It frequently works out that I get to preach right around Thanksgiving, which is something that I enjoy. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year, and I like getting to call attention to our collective need to stop, reflect, and give thanks for what we have. Furthermore, I especially like to preach about Thanksgiving using unusual texts that may not be the first that come to mind when we think of thankfulness and gratitude. The following is an edited version of my Thanksgiving sermon for this year.
As I have written before, I believe that the Bible is a literary masterpiece and that we read it better and more faithfully when we pay close attention to the ways that certain stories are told and the techniques that are used. In keeping with that idea, I want to look at three seemingly random stories from the Old Testament, see how they connect with one another, and then see what we can glean about the idea of gratitude.
The first story comes from the Book of Judges, and is the narrative surrounding a civil war that happens during this lawless period of time in Israel’s history. For the sake of length, I’m not going to include all of this text, but it is a very graphic story, and to me, this may be the darkest, worst chapters in all of Scripture.
To quickly summarize, there has been a civil war between the tribe of Benjamin and rest of the tribes of Israel. A city in the land of Benjamin had acted very wickedly, their Benjamite cousins refused to punish them, and as a result, the rest of Israel engages in a bloody civil war with them.
The tribe of Benjamin is greatly outnumbered, and they are almost wiped out, down to only 600 men by the end. At this point, the rest of the tribes of Israel, though they have been very angry with Benjamin, suddenly realize that one of the tribes is on the verge of extinction, and this isn’t acceptable to them.
So they talk, and they realize that when it came time for everyone to gather together to fight against the Benjamites, one town from the tribe of Gad—Jabesh-Gilead—didn’t join in the fight. As a result, they decide to punish Jabesh-Gilead: they attack the town, destroy it, and kill all of the inhabitants except for 400 of the young women, and they forcibly give these women to the remaining Benjamites so they can repopulate the tribe (Remember, I told you that these are awful chapters, and this is a very lawless time).
The author of Judges doesn’t try to argue that this is a good thing or that it is what God intended (just the opposite); he just reports what happens.
But here is the key idea: the town of Jabesh-Gilead becomes the means of saving the tribe of Benjamin.
1 Samuel 11
We have to fast forward in time a good bit to get to our next story, which is in 1 Samuel 11. The Book of Judges is not strictly chronological, so it is hard to place Judges 19-21 exactly on a timeline, but based on a few clues in the text, I think we are safe in saying that there are at least a couple hundred years between the events of Judges 19-21 and 1 Samuel 11.
In 1 Samuel 11, we are now out of the period of the Judges, and at the beginning of the united kingdom. Saul was anointed and proclaimed king in 1 Samuel 10, and now in 1 Samuel 11, he faces an early test of his leadership.
Let’s take a look at this text:
 Then Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead, and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treaty with us, and we will serve you.”  But Nahash the Ammonite said to them, “On this condition I will make a treaty with you, that I gouge out all your right eyes, and thus bring disgrace on all Israel.”  The elders of Jabesh said to him, “Give us seven days’ respite that we may send messengers through all the territory of Israel. Then, if there is no one to save us, we will give ourselves up to you.”  When the messengers came to Gibeah of Saul, they reported the matter in the ears of the people, and all the people wept aloud.
So the villain in this story is Nahash the Ammonite, who comes to lay siege to the town of Jabesh-Gilead. Now, remember, it has been a few hundred years, but this is the Jabesh-Gilead that was significantly involved in the salvation of the tribe of Benjamin.
Nahash is too powerful for Jabesh-Gilead, and so they basically sue for peace: “let’s make a treaty together, and we will be your servants.” But Nahash, who kind of seems like a jerk, basically says, “Sure, we can have a treaty, here are my terms: I’m going to gouge out your right eyes and bring shame to the whole country.”
This doesn’t seem like a great offer to the men of Jabesh-Gilead, so they ask for a little time to consider and send urgent requests for help throughout Israel. Some of these messengers come to Saul, the King of Israel, who, by the way, is from the tribe of Benjamin:
 Now, behold, Saul was coming from the field behind the oxen. And Saul said, “What is wrong with the people, that they are weeping?” So they told him the news of the men of Jabesh.  And the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled.  He took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hand of the messengers, saying, “Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!” Then the dread of the LORD fell upon the people, and they came out as one man.  When he mustered them at Bezek, the people of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Judah thirty thousand.  And they said to the messengers who had come, “Thus shall you say to the men of Jabesh-gilead: ‘Tomorrow, by the time the sun is hot, you shall have salvation.’” When the messengers came and told the men of Jabesh, they were glad.  Therefore the men of Jabesh said, “Tomorrow we will give ourselves up to you, and you may do to us whatever seems good to you.”  And the next day Saul put the people in three companies. And they came into the midst of the camp in the morning watch and struck down the Ammonites until the heat of the day. And those who survived were scattered, so that no two of them were left together.
