The Old Testament. Early in the Old Testament both the language and the concept of thanksgiving are conspicuous by their absence. The Old Testament lacks an independent vocabulary of thanksgiving or gratitude; it uses the verb yada [h'd"y], and the cognate noun toda [h'd/T], both ordinarily translated as "praise, " to convey the concept. Even the concept is rare in the Pentateuch. Neither Adam nor Eve thanked God for his creation, and, compared to Abel's gift of the fat portions from the firstborn of his flock, Cain's gift of "some fruit" seems singularly thankless. The families of Isaac and Jacob contended over God's blessing rather than thanking him for it. Ingratitude reached its nadir when, after the exodus, Israel grumbled again and again, rather than thanking God for his deliverance and for food that literally fell from heaven.
Perhaps the laws for thank offerings should be seen against Israel's failures to that point. 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 subcategory of peace offering, ordained to express gratitude to the Lord for any deliverance, any act of love ( Lev 7:11-16 ; Psalm 107:21-22 ). Even apart from the sacrificial system or the terminology of thanksgiving, wisdom literature encourages gratitude for God's material provision and exposes the folly of greed ( Psalm 104:15-28 ; Eccl 5:8-6:9 ).
Thanksgiving is more common in the psalms. About twenty psalms command or invite Israel to sing songs of thanksgiving. "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good" is a common refrain ( 106:1 ; 118:1 ; 136:1 ). Some psalms specify a reason, linking thanksgiving with Acts of love and worship, exhorting worshipers to glorify God with thanksgiving ( 69:30 ), come before him with thanksgiving ( 95:2 ), enter his gates with thanksgiving ( 100:4 ), sing to the Lord with thanksgiving ( 147:7 ). Perhaps surprisingly, many cries for aid and laments conclude with thanksgiving (individual cries for help in 7:17 ; 28:7 ; 35:18 ; 52:9 ; 54:6 ; 86:12 ; communal cries in 79:13 ; 106:47 ).
Chronicles and Nehemiah often mention thanksgiving, as both take strong interest in the temple and the offerings and songs that rise from it to God. For example, when David brings the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, the people sing psalms that call Israel to give thanks again and again ( 1 Chronicles 16:4 1 Chronicles 16:7 1 Chronicles 16:8 1 Chronicles 16:34 1 Chronicles 16:35 1 Chronicles 16:41 ). David also appointed Levites to thank God morning and evening in the temple ( 23:30 ), and he thanked God as his life ended, exhorting the people to join him in giving to the building of Solomon's temple ( 29:13-20 ).
Despite the paucity of the language of thanksgiving, gratitude or something akin to it was foundational for covenant life in the Old Testament. The law rested upon gratitude for God's redeeming work. As God said to Israel through Moses, "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." By that deliverance, Israel became the Lord's treasured possession. Remembering it, they become his priests, his holy nation.
The New Testament. In the New Testament the vocabulary for thanksgiving and gratitude expands and expressions increase. The verb eucharisteo [eujcaristevw] and the cognate noun eucharistia [eujcaristiva] together appear about fifty-five times. Several other terms convey the idea, most commonly charis [cavri"] (often with echo [e [cw] I have). Thanksgiving is a motive for Christian life and conduct, a general attitude toward both the blessings and trials of life, a central component of prayer, and the context for the proper use of material things.
In the Gospels and Acts thanksgiving most often occurs in prayer over a meal, such as the feeding of the multitudes ( Matt 15:36 ; Mark 8:6 ; John 6:11 John 6:23 ) or at the last supper ( Matt 26:27 ; Mark 14:23 ; Luke 22:17 Luke 22:19 ). Yet the crowds that surrounded Jesus often repeated Israel's sin at the exodus, by gobbling up the bread Jesus multiplied and enjoying his miracles without expressing gratitude ( John 6:22-24 ).
Paul thanked God for his final meal on the storm-battered boat that took him to Malta ( Acts 27:35 ). Jesus also thanked the Father for hearing his prayer that God hide his secrets from the wise and reveal them to children ( Matt 11:25 ; Luke 10:21 ) and to raise Lazarus ( John 11:41 ). In the worship scenes of Revelation, the heavenly hosts give thanks to God for creating all things ( 4:9-11 ) as well as redeeming multitudes of humanity ( 5:9-14 ).
The Gospels introduce and the Epistles develop the concept that gratitude for God's deliverance in Christ characterizes the believer. When a sinful woman interrupted a dinner party to anoint Jesus with precious perfume, Jesus told his shocked host that her action sprang from gratitude for forgiveness ( Luke 7:40-47 ). When Jesus healed ten lepers as they walked to the temple, he marveled aloud that only one, a Samaritan, returned to thank him ( Luke 7:11-19 ). Paul agrees that believers should be thankful for every individual provision, and that gratitude for God's saving grace envelops the entire Christian life. Those whom God has brought from death to life should offer their bodies to him as instruments of righteousness ( Rom 6:13 ). In view of God's mercies, knowing they were bought at a price, they should offer their bodies to God as living sacrifices in general and honor him with purity in particular ( Rom 12:1 ; 1 Cor 6:20 ). Those who have received an unshakeable kingdom from God should be thankful, worship God, and faithfully endure the hardships of persecution ( Heb 12:28 and context ).
A general attitude of thanksgiving in both the trials and blessings of life distinguishes the Christian. Paul enjoins his churches to give thanks for all things, in all circumstances ( Eph 5:20 ; 1 Thess 5:18 ), even in suffering ( Rom 5:3-5 ; James 1:1-4 ), and to do everything in the name of Jesus out of a spirit of gratitude ( Col 3:17 ). On the other hand, thanklessness marks godless and wicked men who suppress the truth about God ( Rom 1:18-21 ).
Believers retain joy and peace especially when, "in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving [they] present their requests to God" ( Php 4:6-7 ). Thanksgiving is a central component of prayer for Paul. He prays that his churches will be thankful ( Col 1:12 ), and gives thanks in turn for answered prayer, especially for the extension of the gospel and the strength of his churches ( 2 Cor 4:15 ). Paul begins most of his letters (Galatians, 1 Timothy, and Titus being the exceptions) with expressions of thanksgiving to God for the church or individual to which he writes. The thanksgiving usually leads to a prayer, and the two together ordinarily introduce some of Paul's themes for the letter. For example, Paul thanks God for the faith of the Romans ( 1:8 ), for his grace given to the Corinthians so that they lack no spiritual gift ( 1 Cor 1:4-7 ), and for the Philippians' partnership in the gospel ( 1:3-5 ; see also 1 Thess 1:2-3 ; 2 Thess 1:3-4 ).
A legalistic asceticism afflicts some false teachers ( 1 Tim 4:1-3 ) and rebels tend toward thanklessness ( Rom 1:21 ; 2 Tim 3:2 ). Believers, on the contrary, give thanks for material things, and consecrate them with prayer ( 1 Tim 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 ( Rom 14:1-6 ; 1 Cor 10:30-31 ).
The Book of Revelation leads the redeemed to give thanks for the fundamentals. Four living creatures "give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne" ( 4:9 ), twenty-four elders worship him for he has taken his great power and begun to reign ( 11:17 ). God's reign entails the final overthrow of evil, for which believers also give thanks ( 19:1-6 ), since the doom of God's foes clears the path for the arrival of the new heavens and new earth.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Thankfulness, Thanksgiving'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".