Thanksgiving in the Old Testament

Title: Thanksgiving in the Old Testament

Text: Exodus 15:1-18

Time: November 14th, 2010

We are just a couple of weeks away from Thanksgiving, and so I’d like to take a few weeks to speak about giving thanks to God: one week from the Old Testament and the second week from the New Testament. This week I’ll speak from the Old Testament passage Exodus 15:1-18, where Moses and Israel gives thanks to God for defeating Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea (read). Imagine the excitement those Jews must have felt during the Exodus. They had just been freed from slavery out of Egypt. Now they had just escaped a surprise attack by the Egyptians in one last-ditch effort by Pharaoh to bring them back into slavery in Egypt – or kill them in the desert! God had done a mighty miracle by allowing them to cross over the water on dry land, then just as Pharaoh’s army was about to catch up to them, the water closed in around the soldiers and wiped out the whole force. Image the joy, excitement and thanksgiving the Israelites had at that time. As we think of Thanksgiving holiday this year, let’s think back about those ancient Jewish people and let’s look at how they celebrated blessings and victories. It’s a lot different than most people celebrate good things today. I’ll point out three important observations I see in this passage in Exodus. First, their response was God-centered. We live in a secular society that usually leaves God out of things when good things happen. We have the secular habit of thanking ourselves or thanking luck or celebrating good fortune or congratulating ourselves. For example in New Orleans a few years after Hurricane Katrina, the politicians go there and thank the “spirit of the people of New Orleans,” or the “American can-do attitude” or some such human element. But the Jews instinctively thanked God first. We’ll talk more about that. Second observation – the passage talks about how the pagan nations boast about their own strength and ability, giving thanks to themselves, like I’ve already mentioned. But the song Israel sang actually mentions how the pagans falsely give themselves credit for good things that happen. The pagans still do that, even modern pagans who look civilized. And then, finally a third observation, only the biblical God is worthy of thanks and praise. There are many religions in the world, many false gods, and none of them deserves any praise or thanks. All gods are not the same. In fact, there is no other God other than God. But there is a lot of confusion today over the nature of religion and God. People are under the false impression that all religions are the same, only different words and ideas are used by different people. But that’s false. There is only one God, according to the Bible, and all other so-called gods are false deities. People may say, “Praise Allah” or “Thank the Buddha” or “Hail Krishna” or something else, but according to the Bible there is no other God other than God. The only proper praise and thanks goes to the true God, the God of the Bible, the Christian God. So this Thanksgiving season let’s focus on the true and living God and renew our thanks and praise to him. Do you thank God for every blessing you receive? It’s easy to forget to thank the Lord when something good happens. Some people don’t think of thanking God at all, they just receive the blessing and say, “Good, that worked out nice,” instead of saying, “Thanks God, you are so good.” I hope as we think about God this Thanksgiving, we’ll be careful to give our God thanks for his blessings in our lives. Let’s turn to Exodus 15 and learn more.

First, the Jews had a God-centered response to blessings. Exodus 15:1-8, “I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song, he has become my salvation. He is my God and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he has hurled into the sea. The best of Pharaoh’s officers are drowned in the Red Sea. The deep waters have covered them, they sank to the depths like a stone. Your right hand, O Lord, was majestic in power. Your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy. In the greatness of your majesty you threw down those who opposed you. You unleashed your burning anger, it consumed them like stubble. By the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up. The surging waters stood firm like a wall; the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea.” Notice how everything is God-centered, not man-centered like we hear today. That’s because the Jews were a God-centered people. Now that doesn’t mean they always acted like it or they were always consistent with it, because as we’ll see later in the Book of Exodus, they can turn aside from God at Mount Sinai and rebel against the Lord. But at this point, after all the many miracles they had seen, they were very God-centered, or as theologians say, “Theo-centric,” God-centered. The song is all about the Lord – he did this, he did that. Look at verse two, “The Lord is my strength and my song, he has become my salvation.” Is that the way you talk, is that the way I talk? It should be. It’s God-centered. God is our strength, God is our song, he is our salvation. Now the salvation the Jews are speaking of is their deliverance from Egypt and there rescue from Pharaoh’s army, but in our case today, it can be a reference to our ultimate salvation in heaven, or we can apply it to particular instances in life we face where God gets us out of trouble. I recall hearing the news this week of a cruise ship that broke down far out at sea. The people were stranded out there until some other boats came out to rescue it. The people on the ship had to go without food – except for Spam, and they had to go without running water and other essential things of life. They were rescued and pulled back into shore; they arrived back just the other day and you can bet they were thankful to be rescued! But how many were thanking God? How many were giving God the credit? A typical modern person was thanking the emergency services or the Coast Guard or some human agency, but how many persons were thanking God Almighty? What about you in life? When something turns out right, when things go good – and things do turn out right although it’s easier to remember and recall the things that don’t work out right – but when things go right, when a blessing comes your way do you take the time to thank God first, or just thank your lucky stars? According to the Bible we are to thank God first and foremost. Remember the Doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below, praise him all above thee heavenly hosts, praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” We need to learn to be God-centered and thank God for all blessings. We can learn from the Jews in this instance.

