One of the most catastrophic military losses in Israel’s history occurs when the Philistines capture the ark of the covenant at Ebenezer (I Samuel 4:1-11). About twenty years later (and after retrieving the ark), the Israelites engage the Philistines in another significant battle, only this time it is they who prevail (I Samuel 7:7-11). Unlike the first battle, in which the nation acts without consulting God (I Samuel 4:3), they choose to rely on divine intervention (I Samuel 7:8) and are rewarded with an improbable if not miraculous victory (I Samuel 7:10-11). This is a significant triumph as it marks the first time in the nation’s history that they defeat the Philistines.
Samuel, Israel’s last judge, first prophet and de facto leader, commemorates the occasion by erecting a monument which he names: “Ebenezer” (I Samuel 7:12).
Then Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” (I Samuel 7:12 NASB)Israel now has a new religious symbol, a boundary with both geographic and spiritual meaning.
Samuel sought to keep the memory of God’s deliverance current in Israel’s mind. He wanted Israel to remember the past and be thankful for God’s help. Remembering God’s help in the past also encourages hope for the future, and hope sustains faith. (Andrews and Bergen, I & II Samuel (Holman Old Testament Commentary), 57)
Large rocks and stones were often used to mark significant events in the ancient world. This incident recalls the stone of Beth Shemesh in the preceding chapter (I Samuel 6:14-15, 18).
V. Philips Long (b. 1951) comments:
The use of (often inscribed) boundary stones was widespread throughout the ancient Near East. The stones were sometimes named and believed to be under divine protection. Curses against those who moved them were sometimes included in the inscription. (John H. Walton [b. 1952], Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 306)Samuel names the stone “Ebenezer,” meaning “stone (or rock) of help”. Robert Alter (b. 1935) defines, “The name means ‘stone of help,’ with ‘help’ bearing a particularly martial implication (Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, 38).”
Samuel accents this etymology by adding, “Thus far the LORD has helped us” (I Samuel 7:12 NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV). Robert D. Bergen (b. 1954) comments:
Samuel named the newly erected stone monument “Ebenezer” (Hebrew ’eben hā‘ēzer), “The Stone of [the Help” or “The Help[er] Is a Stone”) because “the LORD helped us.” The name given the memorial undoubtedly is a confession of faith and trust in the Lord. In the Torah the Lord is poetically referred as the “Stone of Israel” (Genesis 49:24), an obvious reference to his strength exercised in Israel’s behalf; in the Psalms the Lord is frequently praised as a Helper (cf. Psalms 10:14, 33:20, 40:17, 46:1, 63:7, 115:9-11, 118:7, 146:5). Thus whether Samuel was confessing that Israel’s strong God is also a source of help for his people or that Israel’s assistance-giving God is strong, the name affirms two of the Lord’s virtues. (Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel (New American Commentary), 108)
Francesca Aran Murphy (b. 1960) interprets:
Samuel does one thing that, as he saw it, was as good as raising a standing army to match the Philistines’: Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer...Augustine [354-430] interprets Samuel’s comment in relation to etymology: he thinks Ebenezer meant “stone of the helper.” For Augustine, the stone, set up on the new border between the Philistine and the Israelite settlement, represents the choice of direction the Israelites had to make: a “material kingdom” and authentic happiness “in the kingdom of heaven.” The stone “points” toward Israel: “And since there is nothing better than this, God helps us ‘so far’” (City of God 17.7). In the emblem of the stone, God helps to orient us toward the choice for God over a merely human kingdom. (Murphy, 1 Samuel (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 54)
Mark Batterson (b. 1969) simplifies:
I...came up with a personal translation of I Samuel 7:12. I decided to tweak the old adage “So far, so good” by taking “good” out of the equation. My translation? “So far, so God.” (Batterson, Soulprint: Discovering Your Divine Destiny, 85)
Christians have long taken hope in the name Ebenezer. J. Hudson Taylor (1832-1905), founder of the China Inland Mission, famously displayed a plaque in each of his residences which read “Ebenezer Jehovah Jireh”: “The Lord has helped us to this point, and He will see to it from now on.”
The name has also been famously adopted by Christian churches. Alton Hornsby, Jr. (b. 1940) chronicles:
The Ebenezer Baptist Church was founded in 1886, just two decades following the Civil War. The selection of the name Ebenezer, “Stone of Help” (I Samuel 7:12), was “profoundly prophetic,” for this church attained a unique history “in the struggle for freedom of all oppressed people.” The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. [1929-1968] was born into and nurtured by Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Hornsby, Southerners, Too?: Essays on the Black South, 1733-1990, 102)The name Ebenezer affirms that the Israelites’ upset was the result of divine assistance rather than human strength. The stone’s name gives God rightful credit for the victory.
