God loves his people, and desires their happiness. But He wants their delight and obedience to be in Him and His Torah (statutes, instructions). This can be done when His people desire to walk in uprightness by following His desires (Psalm 1:2, 119:174). This rejoicing is a foreshadowing of the echo which will be heard in the Kingdom of our God and His anointed. If you are not a rejoicing person, then I suggest you take some time to reflect on what it means to be full of the joy of our God.
There are many symbols and metaphors in the Scriptures. Water is a major one, which is not only vital in the pages of the Scripture, but also has been the foundation to any civilization ever in existence. It is sad and agonizing to see water taken for granted in our present day, both metaphorically and physically. In the Scriptures, most of the story unfolds in dry desert regions. Water in those parts is more of a scarcity and something not as easily taken for granted (as in our western type civilization, or other technologically advanced cultures).
There was not always fresh water available. Digging wells and cisterns was costly and very labor intensive, so it can be observed how this phenomenon of water became a major cultural picture that God used to illustrate a very significant spiritual reality about Himself, and what He desired to “pour out”.
As referenced above, there were various aspects of water. While the properties of water did not change according to where it was taken, or where it was stored, there were varying aspects of perspective, and thus the picture. Water in a well or cistern had to be put there, or could come from rain- water that dripped into these hollows that had been carved out of the rock. Many of these holding tanks where even plastered to prevent the precious commodity from seeping away. Water that would be stored and used in this fashion was called “cistern water”. It was not the most desirable water, as it was often times dirty and had many undesired “floaters”. But nonetheless, in this region there was not much of a choice, it was water.
“Living water” was different however. This is water that would be moving or flowing on its own initiative, and would generally be spring fed at its source. This water was fresh, life-giving and rejuvenating. To have a source of water of this nature was invaluable. The most important aspect of this “living water”, is that it was widely known to be provided by God Himself. Where does the water get its life to be animated, and how does it move on its own accord? “I am who I am”; everything has its source in Him.1 Everything is animated and has its very essence as a direct link to His life giving breath and sustaining qualities. It is God who provides this moving, vibrant, living water (Heb. mayim chayim). It is not unreasonable then, that God describes what He is and provides as “living water” (passages like Psalm 107:9, Is 35:6-7, 58:11, Jeremiah 2:13,17:12-14, Ezek 47:1-12, Zech 14:8 and more).
Living water was used in the ritual bath called mikvah, which was for cleansing before coming into the presence of God, among other functions. The stipulation was that it could not be water from a cistern, but only water that came on its own; living, thus bringing with it life (in the spiritual sense of course). It is most likely for this reason that John the Immerser chose the Jordan as his place to call people to repentance.2
With these pictures in mind, it would have been quite the proclamation for Jesus then to step up and describe himself as “living water”. The people of his culture would have understood his description well. It was during the festival of Sukkot that Jesus made his most dramatic proclamation of who he was specifically in relation to “living water”.
God had given the Hebrews seven festivals that He instructed to be celebrated. Seven is a very symbolic number and relates to God. For example, the seventh day was to be observed and commemorated on a weekly basis, the seventh year, and also the end of seven “sevens” were also set apart.
There were three festivals in the spring; Passover, which was a commemoration of the exodus from Egypt. Unleavened bread, and Firstfruits (reishit katzir, yom habikkurim) were celebrations of praise for God’s provision of the land they inherited and for His blessing in providing harvest (specifically barley). Fifty days after Passover and the counting of the omer, comes Shavuot (also known to some as Pentecost, meaning fifty). It was also a Firstfruits celebration and thank-offering to God (for the wheat harvest). It was also traditionally a celebration of Sinai and the giving of Torah.
There are also three fall festivals. The first of which is Yom Teruah (day of trumpets) (more recently and traditionally called Rosh Hashanah, meaning head of the year because it is the civil new year).3 This festival really does not have any celebration from a historical or Biblical perspective, which tells many that it has yet to have its most dramatic and important fulfillment. Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) follows ten days after Yom Teruah. The ten days of separation are known as “days of awe” and are the last ten days of a forty day period called teshuvah meaning repentance.4 It was the one time a year when the high priest went into the Holy of Holies and offered the sacrifice on behalf of the people. It is/was also related to judgment and escaping it.
