One of the most popular Christian hymns is “O Thou Font of Every Blessing,” written by Robert Robinson in 1758 while only 23 years of age. Having lived a life of sin and crime as part of a notorious gang, he was converted after hearing a sermon by famous evangelist George Whitfield. The second stanza says,
Here I’ll 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.
The statement of raising “my Ebenezer” is a reference to an interesting biblical account in 1 Samuel 7:12. The Israelites had won a great military victory over the Philistines. We read, “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.’” Ebenezer is the Hebrew, “Eben ha-`ezer,” which means “stone of help.” As a memorial of this victory, Samuel placed a standing stone monument between Mizpeh and Shen, to which he gave the name of Stone of Help, as a physical visible testimonial acknowledging the Lord’s protection and guidance of His people Israel. The classic commentary, Horae Homileticae, tells us, “But to all future ages also was this memorial intended to convey an instructive lesson—a commemorative act, To commemorate this deliverance, Samuel ‘put up the stone, which he called Ebenezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.’”
But didn’t the Bible prohibit graven images and idols? Leviticus 26:1 commands, “Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I am the LORD your God.” Barnes Notes defines “Standing image” as “Either an upright statue, or a pillar, such as an obelisk or a Celtic menhir, set up for an idolatrous purpose.” The Israelite standing stones were not prohibited by God because they were not objects of worship, nor were the Celtic standing stones used for idolatry according to historians. The Keil & Delitzsch Commentary explains, “there is added the command not to put מַשְׂכִּית אֶבֶן, [eben mashchith] “figure-stones,” in the land, to worship over (by) them. The ‘figure-stone’ is a stone formed into a figure, an idol of stone, not merely a stone with an inscription or with hieroglyphical figures.” Similarly, the noted French theologian Calmet stated, “idols and religious monuments were not prohibited by the law in Leviticus xxvi:1. Samuel would take every precaution that they should not become objects of idolatry, as he was under the immediate influence of the Holy Spirit.”
Biblical scholars have often noted that this stone Ebenezer was not the only one of its kind. The Israel people frequently set up stone pillar monuments as testimonials in thankfulness to the Lord’s watchful care over His people. In fact, another stone Ebenezer is mentioned as having also been set up by the Prophet Samuel in a different location. The Biblical Background Commentary states, “The Ebenezer mentioned in 1 Samuel 4:1 (at Izbet Sartah) was about twenty miles northwest of Mizpah. The location named Ebenezer in this chapter [1 Samuel 7] is likely at a different place.” Archaeologists have long noted the fact that the Israelites frequently set up such stone monuments wherever they went. There is a long trail of stone monuments following the Israel tribes on their migrations from Palestine westward across Europe into the British Isles. This is incontestable physical fact, yet how few today recognize this westward stream of monumental evidence in the search for Israel’s lost tribes!
James Hastings, in “Great Texts of the Bible” says, “This stone in Celtic would be called a cromlech. From the earliest times men have reared stones; for instance, the stones of Stonehenge, and the great and lonely cromlechs that you meet with, both in the far East and in the far West…The Odin Stone in the Orkneys had a hole through which men passed their hands, and, thus holding them, swore fealty to each other,—a practice recognized by the law of the islands down to a very recent period. Even as late as 1781 the elders were specially severe on a young man whose character was held in evil repute because he had ‘broken the oath of Woden.’ This stone was eighteen feet high, and stood outside the circle of Stennis…I wonder if there ever was an old homestead in America which did not have its Ebenezer stone in the front yard; the old stone that was allowed to remain, the survivor of the rocky field of one hundred years ago, before the house was built, and all the rest were cleaned out, while this old rock was left.”
The same source also adds, “The name ‘Ebenezer’ has become a Christian name. The English Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who loved the Old Testament, were fond of giving Hebrew names to their children. They called their girls by such names as Hagar, Leah, Dinah, Kezia; and they might name their boys Abraham, Phinehas, Habakkuk, Ebenezer. Not only so, but a sailors’ chapel in England is often called a ‘Bethel’; so among the small and simple meeting-houses which used to serve for the Free Churches in country districts there was one here and there that went by the name of the ‘Ebenezer.’”
Historian D. Watson, in his book, “In Life’s School,” says, “Last summer I sojourned for a few days in a village situated on the northern slopes of the Ochils. While there I heard frequent reference made to a curious stone called the ‘Ebenezer Stone,’ said to exist in a lonely spot far up among the hills. I resolved to see it, and set off one beautiful day, along with some friends, to look for it. After a long climb, and considerable search, we found it—a plain stone like a small gravestone, two feet six inches in height, and two feet broad. On the upper edge was deeply cut the word ‘Ebenezer.’” (p.177)
Scholars recognize that the raising of stone monuments has been widespread from the Mideast all the way westward to Britain. The Biblical Background Commentary says, “In the ancient Near East it was common practice to use stones, often inscribed, to mark boundaries. Babylonian kudurru stones were boundary markers that were sometimes inscribed with the details of the royal grant assigning rights to the land. They were public and legal indicators of ownership and were believed to enjoy divine protection. Like this stone, the kudurru stones were sometimes given names (for example, ‘Establisher-of-Permanent-Boundaries’)…Examples are known throughout the second millennium…[with] inscriptions on the stone describing summary accounts of the victory or stipulations or curses regarding the continuing possession of the land.” John Trapp’s Commentary adds, “the place where Charles the Great vanquished his enemies was called Mons adiutorii, the hill of help, and Alexander the Great called the mountain where he overcame Darius, Nicatorium, or the place of conquest.”
Robert Hawker, in his “Poor Mans Commentary” brings forward the Spiritual meaning of these stone monuments: “Reader! how many Ebenezers have you and I erected of deliverances and mercies? Alas! if we cannot point to very, very many, it is not because our gracious God hath afforded no remarkable occasions for them; but because they have passed by unnoticed and disregarded from our ungrateful and unworthy minds. ‘How much owest thou unto my Lord?’ is a question, I would pray for grace to put to my soul in the close of every day and night.”
The Church Pulpit Commentary similarly states, “And yet myriads of us forget to rear our pillars!—Thousands of favours received, and yet not a single Ebenezer erected! This non-recognition of the Divine help is practical atheism. Too many of us are crying out with Nebuchadnezzar, ‘Is not this great Babylon which I have built?’ This Christian land ought to be covered with Ebenezers; but, alas, how few they are! What heartless ingrates the great majority of us are in reality! If we only considered seriously what the Lord has done for us individually and collectively, our help-stones would cover the land and our psalms of praise would rend the sky.”
Let us then remember both the physical and Spiritual significance of raising our Ebenezers!