Ebenezer!

Neal Pollard

No, not Scrooge (though my favorite version starred George C. Scott)!  That Ebenezer is the one even most Christians are more familiar with. The Ebenezer I’m referring to is from the Bible. You’ll read about it between 1 Samuel 4-7. The first two references are to an existing village (4:1; 5:1). But, it’s the last reference that Robert Robinson makes use of in his well-known, 1758 hymn, O Thou Fount Of Every Blessing.

In the thread of Jewish history, Eli is rejected as High Priest for the corruption perpetrated in his house against the people in their priestly functions. Samuel is chosen to be his replacement. Due to the terrible leadership of Eli’s sons and their influence over the people (2:24), God allows the Philistines to rout them in battle (4:2). The Israelites try to form their own solution by bringing the Ark of the Covenant from Shiloh to Ebenezer as an icon of power (4:3-4) and perhaps to intimidate the Philistines (4:6-9). This backfires, the Philistines steal the ark (4:11), and keep it in the house of their god, Dagon, for seven months (5:2; 6:1). This brings what might have been Bubonic Plague on the Philistines until they, desperately, return the ark to Israel (6:12). Except for the over 50,000 people of Beth Shemesh who look into the ark when it was returned to them and were destroyed (6:19), things were much improved for Israel.

By now, Eli’s successor has been named. Eleazer cares for the ark, safeguarding it for 20 years at Kirjath Jearim. Samuel leads a Restoration Movement to free Israel from Philistine oppression. The people repent when they gather at Mizpah. The Philistines hears of Israel’s prayer meeting and prepare to fight them.  Samuel urges prayer and sacrifice (7:8-9). It was then God made His appearance and confused the Philistines so much that Israel utterly defeats them. There, between Mizpah and Shen, Samuel takes a stone and laid it on the ground, calling the place Ebenezer. This means, “Thus far the Lord has helped us” (7:12). Israel regains cities lost to Philistia and were relieved from their oppression. The place where Israel had been defeated twice became the place where God helped His people win with finality!

Why would Robinson use such a relatively obscure Old Testament moment to talk about God’s guidance and assistance? First, Israel had to come as far as they could from wickedness to salvation. But, it was not by their goodness or power that they were delivered. Far from it! God “thundered with a loud thunder upon the Philistines.” The Lord “confused them.” So, Samuel sets up a memorial in an attempt to remind Israel of their dependence on Him.

Because of human nature, we still need that reminder today. The Lord’s Supper is a memorial of dependence, a continual reminder of our need for a substitute sacrifice to save us from hell. Prayer is an inherent reminder that we’re preserved only by the Lord’s help. Even our bodies remind us we are finite. When we look at the incredible world of nature, our souls sing out, “How Great Thou Art!” The next time you sing that Robinson hymn, remember that “it is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not” (Lam. 3:22).

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