Do you give thanks before a meal? After a meal? Is it the case that your family practice is like that described by John Whitecross, The Shorter Catechism Illustrated, p. 166:
A minister of the gospel went to dine at the house of one of his hearers, whom he was in the habit of visiting. Dinner being on the table, the master of the house requested the preacher to ask a blessing. It was no sooner said, than one of the children, a boy about seven years old, asked the following appropriate and memorable question. 'Father, what is the reason we always have a blessing asked when the minister dines with us, and never at any other time?'
Do you feel awkward doing so in public or with unbelievers around? Do you know why you give thanks or is it a mere formality? The Bible tells us that we are to "in every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you" (1 Thess. 5.18). More specifically, we are commanded to offer thanksgiving for every creature, every good gift that we receive from the Lord (1 Tim. 4.3-5). Moreover, we have the example of Jesus (John 6.11) and Paul (Acts 27.35) who thanked God and blessed their food before eating, even among the heathen in Paul's case. We beseech God for "our daily bread" in the Lord's Prayer, and should we not return thanks to the One who gave it and consecrate it to his glory and our good? Herman Witsius wrote, "For if we ask from God the supports of this life, it is proper that, when we have received them, we should render thanks" (Sacred Dissertations on the Lord's Prayer, p. 302). We are to do all things to God's glory, but particularly, the Apostle tells us, our eating and drinking (1 Cor. 10.31). Stonewall Jackson said, "I have so fixed the habit in my own mind that I never raise a glass of water to my lips without a moment asking God's blessing. I never seal a letter without putting a prayer under the seal. I never take a letter from the post without a brief sending of my thought heavenward." Should we not also guard against the temptation to think that we have gotten ourselves those things which we take for granted, even the very food upon our table? The Jews gave thanks not only before a meal but afterwards, on the basis of Deut. 8.10, upon which Matthew Henry writes:
I. He directs them to the duty of a prosperous condition, v. 10. They are allowed to eat even to fulness, not to surfeiting no excess; but let them always remember their benefactor, the founder of their feast, and never fail to give thanks after meat: Then thou shalt bless the Lord thy God. 1. They must take heed of eating or drinking so much as to indispose themselves for this duty of blessing God, rather aiming to serve God therein with so much the more cheerfulness and enlargement. 2. They must not have any fellowship with those that, when they had eaten and were full, blessed false gods, as the Israelites themselves had done in their worship of the golden calf, Exod. xxxii. 6. 3. Whatever they had the comfort of God must have the glory of. As our Saviour has taught us to bless before we eat (Matt. xiv. 19, 20), so we are here taught to bless after meat. That is our Hosannah--God bless; this is our Hallelujah--Blessed be God. In every thing we must give thanks. From this law the religious Jews took up a laudable usage of blessing God, not only at their solemn meals, but upon other occasions; if they drank a cup of wine they lifted up their hands and said, Blessed be he that created the fruit of the vine to make glad the heart. If they did but smell at a flower, they said, Blessed be he that made this flower sweet. 4. When they gave thanks for the fruits of the land they must give thanks for the fruits of the land itself, which was given them by promise. From all our comfortable enjoyments we must take occasion to thank God for our comfortable settlements; and I know not but we of this nation have as much reason as they had to give thanks for a good land.
Daniel Cawdrey, Family Reformation Promoted (Anthology of Presbyterian & Reformed Literature, Vol. 4, p. 61), writes that among the duties of families is the duty to say grace:
(5.). Grace, before and after meals, is a part of prayer and praises due to God; but shamefully neglected in families, or but a mere formality, if used, without any reverence. Is it any wonder children, servants, are so bad to them, when they are so bad to God? that they do as the children of Israel did, Sit down to eat and drink, and rise up to play; and that play was idolatry. Our blessed Savior himself never eat, or feed others at his table, but he blessed and gave thanks (Mark 8:6-7), and the apostle Paul amongst heathens observed the same (Acts 27:35). And the same apostle, speaking of meats particularly: God hath created them to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, if it be received with thanksgiving. For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer (1 Tim. 4:3-5). As if it were not good, if not sanctified by prayer and thanksgiving; but may prove a serpent, even a poison to our soul or body. And the neglect hereof argues (in the apostle's logic) that such persons, neither believe, nor know the truth. Let them consider it.
Lewis Bayly adds to our understanding of the theology of blessing meals:
5. Meditate how that thy master Jesus Christ did never eat any food, but first he blessed the creatures, and gave thanks to his heavenly Father for the same (Luke ix. 16; Matt. xiv. 19; xv. 36; Mark vi. 41; viii. 6; Luke xxiv. 30; John vi. 11.) And after his last supper, we read that he sung a 151 psalm (Matt. xxvi. 30; Mark xiv. 26;) for this was the commandment of God, “When thou hast eaten and filled thyself, thou shalt bless the Lord thy God,” &c. (Deut. viii. 10.) This was the practice of the prophets; for “the people would not eat at their feast, till Samuel came to bless their meat,” (1 Sam. ix. 13;) and saith Joel to God’s people, “Ye shall eat and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God.” (Joel ii. 26.) This also was the practice of the apostles; for St. Paul in the ship, gave thanks before meat, in the presence of all the people that were there (Acts xxvii. 35.)
