Thanksgiving has been observed as a national holiday ever since November, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation to “invite my fellow citizens” to observe the day “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” Most modern secularists today would recoil at the idea of a national Day of Thanksgiving if it meant actually giving thanks “to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens,” and most people have turned the holiday into anything but the giving of thanks; which, of course, has the effect of robbing the occasion of its original meaning and purpose.
But the question remains, why give thanks to God in the first place? What do we owe to God? Did we not get where we are by dint of our own effort? Psalm 103 in the Bible gives the explanation.
The psalm, ascribed by ancient tradition to David, begins with an exhortation of the psalmist to himself:
“Bless the Lord, O my soul;
And all that is within me, bless His holy name!”
(v. 1; NKJV).
Why? Because God is the One “who forgives all your iniquities” (v. 3a). The psalmist begins by reflecting on the fact that he himself is a sinner, that he does not deserve any blessings form God; indeed, he deserves to be punished instead. But as undeserving as he is, God has blessed him anyway, forgiving David’s sins.
But that is not all. The psalmist goes on.
“Who heals all your diseases,
Who redeems your life from destruction . . .”
The psalmist had evidently lived long; he had endured many harrowing circumstances. Many of these were beyond his control. Yet he managed to survive them all. And he was conscious that this was not so much the result of his own personal effort as it was the providence of God.
But there is more. God “crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies” (v. 4b). God does not merely tolerate us; He cares about us. And He showers us with blessings beyond what we deserve. He gives us life and health, friends and family; a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food on the table. “. . .So that your youth is renewed like the eagle” (v. 5b). Every day that we live is a gift from God.
But then the psalmist goes on to reflect on the character of God himself. Human history has been marked by the atrocities of human tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung. But what is God like? Is He a cruel tyrant? Far from it.
“The Lord executes righteousness
And justice for all who are oppressed.”
In other words, God is the ruler of the universe, but He is absolutely just in the way He governs it. The innocent are not punished and the dishonest are not rewarded. And in particular He insures justice “for all who are oppressed.” It is the mark of human depravity that the strong will take unfair advantage of the weak. Human justice will often fail to redress the wrong, and sometimes will even reinforce it. But God sees all that goes on and in the end justice will be done.
But God is not only just; He is also compassionate. The psalmist goes on to point out what God had said about Himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai:
“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in mercy.”
(v. 8; Ex. 34:6)
It is God’s essential nature to care about His creatures. The word “merciful” might better be translated “compassionate” (NASV) and the word “mercy” might better be rendered “lovingkindess” (NASV) or “steadfast love” (ESV).
God’s compassion is compared to that of a father towards his children. It is the child’s very weakness that draws out the father’s love. And so it is with God.
“For He knows our frame;
He remembers that we are dust.”
Likewise God is said to be “slow to anger.” This is demonstrated in the fact that
“He has dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor punished us according to our iniquities.”
Even though we have provoked Him with our sins, He has held back His anger. And God’s “lovingkindess” or “steadfast love” is said to be “from everlasting to everlasting” (v. 17).
And so the psalmist ends where he began, calling on everyone to “bless the Lord.” It is not a matter of rendering formal gratitude for blessings received. Ultimately it is a matter of appreciating God himself for who He is. As Jesus would point out centuries later, the “first and great commandment” is that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37,38; cf. Dt. 6:5). God created us for Himself. He endowed us with an intellect, emotions and will. He wants us to enter into a meaningful relationship with Himself. Anything less misses the whole point of the Christian gospel.
And so this Thanksgiving Day let us take time to thank God for all His blessings towards us. But more importantly, let us praise Him for what He is, the Lord, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy”!