For many Christians (especially in the U.S.), thanksgiving means either a quick prayer before a meal or the fourth Thursday in November. But for the Israelites in Nehemiah’s day, giving thanks was a serious endeavor.
Completing Hard Tasks
When some of the Jewish people were sent back to a decimated Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, they faced a steep challenge. They needed to rebuild the temple, the city walls, and the city itself. The tasks themselves were difficult, but they were made more so by enemies who lied about, threatened, and attacked the people. (These stories can be found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.)
But God was still with his people, after all these years! He protected them, strengthened them, and provided for them over and over and over again. So, when the wall was finished and ready to be dedicated, it was time to give God proper thanks.
To prepare for the dedication ceremony, the first order of business was to call all the Levites and singers back to the city (Neh 12:27–29). The Levites were the assistants and managers of the temple, and for this occasion they were needed for their musical abilities. This was to be a worship service, so the Levites and priests purified themselves, the people, the gates, and the wall (Neh 12:30).
The procession to the dedication service was a bit unusual. Nehemiah appointed “two great choirs that gave thanks” (Neh 12:31). It seems these choirs were created just for this purpose, which says a lot about the importance of their work! These choirs were part of a split march around the walls of Jerusalem—half in one direction, half in the other (Neh 12:32–39). Since the ceremony was explicitly for the purpose of thanking God for the walls, this unorthodox march makes sense. It was as if the people were saying along their walk, “We thank you, God, for these very walls.”
The destination of this procession was “the house of God” (Neh 12:40). This was the only logical location for a service designed to worship God and give thanks to him. And their gathering was overflowing with joy.
And they offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy; the women and children also rejoiced. And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away. (Neh 12:43)
The way that modern Christians give thanks to God looks weak and miniscule in comparison to this gathering in Nehemiah. To be fair, this was a singular, enormous accomplishment that the people of God were celebrating. Completing the temple and the wall of the city allowed them to regain some of the identity they had lost in the exile: they could now worship God again in the place where he desired, and they could do so with some larger measure of physical safety. Our day-to-day giving thanks doesn’t need to look like this once-in-a-generation celebration in Nehemiah.
However, we really have swung in the opposite direction, haven’t we? We might offer up a few words of thanks to God when we pray, but we usually spend most of our time in supplication. We focus on what we want God to do rather than what he has already done.
But these are connected! We can trust that God hears our requests and will answer both because he has promised this in his Word and because he has always done this for his people—including us!
It is good and necessary for us to cultivate a thankful spirit, both individually and as a community. Giving thanks regularly reminds us that we receive all that we have, not because we have earned or deserved it, but because God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Meditating on God’s provision for us gives us a natural connection to the saving work of Jesus.