The Biblical Basis for Thanksgiving

By Keith Thomas,  November 21, 2017

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Have you noticed that the Thanksgiving holiday is rapidly becoming the "fly-over" holiday?   Each year, retail establishments begin to put up Christmas decorations, themes, and displays shortly after Halloween.  In time past, most stores would wait until December 1, but then it crept to "Black-Friday" and the opening hour kept moving.  Now in the zeal to make profits, retail stores are opening on Thanksgiving day.  In fact, the hour when stores are opening is creeping earlier and earlier and makes it nearly impossible for families to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving day.  Amazingly, people cut off the idea of giving thanks because of their insatiable desire for material goods, this is also known as coveting.  On the other side of the coin, retail establishments are zealous to make a profit, this is known as greed.  We now worship at the altar of capitalism and personal excess.  Capitalism has many merits, however, it can become a sinful practice, if taken to extremes.

Historically, Thanksgiving was a day that was set aside for the sole purpose of thanking God for his provision.  It was a day when one was supposed to reflect and examine one's life to specifically identify the blessings that we have been provided.  Ironically, it is rapidly becoming a day that is focused on the sins of coveting and greed.  The exact opposite of counting your blessings and praising God for his provision.  The Old Testament records various instructions for the nation of Israel to habitually practice.  In the midst of the Feasts, the Sacrifices, and the Psalms, Thanksgiving is a constant theme.  These are the Biblical roots for the practice of Thanksgiving. 

Lessons on Thanksgiving from the Feasts of Israel

Early on in the history of the nation of Israel, the concept of giving thanks was instituted by God.  Israel had an entire calendar that needed to be followed and obeyed.   These were known as the "Feasts" of Israel and they were highly regulated with exacting detail as to when each feast was to be celebrated, why the feast was necessary, what was to be done, and how it was to be done.  They were also given specific instructions on where the feasts were to be celebrated, and finally, who was to perform certain rituals, tasks, and actions.  Great detail was given for each feast and exacting adherence was mandatory.  Each of the seven feasts had a specific focus and purpose.  Further, each feast was a pointer to Jesus Christ who was the ultimate fulfillment of each celebration.  Tragically, these feasts have eventually become mechanisms of legalism and entrapments of performance, as opposed to genuine worship.  Ironically, we even see in the New Testament where Jesus cleansed the temple because the events surrounding the sacrificial system had become a money-making scheme. 

Leviticus 23 documents the seven feasts of the Lord in order.  These were God's feasts and there was specific instruction on how they were to be celebrated.  They were instructed on not only when the feasts were to take place, but very specific in what each was to accomplish.  Each feast related to their agricultural harvests and God's provision.   These were regularly appointed times when Israel as a nation would celebrate God's provision during various harvests. They were also times when men would lead their families to focus on their sin, and their need for atonement to be in right standing with God. Thus they were celebrations of God's provision - not only physically but spiritually - thus the need for reflection and man's response - Thanksgiving.

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Spring Feasts (4 in total)

  • Passover - A picture of redemption from slavery & bondage
  • Unleavened Bread - A picture of the removal of sin & cleansing
  • First Fruits Offering - A picture of new life  
  • Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) - A picture of being alive to God

Fall Feasts (3 in total)

  • Feast of Trumpets -  A picture of being gathered - be ready and prepared
  • Day of Atonement - A picture of getting right with God as a nation
  • Feast of Tabernacles - A picture of God's eternal protection & rule

Three of the feasts were considered to be pilgrimage festivals and their celebrations are documented in Deuteronomy 16: 1-17.  These were known celebrations that focused on thanking God and giving Him praise. 

  • Passover celebrated the departure from Egypt and was then promptly followed by the Feast of Unleavened Bread which celebrated the barley harvest. 16:1-8
  • Feast of Weeks also known as Feast of the Harvest celebrated the wheat harvest in the spring. This was later called "Pentecost." 16: 9-12
  • Feast of Tabernacles (Booths) or Feast of Ingathering celebrated the general harvest festival in the fall. 16: 13-17

Men were required to travel to Jerusalem to represent the family at the celebration of this specific feast.  Sometimes an entire family would make the journey with the head of the household. Oftentimes, they would travel great distances to celebrate the festivals and it was a tremendous time of worship and spiritual renewal.  Traveling to Jerusalem would be a significant endeavor and the pilgrimage feasts journey would provide times of worship and praise as they made their way to Jerusalem in the caravan, people would sing psalms during the journey.  These are known as psalms of ascent or pilgrimage psalms.  They can be found in Psalms 120 - 134.

