— Psalm 103:2
As we look about us on our national day of thanksgiving and survey even briefly the innumerable blessings that we as Americans enjoy on a day-to-day basis, we cannot help being struck with awe and with gratitude to God for His bountiful goodness! If only we could maintain throughout the year the same level of appreciation for His unwavering kindness that we feel and express on one special Thanksgiving Day! To be sure, if Americans lack anything at all of a temporal nature, it is not so much the “concrete” things which so often first come to mind — food, drink, housing, employment, health (and health care), etc. — but it is the “abstract” sense of gratitude that is so apparently lacking in our society! The word “please” has almost disappeared from the national vocabulary (particularly among young people), and a civil “thank you” is just as rare. We who are parents sometimes have to “hound” our kids about simple telephone manners (which may or may not apply as well to “texting”) and about the Godpleasing virtue of expressing thanks to those who have done something for them, even something little like taking a message, giving them the right change after a purchase, or providing them a ride home after school or work. And we adults aren’t much better at expressing simple gratitude to those who go out of their way to be of kindness and service to us! Yes, even we Christians (who surely know better and ought to show better in our lives as God’s adopted children) —even we, because of our sinful flesh, take so much for granted from one another— but, much worse, also from the Lord and His gracious hand!
Ingratitude is a grievous sin against God —a sin born of the same pride and fleshly arrogance as is damning unbelief! Yes, it is sinful pride that rejects God’s saving grace in Christ Jesus as the only cause of man’s salvation; and it is the same pride that produces ingratitude and causes a person to credit himself with his successes and his riches, saying: “MY power and the might of MINE hand hath gotten me this wealth!” (Deuteronomy 8:17). It is a sin for which we must constantly, every day, turn to the Lord in true repentance, and confess with Jacob of old: “I am NOT worthy of the LEAST of all the mercies and of all the truth which Thou hast showed unto Thy servant” (Genesis 32:10. —And the fruit of such repentance, the evidence that we really mean what we say in such a confession, is that we give credit where credit is due, and that we thank and bless the Name of our gracious and merciful God for everything we have. —It is this very fruit of true repentance to which the Psalmist David exhorts us, saying:
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits!”
Writing as I am chiefly to professing Christians and to brethren in the faith who know of their duty, in view of God’s fatherly, divine goodness and mercy toward them, “to thank and praise, to serve and obey Him” (Luther, First Article) in accordance with His Word, I will not dwell in this article upon this duty and high privilege as such, but rather upon the REASONS WHY we Christians should live in constant gratitude to God and show forth that gratitude in thankful prayers and praises.
It is the Lord “who forgiveth all thine iniquities,” David reminds us in verse three of this well-known Thanksgiving text on which our pastors have often preached. Note the order in which the beloved Psalmist lists these reasons by inspiration of the Holy Spirit! Indeed, the first and foremost blessing we have from the Lord is the full and free forgiveness of all our sins for Jesus’ sake. These are the misdeeds, iniquities, and transgressions against His holy Law by which we have earned for ourselves the very opposite of His forgiveness, namely, punishment, wrath, and just retribution in the fires of hell forever! “For the wages of sin is death,” the Bible tells us. Yet, for Jesus’ sake (who Himself paid those wages for us with His innocent suffering and death on the cross), God gives us freely, as His BEST “benefit,” forgiveness of sins —a benefit that we, poor impotent human beings, could never merit for ourselves, and a benefit that no one else, living or dead, can merit for us, no matter how much effort is expended, good works are done, prayers are offered, or sacrifices made! Speaking of man’s ill-directed attempts at satisfying God for the sins of others (as is done chiefly by the Romanists in prayers for the dead and sacrifices on their behalf), the Psalmist says: “None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him; for the redemption of their soul is precious” (49:7-8)
No wonder then that David points out our complete unworthiness of this best-of-all benefits, the forgiveness of sins, and exhorts himself and us: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not,” as he says later on in this same psalm, that “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy…. He hath not dealt with us after our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities; for as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward them that fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us” (vv. 8, 10-12). Oh, how that benefit ALONE should cause us without ceasing to “bless the Lord” —to sing praises to His Name and to thank Him humbly and unceasingly for His undeserved kindness to poor, miserable sinners like you and me!
