Thanksgiving Thoughts

 (c) Can Stock Photo / marcelmooij
(c) Can Stock Photo / marcelmooij

“Enter[1] His gates[2] with thanksgiving[3] and His courts[4] with praise[5]. Give thanks to Him, bless His name.” (Psalm 100:4)

The Psalms are filled exhortations (encouragement, urging) us to be thankful and to praise God. We can easily gloss over the many examples and frequent reminders that we should give thanks and praise to God. We can easily miss the essence and significance of thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is coming up, a special day intended for Thanksgiving, declared a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Significantly, Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in the middle of the Civil War, while it was still raging after one of the bloodiest battles our nation has ever seen.

The decades and generations that have passed may have dulled our memories of the brutal reality of the Civil War. More Americans died in the Civil War than any other war. Anyone who has seen a Civil War surgeon’s tolls can imagine the brutality of it. Beyond the physical toll, Americans experienced the collective anxiety of a nation coming apart at the seams. The Civil War divided a nation, divided families and threatened an uncertain future.

The Psalms were penned (many of them) by King David, who reigned at the height of the glory of the Jewish nation. But David’s life was a rollercoaster of ups and downs. From unassuming shepherd boy, not even appreciated or respected in his own family, to national hero; from trusted confidante of King Saul to prey hunted down by that same mentor, from champion king to exiled king, overthrown by his own son.

The Psalms chronicle David’s attitudes through those ups and downs. One constant theme in those writings is David’s attitude of Thanksgiving toward God. In good times and bad, David was constant in his attitude of thanksgiving.

In the good times, thanksgiving flowed naturally and joyfully with instruments, song and exuberant dancing. In the bad times, it was no doubt a struggle, but David was always thankful. David wrote Psalm 57 hiding in a cave from King Saul, who sought to kill him, and even then David gave thanks to God.

In Psalm 100 cited above, the word translated “thanksgiving” (tôdâ) is the Hebrew word that conveys the idea of “offering” thanksgiving to God, in the sense of offering a sacrifice. A sacrifice is costly. We don’t give sacrifices lightly. A sacrifice requires some exercise of will. Giving a sacrifice isn’t a natural desire; it goes against our feelings and natural tendencies.

A sacrifice is something we give when we don’t feel like giving it.

Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday on October 3rd, 1863, at a time when he probably didn’t feel very thankful. (The first Thanksgiving was scheduled for Thursday November 26, 1863.) Just a few months prior (in July), the bloodiest battle of the Civil War had taken place – the Battle of Gettysburg. In that context, “in the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity”, Lincoln proclaimed:

a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

The cost at Gettysburg was great. A sleepy little community had been turned into bloody battlefield. Nearly 160,000 Americans fought at Gettysburg, and nearly one third of them died (51,142).[6] Families fought literally on both sides of the conflict. The residents of Gettysburg were left to tend to the wounded, bury the dead and burn the piles of dead horses and mules.

Volunteers from north and south were still reeling from the aftermath when Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving in October, 1863.

Our lives will always be filled with ups and downs, good and bad; and sometimes the bad is downright evil. Our country was recently divided by, perhaps, the most polarizing and anxious presidential election in history. We remain polarized in 2017 not unlike the polarization that was experienced in the 1860’s.

We survived the Civil War, and we will survive these times. We dare say now, that we are better for having gone through the difficult times in the past. The sacrifice of many resulted in a stronger union for what has been the greatest, freest nation on earth, and it ended the evil institution of slavery, though the healing of the divide that separated the nation would be long and difficult… and continues even today.

People still often hate each other, war with each other and struggle to live together in harmony, but God remains constant, offering the hope of eternal promise and unconditional love. We offer our Thanksgiving to God because He is worthy of our thanksgiving in the good times and the bad times. He is our constant and our hope.

Giving thanks in the bad times reminds us that this world, which Paul tells us is subject to futility[7], is not all there is.

God eternity set in our hearts.[8] We have a foretaste of what is to come, the gift of the Holy Spirit for those who are born again, the first fruits[9] of a new life that God gives us freely through His own sacrifice in the person of Jesus Christ. And, though we are often beset with hardship and difficulty, we can offer God our sacrifice of thanksgiving, no matter our circumstances.

We often strive for happiness and forget to be thankful. Happiness is elusive, but gratitude can sustain us even when times are hard. Thanksgiving connects us to God, connects us to the larger perspective, connects us to the eternity that God set in our hearts. Thanksgiving reminds us that we are foreigners and exiles in this world,[10] waiting for the reality of our longing and hope, which is in God.

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[1] 935/Bo’ – properly, to come in, go in; figuratively, to go in by stepping into a new opportunity or perceived benefit; enter into a new status or experience.

[2] 8179/Shaʽar – a gate of a city, the center of social influence where open-court was held for the community.

[3] 8426/Tôdâ  (one of three types of peace offerings) – the praise-thank offering, acknowledging the Lord’s dealings are “spot on,” even in the most difficult tribulations.  This root means both praise and thanks, i.e. includes both ideas. Tôdâ (“praise-thank offering”) acknowledges blessing already received from the Lord, or simply to proclaim His dealings with us are “spot on!”  Believers today still make spiritual “todah’s” by their sincere praise or thanks to God in every scene of life (cf. Heb 13:15; 1 Thes 5:17).  Reflection: This includes acknowledging the Lord authorizes all physical circumstances in His perfect providence.

[4] Chatser (346d); from an unused word; enclosure, court.

[5] Tehillah (239d); from 1984b; praise, song of praise.

[6] http://www.historynet.com/battle-of-gettysburg

[7] Romans 8:20-21 “[C]reation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free ….”

[8] Ecclesiastes 3:11

[9] Romans 8:23 “[H]aving the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body….”

[10] 1 Peter 2:11

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