Sunday School 08 04 2013

 

 

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Feast of Tabernacles” (Festival of Booths)

Lesson Text: Nehemiah 8:2, 3, 13-18

Background Scripture: Nehemiah 7:73b-8:18; Leviticus 23:33-43

Devotional Reading: Exodus 23:12-17

 

Nehemiah 8:2-3, 13-18 (KJV)

2 And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month.

3 And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.

……………………………………………… 

13 And on the second day were gathered together the chief of the fathers of all the people, the priests, and the Levites, unto Ezra the scribe, even to understand the words of the law.

14 And they found written in the law which the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month:

15 And that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.

16 So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the street of the water gate, and in the street of the gate of Ephraim.

17 And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths: for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.

18 Also day by day, from the first day unto the last day, he read in the book of the law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day was a solemn assembly, according unto the manner.

 

 

OBECTIVES

To discover that recommitment to God’s Word produces celebration.

To emphasize the importance of understanding God’s Word so that we can respond in obedience.

To delight in God’s Word by reading and obeying it daily.

 

 

INTRODUCTION

Camping Experiences (by C.R. Boatman)

I have always enjoyed camping, especially when I was in the Boy Scouts. In those days, I was part of a troop that went camping regularly in the woods of southern Georgia. Those woods were infested with poison ivy, snakes, and skunks. Danger lurked in the lakes and rivers, with water moccasins and tree stumps just below the surface. Perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to us was a thunderstorm that hit during one outing while we were asleep. We awoke to find ourselves lying in water and in danger of being hit by lightning that was striking all around. The troop leaders hustled us into the bus for safety.

Contrast that with my later experience of “camping” with my adult son and daughter and their families at a resort in Santa Claus, Indiana. In this environment, we slept in air-conditioned campers with soft beds. We cooked on two gas stoves, one inside and one outside. The children enjoyed the thrilling rides and the water park each day. We took warm showers in bathhouses that were just a brief walk away. I remember it as a joyful time with my extended family. But was it really “camping?”

The answer to that question depends on one’s perspective. Those of us who had experienced camping as I did in the Boy Scouts had one viewpoint; those who had experienced camping only like the kind at this resort had another! The same can be said of the Israelites’ experience in observing the Feast of Tabernacles, which reenacted a 40-year camping experience.

 

LESSON BACKGROUND

Time: 445 B.C.

Place: Jerusalem

The events of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah occur during what is called the Persian period. This period dates from the rise of Cyrus in 539 B.C. to the overthrow of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great of Greece in the 330s B.C. The Bible records three distinct returns from Babylonian exile during this period. We date the return of the first group—the one under Zerubbabel and Jeshua (or Joshua)—to 538 B.C. The second return, under Ezra, is dated to 458 B.C., some 80 years later.

The third return, led by Nehemiah, took place around 445 B.C. Nehemiah led this return. The Bible does not mention anyone other than Nehemiah himself in this group, but others undoubtedly came with him.

Ezra and Nehemiah knew one another, and Ezra’s personal actions are described in both Ezra 7–10 and Nehemiah 8 (or, as some think, in Nehemiah 8–10). Both were in Jerusalem to move the people in the right direction. This “push” included the proper celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles and covenant renewal.

The Feast of Tabernacles was one of three annual festivals that the ancient Israelites were to celebrate before the Lord (Exodus 23:14-17; also Deuteronomy 16:16). This feast has different names, and it’s easy to get confused. At first it was called the “Feast of Ingathering.” Occurring in late September and early October, the name points to the final harvest of the season (Exodus 23:16b; 34:22b). Harvest was a cause for celebration, especially if the harvest was abundant.

The designation “Feast of Tabernacles” came later (Leviticus 23:34; Deuteronomy 16:13-16; 31:10; compare John 7:2). The “tabernacles” in view are also called “booths” (Leviticus 23:42, 43); we may think of these as huts or lean-tos. For seven days, the people were to dwell in these makeshift structures in a time of rejoicing (Leviticus 23:40; Deuteronomy 16:14, 15) as the Israelites remembered God’s provisions during the wilderness wanderings of the Exodus.

