Leviticus 23 Bible Commentary

John Darby’s Synopsis

(Read all of Leviticus 23)
The seven feasts of the Lord

We have now come to the feasts (chap. 23). It is the full [1] year of the counsels of God towards His people, and the rest which was the end of those counsels.

There were consequently seven—a number expressive of perfection well known in the word: the sabbath, the passover and the feast of unleavened bread, the firstfruits of harvest, Pentecost, the feast of trumpets in the seventh month, the day of atonement, and the feast of tabernacles.

If the sabbath be separated and reckoned by itself, the passover would be distinguished from the feast of unleavened bread, which would make the seven. I do not say this to preserve the number, but because the chapter itself speaks thus: having counted the sabbath amongst the others, it resumes and calls the others (without the sabbath) the solemn feasts. For, in one sense, it was indeed a feast; in another, it was the rest, when the whole was ended [2]. In general these feasts present us, then, with all the bases on which God has entered into relationship with His people; the principles on which He has gathered them around Him, in His ways with this people, upon the earth. Their bearing was wider than that, in other respects; but it is in this point of view that these circumstances, that is, these facts, are here considered. They are seen in their accomplishment upon the earth.

The moral distinction of the feasts

There is another way of dividing them, by taking the words, "And Jehovah spake unto Moses" [3] as the title of each part: the sabbath, the passover, and the unleavened bread (vers. 1-8); the firstfruits and the Pentecost (vers. 9-22); the feast of trumpets (vers. 23-25); the day of atonement (vers. 26-32); the feast of tabernacles (ver. 33 to the end). This latter division gives us the moral distinction of the feasts; that is, the ways of God therein. Let us examine them a little more in detail.

The Sabbath, the passover and the feast of unleavened bread, as a whole

The very first thing presented is the sabbath, as being the end and the result of all the ways of God. The promise is left us of entering into God's rest. It is a feast to Jehovah; but the feasts, which present rather the ways of God to lead us there, begin again at the fourth verse, as we have already said (compare vers. 37, 38). This distinction being noticed, we can take the sabbath,[4] the passover, and the feast of unleavened bread as making a whole (vers. 1-8). Of the two latter, the unleavened bread was the feast, properly speaking; the passover was the sacrifice on which the feast was grounded. As the apostle says, "Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast, not with leaven," etc.

What was indeed necessary for the sabbath, for the rest of God, was the sacrifice of Christ, and purity; and though all these feasts lead on to the rest of God, yet these two, the passover and unleavened bread, are the basis of all, and of the rest itself for us. Christ's sacrifice and the absence of all principle of sin, form the basis of the part we have in the rest of God. God is glorified in respect of sin; sin is put away for us, out of His sight, and out of our hearts. The perfect absence of leaven marked Christ's path and nature down here, and is accomplished in us, so far as we realise Christ as our life, and recognise ourselves, though the flesh be still in us, as dead and risen with Him [5]. It is thus that we have seen the manna connected with the sabbath in Exodus 16. To be without leaven was the perfection of the Person of Christ living upon earth, and becomes in principle the walk upon earth of him who is partaker of His life. In the true and final sabbath, of course, all leaven will be absent from us. The sacrifice of Christ and purity of life render one capable of participating in God's rest.

The firstfruits — Christ

After that comes power, the firstfruits; that is, the resurrection of Christ on the morrow after the sabbath—the first day of the week. It was the beginning of the true harvest—harvest gathered, by power, outside and beyond the natural life of the world. According to the Jewish law nothing of the harvest could be touched before: Christ was the beginning, the firstborn from the dead. With this first of the firstfruits were offered sacrifices for a sweet savour, but not for sin. It is clear there was no need for it. It is Christ who has been offered to God, quite pure, and waved before God—placed fully before His eyes for us, as raised from the dead, the beginning of a new crop before God—man in a condition which not even innocent Adam was in, the Man of God's counsels, the second Man, the last Adam: not, all hanging on obedience which might fail, and did, but after God had been perfectly glorified in the place of sin, past death, past sin (for He died unto sin?, past Satan's power, past judgment, and consequently by thus wholly out of the scene where responsible man had stood, on a totally new footing with God after His finished work, and God perfectly glorified; such a work too as gave Him title to say, therefore doth my Father love me because I lay down my life that I might take it again, and made it God's righteousness to set Him at His right hand in glory.

