What “thanksgiving” means in the Bible

Biblical definition of thanksgiving

The Bible ties a great deal of meaning to the concept of “thanks”—but what if most of that meaning is lost on us today?  To us, thanksgiving is an expression of gratitude. As kids, we’re taught that “please,” and “thank you” are magic words—spells that compel adults to give us stuff. “Thanks!” becomes code, then instinct.

Seriously: I say “thanks” a lot. I don’t mean it every time. I’m pretending to be grateful; sometimes I just say it before I’ve even had time to process what I’m supposed to be thankful for. It’s the polite thing to do, like saying “bless you” after a sneeze (or “God bless you,” for extra spirituality points). I’ll call it Thank Bloat.

I thought Thank Bloat was harmless … until I noticed it was gumming up the way I read the Bible. I would read a passage that mentioned thanksgiving, and just kind of skim over the concept. I’ve trivialized the word “thanks” so much that it doesn’t stop me when I read it. I don’t think about what it means. I don’t think about what it’s pointing to. Sometimes I don’t even think about it.

If you’ve been on this site much, you know that I tend to geek out on word definitions, how often they’re used in the Bible, and so on. But what popped into my mind to write this Thanksgiving week?

A Buzzfeed-style post with a working title of “25 convicting Bible verses on thanksgiving.”

Come on, Jeffrey. Thankfulness is a big deal in the Bible. In fact, it’s one of the few specific things that we’re told is God’s will for us (1 Th 5:18). (Aside: I’ll probably still write that list, but it shows just how I tend to remote in on this concept.)

Sheesh. I need a refresher. Maybe you do, too.

Definitions of thanksgiving in the Bible

So what does it mean to give thanks?

Several Greek and Hebrew words are translated “thanks” and “thanksgiving” in the Bible, but here are the big two.

Hebrew: ydh

This is the main word for thanks in the Old Testament. The concept of thanks comes up 102 times in the Old Testament, and this word is used 72 of those times. Here’s the definition:

Acknowledging what is right about God in praise and thanksgiving (1 Chr. 16:34). It can also mean a right acknowledgment of self before God in confessing sin (Lev. 26:40)[1]

 

Greek: eucharisteo

Thankfulness comes up 71 times in the New Testament, and most of those instances are this word, or related to this word. The definition:

To show oneself grateful, to be thankful, to give thanks […] used in a religious sense with or without reference to God.[2]

My liturgical friends will recognize the word “Eucharist” in this definition. This term comes from Jesus’ giving thanks before eating his last supper with the apostles (1 Co 11:24).

What that means for us

One thing I love about the Hebrew definition of thanks: it’s totally tied to who God is. The more we learn about God, the more we should praise and glorify Him.

The Psalmist repeatedly calls us to give thanks to the Lord for two things: His lovingkindness, and for his miracles among men (Ps 107:1, 8, 15, 21).

This isn’t just a polite “thanks” for when something good happens. This is an outpouring of praise to God for who he is and what he has done.

How do we give thanks?

I suppose all this talk of definitions is only helpful if we have a good means of applying it. I could list off a few ways to be intentionally thankful, but the psalmist does this a lot better than I ever could:

 

Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth.
Serve the LORD with gladness;
Come before Him with joyful singing.
Know that the LORD Himself is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.
Enter His gates with thanksgiving
And His courts with praise.
Give thanks to Him, bless His name.
For the LORD is good;
His lovingkindness is everlasting
And His faithfulness to all generations.

(Psalm 100)

And in case you’re wondering: that background image (and all the Greek and Hebrew study) is pulled from Logos Bible Software 6.

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[1] Warren Baker and Eugene E. Carpenter, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2003), 419.

[2] Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000).