But now the Psalmist continues that it is the Lord “who healeth all thy diseases.” This clause is frequently understood as referring to the Lord’s gracious hand in healing our physical diseases and relieving our physical infirmities. There is, of course, no question about the fact that the Lord does heal the diseases which often ravage our bodies, that He does grant His blessing upon the efforts of doctors and surgeons who minister to our physical ills, and that He does work, very often in mysterious ways, to turn the tide of potentially fatal illnesses contrary to the expectations of so-called “health care professionals” and thus to do, especially for His believing children, “exceeding abundantly above all that [they] ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). And so, we Christians are directed to “call upon [the Lord] in the day of trouble” (Psalm 50:15), to offer up “prayer for the sick” (James 5:14), and confidently to cast all our illnesses and weaknesses upon Him who can lay His loving hand upon us and we shall recover —if it be His will to heal us, as Jesus amply demonstrated in His many miracles (Cf. Matthew 8:2; Luke 5:12). —Nevertheless, we must keep in mind that the Lord does not heal ALL of our physical illnesses, nor does He in every case relieve us of our pain, or grant success to our surgery, or shrink our tumors, or get emergency aid to our side “in time” to re-start our fibrillating or arrested heart. Indeed, sometimes, for our own good and ultimate blessing, He permits us to succumb to an illness, to contract a terminal disease, or to die on the operating table. Thus, although He is “able” (Ephesians 3:20; cf. Luke 1:37; Matthew 19:26) to do so, the Lord does not “heal all [our physical] diseases,” but He does turn them all into good for His believing children according to His gracious promises (Romans 8:28).
The diseases that the Lord always heals for us are our spiritual diseases, caused by sin and relieved by the forgiveness of sins, diseases brought on by the rejection of God’s grace and healed by His Holy Spirit through the means of His grace. What are some of these “diseases”? How about spiritual malnutrition, spiritual weakness, lack of spiritual stamina, spiritual depression, spiritual unfruitfulness, spiritual anorexia, spiritual cowardice, spiritual self-confidence, spiritual indifference, and so on. Thank God, I say, that through His precious Word and Sacraments, preserved to us in their purity in “the place where [His] honor dwelleth,” the Lord graciously “healeth all (our) diseases” so that we can cheerfully sing with the hymnwriter as we dig diligently and, above all, confidently into the Savior’s own medicine chest:
“Just as I am, poor, wretched blind,
sight, riches, healing of the mind,
yea, all I need in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come!”
The same is He, David reminds us, “who redeemeth thy life from destruction” —according to the Hebrew of the Old Testament a reference primarily to our deliverance from the “pit” of hell! Only the Lord Himself is able to grant this unspeakably great benefit to you and to me, even as He already granted it objectively for Jesus’ sake to all the world, “not imputing their trespasses unto them” (II Corinthians 5:19), so that the pit of hell is still intended for those for whom it was originally “prepared,” namely, for “the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). Thus, by faith in the Savior, we can confidently declare with Paul: “The Lord shall deliver me from every evil work and will preserve me unto His heavenly kingdom” (II Timothy 4:18). Therefore, as we are still in this old sinful world, subject to the attacks of the devil and the snares he has set to bring us down into that “pit,” let us thank our gracious God particularly for this great “benefit” and gratefully, diligently, and faithfully wield the “Sword” He has provided us in His precious Word (Ephesians 6:17b) to fend off our vicious “adversary” (I Peter 5:8), to overcome his temptations, and to obtain the ultimate victory — having our life “redeemed from destruction” for Jesus’ sake, who crushed the serpent’s head and defeated him in order to “deliver them who though fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:15).
