by Dr. Creig Marlowe
It’s well known that one of the keys to happiness is being thankful. A frequently quoted Bible verse is Psalm 100:4,
Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name. (NIV)
Most US citizens—save those who are turkeys—love and look forward to the Thanksgiving holiday. It has beloved civil and biblical roots and a rich cultural history, not to mention some of our favorite foods. Being thankful is an American and Christian value. Failure to say “thank you” when required is a huge social faux pas in the Western world. Contrary to other instincts, in this case we care more about words than actions. The morality of thankfulness is often bolstered with biblical texts like, “Give thanks to the Eternal because He is always good” (The Voice; a phrase found in a number of the OT psalms). On one occasion King David presented a psalm for thanksgiving to Asaph (1 Chron 16:7). One of the specified sacrifices of the OT is the “thank offering.”
The kicker in all this is that the Hebrew word we translate “thanks” (todah from the verb yadah) likely has a very different meaning—one that has to do with a work more than words. In Psalm 43:4 we read, “I will sing praises to You and play my strings” (The Voice, and the same word “praise” appears in KJV, NIV, NRSV, et al.; and the Greek OT says “I will acknowledge you” [cf. NETS]). The word translated “praise” is yadah. Why not “give thanks”? Is the well-known “thank offering,” therefore, more accurately a “praise offering”? Very likely. In numerous places in the OT todah or yadah is used as the restated term for more common words for “praise” in Hebrew poetic parallel lines or couplets. For example, look back at Psalm 100:4 mentioned at the start of this essay. The word for “thanksgiving” is todah and for “give thanks” is yadah. The noun “praise” in the first line is based on halal (think, Hallelujah, “Praise Yah!”), and the verb in the second line on barak. Yet the parallelism is as follows:
A B C
Enter his gates with thanksgiving //
[A] B’ C’
and [enter] his courts with praise /
C2 D C’2
give thanks to him and praise his name.
Many other similar parallels from the OT could be cited. The strong implication is that the words translated “thanks” are, in such contexts, intended as restatements for praise. But they are not exact synonyms. The sense of todah and yadah is that of “testimony” and “testify.” The psalmist will often imply or vow he will go before the congregation and “praise” (actually “give testimony about”) God’s help or holiness, as in Psalm 42:11 in The Voice, “I will believe and praise [yadah] the One who saves me, my God” (cf. also Pss 6:5; 13:6; 43:4, et al.). In Pss 7:17 and 18:49 and elsewhere, “testimony” (yadah or todah) is parallel with “sing songs [of praise].” Some praise psalms in the OT Psalter represent the poem or song the lamenting psalmist composed to perform, as promised in his distress, as a witness about God’s salvation or reputation (i.e., His Name). Consider Psalm 22:22 in The Voice, “I will speak Your Name to my brothers and sisters when I praise You in the midst of the community.” Psalm 22 actually combines first the lament psalm (22:1-21 + the vow in 22:22) and then a praise song of testimony (22:23-31). More translators need to recognize the sense of these Hebrew words as “testimony.” The application is that the OT Hebrews showed their attitude of gratitude not through words but actions. They did not say “thank you” to God but demonstrated it through public, verbal testimony or witness about God as a reliable rescuer of those who trust him.
Creig Marlowe, PhD, is a faculty member teaching Old Testament and Hebrew at Evangelische Theologische Faculteit in Leuven.