Last week my mother underwent a surgical procedure to remove her cancerous thyroid. Filled with the typical anxiety that surrounds most operations, my brothers, my dad, and I found an occasional respite in the joy and energy of my niece, Fiona, who traveled with her dad to comfort Grandma during the hospital stay.
On the rare occasion that I could steal her attention from the iPad, I attempted to make conversation with this little girl who has developed quite the personality. Like most conversations I have with 5 year olds, singing soon took center stage. I requested the children’s church song, ‘Father Abraham,’ and she obliged. And to my surprise she knew all of the lyrics perfectly, except for the very first line and title of the song, which she replaced with, “All the vaberpam had many sons. Many sons had all the vaberpam.”
She sang the song this way consistently and with passion and conviction, unaware that her little ears didn’t quite hear exactly right when her teachers originally taught the song. Nor did she understand the meaning of the words she was singing.
Of course, that is not an unusual phenomenon with children. But during our weekend church gathering this past week I had the thought that perhaps on occasion adults share in a similar lack of understanding when singing some older hymns, packed with words and phrases that are foreign to 21st century ears. Sunday we sang the popular hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” written in 1757 by Robert Robinson.
There is a curious lyric at the beginning of the second stanza, “Here I raise my Ebenezer.” Many may sing this song time and time again, not really understanding what this particular line means. Why are we singing about Ebenezer Scrooge at church? Furthermore, it’s only October, surely we shouldn’t sing Christmas songs until December. And am I supposed to be raising Scrooge like Mufasa raises Simba? What does it all mean?
Obviously, Come Thou Fount isn’t a Christmas song after all. And that line isn’t an allusion to A Christmas Carol. In fact, Charles Dickens wasn’t even alive yet when Robinson penned this meaningful song. So what is this Ebenezer that we all agreed on Sunday to raise? When the reference is understood this stanza becomes a powerful image in the life of faith, finding its roots in the Old Testament.
In 1 Samuel 7 we find a story in which the Israelites are facing an overwhelming threat of destruction at the hands of the Philistines. The distraught nation, fearing for their safety, begs the prophet Samuel to seek God and pray for physical protection. Samuel agrees, repents on behalf of the nation, offers a sacrifice, and lifts his prayer of petition before the Lord. God hears the cry of his people and ensures safety.
We then read about Samuel’s response to God’s faithfulness in 1 Samuel 7:12: Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”
The English word ‘Ebenezer’ comes from a Hebrew phrase meaning ‘stone of help’. This stone called Ebenezer that Samuel raised was a tangible, visible reminder that the God of Israel was faithful to his people. They owed their safety in this situation and everything else in their lives to God, their stone of help.
When we sing, “Here I raise my Ebenezer,” we follow it with the phrase, “hither by thy help I’ve come.” This is a declaration that we are raising a monument in our minds that is a great reminder that God is our help. Wherever we are today, it is only by his grace and his faithfulness to us. We rely on his consistent pattern of love to carry us and we find strength in remembering the past to continue moving forward.
Thus far the Lord has helped us. Thanks be to God, he is our stone of help!