The start of this month concludes the eight-day-long Feast of Tabernacles, the yearly festival to be characterized by great joy and celebration. In Bible times, the nations round about Israel served false gods in servile fear. The God of Israel wanted His people to serve Him with great joy.
However, this festival has changed since Bible times. The focus has shifted and the joy has been misplaced. Israel should be rejoicing in the Lord and His provision. Instead, we have been instructed to rejoice in the Law. We are pursuing a joy that can never save or satisfy. And in this lies a lesson for all believers, Jewish or not.
Try to understand what happened by imagining with me the following scenario: terrorists have attacked the well-known Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California during a presentation of The Glory of Christmas. The bomb has reduced the beautiful building to a pile of smoldering ruins, causing the untimely deaths of thousands of worshippers, along with the pastoral leadership.
Such a horrifying event would affect the community of believers for years to come. Now, imagine how the Jewish people felt when the Romans razed not only the Temple, but the entire city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., scattering the Jewish people to the four corners of the earth. Nearly 2,000 years later, the Temple still lies in ruins. Today the ground where Herod’s magnificent edifice once stood is occupied by the Muslim holy site, the Dome of the Rock.
The prophet Jeremiah painted a portrait of the utter desolation that resulted after the First Temple was destroyed: “The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed feasts” (Lamentations 1:4). Can we imagine that had he been alive to witness the events of 70 A.D., he would have been any less inconsolable?
These twin events—the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from the Land—forever altered the Feast of Tabernacles. Prior to 70 A.D., it was one of three annual festivals that drew huge crowds of Jewish people from around the Roman Empire to the City of David. The Temple was the focal point because sacrifices were to be offered on the altar on each of the eight days. The Lord had specified every detail concerning the prescribed place and manner (see Numbers 29) and no improvising was allowed on pain of death. In a sense, the sacrifices defined the festival.
With the destruction of the Temple, there could be no more animal sacrifices, and Israel was afflicted with an “identity crisis.” How could we celebrate the festival without the Temple?
To solve this conundrum, Judaism shifted the emphasis of the festival. Temple sacrifices were replaced by synagogue observances. Rejoicing over the harvest gave way to rejoicing in the Torah, the Law. In the lands of the Diaspora—the dispersion outside Israel—a ninth day called Simhat Torah was added to the festival (celebrated on the eighth day in Israel—this year on October 5, in Israel, October 4). Simhat Torah is Hebrew for “Rejoicing in the Law.”
Simhat Torah is all about the Bible, yet it is never mentioned in the Bible. It emerged sometime between 200 A.D. and 600 A.D. in Babylon, as the rabbis were codifying the “Oral Law” and reformulating Judaism without a Temple. The day marks the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings and the beginning of the next one. The concluding section, Deuteronomy 33- 34, is read, followed by Genesis 1, thus beginning the cycle anew.
It is wonderful to rejoice over the Torah. The Psalms speak of the Law in the highest terms (see Psalm 119). Since God gave the Torah to Israel, some would say it has defined and maintained the Jewish people. A Jewish saying suggests it: “Even more than Israel kept the Torah, the Torah kept Israel.” Simhat Torah can be a meaningful occasion. And yet, because of its timing, in a sense it distracts from God’s intention for The Feast of Tabernacles. What is good and godly—the gift of the Law—was made a stumbling block and a diversion from the joy of the Lord. This is all the more true because it is not merely the Law itself, but the rabbinic interpretations of it that are venerated.
The Apostle Paul realized the roots of this problem, which were apparent even before the Temple was destroyed:
For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God, and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness (Romans 10:2-3).
Have you ever watched a mother who loved her child in such a way that she overprotected that child—forgetting that children need their parents to prepare them to live in the real world? This illustrates how the strength of our feelings can become misplaced, moving our natural affections out of alignment and distorting our relationships. In a way, this is what happened with Israel and the Torah. Israel fell so in love with the Torah that she forgot what love and obedience to the God who gave the Torah ought to be like. Despite all the celebration, our people seem to have missed the point.
This failing is certainly not unique to the Jewish people! Like Israel, many Christians are in danger of replacing the joy of the Lord with something else. Many believers find the joy of their salvation rivaled by an affection for the things of this world. God has given us many good gifts, from family and friends to food, fellowship and endless ways to enjoy life. Yet if we substitute any of these for our joy in the Lord, we rob ourselves and God of that special relationship that He intended to have with us. It is only when we first rejoice in the Lord and His redeeming work at Calvary, that His Law and His many provisions for us become truly enjoyable.
Scripture speaks not only to misdirected joy, but to lack of joy altogether. The Almighty found fault with Israel not just for a lack of service, but for their manner of service: “You did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly” (Deuteronomy 28:7). Does He find fault with us for the same thing? How much of our worship is characterized by exuberant joy? How often do we see reverence and rejoicing as mutually exclusive, while God wants them to go hand in hand?
The psalmist encourages jubilation: “Worship the Lord with gladness” (Psalm 100:2). Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians is, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). Perhaps Paul was drawing on his own memories of the Feast of Tabernacles. In any case, the Feast should be a corrective to the dull and dour worship of so many believers today.
Christian writer G. K. Chesterton once observed, “It is really a natural trend for us to lapse into taking oneself gravely because it is the easiest thing to do. For solemnity flows out of men naturally, but joy and laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy, hard to be light.”1
Godly rejoicing is not characterized by frivolity and excess, but by sanctified, profound and deep joy. It is based upon the firm understanding that God is the sovereign Creator and Controller of the universe. He is Lord of the rain and the harvest—and it is His pleasure to provide all that His people need, according to His riches in glory. Trusting in such a God, worry and fear give way to joy.
Where is your joy? Is it misplaced or missing? God wants us to have joy, and joy in the Lord. As Paul longed for His people to know the joy he had in Jesus, so I long for Israel to rejoice in her Messiah. I trust that you do, too. And I pray that we who know the Lord will find our greatest joy in Him and Him alone.
*Adapted from Christ in the Feast of Tabernacles by David Brickner; Moody Publishing, available through Purple Pomegranate Productions 1-877-463-7742 http://store.jewsforjesus.org/ppp/product. php?prodid=886
1. Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, Chapter VII The Eternal Revolution