Categories: Gratitude (Thanksgiving), New Testament, Old Testament
Were there any thanksgiving celebrations in the Bible and if so - which ones?
Although there are no accounts of turkey dinners or Black Friday specials, the Bible is replete with dozens of examples of thanksgiving scenarios.
Noah is the first to give thanks to God by building an altar as soon as he exited the Ark after the flood. Though nothing is said about his motive, the timing suggests that he spontaneously offered sacrifices in thanksgiving to God for keeping him and his family safe throughout the flood. In like manner, Abraham built several altars to give thanks to God. Some were built while he journeyed from Haran to Canaan; others were fashioned after he settled in the land. His descendants continued the practice.
The first major story of thanksgiving occurs in Exodus right after the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea, and pharaoh's army had drowned. An entire chapter (Ex. 15) is devoted to the Song of Moses, though many attribute it to his sister, Miriam. It recounts their recent experiences and also looks towards the future. Needless to say, it is filled with praise and exaltation to God. It says that God must be worshipped, and His acts must be rightly proclaimed.
Yet, theirs was a short-lived celebration. Life outside Egypt was hard. The people were in the wilderness where resources were sparse. Moreover, they soon discovered that God had expectations for their daily lives. Singing His praises wouldn't be enough. They must also "listen to him and do that which is right in his sight, and must give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes." (See Exodus 15:26) Soon a pattern emerged. The people murmured and rebelled; Moses prayed to God on their behalf; God forgave, rescued, restored, and healed them.
Clearly, however, they needed a better system. The second half of Exodus includes specific instructions on building a mobile tabernacle. It would be comprised of two altars: one for burnt offerings, the other for incense. The altar of incense was inside the sanctuary just before the curtain of the Holy of Holies, the place that held the tablets of the Ten Commandment, the symbol of God's covenant with the people. It was here that communication took place between the divine and human worlds.
This concept is more fully expanded in the Book of Leviticus, presumably written by Moses, but more likely composed by priestly writers during the period of the Exile. The entire book is dedicated to instructions for proper sacrificial practices that comprised worship. By bringing sacrifices to the altar, the Israelites reaffirmed their commitment to God's covenant. The rituals made it possible for the people to gain forgiveness for any sins and to maintain their relationship to God. After the people settled in Canaan, they built a permanent Temple to replace the Tabernacle.
David continued the tradition of thanksgiving. After the Lord delivered him from his enemies, he recorded his thoughts in a song found in 2 Samuel 22 (repeated in 1 Chronicles 16ff). Other kings, though perhaps not as eloquently expressed, were also mindful of the source of their successes. So was Daniel. When Nebuchadnezzar had a dream and asked him to interpret it, Daniel prayed and thanked God for revealing to him the dream even before he went to see the king (Dan. 2:20-23). No doubt he also gave thanks to God during his night with the lions. Giving thanks was an essential component of Nehemiah's efforts to rebuild the Temple.
The practice of thanksgiving continues in the New Testament. Luke 17 tells the story of 10 lepers, only one of which returned to Jesus to give praise to God. Jesus commended his actions and lamented that the other nine had not done the same. Jesus frequently gave thanks to God during his ministry. Examples include giving thanks to God prior to feeding the multitudes, prior to raising Lazarus from the dead, and at the Last Supper. After Jesus ascended, the apostles went continually to the temple to pray and give thanks to God. Paul begins many of his letters by thanking God for the faith of his followers and frequently offers thanks for bringing him through hardships. Acts 16 tells of a time when Paul was imprisoned and miraculously delivered after spending the night in prayer and praise. The author of Colossians encourages people to "devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving" (4:2). 1 Timothy 4:4 reminds us that "everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving."
Perhaps, however, there is no body of praise as stunning as the Psalms of Thanksgiving. Time and time again, the psalmists thank God for his righteous deeds, His help in recovery from illness or other hardship, His presence in victory, His name, and His steadfast love. All of these examples are important, for they acknowledge God's presence in whatever situation confronts us. God is not just for the big moments, but also the everyday things in life. He is the giver of all good, big or small.
Thanksgiving, praising God, has always been an integral part of the Bible.