In the Old Testament the Hebrews were constantly reminded of God. As a result, the concept and language of thanksgiving should have been prevalent in their lives. But, like us, they were often forgetful of the goodness of God.
For example, ingratitude reared its ugly head when, after the exodus, Israel grumbled repeatedly about the food and harsh conditions in the wilderness (Numbers 11).
They forgot to thank God for deliverance from bondage, for water from the rock, for food that literally fell from heaven, for the shoes that did not wear out, and for the supply of all their physical needs.
The Levitical laws for the ‘thank offering’ were God’s reminders, checking Israel’s failure to give thanks. The thank-offering was one type of peace or fellowship offering within the sacrificial system of the Mosaic covenant.
Distinct from the sin and guilt offerings, they were a part of the overall system of peace offerings, ordained to express gratitude to the Lord for any deliverance and any act of love from God (Leviticus 7:11-16; Psalm 107:21-22).
Even apart from the sacrificial system, the Psalmist and wise Solomon encourage gratitude for God’s material provision, while exposing the folly of greed, discontentment and ingratitude (Psalm 104:15-28; Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:9).
Thanksgiving is prominent throughout the Book of Psalms. ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good’ is a common refrain (Psalm 106:1; 118:1; 136:1).
Some psalms specify a reason, linking thanksgiving with acts of love and worship and exhorting worshippers to glorify God with their thanksgiving (Psalm 69:30).
We are to ‘come before his presence with thanksgiving’ (Psalm 95:2), to ‘enter his gates with thanksgiving’ (Psalm 100:4), and to ‘sing to the Lord with thanksgiving’ (Psalm 147:7).
Perhaps surprisingly, many laments and cries for aid, both individual and communal, conclude with the giving of thanks (Psalm 7:17; 28:7; 35:18; 52:9; 54:6; 86:12; 79:13; 106:47).
The books of Chronicles and Nehemiah often mention thanksgiving, especially in relation to the offerings and songs that rose from the Temple and were a sweet savour to God.
For example, when David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, the people sang psalms calling on Israel repeatedly to give thanks (1 Chronicles 16:4,7, 8,34,35,41).
David also appointed Levites whose special task was to thank God morning and evening in the temple (1 Chronicles 23:30). As his life ended, he thanked God and exhorted the people to join him in giving thanks for the building of the temple (1 Chronicles 29:13-20). David’s life was one of grateful praise to his Jehovah God.
God said to Israel: ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of bondage’. By that deliverance, Israel became the Lord’s treasured possession. Consequently, gratitude in the hearts of redeemed and justified men was foundational for covenant life in the Old Testament.
The whole law rested on gratitude and love to Jehovah for his redeeming work, not on coercion and punishment.
The early church
The theme continues in the New Testament. Both our Lord and the apostles exhort us to give thanks and show gratitude to God.
Thanksgiving should be an abiding motive for Christian life and conduct. It should characterise our attitude towards both the blessings and trials of life. It should constitute a central part of prayer, and provide the context for the proper use of material things.
In the Gospels and Acts, thanksgiving most often occurs in prayer over a meal (‘saying grace’), as when Jesus fed the multitudes (Matthew 15:36; Mark 8:6; John 6:11, 23) or presided at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:27; Mark 14:23; Luke 22:17,19).
Yet the multitudes that surrounded Jesus often repeated Israel’s sin at the exodus, gobbling the bread he had multiplied and enjoying his miracles without expressing gratitude (John 6:22-24).
Our Lord Jesus Christ thanked his heavenly Father for hearing his prayer (Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21), for example, his prayer before the raising of Lazarus (John 11:41).
Paul thanked God for his final meal on the boat that was shipwrecked off Malta (Acts 27:35). In the worship scenes of Revelation, the heavenly hosts give thanks to God for creating all things as well as for redeeming the chosen from all humanity (Revelation 4:9-11; 5:9-14).
The Gospels introduce, and the Epistles develop, the concept that believers are characterised by gratitude for God’s deliverance in Christ.
When an immoral woman anointed Jesus with precious ointment, he told his host that her action sprang from gratitude for forgiveness (Luke 7:40-47).
When Jesus healed ten lepers, he marvelled that only one, a Samaritan, returned to thank him (Luke 17:11-19). Do we remember to give thanks to the Lord for our deliverance from the leprosy and bondage of sin?
Paul asserts that gratitude for God’s saving grace envelops the entire Christian life. Those whom God has brought from death to eternal life should offer their bodies to him as instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:13).
In view of God’s mercies, knowing we were bought at a price, we are exhorted to give ourselves to God as ‘living sacrifices’ and honour him with purity and holiness (Romans 12:1; 1 Corinthians 6:20).
Those who have received the glorious heritage provided in Christ should worship God, be thankful, and faithfully endure hardship, trusting God for deliverance (Hebrews 12:28-29).
A general attitude of thanksgiving in both the trials and blessings of life distinguishes the Christian from unbelievers. Paul enjoins the churches to give thanks for all things and in all circumstances (Ephesians 5:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:18).
This applies even in suffering (Romans 5:3-5; James 1:1-4). Believers should do everything in the name of Jesus and out of a spirit of gratitude (Colossians 3:17).
By contrast, thanklessness and ingratitude mark godless and wicked men, who suppress the truth about God (Romans 1:18-21).
Believers retain joy and peace when ‘in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving [they] make their requests known to God’ (Philippians 4:6-7).
For Paul, thanksgiving is a central component of prayer. He prays that the churches will be thankful (Colossians 1:12). He gives thanks for answered prayer, especially for the extension of the gospel and the strength of his churches (2 Corinthians 4:15).
The apostle begins many of his letters with expressions of thanksgiving to God for the people or individual to whom he writes. This thanksgiving usually leads on to prayer, and the two together introduce Paul’s themes for the letter.
For example, Paul thanks God for the faith and testimony of the Roman believers (Romans 1:8); for the grace given to the Corinthians so that they lack no spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 1:4-7); and for the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel (Philippians 1:3-5; see also 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4).
Legalism is unthankful
Some who profess Christ have been afflicted with a legalistic asceticism which leads to thanklessness and discontent (Romans 1:21; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Timothy 3:2). Genuine believers, by contrast, give thanks for all material things, and consecrate them with prayer (1 Timothy 4:4-5).
No food or drink, no created thing, is unclean in itself; all are good if used with thanksgiving, to the glory of God, and from a grateful heart (Romans 14:1-6; 1 Corinthians 10:30-31).
Saying grace each time before we eat a meal is a good spiritual exercise. It should not be done in a mechanical manner, but with sincere and appreciative hearts for all God provides for us.
Let us give thanks in all things, to the praise and glory of God, and not take his merciful bounty for granted.
A homely but thoroughly biblical song reminds us:
Count your blessings,
Name them one by one;
Count your blessings
See what God has done.
If you are a believer, pause for a moment and recall God’s faithfulness to you and the manifold blessings you enjoy today in Christ. Be amazed at the bountiful goodness of a gracious, loving and almighty Father in your life all these years.
Furthermore, it is edifying sometimes to give thanks publicly. This may be done, for example, during the prayer meeting or in a verbal or written testimony.
We should also express our thanksgiving tangibly in thank offerings and regular tithing. Above all, we should join our fellow believers in worshipping the Lord every week in his sanctuary, giving thanks from the heart (Luke 8:38; 1 Corinthians 9:7).
Be filled with a heart of appreciation and thanksgiving to the Lord, like the Samaritan leper who returned thanks to Christ. He truly deserves our honour, praise, worship and adoration, both for who he is and for what he has done for us.