The People, The Land and the Future of Israel Conference – Toronto, Canada, October 2-3, 2015
According to the Bible, the Jewish people are the chosen people but what are they chosen for exactly? What did God have in mind by making them a people set apart? The ancient prophets speak about Israel’s future repentance, redemption and eschatological rejoicing in the coming of her Messianic King in great detail. Yet, none of the Jewish Festivals are mentioned – none, that is, except for Sukkot, otherwise known as the Feast of Tabernacles. Among all the feasts of Israel, Sukkot is the only holiday that will be observed by all of the redeemed nations of the world, Jew and Gentile alike after the Second Coming of Christ (Zechariah 14:16).
The prophet Zechariah wrote about a future day when all the nations of the earth, not only the Jewish people, will be called upon to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. This command might seem mysterious, but in light of Israel’s biblical calling and mission, the place accorded to Tabernacles is actually very well suited.
The Calling and Mission of Israel
The future observance of Sukkot by the nations of the world is connected with Israel’s election and mission. The universal nature of God’s plan for the Jewish people stretches back to His covenant with Abraham. In that holy agreement, God promised,
“And I will bless those who bless thee, and one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).
Israel’s election must always be linked with her mission to the Gentiles. From faithful Abraham’s seed, God would raise up His chosen people, Israel, to be a blessing to the nations! Israel was chosen to be God’s vehicle of blessing to the world!
Moses wrote regarding the choosing of Israel:
For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples (Deuteronomy 7:6-7).
God’s choice of Israel was not based upon Abraham’s merit or the obedience of the nation. God chose Israel because He decided to love the nation.
… the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery from the hand of Pharaoh King of Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:8).
God’s electing love falls upon unworthy sinners as He is a God of grace and a God of purpose. Oftentimes His election is linked to a particualr purpose He wants to accomplish and He chooses and uses whomsoever He wills – including Israel. Rarely in Scripture do those God chooses to use deserve the privilege!
God chose the Jewish people as His means to bless all mankind. God chose to love the Jewish people, and through this nation, to express His love for the world. Israel’s chosenness did not mean to assure indivudal Jewish people of personal salvation. Rather, God’s choice garauntees the chosen nation of ultimately fulfilling His plan as God never fails to keep His promises. So although it may seem like God limited His line of promise by choosing one nation above others, His redemptive plan was always universal in nature so that His plan of redemption would be offered to the entire world.
This is why the Apostle Paul wrote,
Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? (Romans 11:12-15)
Witnesses of the One True God
The prophet Isaiah announces that the nation of Israel would be a witness for God among the nations:
You are my witnesses, declares the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen in order that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He. Before me there was no God formed, and there will be none after me (Isaiah 43:10).
In this passage, the prophet paints the picture of a cosmic law court, where God is the judge, and the nations of the world stand trial for their idolatry. Israel is the star witness for the prosecution, chosen to testify on God’s behalf. Isaiah further details the testimony of the Jewish people regarding the nature and character of God, the prophet writes,
I, even I, am the Lord and there is no savior besides me (Isaiah 43:11).
Israel’s mission was to proclaim to the world that the God of Israel is the one and only true God and there is no other Savior but Him.
Israel was to be more than a witness to the nations; they were also to be intercessors for the Gentiles. They were commissioned for this holy responsibility at Mount Sinai.
God called to Moses and said,
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I upbore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now then, if you will indeed hear my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:4-6).
Once again God expressed His concern for the world when He declared, “…all the earth is mine.” He chose Israel from among all the peoples of the earth for an eternal purpose – that they might be His vehicle to restore and reclaim a rebellious world. Israel was not chosen for their own sake, but for the sake of the nations. God describes their unique position as “a kingdom of priests.” Their role was to intercede between the sinful world and a holy God.
In the passage above, God called the people by an endearing term: “a special treasure.” Although Israel was intended to be God’s treasure and possession, we must remember that the entire world belongs to the Lord and is the subject of His redemptive concern. It is God’s intention for Israel to serve as a nation of missionary priests mediating His truth and redemption to the nations.
Israel failed in their mission to reach the world. Not only were they disobedient to the commandments of God, but they did not extend themselves in missionary activity. And yet, the God of all grace did not renege on His choice. He would still use the nation of Israel to bless the world and ultimately fulfill His promises to and through the Jewish people (Romans 11:11-29).
