Text: Robert Robinson, 1758
Tune: Nettleton, from Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second, 1813
From The Christian Life Hymnal, 2006
At my church the past few weeks we have been in a teaching series called “More Than Words.” The idea behind it is that leaders in church tend to throw around lots of religious words (grace, spirit, righteousness, holiness etc.) without stopping to explain or define what these words actually mean. That got me thinking… how many of the songs we sing in church contain words that we wouldn’t be able to define on a vocabulary quiz?
Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing is one of my favorite hymns that has a word that almost leaps off the page begging to be defined: Ebenezer. So, I looked it up. The word comes from 1 Samuel chapter 7. Prior to this, the Israelites have been fighting for many years against the Philistines. In chapter 7, the Israelites have decided to turn away from false gods and serve the LORD. They all gather together in a place called Mizpah with their leader, Samuel, to confess and fast before God. Meanwhile, the Philistines decide to take advantage of this convenient gathering of Israelites and attack them. The Israelites are naturally afraid and ask Samuel to pray – which he does – and the Israelites are able to defeat the Philistines.
After this amazing victory, the Ebenezer shows up, and we discover that it’s not a crotchety old man who hates Christmas. We read in verse 14: “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.’” Ebenezer literally means “stone of help.” Samuel sets up a stone to remind himself and everyone else of the time that God came and helped them defeat the Philistines.
So back to the hymn. The writer is saying, God, you’ve helped to me this point. I’m going to raise an Ebenezer. I want the memory of your faithfulness in this particular instance to affect the way I live my life.
It’s interesting what the hymnals in my collection do with this particular phrase. Some leave it as is. Others omit it and replace it with words that are more familiar to a modern singer. Here are some variations I found in the hymnals on my shelf:
Here I find my greatest treasure (Psalter Hymnal)
Here I raise to Thee and altar (Praise)
Hitherto thy love has blest me / Thou hast brought me to this place (New Christian Hymnal)
This my glad commemoration / That ‘til now I’ve safely come (Hymns for the Family of God)
My personal favorite treatment of this word (and some other difficult words in this hymn) is the addition of footnotes at the bottom of the page. Instead of assuming readers know what the words mean or eliminating the problem by inserting a simpler phrase, the editors of the Christian Life Hymnal give footnote definitions for 4 words:
1. Ebenezer: According to 1 Samuel 7:12, a stone commemorating God’s deliverance of his people, literally, “stone of faith”
2. interposed: placed between
3. constrained: obligated
4. fetter: shackle, chain
Sometimes it can be a pain to stop and look up words we don’t understand. However, this hymn is a beloved favorite in the church. I found it in all but a handful of my collection. Even though it was written over 250 years ago, we still sing it regularly in my congregation. Taking time to understand what we sing is worth the effort. I think I will even raise my own Ebenezer to remind myself of times when God was faithful in my life. I’ll let you know what I come up with – and feel free to share yours as well!
Incidentally, I found a stanza on this website that I decided to include on my recording tonight. I didn’t find it any hymnals, so I’m not sure where it came from, but I really like it. Instead of ending with a stanza about our disappointing tendency to wander away from God, it reminds us that there is something better coming. My hope does not have to stay in the past only marked by my Ebenezer. I can also look forward with hope and confidence to a future in heaven.
Come, Thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it, mount of Thy redeeming love.
Here I raise mine Ebenezer hither by Thy help I’m come;
and I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger, interposed His precious blood.
O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.
O that day when freed from sinning, I shall see Thy lovely face;
Clothed then in blood washed linen how I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace;
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry, take my ransomed soul away;
Send thine angels now to carry me to realms of endless day.