A Different Thanksgiving Story
By Bryan Crotts
Most of us are familiar with the story of the Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower from England to the New World. Perhaps you’ve visited Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, the place where many believe the survivors of the voyage stepped from vessel to land. I suppose you’ve read in the history books of the first Thanksgiving or watched the perennial classic Peanut’s A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.
There’s an earlier thanksgiving story that we read about in the Scriptures. It’s found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and takes place two thousand years before the first meal so familiar to many Americans. In this story, you will find a group of pilgrims who take a treacherous journey to a land where they hoped to establish a life of worship to their God.
Israel faced exile by God in the 8th and 7th centuries before Christ (B.C.). This was their promised punishment for not living in the Promised Land according to His laws and commands. Most exiles were carried off to Assyria, however, the little kingdom of Judah was carried off to Babylon. The stories of Daniel and Esther tell us about life in a foreign land. Psalms 44, 123, and 137 give us a sense of the emotions of life away from home, temple, and the presence of God. The prophet Jeremiah ministered to the exiles, instructing Israel how to live for God in a strange land.
From 537 B.C. until around 400 B.C., various groups of God’s people trekked hundreds of miles home with their children, belongings, and goods for re-establishing worship in Jerusalem. As differing groups arrived in the Holy City over time, they spent nearly one hundred fifty years building, repairing, establishing, and fighting. Surrounding enemies did not want Jerusalem to be rebuilt (see Ezra 4-6). Some Israelites had spiritual difficulty doing the Lord’s work (read Haggai). Long stretches of inactivity in repairing the ruined city would seem to dampen their resolve. With God’s strength and several good leaders as governor Nehemiah, the city, temple, homes, and walls were all rebuilt.
All was not well, though, in the much smaller Judea and Jerusalem. The people were still sinning against God, and in some cases, in the same ways that brought on their banishment from the land before (see Lamentations). Ezra, the priest and scribe, taught the people God’s ways from the books of the Bible that were available at that point in history. God’s spirit moved and a renewal took place. The people willingly repented, dedicated themselves to serve God, and soon had the city and temple up and running.
All of this from redeemed hearts! They showed their thanksgiving to God with a massive processional around the city walls that ended in the temple for worship. Nehemiah chapter twelve says that they made sacrificial offerings to God, “for God had made them rejoice with great joy…and the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away.”
Psalm 147 tells us why they gave thanks to God. It was because they were grateful for their God’s power, provision, and people. God’s power had overcome their enemies, had given them rich provision from creation, and formed a worshipping people in Jerusalem. Life and worship were good!
We are living in difficult times spiritually, morally, and economically. So have God’s people before us – the Pilgrims and the Israelites. Take some time to reflect on God’s character, actions, and promises. On turkey day, and especially on the next Lord’s Day, take some time to follow the call of Psalm 147:7 and “sing to the LORD with thanksgiving!”