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Sukkot (Tabernacles)

And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Rev. 21:3).

The Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkot (lit. “booths”) is the seventh and last of the God-ordained feasts given to the nation Israel (Lev. 23:33-43). It is also the third of the three pilgrim feasts in which every adult Jewish male was to appear in Jerusalem before the Lord (Ex. 23:14-17). Known also as the “Feast of the Ingathering” (Ex. 23:16) due to its association with the fall harvest, the festival looks back to commemorate the time of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. It was during those forty years of wandering that God made Israel to dwell in booths (Lev. 23:43) and provided for their every need.

The Feast of Tabernacles is celebrated for eight days from the 15th to the 22nd of Tishrei.The first and eighth days are Sabbaths where no work can be performed. The seventh day of the feast is called Hoshana Raba (lit. “The Great day,” cf. John 7:37), while the eighth and last day of Tabernacles is called Shmini Atzeret (lit. “eighth day of solemn assembly”). It is on the day after Shmini Atzeret that another holiday is observed called Simchat Torah (lit. “rejoicing over the law”). The biblical observance of Sukkot consisted of four main aspects: building of booths, taking of four species of foliage, sacrificial offerings (Num. 29:12-39), and rejoicing for all seven days.

Rabbinic law and tradition dictate how this feast is observed today. The sukkah must conform to strict “building codes” as to its dimensions. It also must have a roof made from leaves and straw that allows one to see the stars at night. While the Jewish people are supposed to dwell in their sukkahs throughout the festival, eating of their meals inside the booths is counted as fulfilling this scriptural requirement. Sukkahs are built at homes, at schools, and at synagogues. In Brooklyn it is very common to see sukkahs built on front porches and even on the balconies of apartment houses! The four species of foliage include the etrog (citrus fruit), palm, and myrtle and willow branches. The branches get bound together with palm leaves and together form the lulav, which along with the etrog are waved in the synagogue at the appropriate times.

In Jesus’ day, two other customs were observed that added to the excitement and fervor of the celebration of Tabernacles. The first of these was the lighting of huge seventy-five-foot candelabras, which stood upon the Temple Mount. These giant candlesticks held four huge bowls upon them filled with oil. The light thus emitted lit the entire Temple Mount and part of the surrounding area so worshippers on their way up to Jerusalem could see these flames from miles around in every direction. The second added custom was the rite of water libation. Ancient Jewish writers refer to this aspect as the “pouring out of the Holy Spirit,” referring back to Isaiah 12:3.“Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.” The rite of water libation was performed for all seven days. A priest would take a golden pitcher down to the Pool of Siloam and fill it with water.Then, in a procession heralded by trumpets and joyful songs of praise to the Lord, he would meet another priest with a wine (drink) offering in hand.They would both go together up the ramp to the altar of the Temple. There they would pour both the water and wine into special funnels, which would cause these liquids to come out at the bottom of the altar in the form of raindrops. After the outpouring, the Hallel Psalms (Ps. 113-118) were sung as the priests completed a circle around the altar. The chanting would include Psalm 118:25, “Save now, I beseech the O Lord: O Lord, I beseech thee, send now prosperity.” While this chanting was taking place, the worshippers around the Temple would be waving their lulavs and singing and chanting the Hallel. This joyful cacophony would fill the air, continually building the excitement that culminated in a fever pitch on the seventh day of the feast. Scripture readings would include 1 Kings 8, where the Temple was consecrated and the Ark of the Covenant followed by the Shekinah came to dwell (or tabernacle) in the Temple. Also read was Zechariah 14, which is prophetic to the future Day of the Lord when Messiah will tabernacle upon the earth. Needless to say that on Sukkot the messianic hope of the nation was at its highest and most emotional level of the year.

The messianic implication of the Feast of Tabernacles is seen in the New Testament association of Sukkot with Jesus. In Luke 9:27-36, the Bible gives us the account of Jesus’ transfiguration. As His three disciples awoke from their slumber, they saw Jesus lit up as the sun, speaking with both Elijah and Moses. Peter’s first reaction was to make sukkahs. Why? He thought, This is it! The Kingdom is here! Peter did what any observant Jewish man might have done. Also, in Matthew 21:1-11, we read the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to present Himself as the Messiah of Israel as foretold in Zechariah 9:9. Although they were preparing to celebrate the Passover, when the multitudes saw Jesus entering the city on the donkey, they “spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried saying, Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.” At the sight of Jesus the Messiah, the people went from preparing to celebrate Passover right to Tabernacles! God was among them!

The prophetic aspect of Sukkot can be discerned by first looking at John 7. Here we encounter Messiah Jesus in Jerusalem during Sukkot. The Bible records that Jesus was a major issue at the feast that year. People were looking for Him, murmuring about Him, calling Him unlearned, accusing Him of being possessed by a demon, and finally trying to arrest Him. However, many did believe and recognize Him as the Messiah. Finally, on Hoshana Raba, the seventh day of Sukkot—the Great Day of the Feast, where the messianic hope was at its highest pitch, “Jesus stood and cried saying, if any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink, He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-38).

The Scripture that Jesus was referring to would naturally be those passages they had heard read to them for the past seven days, namely Zechariah 14:8. This passage looks forward to the time when the Messiah’s feet will touch down upon the Mount of Olives, a time when living waters will go out upon all the nations from Jerusalem (Isa. 12:3). Zechariah 14:7 also speaks about the light—that there will be constant light even at evening time! Notice how in John 8 Jesus declares, “I am the light of the world…!” Also, Zechariah 14:16-17 tells us how in the Kingdom Age the Gentiles will join the Jewish people each and every year in their ascent to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. Although the Bible teaches that the nations will be able to decide for themselves whether to attend, the penalty for making the wrong choice will be no rain. This warning again harkens back to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as pictured in the water libations during Sukkot.

Jesus Christ, our Messiah, is coming back to ingather the nation Israel (after cleansing it from unbelievers, cf. Zech. 12:10; 13:8). Together all nations will worship the King on this earth in a literal one-thousand-year reign of Jesus on the throne of David in Jerusalem.

The Feast of Tabernacles has also a present-day application for all born-again believers. As temples of the Holy Spirit—literally, tabernacles for the Spirit of God—believers are themselves sukkahs! As living habitations for a thrice-Holy God, we must take care of how we honor and use our own tabernacles until the day the Lord calls us home.

Sukkot looks back to when God led the nation through the wilderness, living among them in a pillar of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. It also looks forward to the messianic Kingdom when Jesus the Messiah will rule and reign on earth. The final fulfillment of the Feast of Tabernacles will be in the eternal state—when “God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Rev. 21:3.