I love hymns. I didn’t grow up singing too many and for a long time, I saw them as slow, boring, and irrelevant. I much preferred the latest Hillsongs offerings with a side of Chris Tomlin. There’s nothing wrong with contemporary worship music (for the most part), but my adoration of God has been aided by an exploration of those songs handed down to us from generations past. One of my favourite hymns is ‘Come Thou Fount’, written in 1757 by Robert Robinson. It’s a beautiful reflection on God’s sanctifying grace and contains a very curious lyric in its second verse.
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
If you’re like I was on my initial exposure, you will wonder what in the world is going on in this lyric. The only Ebenezer I knew was Scrooge, and he’s more synonymous with miserly conduct than exemplary Christian character. What is an Ebenezer and why does it need to be raised?
To get the reference, you need to go back to the ministry of the prophet Samuel. Let’s set up the scene. In the time of Samuel’s call to ministry as a child, the people of Israel were in a low place morally and as a result were getting crushed in battle. In an effort to force God’s hand for their victory, they brought the ark of the covenant out from the temple and into battle with them. God, not being one to be extorted, gave victory to the Philistines and allowed the ark to get captured. However, also not being one to let His enemies triumph over Him, He made the Philistines suffer in the ark’s presence until they had no choice but to return it. For twenty years after that, the ark stayed in the house of Abinadab, not the Tabernacle, and Israel continued doing whatever was right in its own eyes.
Still waiting for Ebenezer? Well this is something Samuel brings into the picture. After 20 years absence, he reappeared on the scene calling the people to repent, which they did at a big ceremony at Mizpah. The Philistines heard about a large gathering and tried to crash the party. However, unlike the last time God came in to fight for His people and gave them the victory.
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.” – 1 Samuel 7:12
Ebenezer means ‘stone of help’. In this scene, it represented an acknowledgment of God’s providence bringing His people thus far, and a trust in His ability to continually keep them. For the rest of Samuel’s ministry, the people did not lose any more territory to the Philistines, and even took back some land from them.
How do we commemorate God’s faithfulness to us? It’s likely that many of us don’t take the time to do so. It’s easy to see the negative in life. Pain by its very nature demands our acute attention. When life presents us with obstacles, as it frequently does, our immediate response is to study, analyze, and look to solve it. And whenever we accomplish some objective, we see very quickly that there’s another mountain left to climb. As the saying goes, “Life offers no rest for the weary.”
Even when life is going well, it’s easy to get caught up in the daily grind of life until religious devotion begins to feel like an imposition. Our hearts tend to yearn for anything which allows us to neglect God. The hymn’s third verse pays tribute to this fact.
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let that grace now like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
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
Inertia will draw us away from God. Your experience in faith will attest to this. So we need a way to create momentum back towards fervent devotion. And God in His grace has given us the tools to do so.
Though we talk about raising an altar as something we do, Ebenezer is all about God’s grace. The effort required on our part is simply turning our eyes back to God. We commemorate His work, His goodness, His faithfulness. “Thus far You have brought us; and by Your good pleasure, You will take us home.”
One area it’s helpful to reflect on is in the area of sanctification- that is the process by which God’s Spirit transforms our hearts to make us more like Christ. While the Bible is full of moral commands and implores us to make an effort towards holiness, we are also assured of God’s Spirit in us making our efforts meaningful. It’s one of the paradoxes of scripture
“…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” – Philippians 2:12-13
Our sin is perhaps the biggest argument against God for most of us, especially when it comes to recurring sin. “If God is at work in me, why do I still…?” Your consciences will quickly fill in that blank. And in addition to our self-awareness, we have a spiritual adversary who the Bible calls the accuser. How do we stand firm against this attack of doubt? We raise Ebenezer
God is not just the author of our salvation, but also the perfector. He doesn’t simply give us a blank slate and ask us to keep it clean; He makes our hearts clean, slowly and meticulously over the course of a lifetime. When we sing songs of adoration, or allow ourselves to be transformed b His Word, we are walking by the power of His grace.
So when we are burdened by the weight of our recurring sin, of our ill tamed flesh, and of our recurring resistance to good works, let us not despair. Let us reflect of how God has changed us since our salvation. Too often we compare ourselves with others: are we more prone to lust than our brother? Does our sister give more freely of her time and money to charity and ministry? How often though do we compare ourselves to our past?
When we can see clearly how far God has brought us, we are encouraged to trust God to complete what He has started in us. We can lean even more deeply into God’s grace to make us into the person God intends us to be.