Pentecost — firstfruits of those who are Christ's

Connected with that comes the meat-offering at the end of the seven weeks. It is no longer Christ here, but those who are His, the firstfruits of His creatures; they are considered as being upon earth, and leaven is found in them. Therefore, though offered to God, they were not burned as a sweet savour (Lev. 2:12); but with the loaves was offered a sin-offering, which answered by its efficacy to the leaven found in them. They are the saints of which Pentecost commenced the ingathering.

The provision of grace — the Church period

This feast was followed by a long space of time, in which there was nothing new in the ways of God. Only they were commanded, when they reaped the harvest, not to make clean riddance of the comers of the field. A part of the good grain was to be left in the field, after the harvest was gathered into the garner, but not to be lost; it was for those who were not enjoying the riches of God's people, but who would participate exceptionally by grace in the provision which God had made for them—in the abundance which God had granted them. This will take place at the end of this age.

The feast of trumpets

Pentecostal work being ended, another series of events begins (ver. 23) with the words referred to, "And Jehovah spake unto Moses." They blow up the trumpet in the new moon (compare Ps. 81; Num. 10: 3, 10). It was the renewal of the blessing and the splendour of the people—Israel gathered as an assembly before Jehovah. It is not yet the restoration of joy and gladness, but at least the renewal of the light and reflected glory which had disappeared takes place, and enlightens their expectant eyes; and they gather the assembly to re-establish the glory.

But Israel must at least feel their sin; and in the solemn feast which follows, the affliction of the people is connected with the sacrifice of the day of atonement: Israel shall look on Him whom they have pierced, and mourn. The nation (at least the spared remnant who become the nation) will participate in the efficacy of the sacrifice of Christ, and that in their state here below, repenting, and recognised of God, so that the times of refreshing will be come. This is then the repentance of the people, but in connection with the atoning sacrifice. The efficacy is in the sacrifice; their participation in it is connected with the affliction of their souls (compare Zech. 12). But Israel did nothing—it was a sabbath—they were assembled in humiliation in the presence of God. They accept the pierced One under the sense of the sin of which they have been guilty in rejecting Him.

The feast of tabernacles

Then follows the feast of tabernacles. They offered, during seven days, offerings made by fire unto Jehovah; and on the eighth day there was again a holy convocation—an extraordinary day of a new week which went beyond the full time—including, I doubt not, the resurrection; that is, the participation of those who are raised in that joy.

It was a solemn assembly—that eighth day, the great day of the feast, on which the Lord (having declared of the then time that His hour was not yet come to shew Himself to the world—His brethren [the Jews] not believing in Him either) announced that for him who believed in Him there would be, in the meanwhile, rivers of living water which would flow from his belly; that is, the Holy Spirit, who would be a living power working in, and flowing forth from the heart, and in the expression of its intimate affections. Israel had indeed drunk of the living water out of the rock in the wilderness, the sojourn in which, now past when the feast of tabernacles is celebrated, was celebrated with joy in the memorial of that which was over, to enhance the joy of the rest into which they were ushered. But believers now meanwhile were not only to drink, for blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed; the river itself would flow from the heart; that is, the Holy Spirit in power, which they would have received through Christ before He should be manifested to the world, or they have their place in the heavenly Canaan.

The joy of the Millennium

Thus, the feast of tabernacles is the joy of the millennium, when Israel have come out of the wilderness where their sins have placed them; but to which will be added this first day of another week—the resurrection joy of those who are raised with the Lord Jesus, to which the presence of the Holy Ghost answers meanwhile.

The day of joy yet awaiting the Centre and Spring of it all

Consequently, we find that the feast of tabernacles took place after the increase of the earth had been gathered in, and, as we learn elsewhere, not only after the harvest but after the vintage also; that is, after separation by judgment, and the final execution of judgment on the earth, when heavenly and earthly saints should be all gathered in. Israel was to rejoice seven days before Jehovah.

The passover has had its antitype, Pentecost its also; but this day of joy is yet awaiting Him who is to be the centre and spring of it all, the Lord Jesus, who will rejoice in the great congregation, and whose praise will begin with Jehovah in the great assembly (Ps. 22). He had already done it in the midst of the assembly of His brethren; but now the whole race of Jacob is called to glorify Him, and all the ends of the world shall remember themselves.

The feast of tabernacles kept only in the land

The expression, solemn assembly, is not found applied to any of the feasts but this, except to the seventh day of the passover (Deut. 16), as it seems to me somewhat in the same sense. The feast of tabernacles could not be kept in the wilderness. In order to observe it, the people were to be in possession of the land, as is plain. It is also to be observed, that it never was kept according to the prescriptions of the law from Joshua till Nehemiah (Neh. 8: 17). Israel had forgotten that they had been strangers in the wilderness. Joy, without the remembrance of this, tends to ruin; the very enjoyment of the blessing leads to it.