Israel did not fulfill their mission as a witness to the Gentiles and so God completed the task Himself. He sent His Son Jesus to live perfectly under the Law, to be a light to the nations and to intercede once for all on behalf of Jews and Gentiles. The faithlessness of man can never thwart the faithfulness of God. The Gentiles most assuredly would share in the salvation brought by the divine seed of Abraham. Paul wrote,
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree,” in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:13-14).
It is tempting for some to think that Israel’s role in world redemption is completed, but quite the contrary– Israel remains chosen and still has a role to play in the future! The Apostle Paul declared:
Now if their transgression be riches for the world and their failure be riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be? (Romans 11:12)
And again he wrote, For if their rejection be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? (Romans 11:15)
The Apostle spoke of a future day when Israel will once again don the mantle of obligation and fulfill her role as a missionary nation as Israel will again be used by God to bring the message of the Messiah to the nations; for Israel will be central to His Kingdom ministry.
Isaiah spoke of a day when Jerusalem would be restored, both physically and spiritually:
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not keep quiet, until her righteousness goes forth like brightness, and her salvation like a torch that is burning. And the nations will see your righteousness, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord will designate. You will also be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord and a royal diadem in the hand of your God (Isaiah 62:1-3).
In that day,
Israel will not be the tail, but the head of the nations (Deuteronomy 28:13).
Jerusalem will be the spiritual focal point of the world because the King of Jerusalem, the Prince of Peace, will reign in His chosen city. Isaiah wrote of that joyful occasion:
Break forth, shout joyfully together, your waste places of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared His holy arm in the sight of all the nations, that all the ends of the earth may see the salvation of our God (Isaiah 52:9-10).
The day is coming when a restored and renewed Israel will be a light to the nations, as the destiny of Israel is linked to the destiny of the world. Their testimony will be glorious and true because the One who is all-glorious in truth will sit upon His throne. In that day, the Jewish people will be “life from the dead” for the nations of the earth.
Universal Themes in the Feast of Tabernacles
God’s concern for the Gentiles is evident in the Talmudic writings regarding Sukkot. In Jewish sources, Israel’s role in world redemption was thought to be a major theme of the Feast of Tabernacles. The rabbis suggest that the seventy bullocks offered on the last day of the feast correspond to the seventy nations of the world and therefore, on Sukkot, the nation of Israel offered sacrifices on behalf of the Gentiles.
This is reiterated in the Midrash:
“At the festival of Tabernacles we offer up seventy bullocks (as an atonement) for the seventy nations, and we pray that rain will come down for them” (Psalm 109:4).
Israel is viewed here as a nation of intercessors for the sins of the Gentiles. This universal theme is also recounted in the later and more mystical literature of the Kaballah and the Zohar as well.
The traditional Bible reading on the second day of Sukkot is taken from the fourteenth chapter of the book of Zechariah. An additional portion read on Sukkot speaks about the War of Gog and Magog (Ezekiel 38:13-39:16). This seems incongruous – what thematic relationship could this Scripture portion have with the Feast of Booths? While it may not be evident to the casual reader, the common thread uniting these two passages is God’s universal concern for the redemption of the nations.
In Zechariah 14, the judgment against rebellious nations is pictured as God withholding life-giving rains from those nations disobedient and who do not come to Jerusalem to worship the Messianic King and celebrate Tabernacles.
Curiously, the judgment in Ezekiel 38 upon hostile nations is also described as rain – as judgment rains “hailstones, fire and brimstone.
The Lord declared, “I shall magnify myself, sanctify myself and make myself known in the sight of many nations; and they will know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 38:23).
Whether in blessing or in judgment, God intends to show the nations that He is the Lord.
The Meaning of the Prophecy
The prophet Zechariah spoke of the end of days, when Israel and the nations would celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. In that day, Israel will be vindicated and her enemies destroyed. At the end of this great tribulation period, the Jewish people will cry out to God; and in His great mercy, the Lord will send His Messiah, Jesus, to deliver them from annihilation.
“I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn” (Zechariah 12:9-10).