Imitate, therefore, in so holy an action, so blessed a master, and so many worthy precedents that have followed him, and gone before thee. It may be, because thou hast never used to give thanks at meals, therefore thou art now ashamed to begin. Think it no shame to do what Christ did; but be rather ashamed that thou hast so long neglected so Christian a duty. And if the Son of God gave his Father such great thanks for a dinner of barley-bread and broiled fish (John vi. 9, 11), what thanks should such a sinful man as thou art render unto God for such variety of good and dainty cheer? How many a true Christian would be glad to fill his belly with the morsels which thou refusest; and do lack that which thou leavest! how hardly do others labour for that which they eat, and thou hast thy food provided for thee, without either care or labour! To conclude, if pagan idolaters at their feasts were accustomed to praise their false gods (Dan. v. 1, 4), what a shame is it for a Christian, at his dinners and suppers, not to praise the true God, “in whom we live, move, and have our being?” (Acts xvii. 28.)
For other meditations upon this subject and sample prayers, see Lewis Bayly, The Practice of Piety, pp. 149-154.
Returning to Matthew Henry, who is always so helpful at application of Biblical principles, consider his directions for prayer and the Biblical supports upon which they are grounded (A Method for Prayer, pp. 158-160):
3. In craving a blessing before meat.
Thou, O Lord, givest food to all flesh, for thy mercy endures forever.n The eyes of all things wait on thee;o but especially thou givest meat to them that fear thee, being ever mindful of thy covenant.p
Thou art our life, and the length of our days,q the God that hast fed us all our life long unto this day:r Thou givest us all things richly to enjoy, though we serve thee but poorly.s Thou hast not only given us every green herb, and the fruit of the trees, to be to us for meat,t but every moving thing that liveth, even as the green herb.v
And blessed be God that now under the gospel we are taught to call nothing common or unclean,w and that it is not that which goes into the man, that defiles the man,x but that every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused; for God hath created it to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.y
We acknowledge we are not worthy of the least crumb that falls from the table of thy providence:z Thou mightest justly take away from us the stay of bread and the stay of water,a and make us to eat our bread by weight, and to drink our water by measure, and with astonishment:b because when we have been fed to the full, we have forgotten God our Maker.c But let our sins be pardoned, we pray thee, that our table may not become a snare before us, nor that be made a trap, which should have been for our welfare.d
We know that every thing is sanctified by the word of God and prayer;e and that man lives not by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God,f and therefore, according to our Master's example we look up to heaven, and pray for a blessing upon our food;g abundantly bless our provision.h
Lord, grant that we may not feed ourselves without fear,i that we may not make a god of our belly,k that our hearts may never be overcharged with surfeiting or drunkenness,l but that whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do, we may do all to the glory of God.m
4. In returning thanks after our meat.
Now we have eaten and are full, we bless thee for the good land thou hast given us.n Thou preparest a table for us in the presence of our enemies, thou anointest our head, and our cup runs over.o
Thou, Lord, art the portion of our inheritance, and of our cup, thou maintainest our lot, so that we have reason to say, The lines are fallen to us in pleasant places, and we have a goodly heritage.p
Especially we bless thee for the bread of life, which came down from heaven, which was given for the life of the world. Lord, evermore give us that bread, and wisdom to labor less for the meat which perisheth, and more for that which endures for everlasting life.q
The Lord give food to the hungry,r and send portions to them for whom nothing is prepared.
Let us be of those blessed ones that shall eat bread in the kingdom of God,s and shall eat of the hidden manna.tn Psal. 136:25.
o Psal. 145:15.
p Psal. 111:5.
q Deut. 30:20.
r Gen. 48:15.
s 1 Tim. 6:17.
t Gen. 1:29.
v Gen. 9:3.
w Acts 10:15.
x Matt. 15.11.
y 1 Tim. 4:3-4.
z Matt. 15:27.
a Isa. 3:1.
b Ezek. 4:16.
c Deut. 32:15.
d Psal. 69:22.
e 1 Tim. 4:5.
f Matt. 4:4.
g Matt. 14:19.
h Psal. 132:15.
i Jude 12.
k Phil. 3:19.
l Luke 23:34.
m 1 Cor. 10:31.
n Deut. 8:10.
o Psal. 23:5.
p Psal. 16:5-6.
q John 6:27, 33-34.
r Psal. 146:7.
s Luke 14:15.
t Rev. 2:17.
For information on the painting "Grace" by Eric Enstrom, see here.