John Goldingay (b. 1942) elucidates:
For the Israelites, the battle meant God had been an extraordinary and decisive help to them “as far as this” in making it possible for them to reach their destiny as a people. They were not all the way there yet, but they were well on the way, and experiencing God acting powerfully on such an occasion had the capacity to embolden them about the certainty that God would take them to that destiny. During the narrative that will unfold through the story of Saul and into the early years of David, God will do so. (Goldingay, 1 & 2 Samuel for Everyone, 44)Ebenezer puts the Israelites’ accomplishment in its proper perspective. Richard D. Phillips (b. 1960) remarks:
He [Samuel]...reminds Israel that this recent victory is just the latest in a long history of God’s mighty redemptive acts, not the least of which was God’s aid in helping the Israelites to repent. It is because of a long chain of mercies that the people of God exist in blessing. Samuel aims for the people to remember what God has done “till now,” so that in the future they will again appeal to him in faith. (Phillips, 1 Samuel (Reformed Expository Commentary), 128)The name also alludes to the nation’s inevitable need for future assistance. Their success as a nation would be largely dependent upon their willingness to rely on God. At the moment Ebenezer is erected, they acknowledge this need.
Robert P. Gordon (b. 1945) expounds:
There is more to the naming of the commemorative stone than the acknowledgment that the victory had come from God. Ebenezer, as the name linked with Israel’s earlier defeats by the Philistines (cf. I Samuel 4:1, 5:1), announces the reversal of these indignities; it is a symbol of reintegration...Hitherto may mean no more than that God’s help against the Philistines was experienced along the way as far as Ebenezer. However, in the present setting...it is tempting to entertain a temporal significance: until this point in Israel’s history Yahweh has been her helper. The question soon to be resolved (I Samuel 8) is whether Yahweh would be allowed to continue that help within the old theocratic framework, or would be set aside as Israel sought to go it alone. (Gordon, I and II Samuel: A Commentary (Library of Biblical Interpretation), 107-108)Erecting this monument is very personal for Samuel. Joyce G. Baldwin (1921-1995) connects:
Samuel’s spiritual style of leadership had been vindicated. The memorial-stone named Ebenezer...proclaimed the effectiveness of trusting the Lord and his designated judge. What possible need could there be to seek innovations such as kingship? The incident provided a strong argument for maintaining the tradition of leadership by judges, appointed and spiritually endowed by the Lord. (Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), 33-34)Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) adds:
The primary focus is again on the person of Samuel. Samuel’s words assert the theological reality of the inversion and surprising victory: “Yahweh helped” (I Samuel 7:12). Samuel and Israel are clear that the transformation was wrought by Yahweh and by none other. Israel must always remember that the victory is a victory given by Yahweh. It is not Israel’s victory, or even the victory of Samuel. (Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 54)The name is also significant as the location where the ark had been seized was also called Ebenezer (I Samuel 4:1, 5:1). Prior to Samuel’s dedication, the Israelites would have cringed at the name “Ebenezer” the way that Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821) reacted to the name “Waterloo” after 1815.
Though they share the same name, there are likely two Ebenezers with the site of the monument being located many miles northwest of the previous battle site. P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. (b. 1945) analyzes:
The relationship of this Ebenezer, located north of Mizpah, to the site of the great battle in I Samuel 4...is problematic, especially since that Ebenezer is supposed to have existed already before the foundation of this one. But it is clear that a certain symmetry is intended between the two battles of Ebenezer, and perhaps the two sites are to be identified...The Bible provides plenty of examples of the anachronistic mention of a place name in advance of the narrative describing the foundation of the place so named. (Bethel, for example, is named by Jacob in Genesis 28:19, though already mentioned in connection with Abraham as early as Genesis 12:8.) (McCarter, I Samuel (Anchor Bible), 146)Though the victory likely did not occur at the same site as the earlier defeat, a name associated with destruction becomes synonymous with victory. One timely right counters a costly wrong. The sting of the earlier defeat is alleviated and the name “Ebenezer” is redeemed.
David Toshio Tsumura (b. 1944) explicates:
Perhaps Samuel named the stone after the place-name “Ebenezer” with the earlier experience in I Samuel 4-5 in mind so that the people might always be reminded of God’s special help (‘ēzer) in this time and at this place. The name “the stone Ezer” is not unusual as a place-name, and it is certainly a reminder of God’s powerful intervention in the history of Israel as well as her former failure at the other “Ebenezer.” (Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 238)Hans William Hertzberg (1895-1965) determines:
It is hardly fortuitous that the same geographical designation also appears in the account of Israel’s defeat (I Samuel 4:1, 5:1). In that case it was the false Ebenezer; this time it is the real one. Whether we have, or are meant to have...the same locality here, cannot be ascertained...because of the intimate geographical details in either case; it will be a place near Mizpah. Here...the theological element is more important that the historical. (Hertzberg, I & II Samuel: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 68-69)The name specifically and intentionally accents God’s redemption. John Woodhouse (b. 1949) remarks:
Giving this memorial stone the name of the earlier locality...and drawing attention to the meaning of the name underlines the reversal that had taken place. The earlier Ebenezer had a terribly ironic name. At “stone of help” Israel had not been helped! Now, however, the new Ebenezer stood as a testimony to the Lord’s help, which was once again enjoyed by Israel. (Woodhouse, 1 Samuel: Looking for a Leader (Preaching the Word), 133)Ebenezer was to remind the Israelites that God had reversed their fortunes in the past and could do so again. It serves the same notice to the modern reader.
