Traveling to Jerusalem for Sukkot (a.k.a. the Feast of Tabernacles) is truly 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 and vibrancy during this final major feast instituted by God following the exodus from Egypt that exceeds the usual optimism of the Jewish people living in Israel.
LEVITICUS 23:39-43 (emphasis added)
“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.”
Sukkot—which is actually the plural form of the Hebrew word sukkah (booth)—aptly describes the feast where temporary tent-like structures reminiscent of ancient Israel’s dwellings during the wilderness experience are still built annually.
Occurring after crops are harvested, the seven-day feast of Sukkot provides an opportunity for thanksgiving to God for His bounty and is also called Zehman Simkhateinu or “Season of Our Rejoicing.”
Experiencing Ancient History
The central feature of the celebration is the booth built by each family out-of-doors. It must be large enough to accommodate the household, have at least three walls and use foliage as a covering giving protection from the sun during the daytime, yet 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 sundown on the first night and continuing through the intervening days, meals are eaten in the booth. More time is spent together as a family in the booth than in their home during the week-long feast. Families relax together; and, weather permitting, some may choose to sleep 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 Unique Features
The directive to Moses to gather four different kinds of foliage in preparation for Sukkot is unique to the celebration of the feast:
“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).
Tradition identifies the four kinds as follows:
- the “fruit of the beautiful tree” is an etrog or citron—a thick-skinned citrus fruit similar to a lemon,
- the lulav—a palm branch,
- the hadas—the branch of the myrtle tree, and
- the aravah—a willow branch.
During the service on each of the feast days of Sukkot, 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 the Hebrew word hoshanah. As the psalm is recited daily in the synagogue, the four kinds are waved during the Hoshanah procession encircling the bimah (the platform where the Torah is read). On the seventh day, the procession circles the bimah seven times in what is called the Hoshanah Rabbah (the Great Hoshanah).
There are two specific mentions of Sukkot in the Hebrew Scriptures and both capture the intense joy associated with the feast.
The Dedication of the First Temple
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 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. 6:13).
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.
Following the Babylonian Exile
In 538 B.C., a Jewish remnant returned to Jerusalem after exile in Babylon. Some 90 years later, Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem to rebuild the walls. In an unprecedented 52-day marathon of cooperation and backbreaking work, the walls were restored with construction completed on the 25th day of Elul.
Three days later on Rosh Hashanah, the people met to hear the reading of the Torah. As Ezra and the priests read the Torah scroll and interpreted it, the people wept with contrition.
“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” (Neh. 8:10).
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 Tanakh).
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 (i.e. “the heads of the father’s houses of all the people with priests and Levites”) alerted the people to the upcoming Feast of Sukkot (vv. 13, 14, NKJV).
With almost two weeks before Sukkot, 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.
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 Israel.
Unilateral Covenants of Israel Fulfilled
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).
Not Just for Israel
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 planet earth under the rule of Messiah with the Jewish people providing spiritual instruction to the nations of the world.
Instituted as a joyous celebration for Israel, Sukkot is an experiential reminder of God’s faithfulness in the past, His provision in the present and His promised covenantal fulfillment in the future.
For all who place their faith in the One-true God, the joy associated with Sukkot can be characteristic of your every day reality. Allow the joy of the Lord to be your strength by choosing to live each day rejoicing in the Lord!
1) City Of Sukkahs, Jerusalem, Israel. By Effi B. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolios
2) Terraced apartments with sukkah on the balconies in Jerusalem, Israel. By Effi B. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolios
3) Canvas-sided sukkah on a roof in Jerusalem topped with palm branches and bamboo mat. By Gilabrand (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolios
4) Boxed and cushioned etrog, one of the Four Kinds at the market in Bnei Brak. By Dr. Avishai Teicher Pikiwiki Israel [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolios
5) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds the lulav and the etrog during the Sukkot holiday. GPO photo by Amos Ben Gershom. By http://www.flickr.com/people/69061470@N05 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolios
6) Different types of sechach (sukkah roofs). By Yoninah (Own work) [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolios
Charles E. McCracken is an international Bible teacher, long-time friend of Israel and advocate for the Jewish people. With 40 plus years of ministry experience, Rev. McCracken is known for authenticity in communicating biblical truth that makes his presentations relevant for those seeking to understand the significance of Israel and the church in Bible prophecy. He staunchly supports the nation of Israel and the Jewish people’s right to exist and live in peace.
© Charles E. McCracken 2016, devotional comments only. Repost/Reprint with permission from the author. Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.