The Importance of Thanksgiving
It was a lot of fun on Wednesday participating in the Mom’s program. I was giving hay rides to the kids and their moms. It was so cute when the ride was over a number of the moms came alongside the tractor and asked their children, “What do you say?” and most of the children responded, “Thank you.” It was clear that the moms wanted their children to learn to say “thank you” and we commend such a plan.
Why is it important to say thank you? It is important because it recognizes the source of a blessing. They said thanks to me because I was the one who had given them a ride. It acknowledges the grace of giving. They said thanks because they were glad that I had taken the time to do this for them. We also recognize that it is appropriate as a courtesy.
Today is Thanksgiving which is a day on which we “thank you” to God. It is important to do so for all of the same reasons. Saying thanks acknowledges God as the source of all our blessings. It recognizes that He has been gracious in giving us so many good things and it is simply the right thing today. Today I would like to look at Psalm 77 in order to discover another reason why giving thanks to God is important. I would like to invite you to read Psalm 77:1-15 with me from the screen.
I. Life’s Difficult Realities
We do not know what kind of difficulty the writer of this Psalm was experiencing, but whatever it was, it was clearly giving him a lot of trouble and was very deep. However, we notice that he was doing everything right as He faced his trials. He prayed, approached God and sought God, but nothing seemed to help.
A. Unanswered Prayer
In the opening verses, we read the prayer of the Psalmist. The expressions in these verses are expressions of desperate prayer. He writes, “I cried out to God” and “I sought the Lord” and “…at night I stretched out untiring hands.” The prayers he prayed came from the depth of his soul. They were cries of need. He was praying. He was not looking for answers in all the wrong places but was seeking the Lord. He did not give up in prayer, but was untiring in his prayers even at night.
What was the outcome? Verse 2 ends, “my soul refused to be comforted.” Not only did he not get answers to the issue that he was dealing with, but he also did not find peace in his heart. He seems to encounter the silence of God.
And so it is at times. Not every prayer is answered. Sometimes we struggle and are in anguish and even though we pray desperately and deeply it doesn’t seem to help. This is an uncomfortable reality and in his commentary on this Psalm Spurgeon attributed this struggle to unbelief. Yet all the evidence in the Psalm does not suggest this. It is hard for us to accept the reality that sometimes prayers aren’t answered. Yet we know that this is the reality we experience.
B. Unfulfilling Worship
In verses 3-6 we see another thing which the writer did right. He remembered God. In verses 3 and 6 we have the word “remembered.” I believe that these words lead us to consider that the Psalmist is faithful in worship. He remembers God; he remembers his songs in the night, probably thinking about those night time worship times. He thinks about the former days, possibly reflecting on all that God has done in the past.
Worship is acknowledging the character and deeds of God. As the Psalmist remembers who God is and as he thinks about the former days he may well be considering all the things which God has done.
Once again, however, not only does this reflection and worship not relieve the burden, it seems to make things worse. He remembers God and groans. Why would remembering God make him groan? Possibly it is because the experience of the greatness of God which had formerly caused him to rejoice and worship God now does nothing. He remembers what God has been and what He has done, but in the present he has no sense of God’s greatness. He thinks about the past acts of God, but sees none of them in the present and feels as if God is causing the difficulty he is experiencing and in spite of this faithful worship he is now too troubled to speak.
Once again he is experiencing the absence of God. VanGemeren writes, “The present distress seems contradictory to the history of God’s involvement and love for his people. The more he muses on the divine perfections, the louder he speaks, and the more his spirit “grows faint” within him. His active remembrance of God does not give comfort but has the opposite effect: groaning and spiritual exhaustion.”
Have you ever asked, “What happened to the parting of the Red Sea?” We read the Bible and hear about all the amazing miracles, but our current experience is far from that. Our present circumstances lead us to wonder where the miracles are today.
C. Unanswered Questions
As he encounters the silence of God his mind is filled with questions. Verses 7-9 are a compact and intense list of difficult questions that are very real for his soul.
Notice the expressions of feeling God’s absence in these verses as the Psalmist uses words like, reject, never show favor, unfailing love vanished, promises failed, mercy forgotten and compassion withheld.
