A few days ago I had not spent the necessary time waiting, seeking, praying, till I had the assurance of the Presence of the Lord in my heart before venturing into my day. And so I suffered most of the day with a troubled heart. Yes, I know, foolish me. At the same time I know it’s not always foolishness; these are increasingly difficult days; we are up against Egypt and Babylon—a world system built from the ground up to shut God out. But when I could endure it no longer I finally found a quiet place and bowed my head and opened my heart to my Lord. I am so thankful for His mercy. It was not long before His Presence seeped into my heart and washed out the troubles. And He began to speak to me. Oh, the preciousness of hearing His Voice again! I am sure He could hear mine—the troubled bleating of one of His sheep who had temporarily lost his way. But as soon as I heard the Voice of my Shepherd I had my bearings again; I knew where I was, and where I was going—that is, where I was being led.
Oh the assurance, the comfort, of His Voice! And instead of the troubles I found these words in my heart—“Keep the feast of tabernacles.” I knew immediately this was a reminder, for it was a word He had spoken into my heart many years ago.
When the children of Israel returned from their Babylonian captivity in the days of Nehemiah they discovered in the book of the law that they were to keep the feast of tabernacles—Succoth, or Booths—in the seventh month. This is something they could not do in the land of their captivity; it was to be kept in their own land in the place God designated.
Three times in a year shall all thy males appear before the LORD thy God in the place which he shall choose; in the feast of unleavened bread, and in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of tabernacles: and they shall not appear before the LORD empty (Dt. 16:16).
That’s a promise—that they would not appear before Him empty—and the place was of course Jerusalem, the city God had chosen for His temple, His dwelling place. And so here in Nehemiah we find the children of Israel who have returned from the Babylonian captivity gathering together in Jerusalem in the seventh month.
Let’s quickly review the events. On the first day of the month—the day of the sounding of trumpets that initiates the feast of tabernacles (Lev. 23:24)—Nehemiah read from the book of the law, and the Levites with him “gave the sense” (Neh. 8:8). That is, they caused the people to understand what was written. This is the true significance of the feast of trumpets—the sounding forth of the word of the Lord in a way that opens the understanding to what is hidden in the letter of precept and prophecy.
It’s interesting to note, by the way, that when Nehemiah gives the names of the Levites who are standing with him, six are on his right and seven on his left, making fourteen altogether. In other words, as a friend pointed out to me once, Nehemiah himself was not in the centre here. Who was in the centre, then? It’s a beautiful picture of corporate leadership in the church, in which no one man, but Christ Himself, is always to be in the centre.
There is much in this passage and we can’t cover it all here. For one thing, there is no mention of the Day of Atonement, which is the very heart of the feast of tabernacles. Not that they bypassed this day—as many have done in our day. This is what accounts for the great uncleanness in much of the present-day feasting in the Charismatic realm. People have wanted to keep the Feast without keeping the Fast (as the Day of Atonement was called.) But to celebrate the feast of tabernacles without first keeping the fast of the Day of Atonement is a recipe for deception. Without being broken before the Lord in great repentance and sorrow at the foot of the Cross… without apprehending His atonement for sin… without His cleansing… no wonder the feasting of our day is so unholy and shallow and full of all manner of uncleanness and carnality. “Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep,” cries James. “Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to heaviness” (Jas. 4:9).
This is what happened in Nehemiah’s day; there was great repentance when the people discovered what God called for in His Law. The people mourned. God’s reaction to their mourning? He rejoiced to see it! (In our day the reverse is true: the carnal rejoicing fills Him with sorrow.) But then God in turn told the people to dry their tears and make His joy their own. Don’t weep any further, He told them, “For the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Neh. 8:10).
And so in accordance with the newly-discovered Law, the people now went forth “unto the mount,” and gathered branches:
…olive branches, and pine (wild olive) branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.
So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the street of the water gate, and in the street of the gate of Ephraim.
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 Joshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness (Neh. 8:15-17).
I believe we have here a beautiful prophetic picture that is fulfilled in the city of God, the bride of Christ, the church. With the help of the Holy Spirit we lift up our eyes from this Old Testament passage and see in the day of Christ the people of God gathered together as one. They have come together from all places where they have been scattered among the denominations, have come together in the new Jerusalem the city of God to keep the longed-for feast, the great feast, the feast of tabernacles. They are one in the Spirit with no doctrinal or denominational divisions. They are dwelling together in unity, and their Lord is dwelling with them. Not that they are all together in one huge building; they are dwelling in booths—little arbours of branches entwined together. Succoth in fact comes from a root meaning “to entwine.” It is a beautiful picture of the humble little fellowships the Lord has in mind for His people in the City of God. A few “branches” are knit together in love, their lives are intertwined with one another… and with the life of the Man “whose name is The Branch” (Zech. 6:12). He Himself is dwelling with them. He is their tabernacle, and they are His tabernacle.
Israel was to commemorate this feast annually as a reminder of the day they came out of Egypt.
