I say notoriously, because it has been generations since large numbers of church goers have understood the meaning of “Ebenezer.” It’s a stone of remembrance, set up by the judge and prophet Samuel on an occasion well worth remembering.
When Samuel was a child, two worthless priests under judgment from God decided to take the ark of the covenant into battle with the Philistines. Since they had no relationship with God and no regard for him, they must have regarded the ark as some kind of magic box that would turn the tide of battle. It didn’t. Philistines executed God’s judgment by killing both of them. The Philistines also captured the ark.
The loss of the ark was a crushing disgrace to all Israel. It turned out to be no particular benefit to the Philistines, though. Painful plagues broke out wherever they took it, and eventually they sent it back. The Israelites made no attempt to return it to any of their major worship centers. It stayed near the border with the Philistines, half forgotten, until David took it to Jerusalem many years later.
So the men of Kiriath Jearim came and took up the ark of the Lord. They brought it to Abinadab’s house on the hill and consecrated Eleazar his son to guard the ark of the Lord. The ark remained at Kiriath Jearim a long time—twenty years in all.
Then all the people of Israel turned back to the Lord. So Samuel said to all the Israelites, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the Lord only.
Then Samuel said, “Assemble all Israel at Mizpah, and I will intercede with the Lord for you.” When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the Lord. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the Lord.” Now Samuel was serving as leader of Israel at Mizpah.
When the Philistines heard that Israel had assembled at Mizpah, the rulers of the Philistines came up to attack them. When the Israelites heard of it, they were afraid because of the Philistines. They said to Samuel, “Do not stop crying out to the Lord our God for us, that he may rescue us from the hand of the Philistines.” Then Samuel took a suckling lamb and sacrificed it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord. He cried out to the Lord on Israel’s behalf, and the Lord answered him.
While Samuel was sacrificing the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to engage Israel in battle. But that day the Lord thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites. The men of Israel rushed out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, slaughtering them along the way to a point below Beth Kar.
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.”
So the Philistines were subdued and they stopped invading Israel’s territory. Throughout Samuel’s lifetime, the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines. The towns from Ekron to Gath that the Philistines had captured from Israel were restored to Israel, and Israel delivered the neighboring territory from the hands of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites. — 1 Samuel 7:1-14, NIV
The Bible doesn’t say what Samuel may have done or said in immediate response. Apparently the people only gradually came to the conclusion that they needed to repent corporately of their violation of their covenant with God. It took 20 years before they decided to return to the Lord. Samuel had to remind them what that meant: get rid of all the Canaanite idols and worship only God.
Once Samuel was satisfied that people had indeed repented, he called for an assembly at a place called Mizpah. That’s one of the worship centers on his regular traveling circuit, and worship centers in those days were always on high places. In fact, Mizpah means watchtower.
The Philistines noticed a large gathering of Israelites and assumed it was a military threat that they had to counter. There were five major Philistine city states, and the armies of all five promptly marched on Mizpah just as the worship was getting into high gear.
Here’s how we know that the Israelites were serious about returning to the Lord. When they heard about the impending visit from the Philistines, they didn’t abandon the worship service to mobilize for the threat. They asked Samuel to pray about it, and he offered a sacrifice.
Here’s the scene. The Israelites were gathered on a hill at worship. They apparently had some weapons with them, but in no way were they ready for battle. Just as Samuel started to offer the sacrifice, well-armed and motivated Philistines appeared in the valley below and began their attack. Then the thunderstorm began.
Israel had met the previous Philistine attack with bravado, confident that the ark of the covenant would embolden their troops and scare the enemy. Their magic box was of no help. This time, they responded with faith. It was timid faith, but genuine nonetheless. God answered their faith.
Notice that God did not intervene miraculously. Sudden thunderstorms spring up all the time all over the world. Weather has influenced the outcome of numberless battles throughout history. But God controls the weather. We don’t. God showed his presence and which side he was on in the timing of this storm.
It frightened the Philistines and broke up their battle lines. They began to flee. When the sacrifice was completed, the Israelites rushed down the hill, pursued the Philistines and slaughtered them.
Samuel made sure that such a dramatic deliverance would not soon be forgotten. He set up a memorial stone along a major thoroughfare and named it Ebenezer, “stone of help,” or better still, “stone of the Helper.” He said, “The Lord has helped us so far.”
Samuel intended that the stone would both remind the people to praise God for his deliverance up till that time and trust God in any future need for deliverance. Every Christian ought to “raise an Ebenezer” on a regular basis, whether we remember this incident from Scripture or not. The more we remember that God is “our help in ages past,” to quote another hymn, the easier it will be to trust him to be “our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.”