When Saul hears the news, he becomes very angry and promises to deliver the town. He raises an army and goes and defeats the Ammonites. Saul’s rescuing of the town of Jabesh-Gilead serves to cement himself as the King of Israel, and also provides a clue that there is something special about the relationship between the people of Jabesh-Gilead and the tribe of Benjamin.
So, here is the situation:
- Earlier, the town of Jabesh-Gilead was the means of saving the tribe of Benjamin;
- Now, hundreds of years later, Saul, a Benjamite, saves the town of Jabesh-Gilead.
1 Samuel 31
For our final story, we fast forward again, now to the end of Saul’s reign, 40 years later. Saul’s kingship, which had begun with so much promise, has completely unraveled. Because of Saul’s disobedience, God has rejected him as Israel’s king. He is currently waging a war against the Philistines, and it is not going well: three of his sons have been killed in battle (including Jonathan, the friend of David), and Saul takes his own life after being badly wounded by an archer. It’s a devastating defeat for the Israelites, and it gets even worse:
 The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa.  So they cut off his head and stripped off his armor and sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines, to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people.  They put his armor in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.
The Philistines treat the bodies of Saul and his sons dishonorably, cutting off his head, taking his armor off, and using his body as a trophy. The put his armor in a pagan temple, and hang his body on the wall of the city of Beth-shan.
It’s at this point, some 40 years after Saul had rescued them from the Ammonites that the men of Jabesh-Gilead make their appearance in 1 Samuel 31.11-13:
 But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul,  all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there.  And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days.
When the men of Jabesh-Gilead hear what has happened to Saul, they remember the debt of gratitude they owe him, they walk all night into enemy territory, retrieve his body, and bury it honorably.
To recap the three stories:
- First, the town of Jabesh-Gilead was the means of saving the tribe of Benjamin;
- Then, hundreds of years later, Saul, a Benjamite, saves the town of Jabesh-Gilead.
- Now, Jabesh-Gilead treats Saul and his family with kindness and honor.
This connection, between the town of Jabesh-Gilead and the tribe of Benjamin (and Saul in particular), is one that is easy to overlook in Scripture, but once we see it, it’s easy to explain. Arising out of some shady circumstances, Jabesh-Gilead becomes the means of saving the small remnant of the tribe of Benjamin and repopulating it. This is a story that would have been passed on for generations. By the time Saul comes around, even though it had been a couple hundred years, it seems likely that he would have known all about the story of the connection between his tribe and the city of Jabesh-Gilead, and so when the news reaches him that Jabesh-Gilead is in trouble, the debt of gratitude that he owes compels him to act immediately, and he brings deliverance upon the city.
This same connection and the gratitude that is tied up in it explains the actions of the men of Jabesh-Gilead 40 years later. It seems likely that some of the valiant men who made the journey that night to recover Saul’s body weren’t even born yet when Saul had saved their town, but they knew the story, the felt the gratitude, and they were willing to risk their lives to protect Saul’s honor.
In this season of Thanksgiving, as we reflect on these three stories, here is the point that I want to make: gratitude is not a fleeting emotion; it is a practiced habit. It is not a feeling; it is a lifestyle. It is not a sprint; it is a marathon. It is not short; it is long.
Too often, I think we can be guilty of living our lives with a “What have you done for me lately?” attitude toward God, forgetting that God has done everything for us, as the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all things. We live, move, and have our very being through Him.
The repeated theme of Scripture is that God, in His grace, has initiated all sorts of good things toward us, and in response, we are to live a lifestyle of gratitude. Not a short, fleeting emotion, but long gratitude: a practiced habit. A way to live.
A lifestyle of gratitude means that we acknowledge that God first loved us, so in return, we love God and others. God showed grace to us, so we show grace to others. God offers forgiveness to us, so we offer forgiveness to others. God blesses us in so many ways, so we use those blessings to bless others.
Long gratitude is a mindset; it’s not a desperate attempt to pay God back for something that can never be repaid, but it is mindfulness that is constantly aware of what God has done, is doing, and will do in our lives, and a desire to show appreciation for those things by the way we live and treat others.