OK, let’s be perfectly honest here: all of us have sometimes found ourselves on ‘autopilot’ during the singing of a hymn, mouthing the words without paying much attention to what they mean. Some of us have then had the experience of having our private reverie interrupted by the appearance of a strange word or turn of phrase that strikes us funny. In any case, that’s been the experience for this writer who habitually breaks into (hopefully discreet) giggles when singing the hymn Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing (807 in our hymnal) whose second verse begins with this weird phrase:
“Here I raise my Ebenezer …”
My primary association with that odd word is the crotchety old Ebenezer Scrooge character (Bah! Humbug!) in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol but it boggles the mind to imagine a circumstance where one would want to be raising him! Instead, an ebenezer must be some kind of object – perhaps like a drum major’s baton that is rhythmically elevated as we march along? I imagine interviewing people on the street: “How do you raise an Ebenezer?” and wondering what kind of response that would get! Unfortunately, as you can see, this is a case where the hymn lyrics have grabbed my attention, though not in a reverence-inducing manner!!
So just what IS an Ebenezer? This strange word is the English transliteration of the Hebrew phrase Eben hà-ezer, which literally means “stone of help.” It refers to an incident in the Old Testament where the Israelites were under attack by their mortal enemies, the Philistines. After the Philistines were miraculously routed in response to the intercessions of the prophet Samuel, the account tells us: “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). So an ‘Ebenezer’ is literally a stone (monument) that commemorates God’s help. Symbolically, “raising my Ebenezer” is then my thankful response for God’s deliverance.
The background of this hymn is that it was composed in 1757 by Robert Robinson, a 22 year old Methodist minister in England. He was a man who was acutely aware of the wrong-doings of his rowdy youth, and thankful for the grace which had brought him to faith in Jesus. But even though he became known as a successful preacher and hymn writer, some things he said in later life reflect a profound humility – perhaps even an anxiety – over the way his heart continued to stray. Thus there is particular poignancy in the words of the final verse:
“Oh, 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, oh, take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above.”
For many of us, the heart-felt plea of those words aptly expresses our own desire to “bind our wandering heart” from the inclinations and distractions that continually threaten to pull us away from the God we long to faithfully serve. Being painfully aware of our own frailty and sinfulness we too throw ourselves on His grace, pleading with Him to take our wandering heart and seal it for eternal life with Him. But being then reassured of God’s sure promises to be our help in all our times of need, both physical and spiritual, we too can raise our own Ebenezer – exulting in the rock of our salvation!
One can legitimately question whether the lyrics of this hymn should be ‘modernized’ as a concession to those of us who are not expert in obscure Old Testament history (which is pretty much everyone). On the other hand there is also great comfort in being united in spirit with not only Rev. Robinson (a mere 260 years ago!) but also God’s chosen people of 3000 years ago – the family tree into which we were grafted through Jesus Messiah, our Lord and Savior. So the effort involved in understanding an obscure word or phrase such as this often pays dividends in the timeless spiritual message it carries.