When my kids were little, I placed branches in a vase and put it on the dining table. Each day during the month of November, we wrote down things we were thankful for on leaf-shaped paper and hung the leaves on the tree. By the time Thanksgiving arrived, our tree was full of reasons to give thanks.
While giving thanks is a big part of our Thanksgiving holiday (don’t forget all the yummy food!), as it turns out, being thankful is something we ought to do every day of the year. Researchers have found that gratitude is good for us and is associated with increased happiness. According to studies, giving thanks boosts optimism and helps people feel better about their lives. Taking time to consider all the good we have in our lives is considered a healthy practice.
But is that why Christians give thanks? Do we give thanks because it’s merely a healthy thing to do?
Psalm 136 and the Call to Give Thanks
In our churches, we have favorite songs and hymns we sing to praise God and give him thanks for what he has done, like Amazing Grace. If we were gathered with a group of Christians from different churches and someone started singing a well-loved hymn, everyone would likely chime in together. In the Old Testament, one common refrain that everyone knew was, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” This song is found multiple times in the Psalms. It’s sung in Chronicles. The returning exiles sang a similar version of it in the book of Ezra. It’s a song that reminds us why we give thanks. Not because it’s good for us, but because of who God is.
Psalm 136 begins with this refrain, calling God’s people to give him thanks. In giving thanks, we give to God what he is due. As David sang in his psalm of thanksgiving, “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him! Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness” (1 Chron. 16:29). This means that the act of thanksgiving isn’t about us. It’s not about boosting our optimism because we realize we have more good in our lives than we thought; rather, it’s about the one to whom our thanks is given. Thanksgiving is about our good and loving God.
Two Reasons to Give Thanks
Psalm 136 then goes on to describe the ways in which God is good and highlights his love for his people. He is the God above all other gods (Ps. 136:2–3). He created the world (Ps. 136:4–9). He delivered his people (Ps. 136:10–16). He provides and protects (Ps. 136:17–25). After each act of God, we hear the repeated refrain: for his steadfast love endures forever.
God’s goodness and steadfast love are linked and give us two reasons to give him thanks:
- Give thanks for God’s goodness.
In language arts, a predicate adjective is an adjective that follows a linking verb and renames the subject of the sentence. This is what happens when we say, “God is good.” ‘Good’ renames God. It’s like saying God and good are the same thing. Thanking God for his goodness refers to his character. In the Bible, God’s goodness has to do with perfection and righteousness. Everything God does is good. He can’t not do good. Everything he made was good (Gen. 1) and Psalm 136 lists those good things (Ps. 136:5–9). The psalmist clung to God’s goodness amid his trials and suffering: “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you” (Ps. 86:5). God’s goodness is something we can experience with our senses, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Psalm 34:8). When we dwell on his goodness, our only response is that of thanksgiving and praise.
- Give thanks for God’s steadfast love.
The phrase “steadfast love” refers to God’s covenant love for his people, his hesed love. It’s hard for us to comprehend because the love we often experience from humans is fickle. It’s conditional. It comes and goes like the ocean tide. In contrast, God’s love is pure and perfect. It’s a love that never lets go. God commits himself to his people and nothing can sever it (Rom. 8:38-39). It’s a love based not on what we have done, but on who God is:
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deut. 7:7-8)
Psalm 136 describes God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt and his provision for them in the wilderness. He did those things out of his covenant-keeping, steadfast love (Ps. 136:10–11). On this side of the cross, we have our own redemption story. God showed his love for us in giving his Son for our sins: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). In response to this steadfast love, the psalmist urges God’s people to sing and give thanks for that love over and over.
As believers, we give thanks not because it makes us happy, but because we know the good and perfect one who made us, the one who called us to be his own, the one who rescued and redeemed us, the one who never stops loving us. So, this Thanksgiving, and every day of the year, let us “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”