Several times in the last few weeks we have had fog in the morning. Yet it isn’t very long into the day before the sun burns off the fog and by mid morning you have no more memory of it because it has vanished. The writer considers that the unfailing love of God is like the morning fog. Yet how can “unfailing love” vanish? Unfailing love is something that is always there, it is “unfailing.” It is contradictory to say that it has vanished, which tells something of the depth of feeling that God is gone.
These questions also express hopelessness regarding the future. The writer questions whether all of God’s goodness and compassion are gone forever. Repeatedly he expresses this hopeless feeling that nothing is ever going to change. The difficulty is the permanent reality and God is not ever coming back.
The writer focuses most on the characteristics of God which we find most comforting. He feels that the favor, the love, the promises, the mercy and the compassion of God are all gone. He feels that once God helped, now He isn’t helping and questions, “Is it always going to be like that?” Spurgeon reflects, “He painfully knew that the Lord might leave his people for a season, but his fear was that the time might be prolonged and have no close.”
II. The Importance of Thanksgiving
Sometimes it is just that deep. We pray and meet with silence. We worship and feel coldness. We meditate and focus our attention on God, but all we have is hard questions. What do we do? As we read on we discover thanksgiving as an important response.
A. The Right Hand Of the Most High
Verse 10 is a difficult verse and I have to admit that I am not certain of the interpretation I am giving it. It clearly provides some kind of a transition to what follows, which focuses on themes related to thanksgiving.
NASB translates, "Then I said, ‘It is my grief, that the right hand of the Most High has changed."
Good News, "Then I said, ‘What hurts me most is this— that God is no longer powerful.’"
NIV translates, "Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.’"
In these different translations we see some of the different interpretations. New American Bible interprets this to mean that my grief is so great that I can’t think straight. Good News takes a completely different approach and interprets it to be an extension of the lament and a conclusion that God is not powerful any more. In the context, I prefer the NIV translation, which interprets it as a transitional statement. After acknowledging his lament in the early verses of the Psalm, there is a change towards thanksgiving in the last part of the Psalm. This verse provides a transition by functioning as a determination, a decision on the part of the Psalmist. The “years of the right hand of the Most High” is reference to all the things which God has done. The determination is to acknowledge God’s power and goodness and give thanks for it as a strategy in the midst of deep trial. He is saying that in the midst of my difficulties and in the midst of my trials, I will determine to give thanks to God.
B. Thanksgiving Expressed
This interpretation is reinforced as we go on and notice in verses 11, 12 his decision as he says, “I will remember,” “I will meditate” and “consider.” In spite of what he has experienced, the writer is not going to give up on God, but will think about God and give thanks to God. Let us examine his expressions of thanksgiving in the midst of his lament.
1. Think About What God Has Done
In the first verse, the writer determines to remember “the deeds of the Lord.”
Whether experiencing the absence of God or not, it is a good thing to remember the deeds of the Lord. We need to think about all the things that God has done. Many of you journal. Whenever you experience something that is a gift of God to you, it is good to write it down so that you can remember it at a time when you feel the absence of God. From time to time it is a good thing to look back over your life and think about all that God has done for you. There are certain stories that we have in our background that have shown us God at work. I think about the cheque we received to pay for my third semester of seminary studies. I think about the encouragement we received to go to BC to rescue our daughter. These and so many other stories were experiences of God’s deeds and it is good to remember them from time to time.
Besides the experiences we have had, there are stories of God’s deeds in our extended circle of relationships. I think about the experiences which my father and mother and grandmothers had while fleeing Russia during the Second World War. I think about the grace of God which gave friends of mine a grandchild a year to the day after the death of their son. These and so many other stories are the deeds of the Lord.
It is a strategy, a determination to remember the deeds of the Lord. As we reflect on these memories, we do so with thanksgiving.
2. Think about God’s Powerful Acts
Several times in this section of the Psalm the writer determines to “remember your miracles of long ago,” “consider your mighty deeds” and to acknowledge that He is the “God who performs miracles” and the God who displays “your power among the peoples.”
This is a determination to read the Bible and be reminded of all the things which God has done. Which are your favorite stories in the Bible? When we were in Israel we went to the location at which Elijah held the contest with the Baal prophets and God sent fire to burn up the soaked offering and wood and even the stones and the water. When our children were young I often told them this story. It is one of my favorite stories of the power of God. Which are your favorite Bible stories? It is good to read them often and to determine to “consider” them and “remember” them. As we remember all the powerful acts of God we can respond by giving thanks.
