This past summer I went on a week-long backpacking trip into the Immigrant Wilderness of Yosemite National Park. It was an amazing experience. As I wandered through lush forests, climbed ancient rock formations and lay out under the vast expanse of stars, I was struck by the immensity and beauty of God's creation, along with my own frailty. There is nothing like looking up at the vast, starry sky to inspire a little humility as well as immense gratitude to God.
One of the men described the trip as a kind of fast from the world. To pull away from the daily grind—the pressures and temptations of the world—and be in the midst of God's beautiful creation is a wonderful way to gain perspective. It helps to refocus priorities and renew dependence on the Lord. Even if you aren't up for the physical rigors of a backpacking trip, a little sanctified camping can do a world of good.
This month Israel is celebrating Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, a holiday that was intended to accomplish that very purpose for the Jewish people. In Leviticus 23 God commanded, 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…" (vv. 42-3).
The Hebrew word sukkah means booth or tabernacle (sukkot is plural), and is used in various ways in Scripture. For example, in the book of Jonah, after he prophesied in Nineveh, "…Jonah went out of the city.…There he made himself a sukkah (shelter) and sat under under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city" (Jonah 4:5).
A sukkah was a kind of dwelling or shelter that shepherds would also make while they watched their flocks. It was a temporary structure that they would tear down before moving their flocks on to different pastures.
The children of Israel dwelt in the wilderness for 40 years with little to see but sun and sky. There was nowhere to escape the rigors of desert life—and there they dwelt in fragile little shelters each night. God was teaching His people a lesson on humility and the dangers of self-sufficiency. And so the sukkah was a symbol of wandering and dependence on God.
Remember, God promised to give the children of Israel a land "flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3:17) where they would be blessed, inhabiting houses they had not built and drinking from wells that they had not dug (Deuteronomy 6:11). But in the midst of that blessing, once a year they were to move out of those homes and live in something temporary and fragile. They were to remember the source of their prosperity and thank God for His abundant provision. They were to humble themselves and remember their dependence on God. God knew that a life of comfort would tempt His people to forget their need for Him, that they could easily begin trusting in their own strength, which would eventually lead to idolatry.
We would do well to remember this lesson ourselves. Every blessing we have, every freedom we enjoy is God's gracious provision. And it could so easily be otherwise. We could be living in much tougher circumstances. The Feast of Tabernacles, with its command to dwell in temporary shelters, is a very graphic and physical reminder that it can be cold and it can be wet. The thatched roof of the sukkah enables us to see the stars at night, but it may also let in a little rain. But if a few raindrops remind us of God's provision, of the temporal nature of life, then it's a good and healthy reminder of our dependence on Him.
The Feast of Tabernacles was also a time for Israelites to invite the Levite (who was not allowed to own his own farm), along with the widow and the stranger, to stay with them and partake of God's provision. This has carried over to modern life in Israel. The Feast of Tabernacles is a time for those who have more to be equal with those who have less, to eat the same meal on the same wooden bench in the same fragile circumstance. Those in comfortable circumstances make a point of inviting the less fortunate and the yeshiva bochers (seminary students who have no income), to come in and take part in the festival. It's considered a mitzvah (good deed) to have such a person sit in your sukkah.
Ultimately, the booth serves as a powerful reminder of God's presence with His people during those wilderness years. Though the people wandered because of their rebellion, God made a place for Himself in the midst of His rebellious people. He gave visible signs of His presence through the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.
These supernatural manifestations were reassuring, but if that wasn't enough, God gave instructions for the Tabernacle—the "tent of meeting" itself. This elaborate place of sacrifice and incense, of priestly worship and of the Ark of the Covenant was situated in the middle of the Israelite camp. It was a constant reminder of God's holy presence. Unlike the later Temple in Jerusalem, Israel's place of worship in the wilderness was temporary. It could be picked up and moved, just like the temporary booths of this festival.
The Tabernacle taught Israel that God's presence would be with them wherever they traveled. We know that God is everywhere present at all times. But this knowledge can seem impersonal—as though God were some kind of a holy vapor that permeates the universe. God wanted His people to see that He doesn't merely exist everywhere, but that He had chosen to be with them. His blessing and His presence would lead them. His promised protection would be a constant companion to His people as they welcomed Him into their midst.
Even so, God chose to be with us in the person of Y'shua (Jesus). How this earth must have seemed like a wilderness to Him after knowing the perfections of Heaven. Y'shua subjected Himself to hunger and pain, to cold and to the elements of human cruelty, as well as the elements of wind and rain.
The Psalmist confidently declared, "For in the time of trouble He shall hide me in His pavilion; In the secret place of His tabernacle He shall hide me; He shall set me high upon a rock" (Psalm 27:5). The Feast of Tabernacles was an annual reminder to the people that God is the Great Shepherd who has chosen to "tabernacle among" them (Leviticus 26:11-12), to protect and bless them wherever they wander, and wherever the vagaries of life carried them. What a rich comfort for God's people in good times and in bad. But even greater is the comfort we have knowing that our Messiah Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us, a forever place where we will not be subjected to the elements of our own frailty…a place where we will dwell with our King and Redeemer forever.