The Three Great National Festivals
Read Deuteronomy XVI.
W HEN Moses knew that he must never enter the Promised Land, and that very soon he must die in the wilderness and leave his people, he quietly began to prepare them for his departure. He had long talks with them, reminding them of God's care in the past, and pleading with them to be faithful and loyal when he was gone, and giving them directions for their future life in that land when he should be no more with them. I think it is very touching to see the old man standing before that crowd of people day after day, telling them how they were to worship God and thank Him for His goodness to them in the days to come in that beautiful new home of theirs, which he knew he should never share with them. We shall think of this more fully later on. The Book of Deuteronomy is the record of his last words to them, and we shall touch briefly on it as a whole. But it is necessary here to give in fuller detail one part of his directions—that about the Great Festivals which they must keep in Canaan.
Moses knew human nature well enough to see that it was necessary to keep some special annual celebrations to remind the nation of the past and of what they owed to God; else in a few centuries their descendants would be in danger of utterly forgetting. Just so the Christian Church appoints her great festivals, Christmas, and Easter, and Ascension, and Whitsuntide, to keep vividly before us the memory of the great facts of our religion.
How many were these festivals which Moses at God's inspiration commanded? Three. The feast of PASSOVER, the feast of PENTECOST, the feast of TABERNACLES.
§ 1. The Passover
We have already had a whole chapter devoted to this subject (ch. ix.), so little more is necessary to be said. The Passover should be distinguished from the other feasts. Though it, too, had some connection with the harvest (Leviticus xxiii. 10-14), yet it is not an agricultural feast, but a sacrificial, in memory of the great night of deliverance when the sprinkled blood saved the people. The references to the Passover in the Old Testament are not many (Joshua v. 10-12; 2 Chronicles xxx., xxxv.; Ezra vi. 19). The lesson to be taught will be found in Lesson IX.
§ 2. Pentecost
Fifty days after the Passover wave sheaf (Leviticus xxiii. 10-14) was the Feast of Pentecost. Because it is seven weeks, i.e. a week of weeks, after the Passover, it is also called the Feast of Weeks (Exodus xxxiv. 22; Deuteronomy xvi. 10). What else is it called? The Feast of Harvest (Exodus xxiii. 16); and of Firstfruits (Numbers xxviii. 26). It lasted only a single day (Deuteronomy xvi. 9-12). It marked the completion of the corn harvest, not of the whole harvest, and therefore it can hardly be said to correspond to our Harvest Home, or Harvest Festival.
The real Harvest Festival of Israel was the Feast of Tabernacles. Pentecost marked only a certain stage in the ingathering, but the Feast of Tabernacles was for the combined produce of the whole year. "When thou hast gathered in thy labours out of the field." (See Exodus xxiii. 16; Leviticus xxiii. 39; Deuteronomy xvi. 13.)
The later Jews say that Pentecost also commemorated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, fifty days after the departure out of Egypt.
How were they to keep this festival? Sadly? No. Deuteronomy xvi. 11, "Thou shalt rejoice before the Lord thy God, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy servants, and the stranger, and the widow, and the fatherless that are among you." Is not that a lovely idea of religion, to rejoice and to make others rejoice? What a beautiful, happy world this would be if we all lived out our religion that way! They were to remember something sad. What? Deuteronomy xvi. 12, "Remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt." I suppose that was to make them gladder and more grateful in the thought of the contrast with the happy, prosperous life in Canaan. Think of Moses as he reminded them that they had been bondmen in Egypt. I suppose the memory would rise in his heart of these old days and the sights of horror at the brick-fields and the day that he smote the Egyptian taskmaster dead in his anger. "Rejoice in the Lord," he says, "for all His goodness since that time."
§ 3. The Feast of Tabernacles
There was a bright, glad note of thanksgiving in the Feast of Pentecost, and even—though in a more subdued key—in the Feast of Passover. But the brightest, gladdest festival of the whole year was the Feast of Tabernacles. I think we may especially call it the Jewish Harvest Festival. The farm labours were over for the year; the harvest was gathered in. It was the feast of a nation resting from its work; the joyous feast amid the leafy boughs and the fresh-cut hay and the golden light of piled-up corn; "the feast of ingathering at the end of the year, when they had gathered in their labours out of the field."
It was evidently intended to be the most joyous festival of the year. See the fuller directions, Leviticus xxiii. 40: "Ye shall take you on the first day boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the Lord seven days." Why these boughs and branches? To make booths or tents of leaves over their heads to remind them of the sad time of wandering in the Wilderness, and so to deepen their gladness and thankfulness. It is just the same lesson as in the Feast of Pentecost, when they were bidden "remember when thou wast a bondman in Egypt," that thus they might more rejoice and thank God for their freedom. So now, with the happy homes and the rich, bountiful harvest of the good land that God had given, they were to rejoice in the memory of the dreary past which was over for ever.
