What shall I return to the Lord
for all his bounty to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord…
I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.
Psalm 116:12-13, 17-18
It was in the worst of times that I learned to really give thanks. My wife Melodee had died the previous April, and I was in no mood for Thanksgiving that year, or any foreseeable year. What did I have to be thankful for, I wondered! Then one sleepless night, rummaging through books, looking for some line to give me some hope, I came across amazing words: “Do not look at what you’ve lost, but look at what you have left.”
As I read the words I began to think about what I had left. I had two wonderful sons, Rhett and Wyatt, and a host of family and friends who loved and cared for us. I lived in a nice home, had a job to go to, and went to bed each night not worrying about bombs falling on us, or where we might find food in the morning. In the words of the old hymn, I started counting my blessings and was surprised by all that God had done.
Each Thanksgiving those words have served me well: “Do not look at what you’ve lost, but look at what you have left.” Yes, there are disappointments and heartbreak along the way, but then I look at all that I have left! In the business of living, my inflow far, far exceeds my outgo! Life is good and the promised life to come even better!
So, as did the ancient psalmist in today’s text, I am wondering how to adequately say thanks to God. “What shall I return to the LORD for all his bounty to me?” Like the psalmist I am thankful for God’s blessings, blessings I know I don’t deserve. I want some way to thank God, to bring a smile to His face.
This is where the psalmist can help us in saying thanks to God this Thanksgiving: it has to do with a meal for family, friends, and neighbors! The idea of spreading a feast to say thanks was not something new to the Pilgrims. They got the idea from the Bible where the people of God would gather at a table to eat, drink, recite God’s blessings, and raise a toast to Him.
As the psalmist seeks to say thanks to God, he turns to what the Torah had taught grateful people to do: “offer a thanksgiving sacrifice”, “lift the cup of salvation”, and “call on the name of the LORD”. In the Old Testament Scriptures, the “thanksgiving sacrifice” was a meal shared by three parties: the worshipper, the community, and God. The sacrifice was a communion meal where the people ate from the meat that the worshipper offered up to God. A portion of the sacrifice was given to God and the rest returned to the people to be enjoyed as a thanksgiving meal (Leviticus 7:12-15). As with many of the sacrificial offerings, the sacrifice of thanksgiving was part of a festal meal that included family and neighbors, along with the priests and Levites.
As they feasted on the thanksgiving meal, the worshipper would pour a drink libation on the altar, offer it up to God, recount his blessings, and call on the name of the Lord. In doing this they were literally drinking a toast to God, celebrating His deliverance and blessings: “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD”.
The ancient Hebrews never imagined keeping their thanks to themselves. They would stand “in the presence of all God’s people” and declare what the Lord had done. Others would hear, join in the thanks, and be strengthened in their own faith. The act of thanksgiving in the Bible was more than a silent prayer, it was going public about the goodness of God. While we can never repay God for all his goodness, we can say thanks, and by saying thanks be an encouragement to others as well.
If you want to know more about the actual words that this psalmist used in declaring his thankfulness, read the first half of the psalm (116:1-11). He begins his thanks by saying: “I love the LORD, because….” How would you finish that sentence? That’s a good thing for all of us to think about this week, and a good thing to tell God and others: “I love the Lord because…”
May your Thanksgiving table strain under the weight of delicious food, as you joyfully eat at the table of God’s goodness!
A toast to God for all we have left!
Photo by CodeFin