Three times a year Israelite families travelled to the temple in Jerusalem for a religious festival (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:23-24; Dt. 16:16). The first of these was the Passover in spring, when they remembered how God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. The second was the Harvest Festival in summer (Ex. 23:16), when they thanked God for providing an abundant wheat harvest in Canaan. And the third was the Festival (or feast) of Shelters (or tabernacles) in autumn when they remembered God’s care and provision during the 40-year exodus journey.
The festival was called “shelters” because they built temporary shelters (or huts, or tents), which were walled structures covered with branches (Neh. 8:13-18). Similar shelters were used as temporary accommodation by armies (2 Sam. 11:11; 1 Ki. 20:12, 16) and by watchmen protecting crops from thieves and intruders (Job 27:18; Isa. 1:8).
After the exile, the Israelites built these shelters on their roofs, in their courtyards, in the court of the temple and in city squares (Neh. 8:16). During the 7-day festival, meals were eaten inside the shelter and many people slept there as well. It was like camping outside. Like the Passover, it was the time of a full moon, which helps when camping outside at night (Ps. 81:3).
At this festival they read the law of Moses (Dt. 31:10-13) and offered bulls, rams, lambs, goats, grains, oils and drinks to God (Num. 29:12-34). Everyone was invited to the festival; servants, foreigners (Gentiles), the fatherless and widows (Dt. 16:13-15).
The Festival of Shelters reminded the Israelites how God provided for them in the past, the present and the future.
The past. The shelters were to remind them of the tents they lived in during the 40-year journey from Egypt to Canaan (Lev. 23:42-43). God protected and sustained them physically as they travelled across desert and wilderness. That’s how they came to live in Canaan.
The present. This festival was also called the Festival of Ingathering (or harvest) (Ex. 23:16; 34:22). It was a joyful time (Lev. 23:40; Dt. 16:14-15) when they celebrated the harvest of grapes and olives, which was the last harvest of the agricultural year (Dt. 16:13-15). God provided plenty of food so they could thrive in Canaan.
The future. Zechariah taught that the Festival of Shelters will be celebrated in the Millennial reign of Christ (Zech. 14:16-19). Then it will also be a celebration of the final regathering and restoration of Israel and people from all nations will go to Jerusalem for the festival.
Likewise, let’s remember that God cares for believers in the past, present and future. Christ’s sacrificial death has saved them from the penalty of sin, and can save them from the power of sin today and will save them from the presence of sin in the future. God has brought them into His family. And today the Holy Spirit protects and sustains their Christian lives. As God dwelt in the Tabernacle (Holy tent) with the Israelites, today the Holy Spirit lives within believers. And Jesus has promised to return and resurrect their bodies so they can share eternal life with Him.
Just like the Israelites thanked God for safely bringing them to the promised land, let’s thank God for protecting and providing for us spiritually as we go through life in this world on the journey towards our heavenly home. For all that God has done for us through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The main point is that daily spiritual sustenance comes through Christ’s sacrifice.