Living in tents was the normal lifestyle of the Israelites during the wilderness wanderings. Thus, the Feast of Tabernacles recreated that lifestyle for succeeding generations that had not experienced it. But some of Nehemiah’s audience in the lesson text had themselves experienced something like that lifestyle during their four-month trek from Babylon to Palestine—what some have called “a second exodus.”

 

Reading the Law (Nehemiah 8:2-3)

1. What is the setting for Ezra’s reading of the law, and who is included in the gathering? (Nehemiah 8:2-3)

In Nehemiah 8:1, the people prevail on Ezra to read the book of the Law of Moses publicly. The Babylonian exile has “got the attention” of the people, and they are eager to hear God’s Word.

The first day of the seventh month (v. 2, in mid-September) is a holy and solemn day for Israel, marked by a blowing of trumpets. The month itself is an important one in Israel’s year, for it not only includes the Feast of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:23-25), but also the Day of Atonement (23:26-32) and the Feast of Tabernacles (see the Lesson Background).

The gathering we see in the verse before us is for everyone! Those who are able to hear with understanding include children perhaps as young as age 12. The day on which the people assemble is a day of rest, a Sabbath according to Leviticus 23:24 and Numbers 29:1; this is a day sacred to God.

By this time, Nehemiah has finished repairing Jerusalem’s walls and gates (Nehemiah 7:1). The place of gathering to hear the reading is near the water gate, which probably is located close to the Gihon Spring. This is south of the temple area, facing the Kidron Valley to Jerusalem’s east. Most ancient cities have wide-open areas (which we call “plazas”) adjacent to gates. Such areas can accommodate a standing crowd. From the morning until midday indicates a reading of several hours duration. But there is no hint that the people are restless and bored—quite the opposite!

Deuteronomy 31:10-13 requires that the law be read before the people—including children—every seven years at the Feast of Tabernacles. Whatever portion of the law is read by Ezra includes instructions as to how to celebrate this festival, as the next section of our text makes clear.

What Do You Think?

When the Word of God is read, what are some appropriate ways to respond? What keeps us from always responding as we should?

Talking Points for Your Discussion

Psalm 119:9; Jeremiah 13:15; 15:16; Acts 17:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; Other

2. Describe the events of the first day of the seventh month (Nehemiah 8:4-12, not in lesson text).

The intervening verses that are not part of the lesson provide some context. Ezra stands on an elevated platform so everyone can see and hear him during the reading. The platform is wide enough to accommodate 13 other men (Nehemiah 8:4). We know almost nothing about these men except that they are important to Ezra’s task of making known the part of the law that is read. We presume they are leaders of some kind.

Nehemiah 8:5 tells us that the people stand when Ezra opens the scroll to read; this is a sign of respect for the Law of Moses. Verse 7 lists the names of 13 Levites who assist in helping the people understand what is being read. This can include either translating from Hebrew to Aramaic or simply interpreting the text; perhaps they do both (v. 8). The people weep when they understand what is being read (v. 9), for they know they have not obeyed the law. It is a time of heavy emotion.

But Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites encourage the people to rejoice rather than mourn (Nehemiah 8:9, 10). The people are told to go home and enjoy the best of their food and drink, sharing with others who have nothing (vs. 11, 12). Joyous celebration fills out the rest of the first day of the month.

 

Heeding the Law (Nehemiah 8:13-18)

3. What leaders assembled on the second day of the seventh month with Ezra? Why? (v. 13)

“The second day” is a day for special study by Ezra for family leaders in addition to priests and Levites. Clearly, Ezra is placing the responsibility for knowing “the words of the Law” on these groups! There is no excuse for not knowing God’s Word and what it requires of God’s people.

Deuteronomy 6:6-9 placed the responsibility on the family leaders to guide their households and to instruct them in God’s Word. So it was imperative for the leaders to understand God’s Word so that they could teach it to the people.

What Do You Think?

What methods, programs, etc., are best for equipping the leaders of families and leaders in the church to teach others? Why do you say that?

