The clock is ticking a significant countdown for Israel right now. In fact, this countdown has been an annual event for more than 3,000 years. It is a biblical mandate to mark the time between two important Jewish festivals, Passover, which began at sundown, March 29, and Pentecost, which will take place starting at sundown on May 18.
The book of Leviticus explains the mandate: “And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the Lord.” (Leviticus 23:15-16).
The countdown marks the 49 days between the festivals of first fruits at Passover and first fruits at Pentecost. It connects the festivals literally and spiritually. Both festivals were given as harvest celebrations. Both also point to God’s landmark activity in Israel’s history: deliverance from slavery in Egypt at Passover and the giving of the Law at Pentecost. The countdown marks God’s redemption and His revelation.
Today the countdown speaks to us, not only of God’s landmark activities in Israel’s history, but also of the destiny that Jews and Gentiles alike can anticipate in Him. It helps us recall that the God who delivered us and spoke to His people in the past is the same God we can count on for today, and for the future.
This biblical countdown is also a physical reminder of a spiritual reality: we need to “count on” God, and anticipate His promises. The Bible tells us that the counting must begin “from the day you brought the sheaf.” Sheaf refers to a bundle of wheat. The word in Hebrew for “sheaf” is omer, so the period between Passover and Pentecost has become known as the omer—and the “countdown” is known as counting the omer.
Since we are to celebrate Pentecost on the fiftieth day, the countdown is actually 49 days. That is 49 days of purposeful anticipation of the next holy day, the day of Pentecost.
Counting down to a holy time may be a familiar activity for many Christians in relation to the church calendar, whether it be for the celebration of Advent or Lent. Jewish people too, marked certain occasions with a count, whether it be the eight days of Hanukkah or of course the anticipation of the weekly Sabbath. However, the most extended counting period on the Jewish calendar remains this “counting of the omer,” which observant Jews practice to this day.
The count begins on the second night of Passover and is performed each evening, since the Jewish calendar marks the start of each new day at sundown. The person counting recites the following prayer:
Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, commanding us to count the omer.
Then the daily count is announced: “Today is the first (or tenth, or 38th) day of the omer.”
Most of us have forgotten at some point what day it is—be it the date or the day of the week. How much more likely would we be to forget what day it is if we were counting up to 49! That is why many observant Jews use omer counters (also called omer calendars). They may be mechanical devices or they may be charts often elaborately crafted. In addition to these items, the importance of counting the omer has inspired various customs.
Some people read Psalm 67 on the last day of the omer, because its seven verses and 49 words match the seven weeks and 49 days of the omer period. Concluding the omer with this Psalm is a way to remind us that redemption is not complete without the Word of God.
Others give an amount to charity (tzedakah) corresponding to the count; for example, someone might give one dollar the first day, two dollars the next, up to 49 dollars.
The period during which the omer was counted was never merely to mark the passage time from one holy day to another. It was a purposeful time, a period of anticipation, as we awaited the fulfillment of God’s promises. The most obvious of those promises at the time for Israel was that God would provide crops—if we obeyed Him. However, that anticipation had a bit of an edge to it, a bit of uneasiness, because the weather could easily destroy the crops. A harvest was always subject to circumstances beyond Israel’s control.
Note that faith and a degree of apprehension are not necessarily mutually exclusive; a person can step out in faith even as he or she faces uncertainty. In fact, to obey God despite one’s feelings is often a real mark of faith. Trusting God is not always accompanied by feelings of security. Sometimes it is a choice to do as He asks when we feel anything but secure.
It seems that God deliberately planted Israel in a difficult land, a land where, naturally speaking, agricultural success was quite uncertain. Israel’s neighbors dealt with their hopes and fears by worshiping Ba’al. This was a great temptation for Israel as well—to turn to idols for protection and success in the face of uncertainty, instead of to the one true God.
In some ways, our walk as believers in Jesus is no different. Yes, we have been redeemed, but as we await the fulfillment of God’s promises in our lives, we may experience both eager anticipation as well as apprehension (sometimes even anxiety or outright fear) over circumstances beyond our control. We, too, find ourselves tempted to trust someone or something other than God—and our surrounding culture offers false gods galore.
I know there are often times that I face a measure of anxiety about the future of Jews for Jesus as I consider various plans and projects. Will we be able to accomplish what we have set out to do? Will the people and resources we need to accomplish those things be provided?
Anxiety is not necessarily opposed to faith any more than fear is necessarily opposed to courage. Our faith and courage may allow for these, and may even be strengthened when we trust God despite them. Yet He does not want us to be in a continual state of anxiety or fear, and gives us godly ways to manage these things.
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6)
“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? . . . But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matthew 6:25, 33)
What did God-fearing Israelites do when the winds blew hard and it looked as though the crops might fail? We can imagine that they, too, prayed and sought God’s righteousness, and anticipated God’s provision based on what He had done in the past.
An important aspect of anticipation is the understanding that we are part of a larger story with a past that teaches us to trust God for both the present and future. As Pentecost points back to how God redeemed the children of Israel from slavery, we look to our past and see how God delivered us from sin. He led the Israelites on a journey into a land of plenty in which they were to give back the first fruits to show their gratitude and trust for an abundant harvest that was God’s to grant.
As Christians, we recognize that all we have and all that we are in this present life belong to God: “For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1Corinthians 6:20).
God provided holy days to help the Israelites trust Him for the future based on His kept promises in the past and present. We, too, need reminders to rely on God for our future. He has promised that it will lead to the resurrection and life with Him in the ultimate “promised Land” that He has prepared for us. This “big picture” is the basis for our greatest anticipation, and sadly, it is missing from the lives of many modern and postmodern people today.
But those who would follow after Y’shua must remember this bigger picture. All our days should be days of purpose, days to trust that He is faithful to keep His promises.
As believers who understand the “counting of the omer,” we should be counting on God with anticipation, knowing that each passing day brings us closer to the fulfillment of His promises. We should be counting on God purposefully, asking Him to keep us faithful to those things He asks us to do. And we should count on God humbly, asking for the grace and strength to walk worthy of our calling as part of the community of redeemed people.
*Developed from Christ in the Feast of Pentecost (chapter 3).
This book by David Brickner and Rich Robinson was published by Moody Publishers in 2008. You can order a copy at : http://store.jewsforjesus.org or by calling 1-877-463-7742.