The Feast of Tabernacles – Nehemiah 8:13-18

This chapter begins on the first day of Tishri – the Jewish New Year according to one calendar – and the seventh month of the year according to the other. It was also the first day of three important Festivals – Trumpets, Tabernacles and the Day of Atonement. On this occasion, the day began with a brief prayer followed by reading some of God’s Law. Ezra may have selected Leviticus or perhaps Numbers or Deuteronomy. And after six hours of reading and instruction, he probably approached Leviticus 23 or it might have been Numbers 29 – both of which speak of the Fall Feasts.

After taking a break for the evening, on the second day of the month, the people regathered – perhaps at dawn once again. They had tasted that the Word of God is good, and they thirsted for more. Notice that, included at Ezra’s feet, where the dozen men who had stood beside him the day before. The experts in the law were admitting they were not as proficient as they had thought, and in humility they assembled with the rest of the nation to learn the will of the Lord. As the reading proceeded, the people began to realize that they were in the midst of a very sacred time of the year. Coming up was the second festival of the season – the Feast of Tabernacles. Everyone was so excited about the Lord’s recent blessings and what God’s Word was telling them that they immediately made preparations for this second celebration.

It is said in verse 17 – “And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths: for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so.” This leaves the impression that the Feast of Tabernacles had not been observed in a thousand years. But it is hard to imagine that Samuel, David, Josiah, Hezekiah and other great servants of God had not urged Israel’s obedience in this. And we are specifically told that under Solomon, after the Temple had been built – Israel kept this feast. What the Holy Spirit is saying is it had never been so whole-heartedly kept as it was on this occasion. And just think about it, no generation before these refugees from the captivity were so close to the generation who first settled in the land and first began to keep the Feast of Tabernacles. As Nehemiah tells us “There was VERY GREAT gladness” among the people.

This evening I’d like to point out a few things about this feast and then move on into one New Testament celebration of day.

Nehemiah’s celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles.

Let’s begin by looking once again at the Lord’s instructions in Leviticus 23:33-44. Please turn to Leviticus. “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, The fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the feast of tabernacles for seven days unto the LORD.” Ezra was reading about this festival about two weeks before it was scheduled to take place that year. And by the way, in the year 2020 it is to begin on October 2 and end on the 9th. “On the first day shall be an holy convocation (gathering): ye shall do no servile (secular) work therein. Seven days ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the LORD: on the eighth day shall be an holy convocation unto you; and ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the LORD: it is a solemn assembly; and ye shall do no servile work therein.” Skip down to verse 39. “Also in the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when ye have gathered in the fruit of the land, ye shall keep a feast unto the LORD seven days: on the first day shall be a sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a sabbath.” The Feast of Tabernacles was particularly joyful. It celebrated the Lord’s blessings throughout the historical trip from Egypt to the Promised land. And it was the time of the year’s last major harvest – “When ye have gathered in the fruit of the land.”

“And ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. In later years, the people coming to Jerusalem from other places to celebrate the Feast brought with them boughs of pine and myrtle trees from the hills to the north. From closer to the city came palm branches and willows – just about anything green was welcome and used. Those who lived in the city would go out to the Mount of Olives for the materials they needed. They required these boughs to build and decorate booths in which to stay for eight days. Much later, Jewish merchants would import these materials from as far away as Spain. Some of these booths, especially in the early days, were made out of “boughs of thick trees.” Eventually, when larger numbers of people were involved, the booths were not made entirely from boughs, but they would be decorated with the aromatic limbs from these various trees. “And ye shall keep it a feast unto the LORD seven days in the year. It shall be a statute for ever in your generations: ye shall celebrate it in the seventh month.” This was a festival which was supposed to be kept by Israel for ever. And as we shall see, it was kept during the days of the Lord Jesus. “Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths: That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. And Moses declared unto the children of Israel the feasts of the LORD.” The Hebrew word is translated “booth” 11 times and “tabernacle” 12 times. It is referring to temporary shelters – arbors, bowers, alcoves. Not only was it a time of thanksgiving for another good harvest season, but it was a memorial of Israel’s forty years wandering in the wilderness and all of God’s blessing to that generation. And again, I remind you that it lead up to the Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur.

I have read that eventually other things became a part of the Jews’ celebration. On one day seventy bullocks were sacrificed, and other special sacrifices were made throughout the week. The temple-trumpets were blown daily several times during the week. There was a ceremonial outpouring of water drawn from the Pool of Siloam, in commemoration of the miraculous water from the rock at Meribah of which we read in Exodus 17. The inner court of the temple was illuminated by great candelabra, and there was a night-time torch parade, reminding Israel of the pillar of fire which often guided the nation during their march to the land. And everywhere a person looked throughout the city there were these booths or small tabernacles. They were in the streets, in courtyards between houses, in the court of the temple and on the flat roofs. Remember that this was one of the feasts when every male in Israel was to gather in Jerusalem, so there were thousands of visitors and these small booths were absolutely essential to house everyone. But most of all, those booths were to remind the people of their humble beginnings in the wilderness wanderings of their forefathers.

