There is a line in a song we sing occasionally at church which goes, “Here I raise mine Ebenezer.” It’s part of a lovely old hymn called “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” written by Robert Robinson around 1757.
But it’s a lyric that probably means little to many modern Christians. The word Ebenezer only occurs three times in the Bible, all in the same story of a series of battles between the Israelites and the Philistines. And this story contains an important message for us today.
We had the privilege of having – at short notice – Tim Petersen with us yesterday. Tim planted and leads a church called Cityhill in Amanzimtoti, Sth Africa. He shared with us a message he entitled “Ebenezer Moments.”
The story – found in 1Sam 4:1-7:14 – begins with the slaughter of 4,000 Israelite soldier in battle. Intriguingly, the Israelites ask, “Why has the Lord defeated us today?” [1Sam 4:3].They conclude that the reason for their defeat was because the Ark of the Covenant [see footnote] was not with them.
So, with much rejoicing and excitement, they bring the Ark of the Covenant up with them to battle, striking fear into the hearts of the Philistines [see 1Sam 4:5-8].
This time though, they lose 30,000 soldiers, and the Ark of the Covenant is captured by the Philistines. What went wrong?
Fundamentally, the Israelites had stopped depending on the Lord. Instead, the first time they went into battle, there were confident in their own ability to beat the enemy – overly confident, as it turns out. But when that failed, they turned to their ‘lucky charm’ – the Ark of the Covenant. Surely having the Ark of the Covenant with them would ensure victory?
Sadly, no. They suffered an even greater defeat and loss of life. As we do when we stop depending on the Lord, and look to our own strength, or turn to superstition for protection.
The Philistines only had the Ark for seven months before they sent it back to the Israelites. But it was twenty years before the Israelites were repentant enough to seek the Lord Himself, rather than seek trinkets that merely represented the Lord.
When they finally did, Samuel commanded them to destroy all the idols they had been worshipping, and return to the Lord with all their heart.
He gathered all the people together at Mizpah to pray for them and to offer a sacrifice on their behalf. When the Philistines heard about this, they gathered to attack them again. This time it was the Israelites who were in fear.
But the result was very different. This time “… the LORD thundered with a mighty sound against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel” [1Sam 7:10].
To commemorate the victory, “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’’ [1Sam 7:12].
There is no greater loss, Tim told us, than turning our back on the Lord, and putting our trust in other things. That pretty gold cross we like to wear around our necks will not protect us. And our Bible won’t drive out our enemy. Our faith can never be in the cross, or in the Bible.
Rather, our dependence, our trust, must be in the One who hung on the cross, the One who authored the Bible. Anything less than dependence on the living God is self-reliance or superstition. And either one will lead to our destruction. There is never a moment in our lives when we can afford to take our eyes off Jesus Christ, “the author and perfecter of our faith” [Heb 12:2].
If there is no greater loss than walking away from the Lord, there is also no greater gain than returning to Him with all our heart.
If you’ve wandered away from the Lord, and begun to put your trust in anything or anyone else, right now is the time to return to Him with all your heart.
“Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” [Matt 6:33]. Seek Him first for your family. Seek Him first for your work. Seek Him first for your marriage. Seek Him first for your ministry. Seek Him first for your finances.
As you do this, every victory will be an Ebenezer moment. Every moment will be a cause to give God glory for His faithfulness and His help.
For more about the Ark of the Covenant, read Ex 25, especially vv 21-22.