Somewhere on a battlefield in the hill country north of what would later be called Jerusalem, a band of Israelite men finally tired of chasing a contingent of Philistine soldiers who were, uncharacteristically, running away from them. Their flight, according to the account in 1 Samuel 7, was an answered prayer: as Philistine troops massed to threaten a hilltop filled with worshiping Hebrews, Israel’s spiritual leader offered a sacrifice and cried out to God for deliverance. The leader was Samuel, who served as prophet, priest, and “judge” over Israel for a time, and the Lord’s answer came in the form of sudden and crashing thunder – no doubt, accompanied by strategically placed bolts of lightning – that threw the Philistines into a panic and led to the rout.
Samuel never wanted the Israelites to forget that it was God who delivered them that day, not the force of their own puny weapons wielded by a ragtag army of farmers and shepherds. So, when the fighting had stopped, Samuel cast about the rugged slopes for the biggest rock he could find. Then he called the men to put their backs to it and raise that big whopper up onto its end and prop it up with other stones so that it stood out as an obviously human-influenced formation.
From that day on, anyone coming by would think, “That’s not natural. Somebody did that.” Then they would ask some local person “What does this standing stone mean?” And then they would hear the story, so that the memory of what God had done for Israel would live on through every generation.
Samuel even gave the stone and the place a name, a name that hymn-singers know, though they may not understand it. “Samuel called the stone ‘Ebenezer,’ saying ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us’” (1 Sam. 7:12). The name of the stone called to mind the help of God. ’Eben is the Hebrew word for stone, and ‘ezer means “help.” Thus, “Ebenezer” means “stone of help.” That big monument became a remembering rock for Israel from that time forward: thus far, God had helped them.
So it is that more than 3,000 years later, when we sing “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” we remember that rock, we remember God’s help. At least, that’s the idea. The truth is, most of us have probably sung it for years without a clue as to what it means to sing:
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it;
Seal it for Thy courts above.
So we sing, and so we declare our hope in God, our faith in God’s power, and our commitment to God’s way. The standing stone at Ebenezer, like the crosses that stand or hang in our churches, functions as a constant reminder of God’s past deliverance and as a reinforcement of our hope in God’s future for us. In that regard, every day can be a memorial day – and should.
[Note: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” was written by Robert Robinson in 1758. Through the years, its words have undergone several changes. An early version of the “Ebenezer” verse put much more emphasis on Israel’s repentance, seen in the story as a necessary prelude to God’s help:
Sorrowing I shall be in spirit,
‘Til released from flesh and sin,
Yet from what I do inherit,
Here thy praises I’ll begin;
Here I raise mine Ebenezer,
Hither by thy great help I’m come,
And I hope, by thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Which do you prefer?]
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.