It is a remarkable passage —packed with prophetic hints of things in the future, buttressed with divine obligation, and overflowing with faith-building encouragement. In its most expanded form, the text is found in the book of Exodus as follows:
“Three times in the year all of your males shall appear before the Lord Jehovah, the God of Israel. For I will cast out nations before you, and enlarge your borders: neither shall any man desire your land, when you go up to appear before Jehovah your God three times in the year” (Ex. 34:23-24).
For the purpose of this brief study, we will look at several elements within this context, but in a topical order, rather than in the order listed in the passage.
- The promise of the text, given to the nation of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai following their departure from Egypt, speaks of a time to come when these select people would be given a territory of their own. As we know from previous scriptural information, the promise had to do with the land of Canaan, which the Lord had declared would be bequeathed to the seed of Abraham eventually —particularly after the “iniquity of the Amorite” became “full” (Gen. 15:12-16). The Amorites were one of the ancient pagan tribes inhabiting the land.
- It was indicated further that this land would not be acquired as a result of Israel’s military prowess. Rather, Jehovah said: “I will cast out the nations before you.” The Hebrews’ rather small, ill-equipped fighting force (slightly over 600,000 — Num. 26:51), was scarcely in a position to exercise significant military muscle against the fortified cities of Canaan —especially after a forty-year nomadic trek in Sinai’s barren wilderness.
That Jehovah was the invisible factor in their conquest is clearly illustrated by two supernatural events. There was the defeat of Jericho by a baffling “march-around-the-walls” maneuver (Josh. 6), and then the great victory over the Amorites in that unique day when the sun “stood still” (prolonging the time of battle), and a bombardment of great hailstones vanquished the enemy (Josh. 10:1-14).
And then there is that mysterious passage in which the Lord pledged to “send the hornet” in advance of Israel’s assault, to soften the adversary (Ex. 23:28; cf. Josh. 24:12). While some see this as a mere metaphor for the “terror” that was struck in the hearts of the heathen Canaanites (cf. Dt. 11:25), John Garstang, a noted archaeologist, argued that the “hornet” was a symbol of the Egyptians (the insect being found pictured in their hieroglyphics). It is a fact that, prior to Israel’s arrival in the land, the Egyptians had made numerous raids into Canaan. One Egyptian inscription reads: “Plundered is Kanaan, with every evil” (John Garstang, The Foundations of Bible History — Joshua/Judges, New York: Richard R. Smith, Inc., 1931, pp. 112-15; 258-60).
- Moses further suggested that at some point after Israel’s conquest of the land, Jehovah would “enlarge [their] borders.” Again, it must be noted that this same pledge was made to Abraham regarding his descendants. At the appointed time, the Hebrews’ land title would embrace the territory from the river of Egypt (Wadi el Arish) all the way to the Euphrates (see Gen. 15:18), a region of some 60,000 square miles. Though some (e.g., the millennialists) claim that this promise has not been fulfilled yet, the Scriptures explicitly state otherwise. This region ultimately was ruled by Solomon, and the inhabitants thereof paid tribute to Israel’s king (see 1 Kg. 4:21; 2 Chron. 9:26).
- The prophecy also looks forward to the time when the men of Israel, in a special way, would “appear before the Lord Jehovah.” That is a rather strange expression in view of the fact that God knows everything (1 Jn. 3:20), and from heaven he “sees all the sons of men” (Psa. 33:13-14). No one can hide from the Lord (Jer. 23:23-24), because all things are “laid open” before his eyes (Heb. 4:13). Literally, then, we “appear” before him every day!
That “appear before the Lord” phrase, however, came to be used in a technical sense. It denoted a communion with God in his appointed place of worship, the sacred sanctuary (Dt. 12:5; 16:16). At first that was at Shiloh, where the tabernacle was deposited for a while (Judg. 18:1,31; 1 Sam. 1:3,9; cf. Psa. 78:60; Jer. 7:12,14; 26:6,9). Later, it was in the temple at Jerusalem (Psa. 43:3; Isa. 1:12; 8:18; Jer. 31:6). Furthermore, it is interesting that Moses spoke of the Israelites going “up” to worship —an elevation indicator that applied both to Shiloh and to Jerusalem. This is a subtle example of prophetic accuracy.
- Three times in the year Jewish males were required to make the worship journey. Some believe that the age requirement for this obligation likely was twenty years old and above (cf. Num. 1:3; C.F. Keil, “Exodus,” Commentary on the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980, p. 149). Women and children were allowed to make the trip along with their men (cf. Lk. 2:41), but they were not compelled to attend.
The three annual journeys were. (a) The “feast of unleavened bread,” a seven-day event following the Passover; this was in the spring (Ex. 12). (b) The “feast of first fruits,” otherwise known as Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:1), which came fifty days after the Passover, thus was in early summer. (c) The “feast of ingathering,” also called Tabernacles, which was celebrated in the autumn (see Ex. 23:14-17).
Each of these celebrations was typical (i.e., prophetic) as well, i.e., they represented concepts which found a richer meaning in the Messianic age. The Passover symbolized our sacrifice, Christ (1 Cor. 5:7). The feast of first fruits pictured the great gospel harvest that would transpire on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).
Finally, the feast of Tabernacles was designed to remind the people of God that we are but temporarily in the “tabernacle” of the flesh (2 Cor. 5:1ff), as we look for the city with foundations whose builder and maker is God (Heb. 11:10,13-16).
In conjunction with these yearly trips, the Hebrew men were required to provide offerings as a token of their gratitude to God. No man was to come empty-handed, but each was to give as he had been blessed (Dt. 16:16-17). The modern child of God, who presumes to come into the church assembly, Lord’s-day-after-Lord’s-day, with no meaningful contribution for the church treasury (1 Cor. 16:1-2), would do well to be admonished by the principle of this text.
- Finally, there is a truly remarkable challenge to trust in the benevolent care of the divine Protector. The men of Israel were promised that if they placed their confidence in God, in carrying out these demanding journeys, the Lord would see to it that no hostile force would “desire [their] land” while they were away from their homes.
This promise truly challenges the Bible student with the mystery of providence! How the Lord could direct such alien dispositions, and yet maintain a respect for human freedom of thought and choice, is an inexplicable puzzle. Nonetheless, we do not doubt that it can be so.
Thomas Horne once noted that “it is a well known fact, that the Jews constantly attended the ceremonies without any fear of danger, and that their most vigilant enemies never invaded them or injured them during these sacred seasons” (Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, Philadelphia: J. Whetham & Son, 1841, II, p. 121). He contended that this constituted a “manifest proof of the divine origin of their religion.”
How rich the Scriptures are (as in the case of Exodus 34:23-24), if we but mine the sacred depository for its treasures.