The Fragrance of Gratitude
I can’t see as well as I used to, especially without my glasses. There are times when I don’t hear everything going on around me. And I must admit that I have a finicky sense of taste. But I’m proud to say that I have a marvelous sense of smell. And believe it or not, so too does God!
Of course, I’m speaking anthropomorphically when I say that God has a perfect sense of smell. And few things smell as good to him as gratitude.
In the book of Leviticus God gave specific instructions on the proper way to offer sacrifices, whether peace offerings or sin offerings or whatever. This included what the Bible calls the “thank offering,” that is, sacrifices that were an expression of gratitude to God for his mercy and his many blessings. Like so many other offerings, the remains of the thank offering were to be burned.
I’m sure the priests became accustomed to it after a while, but a first-time visitor to the Temple in ancient times couldn’t help but notice the strong aroma that filled the air. But the fragrance wasn’t intended primarily for the people, but for God. We read in Leviticus that the smoke from the burning sacrifice would ascend toward heaven as a soothing, fragrant aroma to the Lord. God has a great sense of smell and nothing smells so sweet to him as the gratitude of his people.
God loves the aroma of thanksgiving. He takes special delight in the smell of his people saying: “Lord, thank you!” When we offer up to God the sacrifice of praise, giving thanks for all he has done, there is a spiritual aroma that fills the room, eminently pleasing to God. The reason for this is that gratitude always glorifies the giver. Or again, thanksgiving always glorifies the “thanked”! Thanksgiving focuses the attention on the goodness and generosity of God from whom all things come.
Psalm 100 is all about gratitude. It is a call to worship, a call to give thanks, a summons to fill our hearts and homes and auditoriums with the sweet-smelling aroma of gratitude to God. The structure of the psalm consists of a call to worship in vv. 1-2, the cause for worship in v. 3, another call in v. 4, and yet another cause in v. 5.
During the time of the old covenant, the so-called “manifest” presence of God was geographically and spatially restricted. One had to “come” to God’s presence (v. 2), one had to “enter his gates” and “his courts” with praise. In other words, the worship described here is something that took place in the Temple because that is where God’s manifest presence was revealed, behind the veil in the Holy of Holies.
But now each individual Christian as well as the church corporately is the temple of God, and thus we are always in God’s presence because God’s presence is always in us.
In the initial call to worship there are three exhortations: we are to “make a joyful noise to the Lord” (v. 1a), we are to “serve the Lord with gladness” (v. 2a), and we are commanded to “come into his presence with singing” (v. 2b). What strikes me immediately is the emphasis on mood: we make a joyful noise, we serve with gladness, and we sing!
I read somewhere that there are twenty-seven words in Hebrew for “joy”! In the Psalms alone these words occur 108x! This pattern continues into the NT as well:
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing” (Rom. 15:13a).
“But the fruit of the Spirit is . . . joy” (Gal. 5:22a).
“These things I [Jesus] have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).
“And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:4).
The list could go on almost without end. There’s simply no escaping the fact that the Bible exhorts us to experience clear, radiant, unpolluted delight in God! Sherwood Wirt put it thus:
“Joy is merriment without frivolity, hilarity without raucousness, and mirth without cruelty. Joy is sportive without being rakish and festive without being tasteless. Joy radiates animation, sparkle and buoyancy. It is more than fun, yet it has fun. It expresses itself in laughter and elation, yet it draws from a deep spring that keeps flowing long after the laughter has died and the tears have come. Even while it joins those who mourn, it remains cheerful in a world that has gone gray with grief and worry” (Jesus, Man of Joy, 74).
Joy, says Wirt, “becomes the ecstasy of eternity in a soul that has made peace with God and is ready to do His will, here and hereafter” (75). Wirt has some strong words for those who are suspicious of joy in church life today:
“Veneration and respect are always due to our blessed heavenly Father. We are commanded to worship Him in the beauty of holiness, but for Heaven’s sake let’s not lose the joy in the midst of it. Let’s not worship by transposing our thoughts into an everlasting minor key” (89).
Wirt has observed the diminishing presence of joy in many of our churches and thinks he knows why:
“The problem is the pseudo-spiritual smog we spread over our church life, the unnecessary gravity with which our leadership protects its dignity, the unnatural churchly posturing that so easily passes into overbearing arrogance and conceit” (41).
To attend many church meetings today, says Wirt, “is to run the risk of humongous boredom. The ‘odor of sanctity’ turns into polluted air” (42). He rightly warns us of “the sludge of religious sobriety which is so often mistaken for reverence” (55).
No one is advocating flippancy or a casual, carefree triumphalism in our corporate praise. But the alternative must not be limited to a sour and depressing sobriety that fails to recognize, as does the psalmist, that “the Lord, he is God! It is he who has made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (Ps. 100:3). He calls for loud, joyful, grateful praise because “the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations” (Ps. 100:5).
“The invitation to worship here given,” wrote Spurgeon, “is not a melancholy one, as though adoration were a funeral solemnity, but a cheery, gladsome exhortation, as though we were bidden to a marriage feast” (Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David, II:B:233).
Since I began with an emphasis on gratitude in this psalm, let me close on that theme as well. It’s interesting that there is no word in Hebrew for “to give thanks”. The word (yadah) behind our English translations means to praise or to give public acknowledgement; to tell others what God has done. If someone did you a favor or provided a blessing, instead of saying “Thank you” you would respond by saying: “I’m going to declare your name to others. I’m going to praise your kindness and generosity and thoughtfulness to everyone I see.” That’s what “thanksgiving” or “gratitude” was in the OT.
Finally, there is immense practical, sin-killing power in joyful, heartfelt gratitude. Gratitude protects us from sinful presumption or acting as if we are owed the gracious blessings God provides. Gratitude also guards our hearts from selfish pride, or living as if we are ultimately responsible for whatever good we accomplish (see 1 Cor. 4:7). But most of all, gratitude deflects all glory and praise to God alone. It turns our eyes and attention away from self to the Savior, to him from whom all good gifts ultimately come (cf. James 1:17).
So, whatever else we do in worship, whatever style we embrace, let us be careful and diligent and devoted to “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!” (Ps. 100:4). Who knows but that God responds: “Mmmmm! That smells goooood!”