‘The God of Holidays’ Deuteronomy 16:1-17 September 13, 1992
The chapter gives only a summary statement on the three great yearly feasts of the Jewish calendar. More complete legislation is found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.
v. 1 Abib, later called ‘Nisan’ = March/April
v. 4 While only the adult males were required to attend the Passover ritual at the central tabernacle and later the temple in Jerusalem, in this way every Israelite family participated as well in their homes.
v. 6 ‘The evening’ as at the first Passover
v. 7 ‘To your tents’ = ‘to your temporary lodgings at the sanctuary’
v. 9 ‘Weeks’ = ‘Pentecost’ i.e. 50 days after Passover (In Exodus and Numbers it is also called ‘Harvest’ and ‘Firstfruits’) The date is given more precisely in Leviticus 23:15-16 as fifty days after the offering of a sheaf of new grain at the beginning of Passover.
v. 13 Tabernacles or Booths was celebrated at the Autumn harvest of produce (grapes, olives, dates, figs). In Exodus it is also called the ‘Feast of Ingathering.’ Part of the festival was camping out for the week, living in booths as a reminder of their camping in the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt.
v. 16 The Hebrew word for ‘feast’ is ‘Hag,’ which reminds us of the Muslim annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the ‘Haj.’ The idea of pilgrimage belongs to the Hebrew word as well.
There are any number of ways in which Deuteronomy 16 could be preached. The Passover was the sacrifice of all sacrifices in the ancient church and the most important precursor of the Lord’s Supper. So, we could consider this chapter as instruction in the doctrine and practice of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and good use could be made of it in that way.
Or, we could take it as the basis for a consideration of the question whether Christians ought to celebrate such festivals as Christmas and Easter, or even Thanksgiving. There are, as you may know, some Christians who adamantly maintain that it is unbiblical to celebrate Christmas, for we are not taught to do so in the New Testament. Some of that prejudice against such Christian holidays, we should fully understand, has its origin in an unbiblical and superstitious reverence for and practice of such holidays in some parts of the church. But, surely Deuteronomy 16 is on the side of those who feel that it is entirely biblical to celebrate annually the great moments in the history of our salvation. Surely if God’s people recollected the Exodus with the great holidays, one would think it inevitable –. All the more is this the case given the fact that later the people of God would add another great festival to their calendar which the law of God knew nothing of. This was Purim, the celebration of the deliverance of Israel which came about through Esther and which is told in the book of Esther. They weren’t limited to the feasts of the law. What is more, given the fact that ANE culture in general celebrated harvest festivals, this passage, I certainly think, teaches us that it is no argument against the celebration of Christmas or Easter that these Christian feasts replaced pagan feasts on the same date or that some features of them in our culture may have a pagan origin — Christmas trees and Easter bunnies and the like — or that they may, in our general culture, be celebrated by many in a less than devout way.
Or we could consider this 16th chapter from the point of view of its teaching that the fact that the food we eat and the prosperity we enjoy is from the Lord should receive some outward recognition in our lives.
There are still other applications of these laws governing the three great festivals of the Mosaic calendar. But, this morning, I want to consider a general teaching of Holy Scripture which is wonderfully illustrated by and, indeed, is a foundation of all three of these great festivals. And that is this: that the life of faith in Christ, the Christian life, the life of the children of the living God is to be a life of pleasure, of joy, and of conviviality. It is to be, as we read here, a festive life!
Isn’t it remarkable that God should require of his people that they take so many holidays? And let no one mistake it. These were holidays. These were the great times of the year. This was Christmas three times over! And that is exactly what Passover was to the Jewish boy or girl, man or woman in the days of Moses and Joshua. It was just like Christmas is for us, the most charmed time of the year. And they had it three times, not just once! A trip to Jerusalem and the temple, wonderful food and grand ceremonies, no normal work with lots of free time for sightseeing and recreation, camping out in booths at the Autumn festival — how the kids looked forward to that! –, and all of it rendered the more special for all the sacred and holy connotations in these festivals.
