Summary: God offers complete satisfaction to all who entrust their longings to his solution.
God required his people to have a grand party each fall. This joyous, harvest festival reminded the Jews of Jehovah’s favor and brought thousands to Jerusalem for the “Feast of Booths,” or “Feast of Tabernacles” (as it is sometimes called). For eight days, everyone camped in “booths,” simple huts formed from branches and grass matting—reminders of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, a time when they lived in tents and temporary shelters on the way to the promised land.
God describes the festivities in Leviticus 23.39-43: “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD seven days…. 40 And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days…. 42 You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, 43 that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”
Over time the Jews added other ceremonies. As we do with VBS, these involved children and adults and told the story of redemption and God’s provision. The final day, the great day, the day we are reading about in John 7, the drama was particularly impressive. Many Christian and Rabbinic writers explain the event. I edited Kent Hughes’ description (John, Preaching the Word Series, Crossway, 1999) for this account:
Great throngs came to town for the festivities, sometimes known as “the season of our gladness.” Colorful shelters sprang up in the most unlikely places—on flat rooftops, down dark alleys, even in the courts of the temple—and all followed the rabbinical building code. Walls were extra-thin so that light came through, and the roof had to show enough sky to see the stars, reminding the Jews of their wandering in the wilderness and of how God had provided.
At the heart of the celebration was a daily rite…. Each morning a crowd gathered at the Temple of Herod with a citrus fruit in their left hands (an etrog )…. In their right hands the people carried a lulab, a combination of three trees—a palm tree, a willow, and a myrtle, emblematic of the stages of their ancestors’ journey through the wilderness. The people followed the priest to the Pool of Siloam, chanting Psalms and waving their lulabs. At the Pool, the priest dipped his pitcher into the water, and the people recited Isaiah 12.3: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” Then they marched back to the temple, entering through the Water Gate to the blast of trumpets. The priest circled the altar once, ascended the platform, and pour out the water. This daily event [reminded Israel of God’s provision of water from the rock in Exodus 17.]
On the final day they enacted the same ceremony, dipping the golden pitcher in the water, carrying it through the Water Gate, sounding the trumpets. But then the priest circled the altar seven times—just like at Jericho. As he finished, a priest with a pitcher of wine joined him. They then ascended the ramp to the altar. They paused; the priest raised his pitcher. The crowd shouted for him to hold it higher. He reached as high as he could so that all could see, for it was considered a tremendous blessing to see the water poured. The crowd became silent as the water fell from the pitcher.