On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wistful eye, To Canaan’s fair and happy land where my possessions lie. I am bound for the promised land, yes I am I am bound for the promised land. Oh who will come and go with me, I am bound for the promised land.
It seems to me that we in the Christian faith have lost touch with our roots in important ways. We are so comfortable in the modern world, so at home in it, so in touch with it, that some of our old hymns really don’t mean much to us any longer. Take the fine old hymn above. We may cast a wistful eye, but it is as likely to be toward next year’s Mercedes sitting in the showroom as it is to be toward “Canaan’s fair and happy land where our possessions lie.” Our possessions are in the garage. What do Jordan and Canaan have to do with the Christian faith, anyhow? Then there is this old gospel song:
This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through If heaven’s not my home, O Lord what shall I do? The angels beckon me From heaven’s open door, And I can’t feel at home in this world any more.
One of the most fundamental Christian beliefs is that we are not at home here. We are strangers, we are pilgrims, and we look for a better world to come. As strangers in a foreign land, we are not supposed to be comfortable in this world. But in this modern world, comfort is the game.
Christianity is a faith for the hard times. It doesn’t flourish amid wealth and easy times and easy going. One reason the Christian faith took such firm root among black slaves was that there was so little hope for them in this world. They identified with Moses because Moses was the great leader who led the slaves out of Egypt. They sang the old spiritual: “Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land. Tell ole Pharaoh: Let my people go.” They identified with Jesus:
Poor little Jesus boy They laid you in a manger Poor little holy chile They didn’t know who you was.
And the Negro Spiritual identified with the Jordan River and Canaan as well. One of the greatest, Deep River, groaned with longing for a better place and time.
Deep River, I long to cross over Jordan. Deep River, I long to cross over into campground.
The Jordan River, in hymns and spirituals, became the symbol of passing from this life into the next life. I recall vividly a song my father used to sing with the Stamps Quartet. He was their bass singer, and one of his solo numbers was I Won’t Have to Cross Jordan Alone.
When I come to to the river at the ending of day, when the last winds of sorrow have blown. There’ll be somebody waiting to show me the way, I won’t have to cross Jordan alone.”
The song presumed that this life is a hard, tough way to go, and that we look forward to a time when we can move forward into a better life and a better land. The River Jordan was the symbol of crossing over from this world to that better world, from this life into the next life.
The promised land was the Kingdom of Heaven, and the wilderness wanderings of Israel represented the temporary nature of life. We are only here for a while. “This world is not my home. If heaven’s not my home, O Lord, what shall I do?”
It is hard to account for the shift that has taken place among Christians who no longer read the Old Testament, and who never think about the significance of the Old Testament to the Christian Faith. I can’t help wondering how much of it has to do with prosperity.
The Apostle Paul wrote out of hard times. “If in this life only we have hope in Christ Jesus,” he said, “we are of all men, most miserable.” He also wrote about Israel of old: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). In other words, all that happened to Israel, all that they did, all the suffering they endured, all the correction and chastisement, all of it had to do with us. It is written in the Word for our admonition.
Christians of an earlier generation found much in the history and practice of Israel that they could identify with. They saw themselves as “The Israel of God.” i In this book, I have been talking about the holydays in the Bible that many assume are merely “Jewish” holidays. And I think many people are surprised to find how meaningful these days are to Christians.
There is one festival in particular that falls into line with these old hymns I have been talking about, hymns which form a great part of Christian tradition. In the 23rd chapter of Leviticus, where God lays out the entire scheme of his appointed festivals through the year, one of the greatest is the Feast of Tabernacles.
Speak to the children of Israel, saying: The fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days to the LORD. On the first day there shall be a holy convocation. You shall do no customary work on it (Leviticus 23:34-35).
What do you do on these festivals? You take off work and go to church. It’s a holiday. The qualifier, “customary” work leaves room for the preparation of the feast, because on these days, God’s children were supposed to celebrate. There would be a lot of food available because of the offerings on these days. And the first and last days of this festival are Sabbaths when no ordinary work should be done.
For seven days you shall offer an offering made by fire to the LORD. On the eighth day you shall have a holy convocation, and you shall offer an offering made by fire to the LORD. It is a sacred assembly, and you shall do no customary work on it. These are the feasts of the LORD which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, to offer an offering made by fire to the LORD, a burnt offering and a grain offering, a sacrifice and drink offerings, everything on its day; besides the Sabbaths of the LORD, besides your gifts, besides all your vows, and besides all your freewill offerings which you give to the LORD. Also on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep the feast of the LORD for seven days; on the first day there shall be a Sabbath-rest, and on the eighth day a Sabbath-rest (vv. 36-39).