Israel will be restored, both spiritually and nationally. Her enemies will be crushed and the Messiah will reign on His throne over Israel and the nations of the earth:
“The Lord will be king over all the earth; in that day the Lord will be the only one and His name the only one” (Zechariah 14:9)
God does not want to destroy the nations, but to bring them into submission to His Throne. He will command the faithful among the Gentiles to come to Jerusalem and celebrate the Feast of Booths (Zechariah 14:16).
Why did God choose Sukkot, and not one of the other major festivals, as the test of obedience for the Gentiles? Some scholars feel that Sukkot, as the Feast of Ingathering, is the most appropriate time for God to gather the human fruit for His kingdom. Others believe that the heathen, who have been brought out of the wanderings of this life into the blessedness of God’s kingdom, celebrate the Feast of Thanksgiving out of their overflowing gratefulness to the God who redeemed them.
Most importantly, though, Zechariah describes the conversion of the nations to the one true God. In every age, God gives His people obligations. The Feast of Tabernacles must be viewed as one of the kingdom obligations of the Gentiles. It is their opportunity to worship God as well as His test point for their obedience. The prophet warned the recalcitrant and disobedient nations that there would be bitter judgment for any who would not keep the feast. The judgment, in keeping with the theme of the Feast of Ingathering, calls for God to withhold rain. If the nations were not willing to worship God in Jerusalem, He would withhold the provision of food as well as His blessings.
Yeshua the Messiah and the Feats of Tabernacles
Jesus is the fulfillment of all the Jewish festivals and this includes Sukkot. First of all we understand that Jesus Himself is the fulfillment of the Festival in that He is God in the flesh who “tabernacled” among us. As John writes,
“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
The Greek term used for “dwelt” is skene, a word which refers to pitching a tent. The image is easy to grasp – God pitched a tent which was His flesh, veiling His pure glory, through the incarnation. Jesus pitches His tabernacle and dwelled among us for a short sojourn until the day reign. In that day The Messiah King will pitch a far larger tent that would include both Israel and the nations under His sovereign leadership and Lordship.
Jesus celebrated the Festival in John 7 where one of His greatest and most profound announcements of who He is came at the time of the Feast. It is actually the seventh day of the Feast, Hoshana Rabbah and it was the custom of the Jewish people during this period to send a band of Levites with choir and orchestra down to the pool of Siloam to gather running water in giant urns and to then bring them back to the altar.
They would march around the altar crying our Hosheanah – Lord Save us…Lord save us… many times over…they would then pour the water out from the urns at the base of the altar. This symbolizes the future hope of the Jewish people looking towards the day when Messiah would come and pour His Spirit upon the people of Israel in fulfillment of Joel 2:28-29:
“It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind: And your sons and daughters will prophesy, Your old men will dream dreams, Your young men will see visions. “Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.”
These events were to take place when the Messiah appeared on earth according to Jewish tradition. This pouring out was foreshadowed in the Temple by the pouring out of the water at the base of the altar. The water drawing ceremony as it was known was a portrait of the day when God would send His Messiah and His Spirit and the Jewish people would come alive spiritually as never before.
Jesus understood this tradition and therefore, on the seventh great day of the Feast He stood up and the following took place:
Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified (John 7:37-39).
Clearly, Jesus was telling the crowds gather from around the Jewish world for the Feast – one of the three of which it was commended for Jewish males to go up to Jerusalem…He was the Messiah, the Spirit of God is now poured out…and He is the living water and those who drink or believe in Him will never thirst again!
The Ultimate Sukkot
We would be remiss not to mention the ultimate and eternal significance of the Feast of Tabernacles, for the Apostle John wrote,
And I heard a loud voice from the thrones saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among men and they shall be His people and God Himself shall be among them, and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, crying, or pain, the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).
We believe God will fulfill the kingdom promises to the Jewish people and establish the throne of Jesus in a literal but renewed Jerusalem. But that is not the end of the story – there is more to come. Ultimately, the whole earth will become the Sukkah booth of God and He will reign through His Son for all eternity. This reminds us of Solomon’s prayer, where he understood so clearly God’s intention to fill His redeemed earth with His very presence. Doesn’t this give a whole new perspective to why Tabernacles is called the Season of Our Joy? What greater joy can there be than to be in the presence of God forever?