So curious it looked—this dramatic reminder of the old desert life—coming in hundreds of years later in the surroundings of Jerusalem, so unlike the desert, with houses, and streets, and beautiful public buildings, and the Temple of God, stately and strong, in the place of the old movable Tabernacle of the Congregation.
Did they "rejoice in their feast," do you think? Aye, did they! "He who has not seen our Feast of Tabernacles," say the Rabbis, "does not know what joy means." Out from their houses and lodgings in Jerusalem they crowded into the Temple precincts, and booths were erected of palms and willows; and bunches of ripe fruit were hung over the booths, and the trumpets rang out, and the offerings were brought, and water and wine were poured out at the altar, and the people rejoiced praising the Lord. The desert life was over for ever; the harvest was safe; the corn was stored; the vintage was gathered. Blight and mildew, storm and rain, had done their worst and failed to break the ancient promise of God. Again had the earth brought forth her increase, and "God, even their own God, had given His blessing." Probably every one of the Psalms which we sing at Harvest Festivals to-day were written by some inspired king or inspired farmer thousands of years ago for the national festivals, to express the people's gladness and thankfulness to God.
Don't you think it would do them good and make them love God, such a festival as that every year? Ah, poor Jews! I feel so sorrowful for them now. I (the writer) have seen, years ago, the poor creatures in my own city parish in their red brick artisan dwellings, trying so pathetically to keep up the memory of that old Feast of Tabernacles. It would bring tears into your eyes to think of the glorious old days and then to look at the few little dying branches of green stuff on the sheds in their back-yards, and the poor little efforts to keep the glad Feast of Tabernacles in the midst of a city that neither knew nor cared what they were doing.
I wonder if Moses, in his life beyond, was able to look down and rejoice with his nation in their joy long ago? And I wonder if he is able to see sorrowfully the poor little pathetic efforts in the city back streets to-day. I don't know. But I know that God sees and God cares. He hath not cast away His people.
I think of the Feast of Tabernacles in later days, when the Benjamites carried off wives from the vineyards of Shiloh (Judges xxi. 19); when Elkanah came up to Shiloh to worship (1 Samuel i. 3); when Solomon chose this festival for the dedication of his temple (1 Kings viii. 2); when Nehemiah read every day of the feast the words of the law of God (Nehemiah viii. 13-18). And there is one still more interesting.
Do you remember one very interesting Feast of Tabernacles at which our Lord was present? Where recorded? (John vii., viii.) I have referred already to some of the later ceremonies which were added in after days—the procession to Siloam to fetch water and pour it out solemnly at the altar. Amongst these later additions was also the lighting of the four great golden candelabra in the Court of the Women. You remember how our Lord spoke as He saw the water-drawing on "the Great Day of the Feast" (John vii. 37), "If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink." And again, probably at the lighting of the Great Candelabra (John viii. 12), "I am the Light of the world," etc.
§ 4. The Four Lessons
What are the four definite directions given by God about these national festivals for worship?
(1) That all the men should come at the appointed times (Exodus xxii. 17).
(2) That all should worship together (Deuteronomy xvi. 5-7).
(3) That they should rejoice (Deuteronomy xvi. 11-14).
(4) That they should come prepared to give (Deuteronomy xvi. 16).
Let each child repeat these and show in the chapter where they are enjoined.
§ 5. Lesson One: Public Worship
Now let us see what lessons for us about God's will are here. (1) How many of the men of Israel were ordered to come? Was any single one at liberty to stay away from this public worship and thanksgiving to God? Not one.
If any man of Israel who was not sick or prevented by something of vital importance were absent, don't you think God would regard it as a sin and disrespect shown to Him? Many of the women came too. Our Lord's parents both went (Luke ii. 41). But the order was not made strictly about them. Why, do you think? In so many cases it would be almost impossible for a woman to leave her household and little children when her husband was away, and to be away for days, or weeks together in Jerusalem. So the women went when they could. But the men could not avoid going under penalty of sin against God.
What is the lesson for us? Surely the bounden duty of the public worship of God. The duty I say. There is also the great loss to the spiritual life of any one who neglects public worship. But the lesson before us is plainly of the duty of it. God's will is surely the same now as then, and to dishonour Him by neglecting public worship must be a grave sin. What man may absent himself now? Not one. Do you think women may do so now? God is very loving and considerate, and if a poor woman has young children and, sorely against her will, is unable to be often in church, God would be gentle with her and bless her in spite of it. But remember the Jewish woman had to go a long journey and be away weeks together. Therefore the same excuse does not apply. If necessary she should ask her husband or a neighbour or friend to stay in the house for one service at least. Unless she is doing her best about it she is not free from the sin.
