Giving Thanks: Understanding the Biblical Emphasis of Thanksgiving
by Henry Morris III, D.Min. *
It may be a curious reflection on our Western culture, but the “thank you”of normal social interchange does not have a counterpart in the Bible. The declining custom of writing thank you notes has some implied connection to the biblical emphasis, but those social manners are more related to our sense of reciprocity than is reflected in Scripture.
Please do not misunderstand. It is a good custom to respond to someone’s gift or help, and all of us should express our pleasure for the effort extended to us from another person—even if the necktie is “strange” or the flowers make you sneeze. The old cliché still applies—it’s the thought that counts. The custom of “thanksgiving” is helpful, both as acknowledgement and as encouragement. But the emphasis in Scripture is much more specific, revolving around the concepts of confession and praise.
There are two Hebrew terms translated with the English word “thanks” in the Old Testament. Towdah is most often connected with sacrificial thanksgiving “offerings” (Leviticus 22:29, 2 Chronicles 29:31). Yadah is used more frequently and is most often translated “praise” (Psalm 18:49, Isaiah 25:1).
Both of these terms are built around the idea of “confession”—as in listing or acknowledging sins committed and forgiveness granted. Both terms are used of private as well as formal occasions, and they consistently imply vocal expression (speaking out loud), repeated communal expression (as in corporate worship), and often formal celebration, as demonstrated in the following passages:
And Joshua said unto Achan, My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the LORD God of Israel, and make confession unto him; and tell me now what thou hast done; hide it not from me.” (Joshua 7:19, emphasis added)
I will wash mine hands in innocency: so will I compass thine altar, O LORD: That I may publish with the voice of thanksgiving, and tell of all thy wondrous works. (Psalm 26:6-7, emphasis added)
And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites out of all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem, to keep the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings, and with singing, with cymbals, psalteries, and with harps. (Nehemiah 12:27, emphasis added)
Interestingly, the major Hebrew word for “praise” (halal) is not the same as the companion word coupled with the idea of “thanksgiving.” As noted, the connection between towdah and yadah is confession—indicating that understanding why we are grateful is inseparable from the act of expressing and acknowledging that appreciation. Perhaps it could be expressed this way:
- Confession involves recognition of our failure to meet God’s holy standards.
- Thanksgiving is the means whereby we acknowledge the receipt of God’s forgiveness.
- Praise is the overt vocal and often public expression of that acknowledgment.
Often, the act of praise is expressed in singing. Hebrew poetry uses parallel phrases to emphasize the central thought. This is easily seen in the Psalms, where the English words “praise” and “thanks” are translations of the same Hebrew word, coupled with “sing.”
I will praise the LORD according to his righteousness: and will sing praise to the name of the LORD most high. (Psalm 7:17, emphasis added)
Sing unto the LORD, O ye saints of his, and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness. (Psalm 30:4, emphasis added)
Praise the LORD with harp: sing unto him with the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings. (Psalm 33:2, emphasis added)
I will praise thee, O LORD, among the people: I will sing unto thee among the nations. (Psalm 57:9, emphasis added)
It is a good thing to give thanks unto the LORD, and to sing praises unto thy name, O Most High. (Psalm 92:1, emphasis added)
The New Testament emphasizes that the individual who thanks God should be in such close agreement with God that the act of thanksgiving is in harmony with the rationale behind the thanks. The Old Testament, however, focuses on visible actions as evidence of obedience.
The historical nature of the Old Testament and the Hebrew language is most easily understood by its emphasis on physical behavior—hence the emphasis on the sacrificial system and the focus on the location of the tabernacle and the temple. That context underscores the emphasis on confession and praise as a part of thanksgiving.
The nature of the New Testament as well as the Greek language is more easily understood through doctrine and the intellectual fulfillment of the prophetic message. The four gospels record the historical events that implemented the work of the Messiah. The epistles that follow examine the theology of that work and outline the spiritual attitudes that should motivate the “twice-born” to emulate the righteousness of the Lord Jesus. Thus, the thanksgiving of the New Testament believer moves from the sacrificial confession and formalized activities of the nation to personal responsibility, agreement with Scripture, and open confession of biblical truth.
But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. (Romans 6:17, emphasis added)
Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light. (Colossians 1:12, emphasis added)
Wherefore, I also…cease not to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers. (Ephesians 1:15-16, emphasis added)
I thank my God upon every remembrance of you. (Philippians 1:3, emphasis added)
For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name. (Romans 15:9, emphasis added)
And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him. (Colossians 3:17, emphasis added)
Obviously, the attitude of thanks is more important than the act of thanks. God’s evaluation of our hearts has not changed since the creation. When the Old Testament prophet Samuel was surprised at God’s selection of young David, God told Samuel, “The LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Our instructions are just the same—“look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
America’s official celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday is good policy and surely should be observed by our nation. Most churches practice some form of public thanksgiving in weekly worship services. Most Christian organizations acknowledge God’s call and provision for their ministries. It is likely that most Christian families “say grace” at meals. Those are all good practices.
However, far more important is the issue of how God’s people practice thanksgiving all the time. At the core of our hearts are the firm beliefs of our mind, and at the core of our actions are the attitudes of our hearts (Matthew 15:19). Foundational to all of that is how we approach the text of Scripture—and undergirding that approach is how we treat the information in Genesis. One cannot please God without understanding Genesis (Hebrews 11:1-6).
Thanksgiving—the attitude as well as the act—is enriched by both the knowledge of and confidence in the authority and accuracy of the Word of God.
* Dr. Morris is Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Creation Research.
Cite this article: Morris III, H. 2012. Giving Thanks: Understanding the Biblical Emphasis of Thanksgiving. Acts & Facts. 41 (11): 4-5.