The last fall festival is the one I want to examine in this essay, called Sukkot, the festival/feast of booths/tabernacles, or the festival/feast of ingathering. This is the most joyous and celebratory festival and period of the entire year, it is a huge party. God commanded His people to “rejoice before Him” (Lev 23:40). They had to party and have a great time whether they wanted to or not; “you will celebrate”! They did.
This time of joy and festivities lasted for seven days. The finality of the fall harvest is what kicked it off (figs, pomegranates, dates and grapes among others). According to Nehemiah 8, when a number of “Jews”5 returned from their exile to Babylon, the first festival observed was Sukkot. They built ‘tabernacles’ from olive, palm and myrtle branches. These booths were a commemoration and a remembrance of when they journeyed in the wilderness (Deut 16). The booth or tabernacle is called a sukkah, (sukkot pl.) and gives the festival its name.
The people were commanded to ‘dwell’ in booths for seven days. They ate, drank and slept in these sukkot/booths (Lev 23, Num 29). This was one of three festivals where all the males were to appear in Jerusalem before the Lord (Ex 23, 34, Deut 16). Thousands of people came from all over to celebrate the Lord’s festival, to give thanks and petition Him for the year to come. As the book of Nehemiah records, the people built the sukkot “each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim.” They were everywhere.
There is an extreme amount of detail that went into this festival (Lev 23, Num 29, Deut 16, Deut 31). God had specified what was to be done on every single day, and how it was to be carried out (specifically with the sacrifices). There were many traditions added over the years, some added because of continuity of the festival, some added for celebration (such as the lulav and etrog).6 There were also things added because of what God had done in the past among His people, which were then incorporated into their celebrations.
The dedication of the Temple of Solomon is detailed in 2 Chronicles 5 and 7. This took place on the festival of Sukkot. It was during this period of time that the Hebrews rejoiced because of the House of the Lord was among them. The ark (which was a representation of the seat of God’s glory) was moved into the newly finished Temple. On the day of the dedication, God sent fire from heaven and consumed more than 140,000 sacrifices, which were offered by His people. Sacrifice has historically been very much a part of Sukkot. During the first century (Jesus’ day), though the Temple of Solomon had long disappeared and the Ark of God’s presence had vanished, the people still rejoiced in the same location, which was the place God had chosen to make His name dwell/tabernacle.
After the Temple of Solomon was desecrated by the Babylonians, the exiles upon their return from the land of Shinar, reconstructed Solomon’s temple under the leadership of Nehemiah and authority of King Artaxerxes of Persia. Because the wealth was not there as it had been in the days of Solomon, it was not even close to the grandeur displayed by the first, but the people’s devotion was not second rate by any means. During this time, the festival of Sukkot was once again instated and celebrated.
Another historical piece that was a fundamental change in the way Sukkot would forever be viewed, was in the time traditionally called the “four-hundred years of silence.”7 Believe it or not, God was still working and still speaking. Although this piece of the Sukkot story is not directly mentioned in the pages of the Christian Canon, much of it is captured by the now generally despised (by some) Apocrypha.
The Greeks from Syria under the direction of the very abominable and blasphemous Antiochus were determined to “Hellenize” the Jews. So he ruled that Torah observance (including but not limited to, keeping Sabbath, Circumcision, and even the study of Torah) was to be criminalized and punished. This king ordered sacrifices to be made to himself in the Temple, and further desecrated it by offering pigs on the altar. Then the entrails of the unclean animals were dragged around the temple courts defiling every place they went. This king also set-up a statue of himself in the Temple. The time was that of terrible agony and suppression for the Hebrew people.
This is where the story of Hanukkah comes into play. There was a priest named Mattathias, who rebelled by refusing to make a royal sacrifice in his small town outside of Jerusalem. The son of this priest was known as Judah Maccabee, and he led a group of freedom fighters (patriots and God fearers) against the much superior Greek/Syrian military. God’s hand once again worked through His people when up against a great and much stronger adversary. They defeated and drove the army out reclaiming the city of Jerusalem. Judah then ordered a cleansing, re-dedication of the Temple and rebuilding of the altar that had been desecrated.
