As the Universal Sovereign, Jehovah God has the right to decree that his servants should assemble and to specify the time and place of assembly. In these ways he acts for their benefit. Assemblies of God’s people of ancient times varied as to purpose. Yet they surely contributed to unity, for all in attendance had the opportunity to hear the same things at the same time. Such gatherings resulted in many spiritual benefits and were often occasions of great joy.
Hebrew and Greek Terms. Several Hebrew and Greek words are employed in the Bible to denote a gathering. One that is common in the Hebrew text is ʽe·dhahʹ. It is from the root ya·ʽadhʹ, meaning “appoint; designate,” and thus indicates a group assembled by appointment. (Compare 2Sa 20:5; Jer 47:7.) ʽE·dhahʹ is often applied to the community of Israel and is used in the expressions “the assembly” (Le 8:4, 5; Jg 21:10), “assembly of Israel” (Ex 12:3; Nu 32:4; 1Ki 8:5), and “Jehovah’s assembly” (Nu 27:17).
The Hebrew word moh·ʽedhʹ is from the same root as ʽe·dhahʹ and means “appointed time” or “appointed place.” (1Sa 13:8; 20:35) It is used 223 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, as in the expression “the tent of meeting.” (Ex 27:21) Moh·ʽedhʹ is employed in connection with seasonal festivals. (Le 23:2, 4, 37, 44) It appears at Isaiah 33:20, where Zion is called “the town of our festal occasions.”
The Hebrew term miq·raʼʹ, meaning “convention,” comes from the root verb qa·raʼʹ (call). It occurs at Isaiah 4:5, which mentions Mount Zion’s “convention place.” Frequent is the use of this word in the expression “holy convention” (Ex 12:16; Le 23:2, 3); during such a holy convention no work of a secular sort was to be done.
Another Hebrew word used to designate gatherings is qa·halʹ, related to a verb meaning “call together; congregate.” (Ex 35:1; Le 8:4) It is often used to represent a congregation as an organized body. Sometimes qa·halʹ (congregation) is used in conjunction with ʽe·dhahʹ (assembly). (Le 4:13; Nu 20:8, 10) Forms of both words appear in the expression “congregation of the assembly of Israel [Heb., qehalʹ ʽadhath-Yis·ra·ʼelʹ].”—Ex 12:6.
Intimate gatherings of various kinds are designated by the Hebrew word sohdh, meaning “confidential talk; intimacy.” (Ps 83:3; Job 29:4) It is rendered “intimate group” at Psalm 89:7, which states: “God is to be held in awe among the intimate group of holy ones; he is grand and fear-inspiring over all who are round about him.”
The Greek word ek·kle·siʹa (from ek, “out of,” and kleʹsis, “a calling”) is usually used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word qa·halʹ (congregation) and is sometimes employed for ʽe·dhahʹ (assembly), though for the latter the Greek word sy·na·go·geʹ (meaning “a bringing together,” from syn, “together,” and aʹgo, “bring”) is also used. In the Christian Greek Scriptures, ek·kle·siʹa is generally rendered “congregation.” At Acts 7:38 it is used with reference to the congregation of Israel. The Greek word sy·na·go·geʹ appears at Acts 13:43 (“synagogue assembly”) and at James 2:2 (“gathering”). Another Greek word, pa·neʹgy·ris (from pan, “all,” and a·go·raʹ, designating any kind of assembly) is rendered “general assembly” at Hebrews 12:23.—NW, KJ, AS.
The Scriptures have much to say about spiritually upbuilding assemblies, though they also mention assemblies of wicked or unrighteous character. Partisans of rebellious Korah are called “his entire assembly.” (Nu 16:5) In prayer to Jehovah, David said, “The very assembly of tyrannical ones have looked for my soul.” (Ps 86:14) Also, when the silversmith Demetrius fomented opposition to Paul in Ephesus and a crowd gathered, “some were crying out one thing and others another; for the assembly was in confusion, and the majority of them did not know the reason why they had come together.”—Ac 19:24-29, 32.