As long as Israel had a priesthood and a Tabernacle, they made certain offerings on these days. One primary aspect of sacrifices was that there was plenty of food for the festival. So how hard is this? We take off two days from work and we celebrate with a Texas style barbecue. People who call these observances a “yoke of bondage”ii give me a chuckle. Here are people who have been slaves all their lives, who worked every hour they could, seven days a week, from daylight until dark, every day of their lives. And here comes someone saying, “Let’s put a yoke of bondage on these people. Let’s give them the day off and make them eat a lot.” These are holidays where we eat, we drink, we celebrate, we come together and we worship, all in God’s presence. Oh yes, there was something else the Israelites had to do at this festival.
And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. You shall keep it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year. It shall be a statute forever in your generations. You shall celebrate it in the seventh month (vv. 40-41).
What were they to do with these tree limbs? They were to make themselves a brush arbor, something that used to be done in the autumn among farm people in certain parts of the country. They built a brush arbor and had a seven day revival. I recall vividly going to one of these brush arbor meetings with my grandparents. They farmed 40 acres in Arkansas, and the brush arbor was a good two mile walk from the farm home where I was born. They sang hymns, prayed, and the preacher preached. But that was back in rural Arkansas in the 30s and 40s. Life was harder then. This idea for this brush arbor had to come from Leviticus, but people back then paid more attention to the Old Testament.
You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. So Moses declared to the children of Israel the feasts of the LORD (vv. 42-44).
Israel lived in booths, also called “tabernacles,” for 40 years in the wilderness. During these years, their tabernacles were hardly brush arbors for there weren’t that many trees in the desert. They were usually tents that they had to carry with them. There was plenty of time for them to develop a yearning for a better land, a better world. This idea is deeply rooted in the Bible, and it is not merely a Jewish thing. It was around before there ever was a Jew and it persisted all the way into Christianity. As in the earlier chapters, we have to take another look at Father Abraham.
By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:8-10 KJV).
Among Christian people, the word “tabernacle” has taken on a wide variety of meanings. You will see some pretty elaborate churches called “tabernacles.” The use of the word for a church building probably derives from the central “Tabernacle,” also called the “tent of meeting.” It was a place of worship. But it wasn’t a building. It was a tent, and it persisted in Israel all the way through the reign of David. The Christian Tabernacle is usually a permanent home for the church.iii
But in Abraham’s case, he was not at home, even in the promised land. He, his son and grandson lived out their lives in tabernacles, an old word for “tent.” He looked for a city with some permanence, but he never saw it. He left a city at God’s command, and spent the remainder of his life living in tents. And he, in a very real sense, is an icon down through all generations of what the life of a man of God in this world is supposed to be.
By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude; innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore. These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth (vv. 11-13).
There is nothing more fundamental to the Christian faith than the awareness that we are strangers and pilgrims on the earth, that we are not at home. And what is of special interest here is that the promise was never fulfilled in this life. When God has given you a promise, and you die never having received it, how on earth can you die in faith? Well, only if you realize that this world, this life, is not all there is, that this world is not your home. Your home is elsewhere at another time.
For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them (vv. 14-16).
In an important way, the observance of the Feast of Tabernacles is a confession that we are strangers and pilgrims, that we are not at home here, that we look for something far better. And the idea of a great city also passed into Christian hymns as a symbol of our hope of a better and more enduring world. One old hymn declares, “I’m bound for that city.”
The very idea and role of the man Abraham is that he lived his entire life in hope of something he never got. A permanent home. And this, I guess, is the fundamental definition of faith. I fear sometimes we think that having faith means we trust that God is going to give us the promise now, in this life. But no, faith involves a commitment to something beyond this life. Abraham confessed that his home was not in this world. Something too many Christians seem to have completely forgotten.
And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again. And others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection (Hebrews 11:32-35).
A better resurrection. The icon for this is crossing Jordan and entering the promised land. People actually accepted torture, spurning deliverance, that they might achieve this resurrection.
Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented; of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth (vv. 36-38).
Not one of them was ever at home. Not one of them had a comfortable recliner and table to sit up to and enjoy a warm meal. Not one of them had a Mercedes. They had to walk everywhere they went. It is fair to say that the world was not worthy of these men and women.
And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us (vv. 39-40).
There is only one conclusion you can draw from this. The promise is not in this world. It’s “across Jordan,” in the world to come. All this has everything to do with the Feast of Tabernacles as a Christian holiday.
Now I can already hear someone objecting: “Well, yes, but it was the people who were Israelite born who were to keep this feast. It was a part of their national history. You already cited the verse.”
True, but I have two important things to say about this. One, it was the dwelling in booths in particular that was a lesson for Israelites. They did this as an example for us upon whom the ends of the world are come,iv for us to learn from their experience of 40 years in the wilderness. But the festival is also one of the “appointed times of Jehovah.” It is not merely an Israelite festival. None of them are. They are the times at which God acted in history.
Then there is a fascinating passage of Scripture that casts an entirely different light on the subject. You find it, oddly enough, in a prophecy of the future, in Zechariah, chapter 14. It starts with a vision of the “Day of the Lord,” a singular day in the history of the world, and a day yet in our future. It takes place at the very end time, and it is the day of God’s wrath. The chapter starts with very bad news for the people of Jerusalem and some of the implications are truly stunning.
