by Jim Estep
We often relegate the notion of “thanksgiving” to a day on the calendar, one specific time that we pause and take an account of God’s blessings. But in the Old Testament, thanksgiving was regular and even habitual. The Hebrews cultivated a spirit of thanksgiving throughout their history. In fact, one whole category of the book Psalms is thanksgiving, (107-150 are replete with the theme), recounting the blessings of God to the Jewish people.
Nehemiah was a man of thanksgiving. Jerusalem had been destroyed by Babylon in 586BC, and after 70 years away, the Hebrews’ release from exile must have been greeted with unrestrained enthusiasm. But it would also pose great challenges. Nehemiah was a leader who was given the task of overcoming some of the greatest of these challenges; in the midst of them, thanksgiving to God was always present in his life and work.
Nehemiah 12 mentions “thanksgiving” four times as he recounts and engages God’s calling on his life. First, he gives thanks for the return. Nehemiah was the leader of the third group to return from exile, and verse 8 highlights the songs of thanksgiving for those who were now able to return to their homeland, Judah, after generations away. They felt profound thanks to God for being home.
Next, he remembers their history, singing of them as well. Verse 24 even speaks of responsive singing between two groups, “as prescribed by David the man of God.” Later in the text (verse 46) he recalls, “For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph …” Thanksgiving is part of remembering the past, embracing it, continuing its traditions. That was especially true for the Jews, having lost them for 70 years of exile. They were finally free to reclaim them.
Third, thanksgiving is given specifically because of the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. Having been destroyed decades before, the daunting task of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem was completed in just 52 days (Nehemiah 6:15). Later in the book it was time to dedicate them to God with thanksgiving. Nehemiah 12:27 says the Levites dedicated the walls “with songs of thanksgiving,” acknowledging God’s provision.
As we lead God’s people, thanksgiving has to be a perpetual practice for us. (Yes, we even go beyond the occasional inclusion of “Blessed Assurance” and “Count Your Blessings” during worship!) Let’s lead the church to times of deep thanksgiving: returning to the foundations of our faith, helping our brothers and sisters remember our heritage, and always pointing them toward building a future that is stronger and healthier than ever before. Amen!