Do you think "all the males" in our country obey God in this? Oh, it is awful, this sin, and it is growing worse in England, and the men are worse than the women. I wish all our children were differently taught about this. I wish our pulpits would frequently insist that it is not merely a fault or a failing or a loss, but a great SIN of disrespect to God. With all their errors of teaching, the Roman Catholic clergy do insist on this. From childhood their people are taught the obligations of public worship and the great sin of neglecting it. And the result is most remarkable. It is a wretched confession to have to make that the neglect of public worship is far more amongst Protestants than amongst Roman Catholics. A clergyman told the writer lately that not 10 per cent. of the people in his district came to church, and the accounts from parishes with large numbers of working men are perfectly awful. Unless our nation repent of it, and mend its ways, God's blessing cannot remain with us.
People say sometimes, "I can pray as well at home." Do you think that will do as well? I fear those who talk thus don't pray much at home or anywhere else; but even if they did pray at home, would that suffice? Remember the worship of God is not merely the asking in private of what we want, each for himself, but the public kneeling with His people to offer Him gratitude and praise and adoration. Do your best to help against this national sin. Pray for God's grace to keep you clear of that sin yourselves, and do all you can to urge others to keep clear of it.
Lesson Two: Unity
There is not room to say much about this here. But notice how especially these Jews were ordered to have a united worship. They were not allowed to say, "We will separate into groups and worship when and where we like. It does not matter if we are worshipping God." No. "Keep together in your great acts of worship," said Moses. And Moses said it, remember, by God's inspiration. Unity was of vital importance to them as a Church, and as a nation, to accomplish God's purposes.
Is it not the same with the Christian Church? Don't you think our Lord sent out His Church to accomplish a great purpose? Do you think it will do just as well if split up into 100 separate sects—separate in worship, separate in work—sometimes even hostile to each other? Never mind who is to blame for the present state of things. Enough to know that it is making religion a mockery. Think about the need of this unity for the work Christ has set us. Pray about it. Help towards it all you can. Remember our Lord's great prayer for it (John xvii. 21), "That they all may be one . . . that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me."
Lesson Third: Rejoice
There is another important lesson. (See vv. 11-14.) Thou shalt rejoice. That was the direction given 3000 years ago to the old Jewish Church for their religious services. And I think it would be a good thing for us in these days to remember it more. We are a much less joyous-hearted people. We have less of the joyful child-spirit in our religion. We older people, at any rate, do not make it the glad thing we ought.
And I doubt if even children do it either as you should. What happens when you kneel down in the morning and at night? Try to remember. Do you feel glad like children who trust, and rejoice in the kind, loving, considerate heart of your Father in heaven? Do you say, "Lord, I am glad that I am going out into my life to-day in Your presence. You like to see me happy. You will be glad when I try to be good"? Or do you, as you solemnize your thoughts to kneel down, do you feel a bit afraid and shrinking and a trifle sad, and do you sometimes feel a wee bit of relief when it is all over and you can rush off to romp with your brothers and sisters or to rush out into the sunshine? If so, don't you think it is rather hard on God (I say it reverently) to have to bear this? Don't you think your father or mother would feel it hard if you felt thus about meeting them? And God has to bear that so often from us, and to say nothing about it. He says, "My child, thou shalt rejoice in thy religion, thy prayers, thy thanksgivings." But we do not—much. And I think God is sorrowful for it. He goes on still blessing and helping us and making us happy and good just the same as if we rejoiced in Him. But don't you think He would like it if there were more joy and trust shown by us? Do you think poor little insignificant creatures like us could give joy to the great Almighty God? Our Lord says, Yes. (Luke xv. 1-10). There is joy in heaven and joy in the angels when men turn to God. I think there would be joy in heaven, too, if we showed more joy on earth at coming into God's presence like the Israelites. Do you think God deserves it of us? Do you think it would make life and religion brighter and happier? Will you try and think about it?
Lesson Four: Giving
"Thou shalt not come before the Lord empty." In our lesson about the Tabernacle we saw the importance of this. Not that God needs our gifts, but that He delights to see us show our gratitude thus, and for that reason He has left His greatest works—the support of his Church, the care of the poor, the Missions to the heathen, etc.—entirely dependent on our effort. If we refuse to help, these must suffer. Let us, then, give gladly, "not grudgingly or of necessity, for God loveth a cheerful giver."
Questions for Lesson XXI
What were the three great national festivals of Israel?
What time of the year was each?
What did each commemorate?
Which was the harvest festival?
Did our Lord ever come to any of these festivals?
Why did God desire that all should come to these services?
What is their lesson for us about (1) public worship, (2) joyful religion, (3) giving for God's service?