SUKKOT (Leviticus 23:39-43)
Traveling to Jerusalem for Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) is an unforgettable experience. Everywhere you look, booths are set-up in courtyards, on balconies, atop roofs and all along the narrow winding streets of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. There is an inescapable atmosphere of energy during this final feast that exceeds the characteristic optimism of the Jewish people living in Israel.
Also on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep the feast of the Lord for seven days; on the first day there shall be a Sabbath-rest, and on the eighth day a Sabbath-rest. And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. You shall keep it as a feast to the Lord for seven days in the year. It shall be a statute forever in your generations. You shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.’”
The Hebrew word Sukkot— plural for sukkah (booth)—aptly describes the last of the Fall Feasts called Tabernacles in our English Bibles. Occurring after crops are harvested, Sukkot provides an annual opportunity for thanking God for His bounty and is also known as Z’man Simchateinu, the “Season of Our Rejoicing.”
The central feature of the celebration is the booth built by each household out-of-doors. It must be large enough to accommodate the family, have at least three walls and use foliage as a rooftop covering giving protection from the sun during the daytime, while at the same time permitting a view of the stars at night. Many begin assembling their booths on the day following Yom Kippur ensuring plenty of time to complete construction and decorations before the fifteenth of Tishri.
Beginning at sunset on the first night and continuing throughout the holiday, meals are eaten in the sukkah. More time is spent together in the booth than in homes during the week long celebration. Families relax together, and weather permitting, some may even sleep or nap in their sukkahs simulating the real life experience of their ancient ancestor’s time in the wilderness.
God’s requirement to “dwell in booths” is a commemorative reminder of His provision and care as He led Israel through the wilderness to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The directive to Moses to gather four different kinds of foliage in preparation is unique to the Feast of Tabernacles:
”And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days” (v. 40).
In Jewish tradition, the four kinds are identified as follows:
- The “fruit of the beautiful tree” is an etrog or citron, a thick-skinned citrus fruit similar to a lemon.
- The lulav is a palm branch.
- The hadas is the branch of the myrtle tree.
- And, the aravah is a willow branch.
During the synagogue service on each of the feast days, the Messianic 118th Psalm is recited with emphasis on the words,
“Save now, I pray, O Lord; O Lord, I pray, send now prosperity. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Ps. 118:25-26).
The word translated “save now” is hoshanah in Hebrew. As the psalm is recited, the four kinds are waved during the Hoshanah procession encircling the bimah (the platform where the Torah scroll is read). On the seventh day, the procession circles the bimah seven times in what is called the Hoshanah Rabbah (Great Hoshanah).
SUKKOT CELEBRATIONS IN THE BIBLE
There are two specific mentions of Sukkot in the Hebrew Scriptures and both capture the intense joy associated with the feast.
Did you know that King Solomon timed the dedication of the temple to heighten the characteristic joyfulness of Sukkot? For seven days after the biblical feast, the people of Israel celebrated the completion of the temple in Jerusalem with great joy.
Solomon began the celebration demonstrating the same authentic transparency of his father, King David. There is no hint of stoic formality that we associate with the pomp and circumstance of a building dedication as Solomon knelt on a platform built for the occasion, faced the altar with outstretched arms and offered a heartfelt prayer of gratitude to God (2 Chr. 6:12-13).
He and all the people gathered in Jerusalem for the occasion understood that the Temple of YHWH was unique and no mere shrine, but the one place on earth where people could approach the true and living God in prayer. Thirteen times Solomon asked God to hear the prayers of His people and six times he entreated God to respond with His grace. Assured that God had heard Solomon’s prayer, the nation spent the next seven days in joyful worship of the One-true God.
Another celebration of Sukkot documented in Scripture has a connection to the return of a Jewish remnant to Jerusalem in 538 BC after exile in Babylon. When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem to rebuild the walls some ninety years later, the project was completed on the 25th day of Elul in an unprecedented 52-day marathon of cooperation and backbreaking work.
Three days later on Rosh Hashanah, the people of Israel met for a public reading of Scripture. As Ezra and the priests read the Torah scroll and interpreted it, the people wept with contrition. Ezra instructed,
“Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (v. 10).
Reading this passage in the Hebrew Tanakh adds depth to our comprehension of his intent, “Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength” (v. 10, JPS).
Joy has an active as well as passive component. The source of joy is God Himself with the association that joy is experientially realized when we choose to rejoice in Him.
The next day following Ezra’s admonition to the people, the leadership alerted the congregation to the upcoming Feast of Tabernacles (vv. 13, 14). With nearly two weeks before Sukkot to prepare, the people were commanded to,
“Go out to the mountain, and bring olive branches, branches of oil trees, myrtle branches, palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written” (v. 15).
That year following 160 years since the beginning of the Babylonian captivity, Sukkot was celebrated with a joyful enthusiasm and energy unmatched since the days of Joshua (8:17).
SUKKOT IN THE FUTURE
Sukkot is not only a joyful commemoration of God’s dealings with Israel in the past, but also exuberantly typifies the fulfillment of everything God has purposed through His covenantal relationship with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
All of the unilateral covenants God made with Israel will be fulfilled in the Messianic Kingdom with Messiah ruling the world from David’s throne. Speaking through the prophet Zechariah, God promised,
“Thus says the Lord: ‘I will return to Zion, and dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth, the Mountain of the Lord of hosts, the Holy Mountain’” (Zech. 8:3).
In an obvious Messianic context Amos the prophet assured,
“’On that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David which has fallen down, and repair its damages; I will raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old’ . . . Says the Lord who does this thing” (Amos 9:11).
It is no coincidence that the onset of the Messianic Kingdom typified by Sukkot begins as the Jewish remnant collectively cries out to God for deliverance (Is. 64:1-4, Zech. 12:8-9).
As never before, Zechariah reveals that the nations of the world will join in the celebration of Sukkot during the Messianic Kingdom with an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem in observance of the feast (14:16). In the future, celebration of Sukkot will serve to unify all the inhabitants of the planet under the rule of Messiah with the Jewish people providing spiritual instruction to the nations of the world.
Instituted as a joyous celebration, Sukkot is an experiential reminder of God’s faithfulness in the past, provision in the present and promised covenantal fulfillment in the future.
Despite the circumstances of our times, we can choose to live each day rejoicing in the Lord because His Word is true! In the Messianic Kingdom, the inescapable atmosphere of joy foreshadowed in Sukkot will be the reality for all who have placed their faith in the One-true God.
1) Different types of sechach (sukkah roofs). (Photo credit: By Yoninah (Own work)/[CC BY 2.5/(/http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)]/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
2) Terraced apartments with sukkah on the balconies in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo credit: By Effi B. (Own work)/[CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0]/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
3) City of Sukkas, Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo credit: By Effi B. (Own work)/[CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0]/Wikimed/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
4) Canvas-sided sukkah on a roof in Jerusalem topped with palm branches and bamboo mat. (Photo credit: By Gilabrand (Own work)/[CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
5) Boxed and cushioned etrog, one of the Four Kinds at the market in Bnei Brak. (Photo credit: Dr. Avishai Teicher Pikiwiki Israel [CC BY 2.5]/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
Copyright © 2016 Charles E. McCracken, devotional comments only (updated). Reprint with permission. Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.