Ever thought of naming your baby boy “Ebenezer”? It’s not on the top ten list right now. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with that name. The most famous Ebenezer I’m aware of is Ebenezer Scrooge, the grumpy old man in the Charles Dickens story “A Christmas Carol.”
So, why did I think of Ebenezer? Because Sunday in church we sang the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” and one of the verses we skipped has these words:
“Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.”
I probably sang that hymn several times when I was young before I became curious enough to look up its meaning. Here’s what I found out.
The name is a combination of two Hebrew words, eben, which means “stone,” and ezer, which means “help.” So ebenezer means “stone of help.” In the ancient history of Israel, Samuel the Judge built a makeshift monument at the site of an important victory:
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.” (1 Samuel 7:12)
This victory came after a time of sincere repentance and renewal:
Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Astartes from among you. Direct your heart to the Lord, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So Israel put away the Baals and the Astartes, and they served the Lord only. Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.” So they gathered at Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the Lord. They fasted that day, and said, “We have sinned against the Lord.” And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah. (verses 3-6)
“Thus far the Lord has helped us”: though this was a moment of celebration, the qualifying phrase “thus far” was a reminder that they should not presume on God’s always being there to help them. If they turned back to their sin and idolatry, the “stone of help” would be no comfort.
In fact, less than a year earlier the same location was the place where they had suffered a horrible defeat at the hands of the same enemy:
In those days the Philistines mustered for war against Israel, and Israel went out to battle against them; they encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle was joined, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. (1 Samuel 4:1-2)
In our lives, we sometimes post monuments of significant victories, and this is good. But it is also good to remember how fickle we can be. Our worst failure can come in the very area of our greatest triumph. Pride goes before a fall. We need to remind ourselves of the entire verse of that hymn:
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.
— Pastor George Van Alstine