What's An Ebenezer?

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

I love questions. I love asking them and I love being asked ... if nothing else, they keep the brain juices flowing! No one should ever be afraid of questions; God certainly isn’t afraid of questions, and neither should we be afraid of them. If the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord – and it is – then the next step on the path to wisdom is being willing and able to say: "I don’t know." Only God is omniscient, and until we are willing to admit that we don’t know something, we’ll never be able to learn anything new. Think about that!

In short, I love being asked questions that stump me. Why? Because those kinds of questions make me dig, study, and learn something I didn’t know before. Even if I don’t find a satisfactory answer, it’s not a loss; I’ve opened my mind and learned something new. And that’s the essence of wisdom: being open to learning something new. The instant one closes their mind and refuses to learn something new – or thinks they already know "it" all – is the instant when they begin to die.

One of the questions that I’ve been asked several times in the past – and which has caused me to dig into the Bible and really learn something new – was the meaning of the term "Ebenezer."

"What is an Ebenezer, anyway?"

That’s a good question! I always chuckle at the visual images which still come into my mind when we sing hymn No. 400: "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing." The words are wonderful, but when we come to verse 2, and the words: "Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come..." I cannot shake the mental image of someone holding up Ebenezer Scrooge.

While a humorous image, an Ebenezer is not a grizzled old miser who keeps his office way too cold and doesn’t pay Bob Cratchit enough. The term comes from Scripture, so let’s see what Scripture has to say.

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, "Thus far the LORD has helped us." So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel; the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. The towns that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath; and Israel recovered their territory from the hand of the Philistines. There was peace also between Israel and the Amorites. (1 Samuel 7:12-14 NRSV)

The word "Ebenezer" comes from Hebrew and is actually two words pronounced together: Even Haazer. Written in Hebrew it looks like this:

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It is usually transliterated as a proper name by dropping the definite article (Ha) from the Hebrew word for "help" (Ezer) and putting it together with the Hebrew word for "stone" (Even) to create: "Ebenezer." The etymological roots of the word, thus defined, should demonstrate that an "Ebenezer" is, literally, a "Stone of Help."

In 1 Samuel 4:1-11 and 5:1, the Ebenezer is strangely identified with a particular site, about four miles south of Gilgal, where the Israelites were twice defeated by the Philistines and the Ark of the Covenant was stolen. These battles took place, however, before the site was actually named Ebenezer. It was like someone saying that Dinosaurs once lived in Dallas county -- they did, but not when this area was called "Dallas." Likewise, the two battles mentioned in 1 Samuel 4 and 5 took place at Ebenezer, but some time before it was so-named.

The site wasn’t named Ebenezer until after the Israelites finally defeated the Philistines, and took back the Ark of the Covenant. To commemorate the victorious battle, Samuel set up a marker-stone, named it "Stone of Help," and thereby the site became identified with the stone and with the place where God’s miraculous help aided them in their victory over the Philistines. The stone, standing up-right, was called "Ebenezer," and the site naturally took on that name as well.

Literally speaking, an Ebenezer is a "stone of help," or a reminder of God’s Real, Holy Presence and Divine aid. Spiritually and theologically speaking, an Ebenezer can be nearly anything that reminds us of God’s presence and help: the Bible, the Sacramental Elements, a cross, a picture, a fellow believer, a hymn – those things which serve as reminders of God’s love, God’s Real Presence, and God’s assistance are "Ebenezers."

Each Thanksgiving I give thanks to God for the wonderful Ebenezers that God has given me in my life and ministry. Most especially among these, I thank God for my Church family -- the many wonderful saints within my congregations who have upheld me, daily, with their prayers, their words of encouragement, and their acts of service. May each and every one of us always be blessed by the grace and peace of Jesus Christ through the Ebenezers that God has placed in our lives!

© 2006, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.