While the Syrians controlled and ravished Jerusalem, the Menorah in the Temple had been extinguished. There was only a small amount of oil left that was still sealed and left untainted, so Judah ordered the lamp to be lit. As it is told to this day, the lamp miraculously burned for eight days and nights, which was the entire time of rededication, and also the time it took for new oil to be procured and purified. This celebration of the great deliverance and victory of God though His people became known as the Feast of Dedication, Festival of Lights (because of the miracle of the oil) or also called Hanukkah (which Jesus did celebrate, although not one of the seven festivals in Lev 23).
Because of what Sukkot represented, the leaders of Israel were concerned due to the fact that through the course of battles and fighting with Syria that year, Sukkot had gone without celebration and observance. It was a solemn thing to them because Sukkot represents God’s goodness and the time when prayer was offered for the future blessing of that year, especially for the much needed rains. Even though the time had gone by for quite a while, Judah still commanded that Sukkot be celebrated anyway, because God had given them rest from their enemies all around (2 Maccabees 10). Sukkot was very meaningful in a new way because of the course of events that had just transpired. This is why there are several events and customs found in Sukkot and Hanukkah which resemble each other.
Another thing that was done as a remembrance of the deliverance and the miracle of the oil, was the placing of four great menorahs (over 75 feet high) in the women’s court.8 Sukkot was a time of immense joy for all those who were partakers. One of the Rabbis once said, “Whoever has not seen Sukkot has not witnessed real joy.”
Back to talking about living water since you now have a better feel for the historical background of this great festival. There is a part of Sukkot that involves “living water”. Part of Sukkot was a petition to God to send rains that would ensure a harvest in the following year. Sukkot took place at the end of the regions dry season, so the people by this time were ready to see some water. Rain was the means of sustaining life. This actually has quite a prophetic implication with the festival of Sukkot in the “age to come” (at least in the prophecy). There were a couple parts to the ceremony, specifically on the last glorious day when everything climaxed.
One of the parts was what we just examined in connection to rain, or living water. A procession of priests (with a band of flute players) marched from the Temple to the Pool of Siloam (living water which was fed by the spring of Gihon).9 This tradition is possibly taken from a few passages, such as Isaiah 12, “drawing water from the wells of salvation”, or Isaiah 11 “earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD As the waters cover the sea” among others. One of the priests would fill the golden pitcher with water and then the procession would head back to the Temple. The sacrifice would be laid on the altar, the priest would enter through the Water Gate, a shofar would sound, and he would come to the altar. He would walk around the altar (the procession would walk around the altar seven times on the seventh day, commemorating the defeat at Jericho – see my article Yom Teruah, A Story of Resurrection and Salvation?). There were two silver funnels on the stone altar for the daily drink offerings. There would be three blasts from a shofar, the people would be silent, and then the priest would pour the water into the funnel as the people would shout/sing/chant the Hallel .10 It must be remembered that there were thousands upon thousands gathered in this place for this event.11 The living water was a way of recognizing that God was the one who brought the rain, and thus sustains life. The singing of, “O Lord, save us”, “O Lord, grant us success” meant “save us” by sending rain and preserving us. Also it would be implored, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The lulavim would be waved before the Lord and beaten on the ground until there was nothing left of them.
It is with this picture in our mind that we come to John 7. We are told specifically about this day; it was the “last and greatest day of the Feast”. What is amazing is that it was in this context of the water libation with the menorah blazing in the sky, the prayers being prayed, the Hallel being recited, and petitioning God by offering Living Water, that a Rabbi from the Galilee who had come to appear before the Lord in Jerusalem stood in the mist of the people (who he had been teaching during this time of Sukkot) and declared “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”12 What an amazing picture! What an amazing proclamation! What astounding timing!
We also have another incident on the next day when Jesus claims to be the “Light of the world.” Remember the menorahs towering above the courts bearing light to all Jerusalem? This is the context of when he is saying this.13 This would have been the “eighth day”, as Leviticus calls it. It was a Sabbath. This is now called Shemini Atzeret (eighth day assembly). This day is also called “Simchat Torah” (rejoicing with the Torah). The reasons for this name is that it begins anew the yearly cycle of reading the Torah. Sukkot is such a great joy.