It will be remarked that, properly speaking, all the feasts are types of what is done on earth and in connection with Israel, unless we except the eighth day of tabernacles. The church period, as such, is the lapse of time from Pentecost to the seventh month. We may, and of course do, get the benefit of, at any rate, the two first; but historically the type refers to Israel.

[1] I add, to give the intelligence of this expression, that the word translated "feast" signifies an appointed or definite time, and which returned consequently at the revolution of the year. The series of the feasts embraced the whole year, inasmuch as they returned regularly each consecutive year. This shews too the difference of the sabbath, God's rest—only here of creation; and, I may add, of the new moon—figure I doubt not of Israel's restoration. The great new moon was in the seventh month.

[2] The idea of these feasts is God gathering the people around Himself as a holy convocation. The solemn feasts were, then, the gathering of God's people around Him, and in detail the ways of God in gathering them thus. Hence the distinction made in this chapter. It is evident that the sabbath, the rest of God, will be the great gathering of the people of God around Him, as the centre of peace and blessing. So that the sabbath is truly a solemn feast, a holy convocation; but? also, it is evidently apart and distinct from the means and the operations which gathered the people. Hence we find it mentioned at the beginning, and reckoned amongst the solemn feasts; then the Spirit of God begins afresh (ver. 4) and gives the solemn feasts, as embracing all the ways of God in the gathering of His people, leaving out the sabbath. In reckoning the feasts, the passover and the feast of unleavened bread may be considered as one, for both were at the same time, and treated together; or, looking upon the sabbath as separate, they may be estimated as two feasts. Both these things are found in the word.

[3] It is well to observe, in passing, that this formula gives, in the whole Pentateuch, the true division of the subjects. Sometimes the directions are addressed to Aaron, which supposes some internal relations based on the existence of priesthood—sometimes to Moses and Aaron; and in that case they are not purely communications and commandments to establish relations, but also directions for the exercise of functions thus established. Consequently we have in Leviticus 10, for the first time I think, "Jehovah spake unto Aaron";—chapter 11 to "Moses and Aaron"; because that, whilst it treats of commandments and ordinances given for the first time, it is also a question of the discernment consequent upon relations existing between God and the people, and in which the exercise of the priesthood came in. These general principles will assist in apprehending the nature of the communications made by God to His people (see chap. 13). Chapter 14, as far as verse 32, consists of ordinances to settle simply what priesthood must do; verse 33, priestly discernment is again in exercise.

[4] I shall here add a few words on the subject of the sabbath, submitting them to the spiritual thoughts of my brethren. It is well to be subject to the word. First, the participation in God's rest is what distinguishes His people—their distinctive privilege. The heart of the believer holds that fast, whatever may be the sign that God has given of it (Heb. 4). God had established it at the beginning; but there is no appearance that man ever enjoyed in fact any share in it. He did not work in the creation, nor was he set to labour or toil in the garden of Eden; he was to dress and keep it, indeed, but he had nothing to do but continually to enjoy However the day was hallowed from the beginning. Afterwards the sabbath was given as a memorial of the deliverance out of Egypt (Deut. 5: 15), and the prophets specially insist on that point—that the sabbath was given as a sign of God's covenant (Ezek. 20; Ex. 31: 13). It was plain that it was but the earnest of the word, "My presence shall go, and I will give thee rest" (Ex. 31: 13; 33: 14; Lev. 19: 30). It is a sign that the people are sanctified to God (Ezek. 20: 12, 13-16, 20; Neh. 9: 14: compare Isa. 56: 2-6; 58: 13; Jer. 17: 22; Lam. 1: 7; 2: 6; Ezek. 22: 8; 23: 38; 44: 24). Besides these passages, we see that, whenever God gives any new principle or form of relation with Himself, the sabbath is added: thus in grace to Israel (Ex. 16: 23); as law (Ex. 20: 10). See also, besides the verse we are occupied with, Exodus 31: 13, 14; 34: 21; when they are restored afresh by the patience of God through mediation (chap. 35: 2), and in the new covenant of Deuteronomy already quoted in the passage.