Isn’t it remarkable that God should want to be remembered by his people over a great meal? That he should seek to build their faith in such a happy and festive way? That he should keep them in remembrance of their salvation in a way that would have been such great fun for kids and parents alike? This a point hardly confined to the OT pilgrimage feasts. It is a theme which is woven through all of the Bible and all of its teaching about the life of faith. We are to be a festive people, we Christians.
‘Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do.’ So says the wise man who wrote Ecclesiastes (9:7). ‘I commend the enjoyment of life,’ he goes on to say, ‘because nothing is better for a man than to eat and drink and be glad’ (8:15). But, of course, he means only that kind of merriment which comes from a Christian faith. For as he also wrote in the same book: ‘A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment. To the man who pleases him…God gives happiness’ (2:24-26).
When the seventy elders of Israel went up to Mt. Sinai to meet with the Lord, we read in Exodus 24 that they saw God and ate and drank. What a meal that must have been!
And what is the grand prospect which held in front of us in the NT: the greatest banquet that has ever been held in the history of time and space.
All through the Bible it is the same as it is here in Deuteronomy 16. God wants us to be festive and to be genuinely happy and calls us to keep holiday with him over and over again in the middle of our working life. Our Savior himself taught us this by his own example. For, solemn and heavy as his life had to be in so many ways, overshadowed as it was by so much suffering and humiliation, he nevertheless, as a Christian man, a believing man, a godly man, often took time for a fine meal and conviviality in the company of his friends. Some of the most arresting scenes in the gospels occur as Jesus is at the table enjoying one of those long and conversation-filled dinners.
I have been reading this past week, the first of the great Christian biographies, Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony. Anthony was one of the first Christian monks and played a key role in the establishment of Christian monasticism. Early on in his life he decided that being serious about living a holy life meant a dramatic change in his eating habits. He began to eat but once a day, sometimes but once every two days. And he changed his diet. Gone were the things he had formerly loved to eat. Now, Athanasius tells us, he ate bread and salt and drank only water. Such became the habit of his life.
Now, I am far from saying that Christians today do not need much more of Anthony’s spirit of self-denial and of buffeting the body to bring it into submission. We do; very much we do! Every Christian life should have, must have, its fasting and its denying pleasure to itself. Otherwise it becomes soft and flabby and weak and self-indulgent. Spiritual convictions must be exercised. Nor am I saying that in our eating and drinking we must not observe the Biblical rule of moderation in all things and have an eye always open to the poor. The Bible reserves very harsh language for those who enjoy their fully-loaded tables while others close by go hungry.
But it must be said, that well-intentioned as he was, and wonderful in his discipline and self-denial as he was, and successful as he was in withering his natural self-indulgence, St. Anthony’s life was missing an important component of the Christian life as that life is taught in Holy Scripture and as it was lived by the Savior himself. There was no banquet, no warm fellowship around a table set with delicious food, no conviviality over a meal as both a present celebration of the happy life God has given his children and as an anticipation of the joys of the world to come. Most notable Christians in the centuries of church history had something of St. Anthony’s mind about self-denial and fasting, but also, at the same time, had this other feature in their lives, the festive side, a life with its Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles, and the rest!
Martin Luther was such a man: he hated his sin but loved to eat and drink and all the more in the company of Christians. Many of our Scottish covenanter fathers and mothers, including many of the martyrs, so stern, so unbending, so serious when the honor of the Lord Christ was at stake, were actually wonderfully happy Christian folk, who were never so much their true selves as when they were relaxing over a good meal with family and friends or at play out of doors. They were men and women of large heart, and a large heart has room for both holy sorrows and holy joys. William Guthrie was one such man, the author of the classic little book on being sure of one’s salvation in Christ, The Christian’s Great Interest, concerning which John Owen, that titan of theologians, said, ‘That author I take to have been one of the greatest divines that ever wrote.’ It is a wonderfully solemn and useful book on the most important of all subjects.
