Feast of Tabernacles – The Most Joyful Feast on God’s Calendar
By: Karen Engle, ICEJ Managing Editor
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.”
Among many interesting declarations Jesus made during the last months of His life on Earth were two found in the book of John.
The first is 7:37–38, when Jesus tells His listeners that if anyone thirsts, they should come to Him and drink and that those who believe in Him will have “rivers of living water” flow from their hearts. Most Bible-readers recognize this as pointing to the Holy Spirit, who would come just a few months later after Jesus’ ascension to heaven. Then in John 8:12, Jesus proclaims that He is the “light of the world” and that whoever follows Him will not walk in darkness but have the light of life. This recalls Bible passages connecting light and truth—and how Jesus is the reality of what that means.
But if we don’t understand the first-century context in which Jesus spoke those words, we miss the deeper, profound significance of what He was communicating.
And that context was the Feast of Tabernacles.
Before unpacking those pieces of New Testament Scripture in John, let’s first consider the Feast of Tabernacles in the Old Testament and God’s instruction for Israel for how to keep this last and greatest feast on the biblical calendar.
The Feast of Tabernacles in the Old Testament
After all the sacrifices were completed on the Day of Atonement—which cleansed God’s people, the priesthood, and the earthly tabernacle of impurities—the children of Israel looked toward another year knowing their sins were covered, albeit temporarily. But one feast remained to round out the seven feasts or “appointments” God initiated at Mount Sinai: the Feast of Tabernacles. It began five days later, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of Tishri—our September/October. This year Tabernacles falls on September 29 through October 6.
During this seven-day feast, God required specific offerings and sacrifices, as well as special Sabbaths on the first and eighth days. It was the third and last “pilgrimage” feast, where God instructed Jewish men to travel to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate it and rejoice over His provision that year. It was the most joyful of all seven feasts, and because Jewish people in Jesus’ day believed the messianic kingdom would be fulfilled during this time, it came to be known as “The Time of Our Rejoicing.” Leviticus 23:41 says it was to be a statute forever, kept throughout all generations.
The Feast of Tabernacles marked the end of the biblical feasts calendar that started with Passover in the spring. In Hebrew, it’s the word Sukkot, which means “a hut, temporary dwelling, or tent.” This is because back in Leviticus, God also told His people to construct temporary shelters made of boughs, called sukkahs or “booths,” and required His people to eat and sleep in them for all seven days.
Living in sukkahs reminded God’s children of when they lived in tents surrounding the tabernacle (where God’s presence dwelt) while in the wilderness after leaving Egypt, picking up and moving on as necessary to follow God’s presence while journeying toward their more permanent home in the promised land. Even today in Jerusalem, as this feast draws near, sukkahs appear everywhere—outside apartment windows, in front of restaurants, in backyards—often colorfully decorated with fall fruits and palm fronds.
But this feast had another requirement: before they could celebrate it, God required Israel to bring in their final fall or “latter” harvest—the crops they had been watching and waiting for all summer, which included the last wheat, olive, and grape harvest, vital for Israel because it produced bread, olive oil, and wine. For this reason, Tabernacles is also known as the “Feast of Ingathering.”
“That I May Dwell among Them”
The concept of God tabernacling among His people goes back to Mount Sinai when He instructed Moses to build a structure for Him to dwell in—the tabernacle in the desert and, later, the temple in Jerusalem. However, God’s people slid into idol worship, and after centuries of ignoring warnings from God’s prophets to turn from such abominable worship, judgment came: the glory of God retreated from His dwelling in the temple sanctuary, and the Babylonians deported the Jewish people and destroyed Jerusalem. And without a temple, God’s people could no longer worship Him appropriately.
In their despair, prophets like Ezekiel encouraged the children of Israel: there was hope! One day, God would not only bring them back to the land from where they had been scattered and comfort them (Isaiah 51:3 and 52:9), but His glory—His presence—would return to the temple:
And behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east. … And the glory of the Lord came into the temple by way of the gate which faces toward the east. The Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple. (Ezekiel 43:1, 4–5)
However, though some Jews returned to Jerusalem after their release from Babylonian captivity, God’s presence did not return to the temple. Every generation since looked forward to the day when Ezekiel’s words would come to fulfillment—especially during the Feast of Tabernacles when they remembered their ancestor’s time in the desert when God’s presence dwelt among them. This was the state of things in Jesus’ day.
The Feast of Tabernacles in the First Century
While Jesus walked this earth, Tabernacles was a sight to behold. Jews traveled from surrounding nations to gather in Jerusalem for the seven-day celebration and stay with friends or relatives who had pitched tents on rooftops or in courtyards or set up sukkahs on the hills and towns surrounding Jerusalem.
The people would also hold, wave, and shake a branch of myrtle, willow, a bough of the palm tree, and citron (a lemon-like fruit)—materials also used to construct the sukkahs, as described in Leviticus 23:40. Today it’s called the “lulav” and “etrog,” and it was an act of praise to God for the bountiful harvest. God’s command to rejoice before Him was manifest in singing and music performed by the Levites in the temple throughout the festival.
Among these and many other traditions that had developed before the destruction of the temple in AD 70, two stand out that were in effect—and those traditions breathe life into the words Jesus spoke in John 7 and 8 about being “living water” and a “light to the world.”