3. Think About Creation
The phrase in Psalm 77:12 which speaks of “all your works” makes me think about the works of God in creation.
Often when I have my devotions, I look out the window at the rising sun, or the green trees, or the snow covered fields or the changing leaves. Even better, is to get into my kayak and paddle down the river and see the deer or the owl or the ducks; or to go for a hike on the river trial. Even better than that is to go for a hike in the mountains and see the great mountains and the trees and all the rest of the amazing creation which God has made.
Yet we do not need to go to the River Trail or to the mountains to see the works of God in creation. We just have to think about our own bodies. We just have to look at the people in our home. God has made our bodies in an amazing way. There is a wonderful monologue which Benjamin Pierce gives in one of the MASH episodes about the opposable thumb. We are one of only a few creatures who are able to grasp things and manipulate things with our hands because we have a thumb which closes in on the rest of our fingers. Dogs, cats, cows, insects, birds cannot do that, but we can and it is an engineering marvel. What a mighty deed of creation.
So as we consider the wonder of God’s creation we need to give thanks for all that He has made.
4. Remember That God is Great
Verse 13 is a reflection on the character of God. The writer speaks of the holiness of God and the greatness of God.
What comes to mind when you reflect on the holiness of God? We could be overwhelmed by the perfection of God and our imperfection and be brought to see our sinfulness, but I would like to suggest another thought. The holiness of God tells us that God will always do what is right and pure and good. God’s holiness is the guarantee that He is not arbitrary, treating one person in one way and another person in another way. It is the assurance that we know what to expect from God – that He will always be consistent in righteousness and goodness. Lord Acton, expressed this opinion in a letter to Bishop Creighton in 1887:
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." Yet the holiness of God assures us that with God this axiom on earth is not true in heaven. Spurgeon says, “In the holy place we understand our God, and rest assured that all his ways are just and right.”
The greatness of God reminds us that even though we may experience the silence of God and wrestle with the absence of God, there is still nowhere else to go. God is greater than anyone else and so ultimately He is our only hope.
The Psalmist mentions these two attributes of God’s character and invites reflection on them. Of course, there is so much more to God than just these two characteristics. The decision we need to make in the midst of trial and difficulty is to continue to reflect on these and all the other aspects of God’s character. As we do we give thanks to God for who He is.
5. Remember Your Redemption
Finally the Psalmist invites reflection on God’s redemption in verse 15 when he says, “With your mighty arm you redeemed your people.” In the remainder of the Psalm the writer reflects on the experience which Israel had of God’s redemption. God took this slave nation out of Egypt and delivered them through the Red Sea. This was such a powerful experience of God’s people that they remembered it and referred to it throughout their history. God invited them to commemorate this amazing experience regularly so that they could have His redemption fresh on their minds.
Although the redemption of Israel from Egypt forms a part of our history, we have a much greater story of redemption in our experience. The work of Jesus on the cross by which He redeemed us from the guilt and penalty of our sin and gave us eternal life is the story of our experience about how “with your mighty arm you redeemed your people.” It is a great thing to regularly remember what God did through Jesus. God has also given us a way to remember His great gift and in a few moments we will remember His redemption as we observe the Lord’s Supper.
As we do so and whenever and in whatever form we remember God’s redemption, we do so with thanksgiving, praising God for what He has done for us.
VanGemeren says that this “psalm witnesses still in our day to the dilemma of faith.
When we get to the end of the Psalm, does the Psalmist feel better? Although the Psalm ends with the strategy of thanksgiving and praise and remembering, there are no words which say that everything is OK again. The Psalmist does not say, “God has made my troubles disappear.” The Psalmist does not even indicate that he now has peace and God has come through and has made Himself known.
Does that take away from the value of thanksgiving? No! Thanksgiving is a reminder of the way things are even though we don’t understand them. It is important as a way to restore equilibrium even though we don’t feel it. It expresses the truth, even though it is veiled to our eyes in the moment. Therefore it is very important to give thanks.
Earlier in the service, we took time to say thanks. When we did so, we did an important thing.
We want to conclude the service by remembering our salvation through the Lord’s Supper and in doing so to say thanks to Him.