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“Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, "Thus far has the LORD helped us.” (1 Samuel 7:12)
When I say “Ebenezer,” you say… Scrooge?
This past Sunday, we were reading through a passage in Joshua 4 where God instructs Joshua to have twelve men - one from each of the twelve tribes of Israel – each take a rock from the middle of the Jordan River, which God has stopped so that His people might cross through into the promised land. He has those twelve men use those twelve stones to form a monument at the place where they camp as a reminder to the nation and to future generations of God’s power and deliverance in their lives.
The Joshua account is one of many times throughout the Old Testament where piles of rocks show up as reminders to what God has done. In 1 Samuel 7:12, Samuel sets up a stone as a reminder of how God delivered the Israelites from the attacking Philistines. He calls it “Ebenezer,” which translates as “stone of help,” and he says “thus far has the Lord helped us.”
On Sunday, I used this story to talk about the importance of commemorating the times that God has worked in our lives, so that we do not forget and so that future generations would know about the power and reality of God. Today, however, I want to use this story to talk about the importance of not jettisoning unfamiliar Biblical terms that carry powerful meaning. The Bible is full of significant words that are not a part of our everyday language: justification, propitiation, sanctification, ascension, redemption, regeneration – not to mention more common but misunderstood words like sin, holy, and salvation. When it comes to my preaching, every time I come across these words, there are two extremes I try to avoid. The first extreme is to avoid using these words, with the rationale that they are unfamiliar or antiquated words. The second extreme would be to use these words without defining them, leaving many people scratching their heads in bewilderment. I believe that the best approach is to use these words, because they carry such a rich meaning, but to do my best to define them clearly, in a way that brings out their significance to our lives.
Which brings me back to Ebenezer. There is a popular hymn, “Come thou fount of every blessing,” written by Robert Robinson way back in 1758. The second verse begins, “Here I raise my Ebenezer/ Hither by thy help I’ve come / And I hope by thy good pleasure / Safely to arrive at home.” Many modern versions of the song have changed the first line of that verse to read “Here I find my greatest treasure” or “Hitherto thy love has blessed me.” While the desire of these modern songwriters is undoubtedly to use more familiar language, there is something important that is lost by removing the name Ebenezer. What if, instead of replacing the word or singing it without explaining it, we helped people to understand what the term means and why it is so meaningful?
There is something that can be profoundly moving about remembering the times that God showed up in power to help or deliver us from trouble. And yes, we could just say “I remember when God helped me through a difficult time.” But better yet to expand our vocabulary to include a term like Ebenezer that come imbued with timeless significance.