It is to be noted that order prevailed during gatherings of Jehovah’s people; such assemblies were well supported, and they were occasions of spiritual benefit, often times of great rejoicing.
In accord with the divine will, Moses and Aaron assembled all the older men of Israel in Egypt. The words of Jehovah were related, signs were performed, and the people believed. (Ex 4:27-31) Thereafter, as God ordered, the Israelites assembled at the base of Mount Sinai (Horeb), experienced a thrilling spectacle, and witnessed the giving of the Law.—Ex 19:10-19; De 4:9, 10.
While the Israelites were in the wilderness, Jehovah instructed Moses to make two silver trumpets that were to be blown for convening the assembly and for breaking up the camp. If both were sounded, the whole assembly would keep their appointment with Moses; if only one was blown, the chieftains alone would thus be summoned. In the wilderness, the specified place of assembly was “the entrance of the tent of meeting.” (Nu 10:1-4; Ex 29:42) Later, it was Jehovah’s will that the Israelites assemble regularly at the temple in Jerusalem, gathering there for the three major annual festivals.—Ex 34:23, 24; 2Ch 6:4-6.
Representative Assemblies. At times, the people of Israel were represented in gatherings by “chieftains of the assembly” (Ex 16:22; Nu 4:34; 31:13; 32:2; Jos 9:15, 18; 22:30), or “older men.” (Ex 12:21; 17:5; 24:1) When judicial matters required attention, a number of persons might assemble at the city gate. However, whether gathered there or elsewhere, they would not all vote on the case under consideration in a democratic fashion. Instead, theocratically, respected older men would weigh matters in the light of God’s law and then announce their decision. (De 16:18; 17:8-13) Similarly, the early Christian congregation was represented in such matters by those placed in positions of responsibility by the holy spirit. (Ac 20:28) In Israel, if the wrongdoing required the death sentence, the whole assembly might execute it.—Le 24:14; Nu 15:32-36; De 21:18-21.
General Assemblies. Occasions of general assembly in Israel included religious festivals, solemn assemblies (2Ch 34:29, 30; Joe 2:15), or events of great national significance; runners sometimes summoned the populace. (1Sa 10:17-19; 2Ch 30:6, 13) The weekly Sabbath, a day of “complete rest, a holy convention” (Le 23:3), was a time to consider God’s Word, as in the later synagogues where ‘Moses was read aloud on every sabbath.’ (Ac 15:21) There was also the new moon observance (Nu 28:11-15), the day of the trumpet blast (Nu 29:1-6), the annual Atonement Day (Le 16), the Passover (commemorating Israel’s deliverance from Egypt; Ex 12:14), and, later, the Festival of Purim (commemorating the Jews’ deliverance from threatened annihilation in the Persian Empire; Es 9:20-24) as well as the Festival of Dedication (in remembrance of the temple’s rededication on Chislev 25, 165 B.C.E.; Joh 10:22, 23). Additionally, there were three annual “seasonal festivals of Jehovah”: the Festival of Unfermented Cakes, the Festival of Weeks (later called Pentecost), and the Festival of Booths (Le 23), respecting which festivals God decreed: “On three occasions in the year every male of yours will appear before the face of the true Lord, Jehovah.” (Ex 23:14-17) Recognizing the high spiritual value of these festivals, many men saw to it that their entire family attended. (Lu 2:41-45) Also, Moses expressly stated that every seven years, during the Festival of Booths, the men, women, children, and alien residents of Israel should be congregated in the place Jehovah chose “in order that they may listen and in order that they may learn, as they must fear Jehovah your God and take care to carry out all the words of this law.” (De 31:10-12) Hence, provision was made for the Israelites to assemble very frequently to consider Jehovah’s Word and purposes.—See FESTIVAL.
Following the completion of the temple, Solomon convened a grand assembly in Jerusalem in connection with the dedication of that splendid religious structure. That assembly lasted for many days, and when the people were sent home they were “joyful and feeling good at heart over the goodness that Jehovah had performed toward David and toward Solomon and toward Israel his people.”—2Ch 5:1–7:10.
