“Afterward, Samuel took a stone and set it upright between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, explaining, ‘The Lord has helped us to this point.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
How good is your memory? I’ll admit, mine’s not great. Well, it’s pretty good, but it doesn’t always work conveniently. The things that stick and the things that don’t sometimes seem to have no rhyme or reason to them. It’s good to remember, though. Being controlled by the past obviously isn’t good, but learning from it and understanding how it affects us in the present is worthwhile. One thing that is particularly worth remembering is what God has done in the past. This was something ancient Israel often did very well. Let’s talk about how and why it matters.
When Israel journeyed from Egypt to the Promised Land, one of the things that caused them so much trouble was the fact that they kept forgetting. They kept forgetting what God had done for them in the past. Well, that’s not exactly true. As a matter of factual specificity, the first generation of them remembered what God had done. Had you gone up to any of them and asked, “How did you manage to escape from Egypt and Pharaoh’s fearsome forces?” they would have quickly started telling you about the parting of the Red Sea and what it was like to walk between the two walls of water on dry ground. That’s not the kind of experience you would ever forget.
But as they journeyed through the land, they consistently behaved as if God hadn’t done for them all the things He had done for them. In fact, they acted as if He hadn’t done anything for them. He hadn’t set them free. He hadn’t miraculously provided food for them every single day. He hadn’t rescued them from all manner of tough situations. None of it. They were whiney and demanding and ungrateful. They turned their backs on Him and rejected His rules almost as soon as He gave them. It was really rather embarrassing.
All the while, God kept telling them over and over to remember. Do this and that so that when your children ask why, you can tell them what I’ve done for you and for them. He had them build monuments and altars and develop feasts and festivals whose liturgies included telling and retelling the story of what He had done. And, they finally learned to do it. As their history unfolds in the Scriptures, we see their leaders become more and more intentional about creating physical markers of God’s action on their behalf. They would experience some incredible interaction with Him, and create a stone or pile of stones or something to mark the occasion. They would give the places certain events took place names that intentionally called to mind things He had done. The names usually wound up being clunky and awkward, but they worked. We’re still telling some of those stories today.
Now, shift gears with me. One of my favorite hymns is the oldie and goodie, Count Thou Fount of Every Blessing. The lyrics allow the worshiper to invite God deeply into your life with a spirit of open-hearted gratitude. The second verse, though, is often confusing to folks. It opens like this: “Here I raise mine Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’m come.” Most people today sing those words (if that verse is even included) and don’t have the slightest idea of what they are talking about.
It is a reference to this passage here in 1 Samuel. The people of Israel were slowly awakening from their spiritual stupor during the period of the judges under the wise and faithful leadership of Samuel. They had lost the Ark of the Covenant to the Philistines under Eli’s poor leadership, but it had been recovered and the people were starting to come back around to the necessity of following God’s ways instead of their own. About 20 years after the Ark was returned, the Philistines came to attack yet again. They attacked while the people were all gathered at a national assembly. Samuel called them to recommit themselves to the Lord, which they did, and sent them out to battle their enemies with renewed fervor. They routed the Philistines and drove them back a great distance.
Then this: “Afterward, Samuel took a stone and set it upright between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, explaining, ‘The Lord has helped us to this point.'” The passage goes on to summarize how this victory subdued the Philistine threat for the rest of Samuel’s life. They were unwilling to attack the people of Israel as long as Samuel was in charge. His connection with their God was too great. That word, Ebenezer, is a Hebrew one. It means, “stone of help.” When the people saw that stone, it was intended to be a reminder to them of God’s help against the Philistines. And if God helped them then, He would help them again.
The point of the line in “Count Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is to remind the singer of God’s active help in getting to the point in life that she is right now. The next line goes, “And I hope by Thy good pleasure safely to arrive at home.” God has helped us this far, and we are hopeful for His help in the next part of the journey.
The song is fantastic, but the bigger point here is that it is good and worthwhile to remember. It is good and worthwhile to remember what God has done in the past. It is good and worthwhile to remember what God has done both in the distant past, but also in your past. When you have been through some remarkable experience with God, find a way to mark that moment. Create a piece of art. Make a memorial in your home or yard. Start a family celebration on that date each year. Do something to remind yourself. Do something to remind your kids. Remind your friends and neighbors. Raise your Ebenezer. Raise it to constantly remind yourself that it is by His help that you’ve come this far. It will be by His help that you make it forward to the next stop on your journey. It will be by His help that you reach your final destination.
If you forget, then when the next challenging season arrives – and another challenging season will arrive – you won’t lean on Him. You won’t trust in Him as quickly. You’ll spin around in circles trying to figure out what to do instead of reaching for the help you learned you can safely rely on last time; but you forgot. You’ll waste time and energy and resources trying to get by on your own, when He is the best and quickest way through. You’ll make a mess of things and for nothing. You have to remember. So, don’t forget.