Behold, the day of the LORD is coming, And your spoil will be divided in your midst. For I will gather all the nations to battle against Jerusalem; The city shall be taken, The houses rifled, And the women ravished. Half of the city shall go into captivity, But the remnant of the people shall not be cut off from the city (Zechariah 14:1-2).
These are terrible tidings, but they shouldn’t be surprising for anyone living in the 21st century. Jerusalem has been the focal point for wars and killings for as long as we can remember. And not a few of the prophets, including Jesus himself, have seen major disaster for the city at the time of the end. But you don’t have to be a prophet to recognize that the slow burn around Jerusalem is eventually going to boil over. Odd thing is, that this prophecy calls for half the city to be carried away and half to be left. And for a generation or more we sat looking at Jerusalem as a divided city. The good news is that when this finally takes place, God himself will take a hand.
Then the LORD will go forth And fight against those nations, As He fights in the day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, Which faces Jerusalem on the east. And the Mount of Olives shall be split in two, From east to west, Making a very large valley; Half of the mountain shall move toward the north And half of it toward the south (vv. 3-4).
The striking thing about this is that the Lord’s feet have not stood on the Mount of Olives since Jesus ascended from that very spot nearly 2000 years ago. On that day, an angel spoke to the disciples as they stood gaping and looking up. “Men of Galilee,” said the angel, “why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”v Apparently, he will return back to the same place. And if you have ever been to Jerusalem you have seen with your own eyes that this prophecy is yet to be fulfilled, because the mountain is still whole.
“Thus the LORD my God will come,” continues Zechariah, “And all the saints with You” (v. 5). This implies clearly the return of Christ, and one thing that happens when Christ returns is the resurrection of the saints. They rise to meet him in the air, and if we have Zechariah right, they come right back down with him to the Mount of Olives.
It shall come to pass in that day That there will be no light; The lights will diminish. It shall be one day Which is known to the LORD; Neither day nor night. But at evening time it shall happen That it will be light. And in that day it shall be that living waters shall flow from Jerusalem, Half of them toward the eastern sea And half of them toward the western sea; In both summer and winter it shall occur. And the LORD shall be King over all the earth. In that day it shall be; “The LORD is one,” And His name one (vv. 6-9).
Well. This leaves the student of prophecy little room for error. We have arrived at the Kingdom of God and the establishment of that kingdom over all the earth. All this is future. And there is some heavy going even here.
And this shall be the plague with which the LORD will strike all the people who fought against Jerusalem: Their flesh shall dissolve while they stand on their feet, Their eyes shall dissolve in their sockets, And their tongues shall dissolve in their mouths (v. 12).
This may be the source for some of the special effects in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But it is in verse 16 where we suddenly find our thread again.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles (v. 16).
There is no reason why the Gentile nations should dwell in booths to recall Israel’s wilderness wanderings. Obviously, the booths are particular to Israel’s history, but that is not all there is to the festival. And the Jews are not the only ones who are going to be keeping the Feast.
And it shall be that whichever of the families of the earth do not come up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, on them there will be no rain. If the family of Egypt will not come up and enter in, they shall have no rain; they shall receive the plague with which the LORD strikes the nations who do not come up to keep the Feast of Tabernacles. This shall be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not come up to keep the Feast of Tabernacles (vv. 17-19).
Is it commanded? Oh yes, it is commanded. With sanctions. So the meaning of the festival clearly transcends Israel’s wandering in the desert, living in tents, many thousands of years ago. The Israelite meaning of the feast does not apply to the Egyptians, and they have to keep the feast anyway. Why? The reason can’t be physical. It has to be spiritual. They too need to confess that this world is not their home, their hope. They too must come to confess that they seek a city with foundations.
In that day “HOLINESS TO THE LORD” shall be engraved on the bells of the horses. The pots in the Lord’s house shall be like the bowls before the altar. Yes, every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holiness to the LORD of hosts. Everyone who sacrifices shall come and take them and cook in them. In that day there shall no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the LORD of hosts (vv. 20-21).
We are no longer dealing with a situation where everything around is common except for a small island of holiness. Everything will be holy.vi I’m not sure how to take all that but one thing is clear. All mankind is going to come to Jerusalem and everything in the city is going to be holy.
The Feast of Tabernacles makes the confession that we are strangers, that we don’t really belong here, that we seek a better country. It looks forward to the Kingdom of God and cries out with the slave, “Deep River, Lord, I want to cross over into camp ground.”
i. Galatians 6:16.
ii. As per Galatians 5:1, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”
iii. The English word, “tabernacle” comes from the Latin, tabernaculum, which means, “tent.”
iv. See 1 Corinthians 10:11
v. Acts 1:11.
vi. That people sacrifice does not necessarily imply a sacrificial system of worship as under the Levitical system. Any animal killed under the law was to be properly killed, and sacrifices were meat for people to eat.