Tomorrow Americans everywhere celebrate Thanksgiving. The first official Thanksgiving, held in December 1777, followed a Congressional Proclamation that in part reads: “That with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor; and that together with their sincere acknowledgments and offerings, they may join the penitent confession of their manifold sins,…” Thanksgiving and penitence.
‘Thanksgiving’ has a rich meaning within Christianity – not least within the Book of Psalms. In Psalm 107 (the first psalm in Book V) we read: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! God is not just the great sovereign Lord. He is altogether good.
Four scenes dominate the center of the psalm. It is a celebration of the return of God’s people to Jerusalem in the 6th century BC, after the years of exile in Babylon. And while each scene portrays Israel’s experience and God’s intervention, they are analogous to realities experienced by all men and women, and also God’s acts of mercy.
Lostness. In 586BC Nebuchadnezzar’s army had destroyed Jerusalem and razed Solomon’s great temple to the ground. Dazed, wandering and lost, they hungered for the embrace of God’s love. Like the prodigal in Jesus’ parable, they came to their senses and in penitence cried to the Lord. God in his mercy delivered them. Miraculously, against all historical odds, through the decree of Cyrus in 520BC, God opened the way for their return to Jerusalem.
It is analogous for some in the West today who, though they may have rejected the notion of God’s existence, finding themselves in a world that has lost its way, turn to God with a cry for help. Psalm 107 suggests that God in his mercy can use our distress to awaken us to the real cause of the mess the world is in. It’s not simply because one group has used their position and privilege to abuse and oppress others. It is because we all have an evil propensity within us.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote: ‘If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?’
Captivity. Darkness, the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons portray a further aspect of Israel’s exilic experience. It is also a metaphor for our fallen state. Refusing to acknowledge God and learn from him, humanity prides itself in its wisdom and its ways: They had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High (Psalm 107:11).
Malcolm Muggeridge wrote that men and women are …imprisoned in a tiny dark dungeon of the ego, which involves us in the pitiless servitude of the senses. So, imprisoned and enslaved, we are cut off from God and from the light of his love. In our narcissism, hate becomes more dominant than love.
The great news of Psalm 107:14 is: God brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart… The even greater news is that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we learn that God’s nature is always to have mercy and that his passion is to rescue and restore us. In the words of Psalm 107:15: Let us (them) thank the Lord for his steadfast love, …
Sickness. A further scene portrays a self-inflicted sickness, because perversely, people refused to learn from the wisdom of God. An example today could be drug-addiction. In our foolishness we turn our backs on the God who is there. But again, when men and women turn to God asking him for help, he not only hears but responds: He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction (Psalm 107:20). God is willing to love and to serve the unlovely – even at great cost to himself.
Storm-tossed. The fourth scene portraying the plight of God’s ancient people, and humanity’s, shows our smallness in the face of the huge forces of nature – the power of the winds and seas, and the seismological shifts of the earth. Derek Kidner comments: ‘we live by permission, not by good management’ (Psalms, 73-150, p.386). Once more the people of Psalm 107(:28-29) cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. Furthermore, he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Reading these words we share the astonishment of Jesus’ disciples when, at a word, he stilled the wind and the tempest of the waters on Lake Galilee. ‘Who then is this?’ they asked (Luke 8:24-25).
Psalm 107 concludes with illustrations highlighting God’s majestic power and justice. The desert and the farmland (vv.33-38), point us metaphorically to God’s inward and outward blessing – and our need for a humble and contrite heart. The psalm concludes focusing our attention on God. It is he who raises up the needy out of affliction and makes their families like flocks. The upright see it and are glad, and all wickedness shuts its mouth. Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things; let them consider the steadfast love of the Lord (Psalm 107:41-43).
Thanksgiving calls for our repentance and our heartfelt gratitude to the wonderful God who in his love claims us. Karl Barth said: Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning.
You may want to pray – A General Thanksgiving: Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give humble and hearty thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all people. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. But above all for your amazing love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And we pray, give us that due sense of all your mercies, that our hearts may be truly thankful and that we may declare your praise not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and forever. Amen. (AAPB, 1978)