James D. Slopsema is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.

O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever. 

Psalm 136:1

Very soon now our readers in the U.S. will be celebrating a national day of Thanksgiving. Our readers in Canada have already celebrated this holiday.

As we contemplate the giving of thanks to God we must be concerned especially with two things.

First, we must make it our concern to be truly thankful to God for what He has done for us and given to us. Often the more a person has the less appreciative he is. We have been blessed with plenty. Few have enjoyed the prosperity that we do today. Are we truly thankful for our plenty?

Secondly, we must be careful to be thankful for the right things. Quite often those who are thankful for God’s bounty focus their attention on their material prosperity and almost overlook the spiritual riches God has sent. Their thanksgiving is earthly minded. Now, it is true that we are to be thankful for the earthly plenty we have received from the Lord’s hand. Nevertheless, of primary concern to us ought to be the spiritual, and only then the physical and material. This ought also to characterize our thanksgiving. Let us thank God first for the spiritual wealth He has given to us in Jesus Christ. Only in that connection let us also give thanks for earthly prosperity.

This certainly is the emphasis of the Psalmist.

O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.

The Psalmist speaks of giving thanks to God for His goodness and His mercy.

The LORD is good. This means that God is kind, generous, benevolent. He is a God who deals bountifully with His creatures. Writes the Psalmist David in Psalm 145:9, “The LORD is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.”

God is also merciful. God’s goodness and mercy are very closely related. God’s mercy is His goodness revealed to His creatures in woe. When God sees His beloved creatures in distress He is filled with pity and compassion. His divine heart goes out to them. In compassion He seeks to deliver them from their misery and to make them truly happy.

The people of Israel had tasted this goodness and mercy of the LORD.

In this particular Psalm the Psalmist recalls the great deliverance of Israel out of the bondage of Egypt by the mighty hand of God. With a strong hand the LORD smote the firstborn of Egypt, parted the Red Sea, made Israel to pass through, and overthrew Pharaoh with his host. Then the LORD led His people Israel through the great and terrible wilderness. Furthermore, He slew famous kings: Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan. Their lands He gave to His people Israel as He had promised for a heritage. In this promised land He fed Israel with plenty. Certainly the LORD had been good to Israel and merciful.

The emphasis of the Psalmist, however, is not on God’s past mercies but on the enduring mercies of God. Notice, “O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.” This latter phrase is repeated over and over again in this Psalm. It is the conclusion of every verse. This is to emphasize the enduring character of God’s mercy. The theme of this Psalm is that the great mercy shown to Israel long before in delivering them from Egypt’s bondage is an enduring mercy. God’s goodness and mercy is not a one time thing. His mercy is always with His people. His mercy endures forever!

Of this enduring mercy the people of God had just tasted. This Psalm was written and sung for the dedication of the new temple built by Judah under Zerubbabel. The people of God had become apostate in the land of promise and God had taken them away into captivity in Babylon. For 70 years the true people of God wept by the rivers of Babylon as they remembered Zion, wasted and destroyed. But God in His goodness and mercy raised up Cyrus, King of Persia, who allowed Israel to return to their land and rebuild Zion. A faithful remnant returned under Zerubbabel. They rebuilt the temple on Mt. Zion and now were celebrating God’s goodness and mercy to them. Truly, God’s mercy endures forever.

For these enduring mercies the people of God gave most humble and hearty thanksgiving.

O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.

The thanksgiving Israel rendered to the LORD in this Psalm was profoundly spiritual in character.

To appreciate this we must remember that Zerubbabel and the 50,000 that returned to Judah did so only for spiritual reasons. In captivity in Babylon the Jews had prospered materially. This was due in part to the lenient policies of the Babylonians to their captives. But this was also due to the fact that they were favored by God. In contrast to the prosperity of Babylon was the hardship that awaited those who chose to return to the promised land. Jerusalem had been destroyed. The temple was no more. What had once been a beautiful city was now a shambles. Those who chose to return had the prospect of hard work, endless struggles, deprivations, poverty, self-denial. There was only one attraction to return to Canaan and that was spiritual. Canaan was the land of promise. There in Canaan Judah could experience God’s blessings around the Temple. That alone served to entice Judah to return. For that reason only 50,000 did return. They were the faithful, the remnant of God’s people.

