Here I raise my Ebenezer: “Hither by thy help I’ve come”;
and I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger, wand’ring from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.
That’s the second verse of the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Every time we sing it in worship, I get questions.
“Pastor, what is an ‘Ebenezer,’ exactly?”
“Pastor, how does somebody raise an ‘Ebenezer,’ whatever that is?”
“Pastor, is this song about Ebenezer Scrooge?”
Fair questions! I think most of us have heard far more about Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol than we ever hear about any other Ebenezer. No wonder this line leads to confused glances or even giggles.
The word “Ebenezer” come from Hebrew. It’s a compound of “eben” (which means stone) and “ezer” (which means help/rescue). In other words, an “Ebenezer” is a stone of help or stone of rescue. Still confused? Well, you’ve probably never heard the story from the Bible that gives us the word, since it’s not in the lectionary that assigns our readings for worship. Our lectionary only covers about a quarter of the Bible (more on this next week), so it’s easy to miss stories that aren’t included.
Like, for instance, the story of the Ebenezer, found in 1 Samuel 7. Long ago, after the people of Israel had entered the Promised Land after slavery in Egypt, but before they demanded that God give them a king, the Israelites were governed by judges. The judges held many functions: interpreters of God’s law, settlers of civic disputes, and leaders of military conflicts. You might have heard of some of them: Samson, Gideon, Deborah.
The last of the judges was a man named Samuel. In his time, the Israelites were under constant threat from their neighbors, the Philistines. (Yes, like the David-and-Goliath Philistines– but that story comes later.) There was a period when the Philistines had taken control of Israel, and God’s people were living under their control. The people turned to Samuel, asking him to pray for their deliverance from the Philistines. The Israelites also assembled together as an army, which in turn led the Philistines to bring their army to attack.
The Israelites were terrified, and in their fear they said to Samuel, “Please don’t stop praying to the Lord for us, so God will save us from the Philistines’ power!” Samuel continued praying for them, and the Philistine army was defeated. Immediately, Samuel took a stone and set it up in that place, naming it “Ebenezer.” He said to the people, “The Lord helped us to this very point.”
The first Ebenezer was a monument to remind the Israelites of God’s faithful help and rescue in the face of their adversaries. Samuel had a pretty shrewd idea that without that immediate, constant reminder, the people would forget that God was the one who helped them win the victory. They needed the Ebenezer to remember that God had helped them in the past and to remind them to trust God’s help in the face of future threats. When we sing about raising our own Ebenezers, we are joining in that reminder: God has rescued us, and will be with us to rescue us again and again until we are safely home with God for good.
If you have your own “I always wondered…” question, email firstname.lastname@example.org to get your question included in future devotions.