But, lest you think that William Guthrie was always so solemn and serious, let me tell you that, in his day, he was known as the life of the party in his congregation, his Presbytery, and even in the General Assembly. He was wonderfully fun. He also loved to fish. Once, when he was writing his little book, he heard of a Scottish peasant who had come through some extraordinary spiritual experiences in his life and he put his manuscript down and set across country to interview the man to see what more he might learn from him of God’s ways with the soul. All night and the next day Guthrie was in the deepest conversation about the holiest things with this man and his wife, but as the afternoon drew on, Guthrie happened to notice a trout stream close by. And, in a moment, as if he had completely forgotten all about his book and the reason for his visit, he asked his host if he could borrow a fishing rod. The old man felt that his poor fishing tackle would be absolutely sanctified to be used by such a minister as William Guthrie, but his wife didn’t appreciate the abrupt come-down at the end of such a visit as this had been, and, like Scottish women will do, she said so. [Whyte, Samuel Rutherford, pp. 143-144]
But, I think it just right, a perfect illustration of the true Christian life, when the most sublime and serious talk about God and salvation can be immediately followed by the purest and keenest fun. I think it is precisely the pattern God himself holds before us in the Word. True godliness is not practiced in the Bible at the expense of true humanity, true happiness in food, drink, fellowship, and recreation. Quite the contrary, God is the God of happy holidays. When he welcomes his prodigal son home, he not only says ‘Bring forth the best robe and put it on him,’ but also ‘Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.’ Let’s eat and be happy!
Let me remind you briefly of why this is so important, and why no Christian should content himself or herself with a life which is missing this festive element.
First, this joy and happiness strengthens us and nerves us to do our duty in the work and warfare of the Christian life. This is precisely what Nehemiah told a large congregation of the people of God in his day. They had met to celebrate the Feast of Trumpets but they were in tears. Rather than rejoicing they were feeling deeply and sorrowfully the weight of their sins, for they had just heard the Law of God read and preached and, with a fresh power, conviction of sin had awakened in their souls. It was then that Nehemiah intervened. No, No! They mustn’t weep. Quite the contrary. They must go home, fix a delicious meal, and have a holiday. For, he told them, ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ Important as penitence and mourning for sin unquestionably is, the Christian life must have joy as well to be lived aright. No one can serve the Lord faithfully who is always sad. Joy invigorates and freshens the heart and adds energy to the spirit and lightness to the step.
There is an ancient legend — I will say nothing about the likelihood of its being true; it concerns the Apostle John during the days he was in Ephesus writing his Gospel. The venerable Apostle, the now aged disciple whom Jesus had loved, had just completed the 14th chapter of his immortal account of the life and ministry of the Lord Christ.
And tired from recollection and writing the entire day, he laid down his pen and coming out into the garden of the house he began to relax and amuse himself with a tame partridge that had been given to him by one of his converts. The partridge loved the company and was now on the Apostle’s shoulder, now on his head, now on his hand, now circling around and lighting again. Had you witnessed only that scene you might have thought that John was one of the most idle and foolish old men in the entire city. A hunter, Christian man and friend of the Apostle happened to pass by on his way in from the hills and, to tell the truth, he was embarrassed to see such a great saint behaving this way, whiling away his time with a bird, making clucking sounds and saying the sort of foolish things people will when playing with animals. Like many Christians, feeling it his duty to correct this misbehavior, he made his complaint to John. ‘What is that you carry in your hand?’ came the reply. ‘It is my bow,’ the hunter replied. ‘And why do you let it hang so loose?’ John asked, ‘You cannot shoot an arrow with a bow slack like yours is now.’ ‘No, of course not,’ replied the amused and somewhat condescending hunter. ‘But if I always kept the bowstring taut, the bow would soon lose its spring and would no longer send the arrow fast and true. I unstring my bow when I am not hunting, so that it will shoot better when I am.’ ‘Well, good,’ said the old Apostle. ‘And that is just what I am doing now with my partridge. I am playing now so that I may better finish my Gospel tomorrow. I am putting everything out of my mind tonight so that tomorrow I might more perfectly recollect a prayer I heard my Master pray now some 50 years ago.’
