Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a sukkah for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. Jonah 4:5
Last year I co-led a tour of Israel, and on our last night, on the way to the airport, our bus driver took us on a detour. He brought us to a tent the Shalit family had set up right in the heart of Jerusalem across the street from the Prime Minister’s residence. The family was planning to occupy this tent for as long as their son, Gilad, had to occupy a cell as a captive of Hamas. The tent spoke of solidarity with their son and protest against his captivity, against the government’s handling of his case, against the injustice of it all. A couple of our tour members jumped off the bus to tell the Shalits that we were praying for them and for Gilad’s release before we drove off.
Since then lots of other tents have been set up all over Israel, with a different message. People are living in tents to protest soaring housing costs and what they consider inequities of social policy in Israel. Protest tents like this have a long pedigree: Jonah sets up a booth, literally a sukkah, to protest God’s plan to let the repentant Ninevites off the hook. And the festival of Sukkot or booths is a kind of protest too. It’s the most joyous of the festivals, and when we sit in the sukkah for eight days, we’re mostly celebrating, not protesting. But perhaps we’re doing both.
The Shalit family was saying, how can we settle down in our own house, when our son is being held as a captive in some dark cellar? On Sukkot we say, how can we settle down in our houses when we’re surrounded by the suffering, darkness, and need of this age? How can we make ourselves at home in this age, when God hasn’t yet fulfilled all that he has promised through the prophets?
Now Sukkot is the last of three pilgrim festivals—Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot—when every Israelite male had to leave behind the comfort of home and journey up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord (Ex. 23:17; Deut. 16:16). These three festivals reflect the overarching plan for humankind revealed in Scripture: Creation (Passover, the beginning of spring); Revelation (Shavuot, the time of the giving of Torah); and Redemption (Sukkot, the ingathering to come). Sukkot is the festival of ingathering, not just of crops, but of the harvest of humankind at the end of the age. All three festivals also have a connection to Messiah’s story. Passover was the season when Yeshua offered himself as the sacrificial lamb to ransom his people from bondage. Shavuot or Pentecost was the time of the outpouring of the Spirit seven weeks later. Sukkot is the final ingathering. Yeshua’s followers probably would have expected it to happen just a few months after Shavuot, but Yeshua implied there’d be a delay. “It’s not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). So we still look forward to the Sukkot to come, when the great ingathering will be complete. And until it is, we’ll keep spending a week each year refusing to make ourselves at home in this world, but living out in a flimsy booth awaiting the fulfillment.
Hashem builds Passover-Shavuot-Sukkot—Creation-Revelation-Redemption—into the cycle of the year to help us handle the future. The way we understand the future will shape our lives in the present.
First, future redemption is intrinsic to God’s plan. The age in which we live might be a mess, but Sukkot declares that God guarantees the future.
In August, Hebrew University professor Samuel Shye asked the tent protestors in Israel why they were living out in the streets and refusing to go home. He found that the “social protest stems mainly from concerns regarding the future and a perceived lack of physical and financial security. . . . The participants cannot see a horizon . . . and they fear they will not be able to have a reasonable life in the future” (ynetnews.com, 08-27-11, accessed 10/10/11).
Ironically, these protestors sit in their tents to protest an insecure future, but we sit in the sukkah to protest the insecure present and to call on God to make good on his promised future. The protestors “cannot see a horizon,” but we see a horizon of world redemption. This vision frees us from the anxiety and insecurity that permeate our age. We can live more fully in the present because God is taking care of the future.
Second, this promised future is a Messianic future. We can’t cobble it together ourselves. God promised it and only God can bring it about. Some of the cruelest sins that humans have committed, the crusades and inquisitions, the terrors of Stalinist Russia and the Holocaust itself, arose out of the effort to create a messianic future. Those who seek to redeem this age by human hands become its worst destroyers. The sukkah is a healthy reminder of our weakness and vulnerability in this age, as we await the promise of the age to come, which only God can bring about.
Third, we can start living for this future today. Though the future belongs to Messiah and we can’t make it happen, we can get ourselves ready for it, as Yeshua taught.
Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching. (Luke 12:35-37a).
Messiah doesn’t just warn us to be ready for the age to come, though; he wants our lives to be a hint and foretaste of this age.
One of the rituals of Sukkot, when the temple still stood, was Beit HaSho’evah, the place of water-drawing. A priest filled a golden pitcher from the pool of Shiloach and carried it up to the temple as the crowd followed him, rejoicing with song and dance: “Therefore with joy you shall draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). Amidst all this joy, the priest poured out the water upon the altar, enacting the outpouring of the spirit foretold by the prophets, as in the haftarah for Sukkot, “In that day living waters will flow out ofJerusalem…” (Zech. 14:8). The Mishnah says, “Anyone who has not seen the rejoicing of the Beit HaSho’evah has not seen rejoicing in his lifetime” (Sukkah 5:1). One year, on the final day of Sukkot, doubtless right after this ceremony, Messiah stood among the crowd of worshipers and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his belly will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-38). He was talking about the Spirit that his followers would later receive. The Spirit is a gift in this age that serves as a first installment of the age to come.
So on Sukkot, we follow Jonah out to the tent of protest. But we don’t sit in the sukkah to protest God’s mercy toward our enemies. Nor are we there to protest our insecure future, like those in the tent cities in Israel. If we’re protesting anything, it’s the barrenness and false security of the materialism and unbelief that surround us. Beyond the protest, we rejoice in the promise of redemption and in the foretaste of redemption through the Spirit poured out among us.
Hag Sameach—have a joyous festival!
As I was finishing up this article, the story broke that a deal had been made for the release of Gilad Shalit. Keep him and his family and the whole situation in prayer when you’re sitting in your sukkah.