As Thanksgiving approaches, you might be surprised, as I was, that a Biblical scholar thinks that no Hebrew verb in the Old Testament means what we think of as “to thank”. His view gives a different understanding to a psalm verse that many may know and routinely pray at the end of Thanksgiving dinner and every other meal: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love (His “mercy” [KJV]) endures forever” (Psalm 118:1; 136:1, etc. ESV).
The Hebrew root verb yada, which there is usually translated “give thanks”, has to do firstly with our acknowledging sin to God, which acknowledgment is necessary for our right relationship with God. The root verb has to do secondly with our proclaiming or declaring God’s attributes and works, which is at the heart of our praising God, something often expressed with other Hebrew verbs.
Notable in the psalm verse’s context of our confessing our sin to God is our also confessing God’s goodness, specifically His never-ending steadfast love or mercy. As people of the New Testament, we know that God’s mercy is connected to the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. For, only by grace for the sake of Christ are our sins forgiven through faith in Him.
We can and should thank and praise God for all His blessings, including whatever favorites He places on our tables Thursday. However, most important is the thanksgiving associated with what He places on His own table: Jesus’s Body and Blood with bread and wine, which, as we receive them in faith, forgive our sins and so also give us life and salvation. (The Greek word for that thanksgiving gives us the name “Eucharist”.)
Ultimately, our confessing both our sins and God’s mercy in forgiving them is not “thanks” that we “give” to God as much as it is our saying back to Him what He has said or “given” to us (like all the historic liturgy of the Christian Church!). So, this Thanksgiving and always, let those who fear (“believe in”) the Lord say, “His mercy endures forever!”
The Rev. Dr. Jayson S. Galler is Pastor of Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Kilgore. You can reach him through the congregation’s website: www.pilgrimlc.org.