One of the fantastic things about this time of year, is that of its prophetic implications. In Zechariah 14 we read that all the nations that remain after a future devastation of Jerusalem will be required to come up to Jerusalem year after year to celebrate the Lord’s Sukkot. If they do not, they will not have any rain. Now isn’t that a great picture? It is at very least part of which the celebration of Sukkot was petitioning God.
So many times we get this idea that certain things were “just of Israel”. No doubt some were, but it was to be as a light to the nations to show them the proper ways of God. There is no doubt that the seven festivals are an outline or shadow of not only the nation of Israel, the Messiah himself, and a heavenly reality, but also something that includes every person on the earth. Jesus died on Passover, and was buried on Unleavened bread, who does this not affect? He was raised on the festival of First-Fruits, who does this not affect? He commissioned his followers in the spirit of power on the festival of Shavuot/Pentecost. I see no reason why these remaining fall festivals are not pictures of a future manifestation of the same working power of our God and His Messiah as has been done up to this point. I outline a few of these details in other studies.
One last detail is that I firmly believe that Sukkot is the time of Jesus’ birth. There is more evidence to support this than for Dec 25. Think about it, “Living water” being placed in a water trough (manger was not for food but water) at this time of year. It also puts his conception at Hanukkah, the festival of Lights (the Light of the World, and its relation to Sukkot). There are too many evidences to enumerate at this point, so it will have to wait for another time.
The festival of Sukkot is a time of rejoicing, and it makes me look forward to the time when his kingdom will come in its fullness; chaos will finally be pushed back and shalom, the new world order as the Messiah, the second Adam, the new Lord of all creation takes his place on the Davidic throne of God. Yom Teruah (Rosh Hashanah) a day that revolves around the blowing of trumpets, (and in tradition the resurrecting of the dead) Revelation, first resurrection, seventh shofar/trumpet, dead in Christ rising, coming on the clouds and “all the holy ones with you”, Daniel 7; you figure it out. Yom Kippur, the judgment where the High Priest steps in on behalf of his people, then 5 days later, it’s time for the biggest feast and party the world has ever known, as we the people of the “ingathering” are gathered to our Lord and participate in ushering in the Eden of the Lord!14 Now that is a story worth celebrating!
1 Exodus 3, ehyeh ʾašer ʾehyeh, I will be, I shall be…I will be what I will be
2 new life, life anew or renewed; i.e. you must be born again
3 This is to be distinguished from the religious year that God mandated which starts in the month Nissan (Abib) (Ex 12, 13, 23, 34; Deut 16). For more information on this day see my article titled “Yom Teruah, A Story of Resurrection and Salvation?”
4 These days of Teshuvah start the with the previous month of Elul (thirty days) and continue ten days into the following month (Tishri).
5 As became the slang word short for Judah and then eventually other tribes as well, Phil 3:5, Acts 22:3.
6 It was the Pharisees that had begun the custom of the Lulav (lulavim pl) which was an olive, palm and myrtle tied together cluster of branches. The Etrog is a citron. They carried these items in hand to the temple each of the seven days of the festival (as today).
7 The period between the books of Malachi and Matthew
8 Each of the bowls on top of the branches held more than ten gallons of oil, and the wick were made from the worn out breeches of the priestly vestures.
9 There is more that could be said about this story in relation to living water and Jesus telling the blind beggar whom he anointed with clay and spittle to wash in this very pool of “living water” and his ability to then “see”.
10 Psalm 113-118
11 And it was for this very reason that on the three festivals where the males were to ‘appear before the Lord’, all the priests in the twenty-four divisions of the priesthood where to serve.
12 What Scriptures was he referencing? Probably Isaiah 44:3, 55:1, 58:11.
13 Isaiah 42:3,6; 49:6, 10; 51:4
14 Living water in the presence of the throne: Ps 46:1-6 Jer 17:12-14, Ezek 47:1-12, Zech 14:8, Rev 7:17, 22:1-2, 17