Second, unbelievers typically focus on themselves when things go right. Exodus 15:9-10, “The enemy boasted, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake them, I will divide the spoils; I will gorge myself on them. I will draw my sword and my hand will destroy them.’ But you blew with your breath, and the sea covered them. They sank like lead in the mighty waters.” Notice the “I,” “I,” “I,” references – that’s an indication of self-centeredness. But that’s the typical response when things go well for pagans, ancient and modern. When things are going well, people tend to look to their own ability, intelligence and whit. They tend to boast about themselves to others. Look at verse nine, “The enemy boasted, I will pursue, I will overtake them, I will divide the spoils, I will gorge myself on them. I will draw my sword and my had will destroy them.” That’s how Pharaoh and his army reasoned. They were typical pagans. It’s all about them, not much about God. Now you would have thought they might have learned a thing or two about the real God, the God of the Jews, because after all God had just given them a shellacking – you might say. The mighty miracles that God performed at the hand of Moses had left the nation of Egypt in shambles and had humbled the rulers including Pharaoh. But after the Jews left Pharaoh had a change of heart and pride welled up within him enough to go after the Jews to either bring them back into slavery or kill them, one or the other. But he is a good example of human pride in connection to God. God had clearly shown him the power of divine miracles yet still he persisted in pride, self-centeredness and human effort. That’s like our nation today. God has so blessed this country over the years. He permitted us to carve out of a nation from the wilderness. He allowed us to stay together even after a bloody civil war, so you might imagine that people today would be grateful to God, openly and strongly. But no. This thanksgiving will be marked mostly be celebrating, but not thanksgiving to God. Some schools even teach the children that Thanksgiving is a holiday that commemorates our thanksgiving to the Indians for helping the early Americans survive those first few years in the New World. No. The actual first thanksgiving was a celebration to God for His assistance in establishing a settlement. The feast included the Indians who had helped but it wasn’t to the Indians, it was to God. Thanksgiving is thanks to God not just a general thanks to anyone and anything that helped the early Americans survive. Yet today, the God part is downplayed or even non-existent in society today. But let’s not go that route as Christians. Let’s celebrate and thank God this Thanksgiving. Let’s not celebrate our own ability and ingenuity. Like Israel, let’s keep the focus on God, not ourselves. Let’s reject the pagan approach, like we see in Pharaoh that is all about self. Let’s give glory and praise and thanks to God to whom it belongs. What does your life look like? Do you follow the pagan practice of patting yourself on the back after things work out? Or do you practice the Christian way of giving thanks first to God? Every Thanksgiving we are reminded again to center our thanks on God.

Third, only the biblical God is worthy of thanks and praise. Exodus 15:11-18, “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders? You stretched out your right hand and the earth swallowed them. In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling. The nations will hear and tremble; anguish will grip the people of Philistia. The chiefs of Edom will be terrified, the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling, the people of Canaan will melt away; terror and dread will fall upon them. By the power of your arm they will be as still as a stone – until your people pass by, O Lord, until the people you bought pass by. You will bring them in and plant them on the mountain of your inheritance – the place, O Lord, you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary O Lord your hands established. The Lord will reign for ever and ever.” Now we have to acknowledge that there was more general faith in a general god in ancient times then there is today. Pagans back them generally respected the Deity or deities that they worshiped in ignorance, and we should respect them in their faith, even though it was misplaced and done from a perspective of being uninformed. But still, as sincere as ancient people may have been, they were worshipping the wrong God. They were praying to the wrong God. The Egyptians, for example, were not atheists; they prayed, just to the wrong God. People today pray to the wrong God. In fact, most people on the planet earth still pray to the wrong God. That’s sad isn’t it? That’s why we must pray for missionaries and their mission work to bring the true gospel to the ends of the earth, so people don’t have to pray to the wrong God. But what’s sad here in the United States is that people do have the right God but don’t pray to him or give him thanks. I hope you aren’t one of many Americans who have the right God but just don’t pray to him or thank him much. The Muslim people are known for their prayers. The men gather together every day in these Mosques in large cities and take off their shoes – I hope they have good ventilation systems in those Mosques or else it probably gets pretty smelly in there. But they bow down for times of prayer. That’s impressive. But the problem is they are worshipping and thanking the wrong God. The false cult groups that are out and about in our country like the JW’s and Mormons, they are very devout and very pious, yet, again, they worship the wrong God. It’s not enough to pray, it’s not enough to give thanks, we have to make sure we are thanking the right God. Are you praying to the right God? The true and living God sent his Son Jesus to die on a cross for your sins and rise again to give us eternal life. Is that the God you worship? I pray that it is. And I also hope that you take time every day to count your blessings and give thanks to God. Don’t neglect it because that’s taking God for granted, and that’s bad. No. Let’s be reminded this Thanksgiving season to give thanks and praise to God. Do it daily. Do it often. Develop a God-centered life. Amen.

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