President Abraham Lincoln issued a national Thanksgiving Proclamation in late October of 1864 – seven months before the end of the Civil War. To a nation torn apart in bloodshed and strife, Lincoln spoke these needed words:
“I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do hereby appoint and set apart the last Thursday in November next as a day which I desire to be observed by all my fellow-citizens, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe. And I do further recommend to my fellow-citizens aforesaid that on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications to the Great Disposer of Events for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land which it has pleased Him to assign as a dwelling place for ourselves and for our posterity throughout all generations.”
Lincoln spoke these words in faith, in the middle of a war the likes of which this country had never known – brother against brother, state against state, with a casualty list that reached into every home. In the midst of high turmoil and deep wounds, Lincoln called for the people to offer thanksgiving and praise as a prelude to humbling themselves “in the dust,” pleading in prayer for God to bring union and harmony. Powerful words! And good theology.
The Bible tells us that praise in the mouth of His people is like a sharp sword in their hands: Darkness is cast down in authentic praise. The Bible also tells us that God inhabits the praise of His people – literally, He is “enthroned upon the praises of Israel.” From this verse, Israel’s teachers offered praise as the finest weapon in the arsenal of the saints: As the people of God waited upon Him, trusting and praising, God would dwell among them. Darkness and disunity would flee. One rabbi went so far as to say this: If all Israel would praise God with one voice, at the same time, then at that moment, Messiah would appear! Praise is far more powerful than ever we imagined.
Thanksgiving brings us into a realm beyond normal human sight. Praise prepares our hearts and minds for the needed intervention of God; in it, God changes things, and He also changes us.
Governor Bradford, in his account of the early Puritan settlers, tells of a man who was shipwrecked to a secluded island off the coast of Massachusetts. He spent days crying out to God. The days turned to weeks. Nothing. He confessed his sins, searching his heart in the depths. Nothing. He continued praying, for days and weeks. Nothing. Finally, at wits end, he purposed to spend an entire day in praise. So, he set the day and prepared himself: He would pray no prayer except praise! Thanksgiving. For an entire day he would offer PRAISE for God’s provision and goodness – even without his prayer for rescue being answered. The day for praise and thanksgiving dawned. And there, on the horizon, outlined in the morning sun, stood a ship! Coincidence? I think not.
God instructs us to present our requests and petitions with thanksgiving (Phil. 4:6), and to give thanks in every situation (Eph. 5:20, 1 Thess. 5:18). There is power in praise, to sweep away our despair and open us to the loving Presence of God. There is also power in praise to bring healing: hearts and minds, families and communities. And yes, even a country. Lincoln was right: Thanksgiving and praise is the go-to place for a nation battered and torn. May this Thanksgiving be one of authentic praise, and real repentance, that God might heal our sin-torn land!