Throughout this particular Feast of Tabernacles in Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s day, the people continued to hunger for the Word of God. Ezra complied to their request and kept reading and teaching. It was a “protracted” Israelite revival meeting. In the words of Matthew Henry, “The more we converse with the word of God, if we rightly understand it and be affected with it, the more we shall covet to converse with it, and to increase in our acquaintance with it, saying, “How sweet are thy words unto my mouth!” Those that understand the scriptures well will still be desirous to understand them better.” Those seven days that Tishri were a blessing to the nation and the effects were long-lasting.

With that we could have come to the end of a short exposition of Nehemiah, but let’s extend the message into the New Testament.

The Feast of Tabernacles in John 7.

“After these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him. Now the Jews’ feast of tabernacles was at hand.” As you probably know, John’s Gospel is a specialized summary of Jesus’ life. He wanted to emphasize Christ’s deity and some of the special ways Jesus’ life related to the Old Testament. So, in this case, John reduced about 6 months of history into the first two statements of verse one. But then the Feast of Tabernacles approached, when all the men of Israel were to go to Jerusalem. This would certainly make it easier for Christ’s enemies to find Him and murder Him.

With this feast coming up “His brethren therefore said unto him, Depart hence, and go into Judaea, that thy disciples also may see the works that thou doest. For there is no man that doeth any thing in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly. If thou do these things, shew thyself to the world. For neither did his brethren believe in him.” These were not Christ’s “Christian” brethren but several or all of the sons of Joseph and Mary. They had not yet put faith in their half-brother as the Son of God, and they were tired of all the hubbub about their elder brother. They were probably jealous, confused and at times – angry. Like them, many Galileans were not aware that the leadership in Jerusalem wanted Jesus dead. And even if they wondered about that, they basically said, “It’s time for you to put your cards on the table. It’s time to take the risk and prove who you really are.If you are the one people say you are, then you shouldn’t have to worry about the wrath of the enemy.”

“Then Jesus said unto them, My time is not yet come: but your time is alway ready. The world cannot hate you; but me it hateth, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil. Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast; for my time is not yet full come. When he had said these words unto them, he abode still in Galilee. But when his brethren were gone up, then went he also up unto the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret.” The unsaved man has no other day, but today. The only time he has is the moment he is in. If you are living without Christ, you may have no guarantee of anything but your next breath. But the Christian has today, and also an eternity under his Saviour’s blessings. And of course Christ is the eternal One. When Jesus says, “My time is not yet come,” He may be speaking about the time of His offering. But in the context, it was more like, “It’s not the time for my Messianic entry into Jerusalem.” In a very short time, He will mount an unbroken foal and ride gloriously into the city, only to become the Atonement sacrifice a short while later. We need to keep these references in mind as we consider the context of these Autumn feasts. After He told his brothers – and probably His disciples – to go ahead, Christ took back roads, probably traveling incognito through Samaria down from Galilee into the city.

Then the Jews (the religious leaders) sought him at the feast, and said, Where is he? And there was much murmuring among the (common) people concerning him: for some (whispering) said, He is a good man: others said, Nay; but he deceiveth the people. Howbeit no man spake openly of him for fear of the Jews (the leaders).” The people of Galilee, although perhaps not true believers, liked Jesus because of His miracles. Most of them couldn’t understand the hatred that the Sadducees and the Pharisees had of Christ. But they quickly learned that speaking openly of him would draw the attention and scowls of the Sanhedrin. So there was a barely audible roar among the people, talking about Jesus the Christ.

“Now about the midst of the feast Jesus went up into the temple, and taught.” On what day had Jesus arrived? Was He staying in the city? He might have been out in Bethany. Assuming He was staying in Jerusalem, it would have been easy to keep out of sight by staying in one of the many booths. But the Jews had been expecting him, watching for Him, searching for Him. And then all of a sudden there He was in the courtyard of the temple teaching a large crowd of people. For any other man, this would have been a bold and courageous thing to do. Jesus knew the hatred against Him, and He was aware of what the Sanhedrin would do to take Him. The people, both the common folk and the leaders, were amazed, not only at his courage, but also of what He was saying and how He was saying it.

“And the Jews marvelled, saying, How knoweth this man letters, having never learned? Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me.” This reminds me of Ezra reading from the book of the Law – this is God’s word, not mine. “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself. He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him. Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law? Why go ye about to kill me? The people answered and said, Thou hast a devil: who goeth about to kill thee?” Christ addressed the Sadducees about their hatred, but many of the common people didn’t understand. “Are you crazy, no one wants you to be killed? Why would our leaders want to kill the goose who lays the golden egg? Aren’t you the promised Messiah, the prophet of whom Moses spoke?”