And so it is with us today. The joy of the Lord remains our strength and a festive meal with Christian fellowship is as important to us today to refresh us and nerve us again for battle with the Devil and with his temptations as ever it was in days gone by. The godly came home from Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles renewed and reconsecrated to the good fight of faith and we will be as well after our NT festivities.
Second, this festive aspect of our Christian lives adorns the faith and bears witness to the world. You remember that, before he was a Christian, John Bunyan was riveted to the spot listening to some Christian women speak of salvation, because they spoke, he said, ‘as if joy did make them speak.’ Jesus himself appealed to mankind’s desire for happiness in his preaching. His beatitudes in the sermon on the mount are an invitation to find happiness in him. As Martin Lloyd Jones wrote in commenting on them: ‘Happiness is the great question confronting mankind. The whole world is longing for happiness and it is tragic to see the ways in which people are seeking it. The vast majority, alas, are doing so in a way that is bound to produce misery.’ [Sermon on the Mount, I, p. 32]
Christ says to the world: here is the way to true happiness, to true joy. I am that way. And then at the close of that section of the sermon he invites people to find a demonstration of the truth of what he has told them in observing the life of his disciples. He tells us, ‘let your light shine before men…’ As we live here in Tacoma, in our neighborhoods, in our places of work, we have the reputation of Jesus Christ and his gospel in our hands. He says it makes people happy to follow him and that folks have only to look at his followers to see that it is so.
I know some Christians who apparently think the Bible commands them to ‘Groan in the Lord always.’ And Jesus is so much as saying, that kind of life undermines the gospel in the world. People want to be happy. And nothing will more powerfully recommend the gospel to the world than that the world see that Christian people — for all their honesty about themselves and for all their reverence for God and for all their seriousness about life and for all their sympathy with the sorrows of others — live, nevertheless, a festive and happy life. They want such a life for themselves and if they see Christians living it may well be more inclined to imitate them in following Christ.
Third, this festivity and gaiety in life gives glory to God. How often in the Bible, in one form of words or another, do we read such things as these:
‘Happy are the people whose God is the Lord.’
‘Happy is he whose hope is in the Lord his God, the Maker of heaven and earth.’
‘Happy are you O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord. He is your shield and helper.’
And we should be happy, delightfully happy, festive and holiday-spirited, for all that is ours in the Lord and all that will be ours when he comes again. How dishonoring it would be for God’s people not to rejoice before him and not to demonstrate in their living that God has given them a greatjoy. As in v. 11 of chapter 16, all of our joy is to be before Him It is joy that is ours because of his grace, and joy that is true joy because it is mixed with him.
As Henry Lyte puts it in his exquisite hymn:
‘O ’tis not in grief to harm me
While thy love is left to me;
O t’were not in joy to charm me,
Were that joy unmixed with thee.’
A happy people bring credit to the Lord. The Queen of Sheba, in complimenting Solomon, said: ‘How happy all your men must be.’ She meant, how favored, how fortunate they must feel who get to work for such a wise king and to participate in such great prosperity and share some of your royal glory, great as it is.’ Well, so it should be for us. How happy we should be to be the children of our Heavenly Father, and how much our happiness ought to be to his credit, praise, and honor, for he is the cause of it and the reason for it.
Deuteronomy 16 is a call to all of us to live festive lives, in our families and in our church fellowship. Often to be at table with others, enjoying delightful conversation and delicious food, careful all the while to be providing the same for others, and enjoying it all in an atmosphere dominated by the grace and the presence of God and the banquet soon to come. It is our inheritance as the people of God, it is our calling, it is our ministry and witness, and it is to God’s honor. May our children grow up with such festivity a large part of their view of life, learning that no one lives life more richly or happily or gaily than the sons and daughters of the true and living God.
This is the Sabbath Day, such a God-given holiday for us every week. Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles on a smaller scale. Sunday, Tertullian said rightly, we give to joy! So, in Nehemiah’s name and in the Lord’s name, I say to you, today and often: ‘Go, and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’