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The Art of the Ebenezer

In the spring of 1758, as the pale yellow primroses trumpeted their arrival, a young pastor sat down to write some poetry. Robert Robinson, a twenty-three-year-old pastor serving at the Calvinist Methodist Chapel in Norfolk, England, had lived his early adult years running away from the haunting guilt of his sin. But God, in His great mercy, had saved this young man, and Robert had decided to give the rest of his life to the ministry of the Gospel.

On this particular spring day, Robert labored to pen what has become one of the most well-loved hymns of all time: “Oh to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be,” the song of “Come Thou Fount” declares. In one of the verses, he wrote:

Here I raise my Ebenezer; Hither by Thy help I’m come. And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, Safely to arrive at home. Jesus sought me when a stranger Wand’ring from the fold of God; He, to rescue me from danger, Interposed His precious blood.

If you’re anything like me, the mention of the word “Ebenezer” brings to mind a picture of a silver-haired Scrooge with a hooked nose and a snarl across his lips. But that couldn’t be farther from the word’s actual meaning.

In its original Hebrew form, the word “Ebenezer” literally means “stone of help”. Robinson borrowed from the Biblical portrait of Samuel and raised his own Ebenezer of verse, bending a knee to all God had done in his life, and all he believed God would continue to do.

This Biblical symbol and perspective come from 1 Samuel 4–7, which unfolds a rollercoaster of events for God’s people. Israel had again rebelled against God, and then suffered great defeat and humiliation. Not only had they lost in battle against the Philistines, but they had witnessed the capture of the Ark of the Covenant. They returned home, mourning their loss and grieving their sin.

After much repentance, prayer, and fasting, the people of Israel cried out to God for help. And under the guidance of Samuel, the people set out again for battle, this time listening to God and trusting in His Word. The resulting conquest of the Philistines was complete the next time around; God had given the people a triumphant victory.

In memoriam to what God had done in that moment, Samuel set up a stone in the place of victory “…and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, ’Til now the LORD has helped us.’” (1 Sam. 7:12)

The wise prophet Samuel knew human nature. He knew that, as humans, we forget to remember our sin. We forget to remember God’s help. We move on past our triumphs and internalize the glory for ourselves. Samuel’s Ebenezer forced the people of Israel to stop and remember that it was God who had given them victory in trial. His hand was the initiator, victor, and sustainer of their success.

An Ebenezer illuminates God as the hero of our stories. Jodi Hiser

Robert Robinson used the words “Hither by Thy Help I’m come”. These words have a connotation of looking into the past while also looking into the future.

Samuel did this well. He looked into the past and remembered Israel’s defeat and anguish. He wanted to memorialize their repentance, prayer, fasting, fighting, and victory. But by erecting the stone of remembrance, Samuel also looked toward the future, wanting to remind the next generations to look at that stone and remember God’s faithfulness and power when the next tough trial came their way.

The book of Samuel is not the only place in the Bible where we see the memoriam of an Ebenezer. Jacob set up a stone to mark the place where he heard the word of the Lord in the night (Gen. 28:10–19). And Joshua set up a group of stones at Gilgal to mark the place where God parted the waters of the Jordan River (Josh. 3:14–4:7).

But before you begin to conclude that the concept of Ebenezer is limited to simple stones, think about Moses, who, while nearing death, was told by God to compose a song to commemorate all that the Lord had done for His people in the wilderness (Deut. 31:19–22). Think about the authors of the Biblical narratives, known and unknown, who were commissioned by God to write their stories, commemorating the events as God had ordained them.

Whether by pillars of stone or song or story, we see evidence that the practice of Ebenezer runs throughout Scripture. This is because we need it. An Ebenezer, in all of its forms, grounds us in truth and identity, reminding us that all of our strength, hope, weaknesses, and successes are rooted in the powerful, loving, sovereign hand of God. An Ebenezer illuminates God as the hero of our stories.

The necessity of naming God as the hero of our own personal narrative is the very reason we still need this practice today. Through our art, our songs, and our stories, we remember specific acts that God has done in distinct moments of our lives. In fact, God gave us copious amounts of creativity and imagination to mark His hand in many artistic ways. Certainly an Ebenezer is not limited to these forms. It can be any way in which we record the Lord’s mighty deeds, hailing our testimony of God’s faithfulness to His people. It can be any creative marker that commemorates the trials, sufferings, weaknesses, journeys, hope, prayers, help, and successes that we experience. Let’s allow the concept of Ebenezer to be an inspiration in the manifold expressions of artistry that God gives to us. And when we experience a monumental moment in the story of our lives, let us not allow it to pass without marking it and naming it after the Lord.

This practice brings not only beauty but purpose to our art as it collectively looks backward in remembrance and forward for the next generations. Our Ebenezers of today can be visual, musical, and literary memories of God’s steadfastness, granting courage for the next generation to believe that God will do what He has always done, and be Who He has always been.

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