“Jesus answered and said unto them (the rulers), I have done one work, and ye all marvel.” Christ knows that part of the people’s joy and, at the same time, a part of the Jews’ anger against Him was for His healing the man on the Sabbath. He said, “Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers); (but) ye on the sabbath day circumcise a man.” The Jews regularly broke one of their laws – the Sabbath – in order to keep the law of circumcision which was to take place on the little boy’s 8th day of life. “If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day? Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”

“Then said some of them of Jerusalem, Is not this he, whom they seek to kill? But, lo, he speaketh boldly, and they say nothing unto him. Do the rulers know indeed that this is the very Christ? Howbeit we know this man whence he is: but when Christ cometh, no man knoweth whence he is.” How common it is to think we have cornered the market of truth – we automatically think we have all facts. Nearly everyone, except perhaps Jesus’ brothers, thought they knew this man had been born in Galilee. And the elite of Judah had been saying, “No good thing can come from Galilee” “Then cried Jesus in the temple as he taught, saying, Ye both know me, and ye know whence I am: and I am not come of myself, but he that sent me is true, whom ye know not. But I know him: for I am from him, and he hath sent me. Then they sought to take him: but no man laid hands on him, because his hour was not yet come.” The usual interpretation of this last statement is that the Jews tried to arrest Him. But an alternate idea, in the light of the next verse, it might be that some of the common folk wanted to make Christ their king. Whichever it was, there wasn’t a single person who could actually take Him. The Lord was in complete control of the day.

“And many of the people believed on him, and said, When Christ cometh, will he do more miracles than these which this man hath done? The Pharisees heard that the people murmured such things concerning him; and the Pharisees and the chief priests sent officers to take him. Then said Jesus unto them, Yet a little while am I with you, and then I go unto him that sent me. Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, thither ye cannot come. Then said the Jews among themselves, Whither will he go, that we shall not find him? will he go unto the dispersed among the Gentiles, and teach the Gentiles? What manner of saying is this that he said, Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, thither ye cannot come?”

Verse 37 – “In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink.” On the last day of the feast – the eighth day – there was to be another massive convocation of the people around the temple grounds. Do you suppose that it was on this day that one of the priests went to the pool of Siloam and dipped out a great pitcher of water? Was it on this day, before the eyes of all Israel, that he poured it out, reminding them of the water which came out of the rock at Moses’ command?

In I Corinthians 10 Paul pointed back to the period which the Feast of Tabernacles was to commemorate. He said, “Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.” Christ provided that rock in the wilderness to slack the thirst of Israel – and Christ was that rock, Paul said. Here, during the festival in which Israel was to remember that rock and that water, Jesus said, “He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)”

“Many of the people therefore, when they heard this saying, said, Of a truth this is the Prophet. Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was? So there was a division among the people because of him. And some of them would have taken him; but no man laid hands on him.” Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how God foiled the plans of Jesus’ enemies? Can’t you picture the temple police pushing their way through the crown toward the Lord? Then all of a sudden the man in charge heard something Jesus said, and it stopped him in his tracks. He spread his arms out to stop his men, telling them to be quiet so he could hear. Maybe they are standing right there in Jesus’ face, but they become transfixed by His words and by the ministry of the Spirit. Perhaps one or two reaches out again to take the Lord, but their arms feel like lead – there is a Spirit-caused paralysis. Eventually, Jesus finishes His lecture and slowly steps toward the armed men – and they automatically spread apart, letting let Him pass. It’s like the parting of the Red Sea.

After they realize what has happened, “Then came the officers to the chief priests and Pharisees; and they said unto them, Why have ye not brought him? The officers answered, Never man spake like this man. Then answered them the Pharisees, Are ye also deceived? Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him?” I can see the whoever was speaking looking straight at Nicodemus – someone whom some had been suspecting of being a secret disciple. He goes on, still looking at the man across the room, “But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed.” Then “Nicodemus saith unto them, (he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them,) Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth? They answered and said unto him, Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet.” To what foolishness men go when they are determined to believe a lie or they are determined to do evil. They willfully forgot that Jonah, Hosea, Naham were from Galilee and possibly Elijah, Elisha and Amos as well.

“And every man went unto his own house.” What? Did these rulers of the Jews not stay in booths as they were supposed to do? Did they picture themselves to be above the law, as well as above Christ Jesus? Or maybe I should give them credit and say they had all built little tabernacles on the roofs of their houses.


What has John 7 got to do with Nehemiah’s celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles? Admittedly, very little. But it helps to understand Jesus’ last few weeks when we look at the ancient practices of Israel, including that day in Jerusalem about 450 years earlier.