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Raise an Ebenezer

If you pay attention to hymns in church, there is one Hebrew term you will remember singing. It’s in the second stanza of what will be our closing hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The stanza reads: 

“Here I raise my Ebenezer, 
Hither by Thy help I’m come; 
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, 
Safely to arrive at home.” 

“Ebenezer.” That’s a Hebrew term. But what’s an “Ebenezer”? Hear the word and your first thought is of Charles Dickens’, The Christmas Carol and the most famous “Ebenezer” in all of literature: Ebenezer Scrooge. “Ebenezer” was a name that parents gave children, favored particularly by some of the Puritans (though you don’t hear of too many baby “Ebenezers” anymore!)….

1 Samuel 7:12 memorably says: “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’” 

The prophet Samuel took a stone, set it up and named it Ebenezer. Samuel set up a memorial stone. “Ebenezer” literally means “stone of help.” It was a stone set to commemorate the help the people of Israel perceived had been given them by God in defeating the Philistines when they got back the Ark of the Covenant…. The Scots Bible translator, James Moffatt, translates it literally: “Samuel took a stone…naming it Helpstone” (1 Sam. 7:12).

God is the God of help. This is the refrain that breathes through the Bible. How often do we see people crying out to God—for help? And how often do we see the testimony of faith that cries out: “Ebenezer!”—“the Lord has helped us”! This was the experience of Samuel’s own mother, Hanna. Maybe you remember the story from Sunday School. Hannah could not conceive a child. So she prayed to the Lord, being “deeply distressed “ and weeping bitterly” (1 Sam. 1:10). God “remembered her,” (1 Sam. 1:19), as the Scripture puts it; and “in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord” (1 Sam. 1:20). The Lord helped her! The very prophet who set up the Ebenezer stone was himself a “living stone,” a visible reminder to his own mother that God answers prayer, that God helps. Ebenezer! 

God is our help is the core piety of the Psalms. Over and over again, we hear it: “The Lord helps them and rescues them” (Ps. 37:40); “God is in the midst of the city, it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns” (Ps. 46:5). It rings in Psalm 46 made immortal in dear Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” In Psalm 86, the psalmist cries, “You, Lord, have helped me and comforted me” (Ps. 86:17). It comforts us in the much beloved 121st Psalm: “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 121:1-2). It is no wonder John Calvin liked to begin the worship of God in Geneva with the related verse from Psalm 124: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 124:8). “Ebenezer”: “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” 

God helps us and then gives us ways of remembering this help. This is how God works. It is God’s style. Calvin’s spoke of God’s accommodation, God’s “condescending” or “adjusting” God’s own self to our human capacities, as a mother talks to a child….

- Donald K. McKim, from “Ebenezer,” A sermon on 1 Samuel 7:2-12 preached during the semi-annual Board of Directors meeting of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, November 11, 2009.