Question: "What is the sacrifice of thanksgiving in Psalm 116:17?"

Answer: Psalm 116 is a song of praise and thanksgiving from one whose prayer for help has been answered. The worshiper sings of the Lord’s great deliverance from a profoundly distressing, life-threatening predicament (verses 3–4, 8). In response to the Lord’s goodness, the psalmist vows publicly to bring an offering of sacrifice and praise to the temple: “I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the LORD. I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the LORD, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the LORD!” (Psalm 116:17–19, ESV; see also verses 13–14).

According to the book of Leviticus, there were five main types of sacrifices or offerings:
• the burnt offering (Leviticus 1; 6:8–13; 8:18–21; 16:24)
• the grain offering (Leviticus 2; 6:14–23)
• the peace offering (Leviticus 3; 7:11–34)
• the sin offering (Leviticus 4; 5:1–13; 6:24–30; 8:14–17; 16:3–22)
• the trespass offering (Leviticus 5:14–19; 6:1–7; 7:1–6).

The sacrifice of thanksgiving or “thank offering” falls into the category of peace offerings (Leviticus 7:11–15). It was offered for wondrous occasions of salvation from distress, death, or sickness (Psalm 50:23; 107:21–22; 56:12–13; Amos 4:5). With the sacrifice of thanksgiving for a peace offering, the worshiper was to bring an animal sacrifice (Leviticus 7:15) accompanied by leavened and unleavened bread, wafers and cakes (Leviticus 7:12–13). The priest would share in the meal, being careful to “sacrifice it properly” so it would be acceptable to God, eating “the entire sacrificial animal on the day it is presented” (Leviticus 22:29–30, NLT). The ancient Hebrews understood that God would only accept sacrifices that satisfied His conditions.

It could also be that the psalmist is not referring to an actual sacrifice at all but rather a simple expression of thanksgiving. Hosea 14:2 speaks of offering to God the “fruit of our lips,” and this may be what the author of Psalm 116 has in mind, not a ceremonial sacrifice. In response to God’s merciful salvation, the psalmist vows to publicly thank and praise the Lord.

Thanksgiving was central to worship in the Old Testament, just as it is in the New Testament church (Colossians 2:7; 4:2). As the children of Israel offered up sacrifices of thanksgiving to the Lord, so believers today give thanks “always and for everything to God” (Ephesians 5:20, ESV).

The apostle Paul tells believers that it is “God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus” to “be thankful in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18, NLT). The writer of Hebrews urges us to offer thanksgiving: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name” (Hebrews 13:15).

A sacrifice of thanksgiving is not truly a sacrifice if it comes without any effort or expense. A worthy sacrifice always comes at a cost (2 Samuel 24:24). Just as Jewish worshipers had to bring offerings without spot or blemish, Christians must also offer God the very best they can.

One sacrifice of thanksgiving is obedience, which is of greater importance to God than animal offerings and sacrifices (1 Samuel 15:22). Those who genuinely love God desire to obey Him (John 14:15; 1 John 5:2). Their hearts are faithful to Him. The thankfulness of true believers comes from a sincere heart of gratitude (Mark 7:6–7; Isaiah 29:13). God wants His children to worship Him in truth (John 4:24).

If we are truly grateful to God for His lovingkindness and mercy in our lives, we will offer sacrifices of thanksgiving naturally. We will recognize that everything we have is a gift from Him (James 1:17). Through even the most troubling and challenging times, we can offer sacrifices of thanksgiving by giving our “bodies to God because of all he has done” for us and letting our lives “be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him” (Romans 12:1, NLT).

In the story of the one thankful leper, Jesus made it clear that praise and thanksgiving are evidence of genuine faith (Luke 17:11–19). Thankfulness and faith go together, just as ingratitude and faithlessness do (Romans 1:21). The sacrifice of thanksgiving is a natural outflow of the Christian life (Psalm 92:1–4; 1 Timothy 4:4), springing from a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ (Colossians 3:16–17).