What do you associate with the name Ebenezer? Why do you think that Charles Dickens (1812-1870) named the immortal protagonist of A Christmas Carol (1843) “Ebenezer Scrooge”? What is the modern equivalent of erecting an Ebenezer stone? What disgraced names do you know of that have been redeemed? How do you acknowledge your dependence upon God? What personal victories do you commemorate? Do you give God proper credit? What in your life has been redeemed?
Samuel’s institution of the “Ebenezer” stone sets a strong example to establish spiritual markers in our own lives. Dutch Sheets (b. 1954) admits:
There are many...memorials that stand as monuments to the faithfulness of God in my life. Today, when nagging doubts try to trouble my mind in order to convince me that God will not come through for me in a particular situation, I revisit my Ebenezer. I whisper quietly. “Thus far He has helped me.” (Sheets and William Ford III [b. 1965], History Makers: Your Prayers Have the Power to Heal the Past and Shape the Future, 117)Being intentional about acknowledging God is important as it seems to be in human nature to forget. Eugene H. Peterson (b. 1932) contextualizes:
The promised land that had been slowly eroded through generations of willfulness and forgetfulness was recovered as Samuel preached God’s word and administered God’s law. Enemies to the west (Philistines) and to the east (Amorites) were put in their place. The life of faith is never only a matter of the soul; nor is it ever merely circumstantial. The interior and exterior are always impinging on and affecting each other. Every once in a while there is a remarkable confluence of the two elements that calls for recognition. “Ebenezer” is one of those moments of recognition...It marks the place and time in Samuel’s leadership of Israel when the “insides” and “outsides” of Israel were in harmony. These moments are not constant in the life of God’s people, but when they arrive they deserve to be memorialized, for they are evidence of what can happen and what finally will happen as we pray, “Thy kingdom come.” (Peterson, First and Second Samuel (Westminster Bible Companion), 53)Often, we must be reminded of how far we have come and who got us where we are today. Kenneth Chafin (1926-2001) advises:
Creating occasions for remembering is important in life. Often we receive stability in our present and hope for our future as we are reminded how God has dealt with us in the past. This is why one aspect of worship should always be remembering what God has done for us. This creates praise that fortifies us against temptation. Often an individual can work out of a time of discouragement simply by stopping to remember all the blessings God has brought into his or her life. (Chafin, 1, 2 Samuel (Mastering the Old Testament), 71)Beth Moore (b. 1957) encourages:
As we walk out the remainder of our time line of faith, let’s keep memorializing God’s obvious interventions through stones of remembrance. In the meantime, by faith let’s walk with a (figurative) stone on our hand as an “Ebenezer” until we see the next astonishing evidence or spiritual marker and lay it on our line...The “Ebenezer” stone constantly reminds us, “Thus far the LORD helped us.” In other words, with God’s help we’re making it so far, and we’ll make it some more.” (Moore, Believing God, 255)Samuel creates Ebenezer so that the Israelites have a constant reminder of God’s activity in the world and their lives. Jonathan Falwell (b. 1966) imagines:
Every time the children of Israel looked at that rock, it reminded them that God had been faithful before and would be faithful again, no matter what danger or trial they might face. We, too, need to be reminded of God’s grace in our lives. In our humanity, we tend to forget how good God has been to us. We must always remember how God takes us by the hand and leads us through violent rivers and dark paths of pain and doubt. Let us always remember our deliverer and all he has done for us. (Falwell, One Great Truth: Finding Your Answers to Life)Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the Israelites ever built upon Ebenezer. I Samuel 7:12 is the last of only three occurrences of the name Ebenezer in the Bible (I Samuel 4:1, 5:1, 7:12). The euphoria of the victory at Ebenzer does not last long as in the next chapter the Israelites demand a king (I Samuel 8:20). There are no further Bible stories set at Ebenezer and there are no tales of heroes drawing inspiration from the landmark. At no point in the Bible is anyone ever said to look back at the Ebenezer stone.
Did the Israelites ever remember Ebenezer? When have you drawn comfort from the past? Are you thankful for God’s blessings in your life? What are the spiritual markers in your life story? Do you take time to look at the Ebenezer stones in your life?
Here I raise mine Ebenezer;
hither by thy help I'm come;
and I hope, by thy good pleasure,
safely to arrive at home.
- Robert Robertson (1735-1790), “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, 1758