Talking Points for Your Discussion

Electronic media | Print media | Special conferences | Personal engagement | Other

4. What feast did the law require the children of Israel to observe in the seventh month? (v. 14)

The Law commanded the people to observe a feast for seven days. This was the Feast of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles. There is no doubt that the text the verse before us is referring to is Leviticus 23:40-42 in reference to booths. This festival is connected with a vital part of Israel’s salvation history: God’s provisions during Israel’s wilderness wanderings (see the Lesson Background). The law stipulates that this seven-day feast is to begin on the fifteenth day of the seventh month and end on the twenty-first day (Leviticus 23:34). Additionally, a “holy convocation” is to be observed on the eighth day to bring the celebration to a close (23:35).

During the seven days of the feast, the Jews lived in booths made of branches and usually built on the flat roofs of their houses. It was a time for looking back and remembering the nation's forty years of wandering in the wilderness, when the people were homeless and lived in temporary shelters. But the feast was also a time for looking around at the harvest blessings from the hand of God. The Lord had given them a good land, and they were never to forget the Giver as they enjoyed the gifts (Deut. 8). The Feast of Tabernacles was also an occasion for looking ahead to the glorious kingdom God promised His people Israel (Zech. 14:4, 9, 16-20). It was a week-long festival of joyful praise and thanksgiving, focusing on the goodness of the Lord.

Ezra 3:4 notes that the Feast of Booths was celebrated by the first group that returned from exile to Jerusalem. But apparently the requirement to observe this feast has been disregarded or marginalized in the 90 or so intervening years (compare Nehemiah 8:17, below).

What Do You Think?

In what ways has God’s Word changed your life by reminding you of things you should do?

Talking Points for Your Discussion

Concerning priorities (Matthew 6:33) | Concerning the need to seek wisdom (Proverbs 13:10)

Concerning use of the tongue (James 3:1-12) | Other

5. Why was a proclamation made for the people to gather branches? (v. 15)

Branches from specific trees are to be used, but the list of branches here differs from that of Leviticus 23:40. The listing in Leviticus seems to emphasize the importance of the tree branches as the people “rejoice before the Lord,” perhaps waving the branches in procession. This kind of tradition is described in later texts.

On the other hand, the lesson text seems to emphasize the making of the huts themselves from these branches. Therefore, the list in Nehemiah is more robust in specifying olive, pine, myrtle, palm, and thick (or leafy) tree branches. Leviticus 23:40 does not mention as many, but includes “willows” that the text does not.

This instruction is being read on the second day of the month, and the Feast of Tabernacles is to commence on the fifteenth day. Therefore, the people have two weeks to prepare. This is adequate time to “publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem.”

What Do You Think?

How can a church’s ministry teams make sure to allow adequate time to prepare for the traditional observances on the church calendar?

Talking Points for Your Discussion

Recruiting | Budgeting for and ordering of materials | Working around the schedules of likely participants | Other

6. At what five locations did the people construct the booths? (v. 16)

The immediate obedience of the people is impressive! Five general locations are listed for placement of the booths. Those living in Jerusalem naturally have two options in this regard that visitors to Jerusalem do not have: the rooftops of personal houses and the courts (or courtyards) of those houses, where animals are kept.

Those who come from outside Jerusalem might find relatives who can share those two locations, but the visitors probably gravitate to the other three areas. Assuming that our conclusion about the location of “the water gate” is correct (v. 3, above), “the gate of Ephraim” is located about a third of a mile to the northwest of it, close to the temple mount (see 2 Kings 14:13; 2 Chronicles 25:23). Some think that the gate of Ephraim is the same as the gate of Benjamin (Jeremiah 37:13; Zechariah 14:10).

“Booths” constructed for modern-day celebrations of this feast have three sides enclosed, with the fourth side open. Branches are used for the roofs, and the structures are not rainproof. The idea is to experience some of the insecurity of the ancient Israelites in the wilderness; insecurity leads one to look to God for the provisions of life.