Ye shall dwell in booths seven days… 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 (Lev. 23:42,43).
When they came out of Egypt this was actually the name of their first encampment in the wilderness—Succoth, or Booths (Ex. 12:37, Num. 33.5). They had left all behind; the little booth of branches was all they had now. In the same breath, nothing else had a hold on them either! They were no longer slaves, they were free! Their God had liberated them from the iron furnace, from Egyptian bondage, from the servitude of building Pharaoh’s treasure cities. They had left all the security of Egypt behind them for a flimsy booth of branches… and their God!
And so here in the days of Nehemiah the people are keeping the feast of tabernacles once again. Do you see them—multitudes of rejoicing people camping in these little arbours of branches? Wherever you look, there they are—in the streets of Jerusalem and in the courts of the house of the Lord and on the rooftops of their houses… They are detached from it all—from their homes, their possessions, their jobs, their troubles, their cares, their fears…. Oh, but what about this, Lord? What about that? No, He says, you just keep the feast of tabernacles. I’ll look after all that.
You touch the beauty of it and suddenly your breath catches in your throat. There is a secret here. A shelter of branches, so insecure, so weak… yet you are touching immeasurable strength and provision. A flimsy shelter of branches… and you are canopied under the eternal God. The branches intertwined with one another speak of the corporate relationship, the individual branches themselves of the abiding relationship. It’s a picture of the Christ-life, really, which we are to know both individually and corporately, the beautiful life of Christ Himself, the Life of the ages, which was with the Father and was manifested to us, the Life that is more than meat and raiment, the life that is free from the bondage of sin… and from the shackles of this present evil world, the life that is free from all the things that the Gentiles seek, “free from corroding care,” free to walk with God and worship Him in Spirit and in truth—at all times and in all circumstances.
It is the life free from the troubles and entanglements and cares of this world even while we are yet in the midst of them, the Life into which we ourselves have been immersed because of the Holy Spirit. We become mingled with one another, and with the Son of God Himself. Jesus promised this would be the result of the sending forth of His Spirit, saying, “At that day ye shall know that I am in My Father, and ye in Me, and I in you” (Jn. 14:20). (Note well the plural here: “at that day ye shall know… ye in me, and I in you…” If Christ is in me and in my brother as well, there can be no more division between us than there is between Father and Son.)
This, of course, is something that was inaugurated at Pentecost; Jesus had in mind the sending of the Spirit when He said this. “At that day ye shall know…” But Pentecost is “the earnest of the Spirit,” the pledge, the guarantee, that is given us assuring a redemption, a great fullness yet to come (Eph. 1:13,14; 4:30). Pentecost is the feast of firstfruits (Ex. 23:16). There is a greater harvest yet to come—“the feast of ingathering, which is in the end of the year.” The feast of tabernacles. So Paul (I believe referring to the pentecostal baptism) speaks of having “the firstfruits of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:23). This is the guarantee of a great harvest yet to come, a festival of unbridled joy when the purposes of God in Christ and the church have come to ultimate fullness.
Nehemiah says that this feast had not been celebrated with such joy since the days when the Israelites first took the land in the days of Joshua—an interval of something like nine hundred years. There were times in the days of the kings when it was observed, but apparently nothing like this. I wonder if this, too, isn’t prophetic of the church. Passover we know, and Pentecost we know. Where is the feast of Tabernacles? Yes I agree, the truths of the feast of tabernacles have been applicable to the whole church age; all through the history of the church there have been those who kept aspects of this feast… in a measure. But I believe that now we are entering a time of fullness, and we are going to see a mighty outpouring of the Spirit, and we are going to see our Great Shepherd move His mighty arm and gather His lambs to His bosom and deliver them from all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day. I believe we are going to see these little “booths” of the feast of tabernacles springing up all over the land. It is the City of God coming down out of Heaven from God. The New Jerusalem. And a great Voice says:
Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them… (Rev. 21:3).
He will tabernacle with them, the original says. It’s the same word John used when he said, “The word was made flesh, and dwelt (tabernacled) among us…” (Jn. 1:14). But God dwelling in His Son… this was in anticipation of the day when He would tabernacle not just in the one Man, but in a whole City of men—the bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem, the church. Oh, the wonder of it all! How our God has longed with great longings to keep this feast!
This is why some Christians these days are feeling they have outgrown their clothes, as it were. The way they have done church for so long just doesn’t fit anymore. Something in their heart is longing for more room. It’s causing great alarm among those who consider this a threat to the old order and want it preserved. But what is happening is of God. He has something so much larger for His people—and for Himself. That’s why some are being drawn to become intertwined with a few others in these little “booths.” Didn’t I just say, larger? How is this larger—little booths? Gathering in a little booth like this seems very small when most are flocking to the mega-churches of our day.
But mark my words; these little booths are going to multiply. These little booths by the thousands in the streets of the City of God all over the land—this is the only vessel large enough, compatible enough, to contain the glory of the Lord.