These remarks shew us what was the radical and essential importance of the sabbath, as the thought of God and the sign of the relation between His people and Himself, though, being only a sign, a solemnity, and not in itself a moral commandment; for the thing signified the association with God in His rest, and is of the highest order of truth in connecting the heart with God. But if that be of the utmost importance, it is of an equal and even higher importance to remember that the covenant between God and the Jewish people is entirely set aside for us, and that the sign of this covenant does not belong to us, although God's rest be yet quite as precious to us, and even more so; that our rest is not in this creation—a rest of which the seventh day was the sign; and moreover (which is more important still) that the Lord Jesus is Lord of the sabbath, a remark of all importance as to His Person, and null if He was to do nothing with regard to the sabbath; and that, as a fact, He has omitted all mention of it in the sermon on the mount, where He has given such a precious summary of the fundamental principles suited to the kingdom, with the addition of the name of the Father and the fact of a suffering Messiah, and the revelation of the heavenly reward, making a whole of the principles of His kingdom, and that He uniformly thwarted the thoughts of the Jews on this point; a circumstance which the evangelists (that is, the Holy Ghost) have been careful to record. The sabbath itself Jesus passed in a state of death, a terrible sign of the position of the Jews as to their covenant—for us, of the birth of much better things.

It has been tried, with much trouble, to prove that the seventh day was in fact the first. A single remark demolishes the whole edifice thus reared; it is, that the word of God calls this last the first in contrast with the seventh. What is, then, the first day? It is for us the day of all days—the day of the resurrection of Jesus, by which we are begotten again unto a lively hope, which is the source of all our joy, our salvation, and that which characterises our life. Thus we shall find the rest of God in the resurrection. Morally, in this world, we begin our spiritual life by the rest, instead of finding it at the end of our labours. Our rest is in the new creation; we are the beginning, after Christ, who is the Head of it, of that new dispensation.

It is clear, then, that the rest of God cannot, in our case, be connected with the sign of the rest of creation here below. Have we any authority in the New Testament for distinguishing the first day of the week from the others? For my part, I do not doubt it. It is certain we have not commandments like those of the old law; they would be quite contrary to the spirit of the gospel of grace. But the Spirit of God has marked out, in divers manners, the first day of the week, though that day is not made binding upon us in a way contrary to the nature of the economy. The Lord, being raised on that day according to His promise, appears in the midst of His disciples gathered according to His word: the week following He does the same. In the Acts the first day of the week is marked as the day on which they gathered together to break bread.

In 1 Corinthians 16 Christians are exhorted to lay by of what they had earned, each first day of the week. In Revelation it is positively called the Lord's day, that is, designated in a direct manner by a distinctive name by the Holy Spirit. I am well aware that it has been sought to persuade us that John speaks of being in spirit in the millennium. But there are two fatal objections to that interpretation. First, the Greek says quite another thing, and uses the same word that is used for the Lord's supper, lordly or dominical—the dominical supper, the dominical day. Who can doubt as to the meaning of such an expression, or, consequently, can fail to admit that the first day of the week was distinguished from others (as the Lord's supper was distinguished from other suppers), not as an imposed sabbath, but as a privileged day? But the reasoning to prove it refers to the millennium is founded on a totally false idea, in that only a minimum portion of the Revelation speaks of the millennium. The book is about the things which precede it, and in the place where the expression is found, there is decidedly no mention whatever of it, but of the existing churches, whatever withal might be their prophetic character; so that, if we hold to the word of God, we are forced to say that the first day of the week is distinguished in the word of God as being the Lord's day. We are also bound to say, if we desire to maintain the authority of the Son of man, that He is superior to the sabbath—"Lord of the sabbath"; so that in maintaining for us the authority of the Jewish sabbath as such, we are in danger of denying the authority, the dignity, and the rights of the Lord Jesus Himself, and of re-establishing the old covenant, of which it was the appointed sign, of seeking rest as the result of labour under the law. The more the true importance of the sabbath, the seventh day, is felt, the more we shall feel the importance of the consideration that it is no longer the seventh, but the first day which has privileges for us. Let us take care, on the other hand, because we are no longer under law but under grace, not to weaken the thought not only of man's rest but of God's—a governing thought in the whole of the revelation of His relationships with man. The final rest for us is rest from spiritual labours in the midst of evil, not merely from sin; a rest which we, as fellow-labourers, shall enjoy with Him who has said, "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work."

[5] There are three points which we may notice here as to this. First in Colossians 3 God counts us dead with Christ (in Col. also risen); in Romans 6 we reckon ourselves dead to sin, and alive not in Adam, but through Him; in 2 Corinthians 4 it is practically carried out; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our flesh. Ephesians is on different ground: we are not such as have died to sin, but were dead in sins, and then a wholly new creation. Sovereign grace had put us into Christ with the same power that raised Christ from the grave to the throne of God.