7. Why was there “great gladness” when the people built the booths? (v. 17)

The people know that they are obeying the very words of God: “At the end of every seven years, …in the feast of tabernacles, when all Israel is come to appear before the Lord thy God in the place which he shall choose, thou shalt read this law before all Israel in their hearing” (Deuteronomy 31:10, 11).

Both young and old have been privileged to hear the law as it was read, and we easily imagine all family members sharing the privilege of helping cut the branches, build the huts, and enjoy the produce of the fall harvest. The people are able to enjoy the tasty meat from the abundant sacrifices they make throughout the week (Numbers 29:12-38 notes the original stipulations for the animal sacrifices in this regard).

“Jeshua the son of Nun” has been dead for over 900 years at this point (Joshua 24:29). Comparing the reinstitution of a feast with earlier celebrations is not unusual in Scripture (see 2 Kings 23:22; 2 Chronicles 30:26; 35:18). Comparison with Jeshua (or Joshua) serves to emphasize the wilderness experience itself since that man had lived through it personally (Leviticus 23:43; Hosea 12:9).

What Do You Think?

What brings you the most joy and gladness as you live in the Lord? Why is that?

Talking Points for Your Discussion

Worship (Psalm 100:2; 122:1) | Serving (Psalm 126:5, 6)

Victories (Psalm 21:1) | Difficulties (Matthew 5:11, 12; James 1:2) | Other

8. Why did Ezra read from the book of the law of God “day by day, from the first day unto the last day?” How did the people conclude the weeklong celebration? (v. 18)

Understanding of biblical truth is dry without the joy that God produces. Likewise, feasting and joy are meaningless without the firm foundation of God’s Word. That is why Ezra read from the Mosaic law each day throughout the entire seven-day period of celebration. On the eighth day, a solemn assembly took place in accordance with the law (Neh. 8:18). The purpose of the reading was not only to preserve the law, but also to encourage every generation to revere and obey God’s Word. This public reading led the Jews to renew their commitment to God’s covenant and to instruct their children to do the same.

Did the blessings of the celebration last? Yes, for a time; but then the people became careless again, and the leaders had to bring them back to the Word of God. But the failure of the people is not an argument against special times of Bible study or celebration. Someone asked evangelist Billy Sunday if revivals lasted, and he replied, "No, neither does a bath; but it's good to have one occasionally!"

From time to time in the history of the church, God's Spirit has burdened people to pray, search the Scriptures, and confess their sins; and from these sincere spiritual exercises, He has seen fit to bring fresh life to His people. It happened in Nehemiah's day, and it can happen again today.

Can God begin with you?

“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14).

 

 

POINTS TO PONDER

1. God’s Word must be understood if it is to change lives. (Nehemiah 8:2-3)

2. Study the Bible with a heart and mind opened to what God has to say to you. (v. 13)

3. As we hear the gospel preached, we should be reminded of how God has delivered us from the bondage of sin through His Son, Jesus Christ. (vs. 14-15)

4. God’s people should gladly respond in obedience to His Word. (vs. 16-17)

5. The study of God’s Word should lead us to obedience and worship. (v. 18)

 

CONCLUSION

Read, Obey, Celebrate (by C.R. Boatman)

Many years ago, I had the privilege of baptizing a man known to be the town drunk. Since my father had been an alcoholic, I understood this man’s problem. We helped him overcome his alcoholism and to surrender to the Lord.

The man was a good reader and had a deep baritone voice, so he read Scripture for worship services. This was a perfect fit because in those days we always read a large portion of Scripture that was relevant to the sermon. Many of us lament the fact that churches today do not have Scripture read in services as much as we used to.

Christians need to connect Scripture with celebrations of faith, especially with regard to Christmas and Easter. This can help us “experience” God’s Word by reenacting what is meaningful to our faith. What improvements can your church make in this regard?

 

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, You have saved us from the exile of sin. You sacrificed Your Son that we might live eternally with Him. Help us to celebrate joyfully this great salvation in song, prayer, and Scripture reading. In Jesus’ name, amen.

THOUGHT TO REMEMBER

Celebrate in the Lord!

 


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