Often words in the English language lose their meaning over the centuries due to common use in certain lingual situations. Sometimes a word will lose its impact when associated with a name in a famous story in literature. That is the case with Ebenezer. Whenever you hear that word, I bet the first notion that enters your mind is the Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. From 1843 to the present day, the word Ebenezer is associated with a name that utters “bah humbug” to Christmas cheer. Ebenezer is now synonymous with the miser and the grumpy curmudgeon that refuses to embrace the joy of life. The word Ebenezer, however, has a rich connotation tied to one of the great stories of Scripture and points to one of the most important themes in all the Bible.
A hint of this connection is found in the second verse of my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The second verse begins, “Here I raise mine Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’m come.” As a young student of the Bible that verse always intrigued me. With my mind entrenched with the association of Ebenezer with Scrooge and A Christmas Carol, I wondered why that word was found in a beloved hymn. So, I looked it up.
This term is integral to the story of Samuel, the final judge of the nation of Israel, in the context of 1 Samuel 4-7. This section of scripture tells the story of how the ark of the covenant was captured by the Philistines and returned to the Israelites by the help of the LORD. The Philistines obtained the ark due to a crushing defeat of the Israelites in battle. The evil priests Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli, took the ark with them in battle assuming that the very presence of the ark would guarantee victory. They viewed the ark as a totem for success, and failed to grasp its true and sacred nature. The people likewise believed that association with the ark was a guarantee for safety, for success. Their hearts were far from the LORD, yet they believed that God would bring glory in battle because they brought the artifact along. God taught the nation a valuable lesson that day. The ark of the covenant was never meant to be a symbol of military or national victory. The ark was the very representation of the presence of Jehovah’s holiness and transcendent glory. On that day, the nation of Israel was defeated, Hophni and Phinehas were killed, and the ark was taken back to the Philistine capital.
It did not stay there for long. Throughout its seven month stay in Philistia, the ark proved to be calamitous to the pagan people. Eventually, the lords of the Philistines agreed to send the ark back to the people of Israel. By this time, Samuel had become the judge in Israel. He saw to it that the ark was cared for and properly handled according to the law of God. He then gathered the people at Mizpah and consecrated the people before the Lord. The people fasted that day and cried out, “We have sinned against the LORD.” (1 Sam. 7:6) At the moment Samuel was offering up a sacrificial lamb the Philistines arrived to finish the job and eradicate the Israelites from the land. The LORD Himself confused the Philistine army with great thunderclaps and Israel won a great victory. Victory came not from an artifact but from confession, devotion, and sacrifice before Jehovah God. God won the victory, not just the people of Israel.
It says, “then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen, and called its name Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the LORD has helped us.’” (1 Sam. 7:12) Ebenezer literally means, “Rock of Help.” The writer of the great hymn rightly recognizes that every good thing that happens in our lives comes from the help of almighty God. We do not achieve ultimate success and victory because of our associations with the sacred totems of God and the church. We are not sealed by the Holy Spirit for the day of salvation because our name is on a church roll or because we do certain things that build a reputation for piety in the community. Salvation comes, grace comes, victory comes to those who humbly approach the presence of the Lord in simple faith. That is one of the greatest themes in all of Scripture.
What is your Ebenezer? The better question is who is your Ebenezer? It is none other than Jesus the Messiah. Each day we are to raise up our Rock of Help. We are to lift high the name of Jesus in our lives. We are to exalt Him. For it is in the presence of God that we make our confession of sin, just like the Israelites. And it is at the moment we place our faith in that greatest of sacrificial Lambs that we find the true victory. As we raise up the exalted name of God’s Son, the Father lowers His hand down to us, picks us up from the darkness, and sets our feet upon the sure path. Thanks be unto Jesus, “hither by Thy help I’m come.”
-This blog post was published as a devotional article in the 10/12/2021 issue of the Weakley County Press [Martin, TN]
-Image courtesy of Unsplash.com