Five Principles of Thanksgiving: Introduction
Published November 6, 2023
The Thanksgiving holiday remains a marvel to me. Out of all the holidays we celebrate in America, Thanksgiving somewhat stands alone as one without distraction and maintains its distinctively Christian character.
While I love celebrating Christ’s resurrection, popular culture has turned it into ‘Easter Sunday,’ when bunny rabbits, baskets, and eggs deflect from the central significance of the day. Christmas, which is just around the corner, is a great commemoration of the Incarnation of the Son of God, but it also arrives with its share of diversions from the central focus, as materialism, Santa Claus, reindeer, snowmen, and other themes unrelated to Jesus try to hijack the holiday.
Thanksgiving, however, remains a day to highlight our blessings. The observance is not marked by Hallmark cards, gifts, or distracting characters like Santa or the Easter Bunny. For most people, this holiday is simply a gathering for a meal and a celebration of gratitude with people we love.
Nonetheless, there is still an uneasiness about Thanksgiving. The word Thanksgiving combines two words: thanks and giving. Think about the implication of these two words. Thanks involves gratitude. Gratitude is the response to receiving something. Receiving implies something was given to you. A gift implies a giver. Our gratitude is also a gift. There can be no thanksgiving, then, without a gift received and a gift given.
For us to celebrate Thanksgiving in a meaningful way, we must recognize that we have been given something from someone, and that we, in turn, are responding to those who have first given to us by showering them with our gratitude, praise, and thanks. Herein lies the uneasiness for the world. Who has first given to humanity that we should be thankful, and to Whom do we render our thanks? Perhaps these questions are the reason many people run away from Thanksgiving turkey, potatoes, and pie as quickly as possible, awakening to the next highly anticipated event on their calendars – Black Friday shopping.
To help us understand a biblical foundation of thanksgiving, we turn to Deuteronomy 16, which outlines instructions for the Feast of Booths for the Israelites. The first day of the celebration was a Sabbath, and no work was to be done. It was simply a day off, a day of reflection, contemplation, conversation with family and friends, and consideration of God’s miraculous work to deliver Israel from bondage to Egypt. Then came seven days of celebrating. In Deuteronomy 16:14, God said that Israel was to rejoice in your feast. This was not to be a solemn occasion, but rather a time of joy and celebration!
In Deuteronomy 16:15, Moses wrote, “Seven days you shall celebrate a feast to the LORD your God in the place which the LORD chooses, because the LORD your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful.” This is the feast God ordained. It was as God said, ‘Israel, I am going to bless you beyond belief so that you are going to be perfectly happy. And I want you to take a week of the year and just revel in that blessing with your families, your neighbors, those that live around you. Take a week and be happy in how I have blessed you.’ That’s amazing.
How does this feast end? With Black Friday? No, with another Sabbath to reflect on God’s blessings. The Israelites got a day to think about God’s blessings, a week to have a big party in celebration of those blessings, and then a day at the end to again quiet their souls and remember the Lord’s goodness and kindness.
Now, what does this Old Testament history lesson have to do with our Thanksgiving? There are two answers to this question. First, the biblical festival for giving thanks to the Lord was entirely God-focused. Days were set apart for the simple worship of God on the Sabbath so Israel would be reminded of the One whom they were to thank for their blessings. Our Thanksgiving was meant to be God-centered and focused, which is why we experience the American uneasiness and awkwardness as people talk about gratitude and thankfulness without ever specifying the source of all their blessings, and the swiftness with which we move beyond Thanksgiving.
Second, there is a good chance Psalm 100 was written with a festival of worship like the Feast of Booths in view. Notice how the Psalm begins: A Psalm for Thanksgiving. That is inspired text. The idea here of thanksgiving is that of an official offering of thanks to the Lord in worship with God’s people. It most likely points us to a festival characterized by gratitude, like the feast of booths, which finds in a loose sense a parallel to the American Thanksgiving holiday as it was originally celebrated. As we approach that official day on our calendars, Psalm 100 is appropriate and fitting for Christians to study to remember we are a blessed people and a people who ought to give thanks to God.
What we will see in this text is that God has called us to thanksgiving and to give Him thanks. God desires for us to recognize who He is and how He has blessed us, and He wants us to do it in an official way. In other words, God does not merely want us to have an attitude of thanksgiving, though that is important, but He wants us to set aside time to focus on giving Him thanks. In this passage, the Psalmist outlines five principles of thanksgiving that are critical to understand as we reflect upon God’s call to us to give Him thanks. We will unpack each one through this great month of thanksgiving.