It was above all for those spiritual blessings that Judah rendered thanks to God in this Psalm. God had indeed been good to them. They as a nation had been unfaithful and God had taken them into captivity. But now in mercy God had brought them back to the land of promise. He had enabled them in the face of great opposition to rebuild the Temple which they were now privileged to dedicate. Once more they were able to enjoy the riches of God’s blessings and fellowship. For this mercy of God Judah was above all thankful.

And, yes, they were also thankful for the earthly bounty of the land. But even here their thankfulness was spiritual in nature. For the earthly bounty of Canaan served as a token of God’s favor and grace to His people. Canaan’s plenty spoke of a greater, spiritual plenty that awaits God’s people in the heavenly Canaan. In fact, through the earthly bounty of Canaan God’s people in the Old Testament were able to taste of this greater heavenly bounty. Besides, the earthly riches of Canaan—its milk and honey—were necessary for Israel to serve the LORD their God. And so for this earthly bounty Judah gave thanks. Their thankfulness therefore was not earthly minded but profoundly heavenly and spiritually minded.

This must also characterize our thanksgiving.

Certainly we are to be thankful for the earthly bounty we have received. We are now in the fall of the year. The harvest is in. The horn of plenty is full. We have food and drink aplenty. We have clothing and shelter. Sometimes we complain how hard the times are. But we are not naked, homeless, hungry, starving as many are today. And our little children do not cry themselves to sleep at night with an empty belly. God has provided for our earthly needs and more besides! Surely we are to be thankful for this. These are gifts of His goodness and mercy to us His people.

But in our thanksgiving let us be spiritually minded and not carnally minded.

Let us not look merely at the earthly abundance God has given us and look no further. Let us not fall into the error of being thankful for earthly plenty and thankful for nothing else. Then we are earthly minded in our thanksgiving.

In our thanksgiving we must concentrate our attention rather on the spiritual blessings God has given to us in Jesus Christ. God has indeed given us spiritual plenty. In Jesus Christ He has taken away all our sins and forgiven us. In Jesus Christ we have a new and wonderful life. We are no more bound to serve sin but are able to live a holy life in the service of God. In Jesus Christ we have the hope of life eternal. In Jesus Christ we are able to enjoy God’s blessed fellowship and communion. Furthermore, God has also promised to continue His great covenant in our generations so that we can expect to see our children and our children’s children also come to the enjoyment of the great salvation we possess and enjoy. Indeed, God has greatly blessed us with all spiritual blessings from on high. And for these rich blessings of grace our hearts should overflow with thanksgiving.

In this connection we are also to be thankful for the earthly bounties we have received from God’s hand.

We must never forget that the earthly and the material have absolutely no value in and of themselves. We must be reminded again and again of what Christ once said, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world; and lose his soul” (Matt. 16:26). In other words, if you have all the plenty of this world and not the salvation of God in Jesus Christ, you will lose your soul in hell. And your material wealth has really profited you nothing. The earthly and material are of value to us only in so much as they enable us to attain the spiritual and the eternal. To serve God, to promote the cause of the kingdom, to enjoy in this way God’s rich blessings, we need food and drink, clothing and shelter. Herein is the sole value and significance of the earthly and material.

And so when God does send us earthly abundance we are to be thankful. We are to express our thankfulness in both song and prayer. But our thankfulness is to be spiritual in nature. We are to thank God for our earthly plenty exactly because it will enable us to have and enjoy the spiritual plenty which is ours in Jesus Christ. And if this is truly the nature of our gratitude, we will show this by using all our earthly plenty for the cause of God’s kingdom, the glory of His name and the attainment of His great salvation.

Let us in this manner give thanks unto the LORD.

For He is good: and His mercy endureth for ever.