Lessons on Thanksgiving from the Offerings

There are five main types of offerings that a Jewish person would be familiar with and practice. These are recorded in Leviticus chapters 1-7.  It was customary for the head of the household to go to the tabernacle or temple with the appropriate offering to make a sacrifice in accordance with each of the feasts (mentioned above).  He would also participate in the daily sacrifices (morning and evening). In addition, there were special occasions when a sacrifice was required. The details are provided in Numbers 28-29 and other places in the Pentateuch.  The NT tells us that those offerings were a temporary covering for that particular sin until Christ came.  The Offerings were never seen as a means of remission of sin, but a temporary covering until Christ came to pay the perfect price for the sins of humanity (Gal 3:24; Heb 10:4). We must also remember that the layout of the temple, as well as the instruments and furnishings all, point to Christ.  The five types of OT Judaic offerings are as follows;

  • Burnt Offering (Lev 1: 1-17)
  • Grain Offering AKA Cereal Offering  (Lev 2: 1-16)
  • Peace Offering  (Lev 3: 1-17) *only during the Feast of Weeks
  • Sin Offering   (Lev 4:1 - 5: 13)
  • Guilt Offering AKA Trespass Offering   (Lev 5:14 - 6:7)
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One offering stands differently than the others. It is the Grain Offering which was usually done in conjunction with the Burnt Offering.  The grain offering appears to be one that is focused on gratitude to God.  It is the only offering that did not result in a blood sacrifice.  The grain offering was a gift to the Lord that honored Him as the source of life and a sense of gratitude for the production during the harvest.  The worshiper would bring the best kernels of his crop as an offering to God to be a representation of the fruit of his labor.  It was a true praise offering for his provision.  He brought the best grain to make an offering of wheat or a loaf of unleavened bread made with wheat, salt, olive oil, and frankincense.  If the man brought a grain offering it could be in the form of grain, a loaf, or a fried flattened loaf.  One thing in common was it must not have any leven (Leven always represents sin).  Interestingly, the priest would take and use most of the offering and a small portion was actually burnt on the altar.  This demonstrates that the offering was given to God, but it became a means of sustenance & benefit to the Priest and his sons.  For all intensive purposes, it was an offering of thanksgiving and praise for God's blessing in their harvest.  It is also important to remember John 6:48 when Jesus said: "I am the bread of life."  The one who had no sin was the perfect "grain offering!"

Lessons on Thanksgiving from the Psalms

David also made a unique declaration that there was to be a special celebration when the ark of the covenant was placed inside a tent.   David gave specific instructions on how the celebration was to be conducted and wrote a Psalm of Thanksgiving found in 1 Chronicles 16: 7-36. Psalm 100 is also a well-known Psalm focused on Thanksgiving. Perhaps you can read this before you celebrate on Thursday!  This is a tremendous example of true thanksgiving!

Tragically, our modern day understanding of "harvest" is the daily or weekly trek to the local grocery store where we pay cash or swipe the debit card.  Distancing ourselves from the hard work and process of seeing a harvest and then depending upon God for sunshine and rain may have something to do with our failure to recognize our total and complete dependence upon God for our daily sustenance.  Few of us have the patience and work ethic to have a small garden, let alone vast fields of crops to feed livestock and our families for a year!  If there isn't a dependence upon God for a harvest for your daily sustenance there is no need for humbly offering up our thanksgiving.  This is an appalling result of modernity.  

The term "thanks" is recorded in scripture no less than 110 times (50 times in Psalms) and the word "thanksgiving" is recorded 28 times (11 in the book of Psalms).  A corresponding term "praise" that is a result of thanksgiving or gratitude, is recorded 207 times in scripture of which 123 are found in the book of Psalms.  So this tells us that a primary place to look at the idea of thanksgiving or praise is the book of Psalms.  Here are just a few:

  • Psalm 34
  • Psalm 107
  • Psalm 95
  • Psalm 148
  • Psalm 100
  • Psalm 92
  • Psalm 50
  • Psalm 138
  • Psalm 136
  • Psalm 103

The concept of Thanksgiving is a trademark of a person who is in harmony with God and one who seeks to honor him.  It is not a single day, but it is a habit of gratitude.  True thanksgiving has its roots in scripture.  No matter if we celebrate "Thanksgiving" corporately or individually, we praise him for who he is and what he has done!  He is worthy of our praise and a grateful heart is a trademark of one who loves God. Make your Thanksgiving a special time - Give Him Praise and Thanks!

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Sources Used:

Ariel Ministries, http://www.ariel.org/home

The Feasts of the Lord, God Prophetic Calendar from Calvary to the Kingdom, Kevin Howard & Marvin Rosenthal, Thomas Nelson, 1997

The Feasts of the Bible.  Sam Nadler, PhD, DVD Series & Study material,  Rose Publishing, 2011

The Function of the Millennial Sacrifices in Ezekiel 40-48, Jerry M. Hullinger, Biblothecra Sacra, 2010, Vol 167,  pg 55

Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Walter A. Elwell, Gen Ed, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI,  1988, Vol 2.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Gen Ed., Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, 1988,  Vol 4