Samuel took a stone and set it up . . . and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.” (1 Samuel 7:12)
The Hebrew word Ebenezer may be the least known lyric among all our most beloved English hymns. Baptist minister Robert Robinson (1735–1790) wrote “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” at age 22, not long after his conversion, which was influenced in part by the preaching of evangelist George Whitefield.
The meaning of Ebenezer originates more than a thousand years before Christ, during the ministry of the prophet Samuel, who played a pivotal role at a key juncture in the history of God’s people. Long has he been remembered as one of Israel’s greatest figures, alongside names like Moses (Psalm 99:6; Jeremiah 15:1) and David (Hebrews 11:32). God raised up Samuel as the first prophet (Acts 3:24) after the tragic period of the judges (Acts 13:20) to serve as God’s instrument to establish the kingship in Israel.
And yet, apart from the extraordinary stories of his birth and calling (1 Samuel 1–3), and his extensive involvement with anointing (and rebuking) Israel’s first king (Saul) and anointing the second (a young shepherd boy named David), we know fairly little about Samuel.
Hither by Thy Help
What we do know is that during his early days as a prophet, Israel received back the ark of the covenant from the Philistines after seven months, having lost it in war. So distressing was it to lose the ark that when news of it had come to Israel’s judge Eli, he fell backwards from his chair, broke his neck, and died (1 Samuel 4:18). Sadly, even with the loss of the ark, the nation was not yet ready to come before God in full repentance. It took twenty years for the people to be sufficiently humbled to turn to Samuel to lead them in restoring their relationship with God.
Samuel gathered the people at the town of Mizpah. There the people would fast and confess their collective infidelity to God (“We have sinned against the Lord,” 1 Samuel 7:6) and Samuel would pray for them (1 Samuel 7:5). But when the Philistines heard that Israel had gathered at Mizpah, they took it as an opportunity to march on their enemies — and when Israel heard they were coming, the nation panicked. The people pled to the prophet, “Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines” (1 Samuel 7:8).
Samuel responded by sacrificing a lamb to God on behalf of the people, and as he did, the Philistines began to attack. But God heard Samuel and answered with a magnificent display of power. “The Lord thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel. And the men of Israel went out from Mizpah and pursued the Philistines and struck them” (1 Samuel 7:10–11). God heard the cries of his people through Samuel, and came to their rescue.
Then, to commemorate God’s mighty intervention on behalf of his people,
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.” So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel. And the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. (1 Samuel 7:12–13)
In Hebrew, Ebenezer means “stone of help” (eben = stone; ezer = help). Samuel wanted the people to remember, not just for a few days, but for years, for decades, for generations, how God had come to the rescue of his people when they humbled themselves before him. They were vulnerable, with their enemies approaching, and they did not deserve God’s rescue, having been chronically unfaithful. And yet in his gracious fidelity to his covenant people, God intervened with thunder to throw Israel’s enemies in confusion and turn their enemies into the vulnerable nation.
Prone to Wander
Of course, this would not be the end of Israel’s story. Many more dangers, toils, and snares were to come. Samuel raising the “stone of help” was in no way a declaration that the final victory had been won, but that up to that point God had helped them. “Till now the Lord has helped us.” And because God’s people weren’t yet out of the woods, this Ebenezer had a part to play in reminding the nation to keep the faith in the days ahead.
So it is with us today, who sing Robinson’s hymn and remember Samuel’s prayer. Our stories are not yet over, and we are not yet out of the woods. Many more threats await us and will assault our faith. And we know our hearts are helpless apart from the tuning and sealing of God’s grace. We are prone to wander.
Yet as we live in the tension of this moment called the present — where the rapids of the future rush at us and collect behind us into the pool of the past — we know who our God has shown himself to be. He indeed is the fountain of every blessing. He is the one whose streams of mercy never cease and will be new again tomorrow (Lamentations 3:22–23). And not only has he shown himself faithful in countless small kindnesses and rescues, but chiefly in the death of his own Son for us (Romans 5:8), the mountain peak of his redeeming love, the Ebenezer we call Calvary.
Jesus spilled his own blood to rescue us when we were wandering. How much more will he now save us from the dangers to come? He has raised the stone of help, and our hope to arrive safely home, come what may, is no mere wish, but a sure and steady hope, as sure as God is God. If we belong to Christ, he will fetter us to himself and seal our hearts for heaven’s courts.