The fifteenth day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar begins an annual seven-day festival known in Scripture as the Feast of Ingathering and the Feast of Booths (Sukkot in Hebrew). Under either name it is a time of joy (Dt 16:14), coming five days after the forgiveness and spiritual cleansing associated with the Day of Atonement.
As the Feast of Ingathering (Ex 23:16; 34:22) it is a harvest festival, held at the time of the fall fruit harvest in Israel. It is traditionally a time to thank God for the harvest and pray for rain for the coming year. Following Leviticus 23:40, worshipers rejoice by waving the lulav, which consists of palm, myrtle, and willow branches.
As the Feast of Booths, Sukkot commemorates God's gracious protection and provision for his people during Israel's Exodus and wilderness wanderings (Lev 23:43). For forty years the Israelites lived in temporary dwellings (booths) while God provided water (Ex 15:22-25; 17:1-7) and food (Ex 16). He was present in their midst (Ex 25:8), guiding them through a pillar of cloud and giving them light at night through a pillar of fire (Ex 13:21). The pillar of cloud was itself a kind of shelter or booth, shielding the people from the heat of the sun.
A large number of special sacrifices were prescribed for Sukkot (Nu 29:12-34), expressing the great thanksgiving associated with the festival. A total of seventy bulls were offered, symbolizing Israel's mission to be a light to the nations. (Seventy is the traditional figure for the number of nations in the world.)
Some joyous occasions in Israel's history were accompanied by special Sukkot observances. The dedication of Solomon's Temple, a time when God again came to be present amidst his people, was held at the Feast (1 Ki 8). Later, in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, exiles whom God had guided back to the land of Israel held a Sukkot celebration said to be the greatest since the days of Joshua (Ne 8:13-18).
The prophets used the imagery of the festival to describe a future messianic age when God would bring all of Israel back to the Promised Land in a new Exodus and dwell among them forever. For example, Isaiah pictured Mt. Zion being sheltered by a protective booth, a new pillar of cloud and fire (Isa 4:5-6). Zechariah foresaw a time when living waters would flow out from Jerusalem and the nations would join with Israel in a joyful celebration of Sukkot (Zec 14:8, 16)
Following the prophets, the evangelists use the symbols of Sukkot to convey the full significance of the coming of the Messiah. In the prologue of his Gospel, John declares, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn 1:14). The Greek word for "dwelt" is skenoo, a word meaning to pitch a tent or encamp. Again, as in the wilderness, God was "camping out" with His people, this time in the "booth" of a human body! With his choice of words, John portrays Jesus as the ultimate "booth."
Later, in his narrative of the final Feast of Tabernacles of Jesus' earthly ministry, John emphasizes that Jesus also personified other aspects of the symbolism of the Feast. As the source of the living waters of the Holy Spirit (John 7:37-38), Jesus was the fulfillment of the water libation ceremony of the festival. Moreover, as the "light of the world" (John 8:12), he was the one pictured by another tradition of the festival celebration in Jerusalem-the nightly illumination of the Temple by the lighting of enormous golden candelabra in the Court of Women. The pillar of fire guiding the Israelites in the wilderness and the candelabra brightening the sky all over Jerusalem pointed forward to Christ, who brings light to the entire world.
In Revelation 7, John records a vision of the sealing of 144,000 from Israel and the praise of an innumerable multitude from the nations. His vision is full of Sukkot symbolism, even though he does not mention the festival explicitly.(1)
As in Zechariah 14, people from both Israel and the nations are included in a great "fall harvest" of souls. In a worship scene at the heavenly temple, the multitude have "palm branches in their hands" (verse 9), reminding us of Sukkot worshipers who wave the lulav. At Sukkot, it is customary to pray the words of Psalm 118:25: "Save us, we pray, O Lord!" In Revelation 7:10, the multitude praises God for the salvation they have received through the Lamb.
Speaking of the multitude, a heavenly elder explains to John that "he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence" (verse 15). The word for "shelter" is again skenoo, connoting the idea that God will spread a protective booth over them, so that "the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat" (verse 16).
The final eschatological fulfillment of Sukkot in a renewed world is described in Revelation 21-22, a section with several parallels to Revelation 7. In both passages God dwells with his people (17:15; 21:3), wiping away all tears from their eyes (7:17; 21:4) and providing living water (7:17; 21:6; 22:1-2,17). One difference is that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem, with God and the Lamb directly present (21:22) and illuminating the city (21:23).
The multitude in Revelation 7 "are the ones coming out of the great tribulation" (verse 14). John's original audience faced persecution, as have many Christians ever since. His visions encourage believers, past and present, to persevere in light of the message of Sukkot. As God led Israel in the wilderness, he will guide us on our spiritual Exodus toward eternal life in his presence on a renewed earth.
(1) See Samuele Bacchiocchi, God's Festivals in Scripture and History, Part 2: The Fall Festivals, Biblical Perspectives, Berrien Springs, Michigan, 1996, chapter 3.