But now the Psalmist continues: “[He] crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies” —the very opposite of what the devil has in store for us. Not only has the Lord, for the sake of Jesus’ redemptive work, reconciled us unto Himself and prepared for us a “crown” of everlasting life in heaven, but He has even “crowned” our life here on earth with “lovingkindness and tender mercies,” so that we, as His children, need never worry or fret about our temporal needs. In fact, when we seek His Kingdom first in our lives and make Him, His blessed Word, and His precious Church, yea, all of God’s spiritual blessings, the top priority in ALL our considerations, we have Jesus’ own ironclad promise also of necessary temporal blessings for our body and life here in this world, ALL of which, He says, “shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). By whom?? By Him! He it is who “crowneth [us] with lovingkindness and tender mercies,” not because WE are good, but because “HE is good, because His mercy endureth forever!” (Psalm 118:1).
Finally, it is the Lord “who satisfieth thy mouth with good things, so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” While this statement sounds at first like a reference to our “daily bread,” we see upon closer examination a much deeper meaning. The Psalmist is speaking particularly of the Christian’s gratitude for a benefit that “renews [his] youth like the eagle’s.” This is not a promise that God will reverse the temporal aging process that is the result of sin in the world and restore us all to the vigor of youth. The image here is of an eagle that has gone through the molting process —dropping worn and broken feathers to acquire new and stronger ones— an image that pictures a rejuvenation of grace and spiritual renewal brought about by the Lord Jesus Himself as He nourishes us Christians on Himself, the “Bread of Life” (John 6:35), through the spiritual manna of His Word (cf. Matthew 4:4). As “new creature[s]” (II Corinthians 5:17) we “put off” (like a soiled garment —or a plumage of worn and shabby feathers) the Old Man of sin and corruption; and we “put on the New Man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:22, 24). THIS is the Holy Spirit’s gift or “benefit” of sanctification, to which Isaiah also refers in his 40th chapter, saying: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint” (v. 31).
By God’s grace, we, beloved brethren, have the spiritual food and drink we need for just such rejuvenation in His precious Word and Sacrament, the sweet and appetizing and perfectly nourishing food that “satisfieth [our] mouth with good things” and gives us the agility, endurance, and tenacity to “fight the good fight of faith [and to] lay hold on eternal life” (I Timothy 6:12) with the claws of rejuvenated eagles. The question is: Do we really appreciate it? Does its sweet taste (I Peter 2:3) still appeal to our spiritual senses, or have we perhaps become somewhat “fed up” with it (cf. Numbers 21:5b)? Are we feasting upon it or just nibbling at the crumbs? Is it satisfying our Christian appetite for those truly “good things” which we so desperately need to nourish our faith? —Let’s face it: We spend hour upon hour each day and passing week “labor[ing] for the meat which perisheth” (John 6:27), including even many luxuries that we don’t even NEED to support our body and life. What about the all-important spiritual meat for the nourishment of our immortal souls?? How much time do we dedicate to THAT?? “Forget not all His benefits,” the Psalmist reminds us; for without those precious benefits for our souls, we keep from ourselves His blessings and set ourselves on a course that ends up in the “pit” of destruction!
May we, not only on our annual Thanksgiving Day but every day of our lives, stop for sober reflection upon all the Lord’s special benefits toward us; and, as we gratefully enjoy the many things that our heavenly Father has richly and daily provided us for the support of our body and life (Luther, First Article); let us behold those bounties with eyes of spiritual sight, recognizing them to be only passing symbols of the greater blessings which our heavenly Father for Jesus’ sake has bestowed upon us in such abundance at the banquet table of His Son! —And, as we remember to thank Him for the food for our bodies set before us so sumptuously on Thanksgiving Day and on the other festive days of the holiday season, let us not “forget” all those priceless spiritual “benefits” which we enjoy richly and daily at His gracious hand. Let us thank Him very especially for THEM, and then show forth our sincere gratitude by treasuring them and by using them to His glory and to our own eternal welfare, looking for and hastening unto the perfect and enduring thanksgiving that we will be privileged to render in heaven for Jesus’ sake!
— D. T. M.