Thess 5:16). Although the observances of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer ample opportunity for contrition and reflection, Israel’s repentance over sin culminated in the festival of Sukkot with a season of celebration for God’s redemptive grace and goodness.
Third, the festival foreshadows other important ways that Jesus consummates the messianic promises of the Old Testament at the end of the age. The jubilation over the harvest during Sukkot prefigures the rejoicing that will take place during the millennial kingdom when God “in-gathers” the people of Israel as well as the nations to acknowledge the supremacy of Jesus Christ. Following the travail of chastening that Israel experiences in the latter half of the Tribulation, God will save the remnant of the nation. As Rolland McCune observes:
As a result of the Tribulation chastening, Israel, through individual repentance, will turn to God in Christ when he comes to earth to set up His kingdom. They will be born again as a new nation of regenerated citizens in one day. The saved remnant of Tribulation Israel will inherit the kingdom of God and receive the promised blessings which were forfeited by the historical nation because of unbelief (A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3:383).
The prophets highlight this coming eschatological salvation for the nation. Hosea prophesies to that future generation: “Come, let us return to the LORD. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence” (Hos 6:1-2 [NIV]). Jeremiah adds: “It will be a time of trouble for Jacob, but he will be saved out of it” (30:7 [NIV]). Daniel also records that “there will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered” (Dan 12:1 [NIV]). At that time Jesus will ascend to his rightful Davidic throne and reign as the consummate King (Matt 25:31; Rev 3:21). During this Jewish holiday season we can be thankful for the faithfulness of God to his people and look forward to the coming day when our risen Messiah will fulfill all the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament.