We live like we have unlimited time. Even though we know better, this is human nature.
As I’ve said before, I don’t believe the fall holy days are really about us, as they picture God’s plan for reconciling the whole of humanity to Him (while the spring holy days are about the salvation of His called-out people).
The spring holy days are quiet, personal, intimate. It’s about salvation on a one-to-one level, focused on inward change. The fall holy days are about the whole of mankind, with dramatic and world-encompassing events that no one will be able to ignore.
We know that the Feast of Tabernacles pictures the 1,000-year reign of Jesus Christ on the earth. His faithful saints will have been resurrected to eternal life, and God will begin reconciling the rest of the world to Himself. So for those of us who understand God’s plan and are striving to be in that first group (the spring harvest), what should this holy day period mean to us on a personal level?
Dwelling in tents
Let’s look at the original command to keep the Feast, back in Leviticus:
“Speak to the children of Israel, saying: the fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days to the Lord…when you have gathered in the fruit of the land…you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook: and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days…You shall dwell in booths for seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths [tents] when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 23:34-43)
Why did God make the Israelites dwell in temporary dwellings during this time of rejoicing and feasting? Yes, it’s a literal reminder of how the Israelites were made to wander for 40 years, living in tents in the wilderness and relying on God to sustain them before they could enter the Promised Land. But we know that there’s a spiritual analogy here as well.
He commanded it to remind us of where we’re going. Dwelling in tents during the Feast of Tabernacles is meant to remind us of the lack of permanence—the fleeting nature of mankind, of this life, of this world. It also is meant to drive home our total reliance on God.
Several of David’s psalms dwell on the idea of humanity’s transience, how man is “like a breath…his days like a passing shadow” (Ps. 144:4). He gets to the heart of why he’s focusing on this idea in Psalm 39:
“Lord, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am. Indeed, You have made my days as handbreadths, and my age is as nothing before You; certainly every man at his best state is but a breath. Selah. Surely every man walks about like a shadow; surely they busy themselves in vain; he heaps up riches, and does not know who will gather them. And now, Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in You.” (Ps. 39:4-7)
The book of Ecclesiastes explores this idea in-depth, making it a perfect pairing with the Feast of Tabernacles (the Jews traditionally read Ecclesiastes during the Feast). At its heart, Ecclesiastes asks the reader: What direction is your life headed in—toward man or toward God?
It starts (and ends) with the famous exclamation that “All is vanity!” and then Solomon goes on to talk about all the ways he tried to seek physical fulfillment, only to discover that it’s all emptiness. That word translated “vanity” is hebel (H1892), used heavily in Ecclesiastes but more than 70 times throughout the Old Testament (including David’s Psalm 39).
The KJV/NKJV versions exclusively translate it as “vanity”, and other translations (like the NIV) use “meaningless” or “emptiness”, but none of these really captures the true meaning intended—it’s definitely not accurate to say that this life is meaningless. Hebel is a notoriously tricky word to translate, but its true meaning is closer to “breath”, “vapor”, or “mist”.
Or in other words, insubstantial, temporary, and impossible to cling on to.
James cautioned his readers about this very thing, saying, “You do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). The prophet Isaiah echoed a similar sentiment, likening flesh to grass that withers and fades (Is. 40:6-7).
Like the Israelites in the desert, God is showing us we are in temporary dwellings until He gives us a permanent habitation (“a body incorruptible”). The apostle Peter, as he neared the end of his life, wrote of knowing his “tent must soon be folded up” (II Pet. 1:13-14; Moffatt version).
Do we see our lives—our bodies, our jobs, our houses—in this manner, as a flimsy covering that one day will abruptly be taken down? Generally speaking, the way we focus on our houses, careers, and physical appearance would suggest not. Paul also uses this analogy, telling the Corinthians, “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands (II Cor. 5:1).
Saying this life is insubstantial and fleeting is not meant to be depressing, cynical, or nihilistic. It’s meant to spur us into action and re-orient us toward the permanent. Physical life is transitory. Whether we work the same 9-5 drudge job for 30 years or make a great scientific discovery that saves thousands of lives, the end result is the same for us individually, because that is not the measure of our future worth.
We are to strive for greatness and productivity in this life and use our physical life as a spiritual training ground for the kingdom (Ecc. 9:10; Matt. 25:14-30). But as David stated in his final prayer, at Solomon’s coronation, “We are temporary residents, just passing through…our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope” (I Chron. 29:15, Complete Jewish Bible).
That phrase “without hope” doesn’t mean hopeless, like we think of in the English language—rather it means that “nothing abiding”, or that nothing lasts. Like his son later does in the book of Ecclesiastes, David is making a distinction between what is temporary and what is permanent.
This festival pictures a time of 1,000 years when Christ will reign over the earth with peace and prosperity. And yet even THAT isn’t permanent. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel at the Feast that we forget that the 1,000 years aren’t the end goal. After the millennium is finished, we’ll see on the 8th day just how impermanent the earth itself is, when God will consume it with fire and it will “melt like wax” (II Pet. 3:7; Ps. 97:5; Is. 24:18-20).
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (I John 2:15-17)
But in addition to reiterating how temporary physical life is, I believe there’s at least one more aspect to God’s command to live in tents made of branches that we should learn from, hinted at by Solomon’s conclusion to Ecclesiastes.
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“I am the vine…”
At the very end of Ecclesiastes, Solomon states, “Let us hear the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all” (Eccl. 12:13). To me, this is a direct parallel to instruction given in Deuteronomy on keeping the Feast of Tabernacles. Moses explains about the tithe, how they should rejoice and feast and enjoy their blessings, and then tells Israel that they’re to do this “that you may fear the Lord your God always” (Deut. 14:23).
Why did God require the Israelites to make their temporary dwellings out of branches, rather than a normal tent (like what they used in the wilderness)? Why did the tents deteriorate during the Feast? God could easily have kept them from doing so as a miracle and a sign to His people, and a symbol of their clothes and shoes never wearing out in the desert.
At the beginning of the Feast, their tents were made from big leafy branches, cool and fragrant. They provided protection from the elements and at least the illusion of safety. But what happens when you cut a branch off from the trunk?
Branches aren’t self-sustaining. Isolated from the main vine or trunk, a branch can no longer get nourishment or maintain life. Water is not flowing to it, and it can’t produce food on its own. Over the next few days, the leaves will start to brown, curl up, and eventually fall off. By the end of the Feast, their shelters would have largely been dead, bare sticks with a pile of leaves on the ground.
Christ told His disciples that He was the true vine and the Father the vinedresser, warning that branches not connected to the vine and bearing good fruit would be removed and destroyed (John 15:5-6). As we’ve already covered, this physical life is a temporary state of being and we shouldn’t be too attached to it. But it’s still a training and proving ground for those who are called by God right now.
God told the Israelites that their 40 years in the wilderness were “to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not” (Deut. 8:2). The same is true of us and this physical life—God is humbling and testing us, and we must remain completely connected to the main vine in order to have a chance at passing.
Isaiah told Israel that God wasn’t blessing them and protecting them for a reason, saying, “Your iniquities have separated you from your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Is. 59:2). If you’re anything like me, you read a verse like this and picture actions like idolatry, lying, cheating, adultery, murder, and more. And since a great number of us don’t have this kind of stark example of outward sin as a part of our lives, it’s easy to put it firmly in “Old Testament Israel dress down” territory and not truly internalize it.
Hundreds of years later Paul said something very similar to the Galatians, but I think his language makes it a little more relevant for you and me today. He said, “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal 5:4). The law says not to steal or commit adultery, to keep the sabbath and holy days, and to be baptized as an outward sign of conversion. We should do all these things because God commands them. But we are not cleansed from sin just by doing so, and they don’t justify us before God or qualify us for the kingdom. God demands more from us.
The prophet Micah told even the Old Testament Israelites as much, saying that what God required was “to do justly, to love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8). James gives us a very similar simple game plan for reconnecting to the Vine when we’ve become distant. “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you,” James said. “Cleanse your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, you double-minded…Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up” (James 4:7-10).
All of those things mentioned are heart and character elements. Repentance. Mercy. Humility. God never becomes distant from us. Christ doesn’t accidentally become disconnected from the branches. We become disconnected. We pull or drift away, distracted by the shiny objects or worries of this world. He is knocking—all we have to do is open the door and He’ll come in (Rev. 3:20).
Eternity in our hearts
So in addition to us looking forward to this time of peace and seeing our Creator face to face, what should the Feast of Tabernacles really mean to us?
I submit it should be a warning to redeem the time (Eph. 5:16). To remain aware of the distractions of daily life and the need to consciously choose to spend time with that Creator through study and prayer every day. To ensure we are tightly connected to our Vine, receiving the living water and spiritual food we must have to survive.
Are our leaves healthy and green, with buds and fruit? Or are we starting to wither a bit, our edges curling up and becoming brittle? Does God feel kind of distant? Does the future He has planned feel distant?
I go back to my opening statement—we live like we have unlimited time. Solomon tells us,
“I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end” (Eccl. 3:10-11)
Solomon’s conclusion from this is that there is nothing better than to rejoice, to do good in our lives, drink, and enjoy the sweetness of our labors because this is a gift from God. And he’s not wrong, particularly when we’re commanded to do just that at the Feast of Tabernacles.
But God has put eternity in our hearts. We know that this life is but a breath. How do we redeem the time, remembering our Creator before it’s too late? Have we lost focus and become too distracted by cares in our day-to-day lives? Has our branch been cut off the tree and we haven’t even noticed yet?