The Water Libation Ceremony
Each morning during Sukkot, at dawn, the Jewish priests, with torches in hand, descended the Temple Mount accompanied by sounds of trumpet blasts to the Pool of Siloam, a freshwater pool in the heart of the City of David fed by the Gihon Spring. A priest would use a golden flask to draw pure water from the spring and give it to another priest to carry back up the long road to the Temple Mount area, where it was poured out simultaneously with wine from another jug on the stone altar in the temple courtyard while singing Psalm 118:25, pleading for God to “Save now—Hosanna!”
All this occurred amid extravagant joy with Scripture like Isaiah 12:3 in mind:
Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation. With joy you shall draw water from the springs of salvation.
These words in Psalm 118 and Isaiah 12 acknowledged God as Israel’s Savior, so knowing this context sheds incredible light on the significance of Jesus’ words in John 7.
According to John, the Jewish festival of Tabernacles was near. Jesus had secretly left the Galilee and had been teaching throughout the Feast, causing great dissent. Then, on the seventh day of Sukkot, the last and greatest day of the Feast—after seven days of the priests performing the water pouring ceremony—Jesus stood and said in a loud voice:
Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them. (John 7:37–38)
Those listening knew Jesus was referencing Scripture like Isaiah 12:3, as well as Isaiah 51, in which the prophet called Israel to salvation and to seek God while He could be found: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (v. 1).
Years later, the apostle John would echo those words in Revelation 22:17: “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires the water of life without price.” John’s words pointed to an eschatological time when “living water” will flow from the temple and God will be King over the whole earth (Ezekiel 47:1; Zechariah 14:8). That “living water,” however, would not be from water poured out by the priests in the earthly temple—that was a mere shadow of what was to come.
That day in Jerusalem, Jesus was declaring He was Israel’s “living water,” her Savior—God’s presence in human form. Indeed, the following spring, Jesus (whose very name means “God saves”) would enter the temple through the East Gate just a few days before Passover (Palm Sunday) on a donkey’s back and be hailed as Messiah among declarations of “Hosanna!” from Psalm 118: “Save now!”
And indeed He would. Just a few days later, Jesus would be crucified, taking on the sins of the world, and quenching spiritual thirst for anyone who would believe.
Little did Israel’s leaders realize that as they performed the water pouring ceremony each day during Tabernacles and declared God as their salvation, their salvation was in their midst.
The Temple-Lighting Ceremony
Then, every evening during the Feast, priests carried jars of oil up ladders leading to four massive 75-foot menorahs in the temple courtyard that they lit, illuminating the entire courtyard with light that spilled out into Jerusalem’s streets and among the temporary sukkahs. Because Jerusalem is on a hill, the glow could be seen even outside the city.
Entire families participated in the celebration, dancing for joy and singing. It was a visual reminder of Israel’s time in the desert when God’s presence was literally among His people in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire that hovered over the tabernacle. Throughout the Old and New Testaments—from the burning bush to the pillar of fire that rested on the tabernacle to the divided tongues at Pentecost—light has always been a sign of God’s revelation and presence.
The Jews knew God had promised to send a light, a messiah, to their sin-darkened world. This messiah would renew Israel’s glory and release them from bondage, thus restoring their joy, and this concept was especially in focus during Tabernacles. The temple-lighting ceremony was thus anticipating the return of God’s presence to the temple, as Ezekiel had promised. Even surrounding nations took part, coming to watch and listen.
It was within this context that Jesus stood up on the day after the last day of Tabernacles, the eighth day known today as “Shemini Atzeret,” and said: “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12).
Like the water libation ceremony, those who heard those words knew what Jesus was declaring: He was the presence of God in their midst, the fulfillment of Isaiah 9:1–3. The Jewish people were walking in darkness and “dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,” but now upon them, “a light has shined.”
The Future Fulfillment of Tabernacles
Isaiah calls us to remember the former things of long ago and that God makes known the end from the beginning, from ancient times what is to come (Isaiah 46:6–10). Indeed, God told us about many profound events happening in our day long ago in His Word—including things like the return of Israel to her promised land and what we can look forward to in the fulfillment of Tabernacles.
This last feast on God’s calendar points toward a coming day when, after Israel’s Messiah returns to the Mount of Olives, He will again enter Jerusalem through the East Gate—this time not as a suffering servant about to be crucified but as conquering King. God’s presence will once again dwell among His people Israel, just as the Ezekiel foretold:
I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. (36:26–27 NIV)
Perhaps most profoundly, Zechariah says the nations will come up to Jerusalem every year to celebrate Tabernacles and appear before the King of kings:
And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles. (14:16)
As ICEJ USA Director Susan Michael says, “Though the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy is for a future era, we are practicing for it now and preparing the way for amazing days to come.” It will be a day when Israel is spiritually restored and will experience unparalleled joy knowing her sin is forgiven and her King reigns. God’s “harvest” of believers will be brought in, Jews and gentiles, one in Christ. Living waters will flow from Jerusalem, and there will be no light, for the Lord Himself, the “light of the world,” will be there (Zechariah 14).
The apostle John says of that day:
Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple. And He who sits on the throne will dwell among them. They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 7:15–17)
Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. (Revelation 21:3)
With Israel restored to her proper place as a priesthood for the nations, God will once again dwell with His people in the city of the Great King—truly a joyous day for all who know Him.