Bible Study | November 15, 2018

Practice Thanksgiving

In the US, many of us celebrate Thanksgiving by spending time with family and friends around a common meal. We may talk about gratitude. We may feel thankful as we sit around the table, even if we don’t express our feeling of gratitude aloud. But why should we isolate our formal thanksgiving to one day of the year? How might we make thanksgiving an ongoing practice that is both personal and public? Do we thank God through both deeds and words?

As we consider ways to practice thanksgiving, an often-overlooked resource is the book of Psalms. Eugene Peterson describes the Psalms as “prayers that train us in prayer,” and his book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer explores the Psalter’s spirituality. We likely all experience moments of spontaneous thanksgiving, but a life of praise is a spiritual discipline that needs to be practiced on a regular basis.

This Bible study focuses on Psalm 146, a hymn that provides reasons for expressing gratitude to God. Psalm 146 praises the God who protects the vulnerable. In the book of Ruth, we consider ways in which the characters of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz illustrate aspects of Psalm 146.

Whom shall we trust?

Psalm 146 opens (verses 1-4) with a call to praise God. Each of the last five psalms in the Psalter begins and ends with the two-word Hebrew phrase hallelu-jah, “praise the Lord.”

This psalm advises us to trust God, not human rulers, because God remains long after human rulers perish along with their plans. Elsewhere in the Bible, we find descriptions of how leaders should rule, so the Bible as a whole does not advocate against human political and social structures. It does, however, insist that God should be the ultimate source of our hope and trust.

The section with verses 5-10 begins with a beatitude, a saying that names a situation in which humans experience God’s favor. We often associate beatitudes with the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5, but beatitudes occur throughout the Scriptures, in both Old and New Testaments. Beatitudes usually begin with the word “blessed” (NIV), or “happy” (NRSV). In verse 5, the one who is called “blessed,” or “happy,” is the one whose source of help and hope is the Lord God. In the Psalms, the word “help” (Hebrew ‘ezer) frequently refers to the aid God provides in especially needy times.

According to the psalmist, we should be happy that God is our help and hope, first of all because God has created everything we know and, secondly, because we can always trust God, who “remains faithful forever.” The psalmist goes on to describe ways in which God is both help and hope, especially for those who are the most at risk in society. God acts on behalf of those who are oppressed, hungry, imprisoned, blind, and bowed down. In other words, God supports those who are economically and socially disadvantaged.

In the first half of verse 9, the psalmist proclaims the following:
The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow (NIV).

“Foreigners, fatherless, and widows” are those individuals who in ancient Israel might have struggled because they lacked a supportive social, or family, system. The term “foreigner” in this verse translates the Hebrew word ger, which actually refers to a subset of foreigner. The ger was a foreigner who settled in the land for a length of time. Some English versions refer to these people as “sojourners,” while others call them “resident aliens.”

Near the end of this list we learn that “the Lord loves the righteous” (v. 8). At first, this may seem out of place among the other groups, who are disadvantaged in some way, but in the Psalms, “the righteous” also need God’s protection and support. I don’t hear many people use the terms “righteous” and “wicked” today. I suspect that the term “righteous” has become equated with “self-righteousness,” an attitude of superiority that assumes that everything I do is right. Consequently, self-righteous individuals judge all other people according to their own criteria of right and wrong. By contrast, the term “righteous” (tsaddiq) as it is used in the Psalms refers to persons who rely upon God. In the Psalms, individuals do not claim to be righteous or speak self-righteously about a presumed superior status.

The “wicked” seek ways to put themselves forward and in doing so take advantage of others whenever it furthers their own goals. Because the righteous rely upon God and strive to follow God’s teachings in their daily lives, they expose themselves to the predatory behaviors of the wicked, who seek their own success.

Vulnerability and the righteous

The book of Ruth presents a narrative about two widows, Ruth and Naomi, who struggle to survive after the deaths of their husbands. As a Moabite widow living as a foreigner in Bethlehem, Ruth is doubly vulnerable. In order to eat, Ruth and Naomi rely on the generosity of the well-to-do members of society. Boaz, a distant relative of Naomi’s, models righteous behavior when he leaves behind grain in the field for the needy to collect, rather than furthering his own economic interests by harvesting all of his crops.

In the illustration that accompanies this Bible study, an 1896 watercolor by James Tissot, Ruth looks expectantly to her left as she stands in the field where she and other women glean. The artist focuses our attention on this isolated young woman. Who will help her survive as a widow living in a foreign land? Psalm 146 praises God who sustains widows, such as Ruth and Naomi, and it proclaims God’s love for righteous individuals who, like Boaz, enact their gratitude to God by providing food for the hungry.

As Diana Butler Bass observes in her book Grateful, “gratitude is inherently social; it always connects us as individuals to others.” In Psalm 146, God loves the righteous, not because they are superior to other members of society, but because they recognize their dependence upon God. This recognition calls forth both verbal expressions of thanksgiving to God and recognition of a shared humanity.

When we make time to express gratitude to God, do we thank God only for what we ourselves have received? Or, as Psalm 146 models, do we also praise God for upholding the cause of the oppressed, for watching over sojourners, and for sustaining all those in vulnerable social situations? Like Boaz, do we demonstrate our grateful reliance upon God through our actions, in which we, too, stand on the side of vulnerable individuals in our communities?

Recommended reading

Diana Butler Bass, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks (HarperOne, 2018). Bass describes gratitude in both our personal lives and our corporate life.

Eugene H. Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (HarperOne, 1991). Peterson explores the Psalms as a resource for personal prayer.

John D. Witvliet, The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship (Eerdmans, 2007). Witvliet provides practical ways to incorporate the Psalms into corporate worship.

Christina Bucher is professor of religion at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College.