Throngs assembling at the temple during the annual festivals experienced great delight and spiritual benefit, as at the Passover celebration of King Hezekiah’s time, when “there came to be great rejoicing in Jerusalem.” (2Ch 30:26) In Nehemiah’s day an assembly was called that proved to be an occasion of “very great rejoicing.” (Ne 8:17) To the people assembled in Jerusalem, Ezra read from the book of the Law of Moses, doing so before “all intelligent enough to listen,” and they were attentive. (Ne 8:2, 3) As a result of the instruction then imparted by Ezra and other Levites, all the people rejoiced, “for they had understood the words that had been made known to them.” (Ne 8:12) They thereafter commemorated the Festival of Booths, and on the eighth day “there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule.”—Ne 8:18; Le 23:33-36.
Synagogues as Assembly Places. While the Jews were exiles in Babylon, or shortly thereafter, synagogues, or buildings that were Jewish places of assembly, came into use. Eventually these were established in various places, large cities having more than one. Primarily, synagogues were schools where the Scriptures were read and taught. They were also places of prayer and for the giving of praise to God. It was customary for Jesus Christ and his disciples to go to them to instruct and encourage persons present. (Mt 4:23; Lu 4:16; Ac 13:14, 15; 17:1, 2; 18:4) Because the Scriptures were regularly read in the synagogues, James was able to say to the Christian governing body in Jerusalem: “From ancient times Moses has had in city after city those who preach him, because he is read aloud in the synagogues on every sabbath.” (Ac 15:21) The basic features of worship in the synagogue were carried over into Christian assembly places, where Scripture reading and exposition, encouragement, prayer, and the giving of praise were to be found.—1Co 14:26-33, 40; Col 4:16; see SYNAGOGUE.
Christian Assemblies. On various occasions, large crowds assembled before Jesus Christ, realizing many benefits, as in the case of the Sermon on the Mount. (Mt 5:1–7:29) While these were not like specially arranged assemblies, at times they lasted long enough to make necessary the feeding of the congregated multitudes, a circumstance that Jesus met with the miraculous multiplication of food. (Mt 14:14-21; 15:29-38) Often Christ gathered his disciples and gave them spiritual instruction, and after his death his followers met together, as on the day of Pentecost 33 C.E., when the holy spirit was bestowed upon such assembled ones.—Ac 2:1-4.
It was the custom of early Christians to meet together, generally in small groups. However, sometimes at their gatherings “quite a crowd” would assemble. (Ac 11:26) Jesus’ half brother James found it appropriate to give spiritual Israelites counsel against showing favoritism toward the rich at a public gathering (Gr., sy·na·go·geʹ) of the congregation.—Jas 2:1-9.
Importance of Assembling. The importance of taking full advantage of Jehovah’s provisions for assembling to gain spiritual benefits is emphasized in connection with the annual Passover observance. Any male who was clean and was not on a journey but who neglected to keep the Passover was to be cut off in death. (Nu 9:9-14) When King Hezekiah called inhabitants of Judah and Israel to Jerusalem for a Passover celebration, his message was, in part: “You sons of Israel, return to Jehovah . . . do not stiffen your neck as your forefathers did. Give place to Jehovah and come to his sanctuary that he has sanctified to time indefinite and serve Jehovah your God, that his burning anger may turn back from you. . . . Jehovah your God is gracious and merciful, and he will not turn away the face from you if you return to him.” (2Ch 30:6-9) Willful failure to attend would certainly have indicated a forsaking of God. And, while such festivals as the Passover are not observed by Christians, Paul fittingly urged them not to abandon regular assemblies of God’s people, stating: “Let us consider one another to incite to love and fine works, not forsaking the gathering of ourselves together, as some have the custom, but encouraging one another, and all the more so as you behold the day drawing near.”—Heb 10:24, 25; see CONGREGATION.