A New Lesson from an Old Hymn

More than 250 years ago, Robert Robinson put quill to paper and composed the words of "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing." One of Christendom's most beloved hymns, it stirs the intellectual soul in much the same way modern worship stirs the emotional one. The words are challenging and beautiful.

I've sung this song during worship more than a few times, and the second verse has always seemed puzzling: "Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I've come." I think I get the gist of it, but what is an 'Ebenezer'? For some reason I always imagine a scowling old man, angrily brandishing a cane—I suppose I can thank Charles Dickens for that. But the verse always struck me as odd, and no one ever said anything about it; they just sang along, then sat down to quietly listen to the sermon.
A lot changes in 250 years. Though every schoolgirl in the eighteenth century probably knew what an Ebenezer was, that's no longer true. So here's a quick history lesson:

When the Israelites defeated the Philistines at a place called Beth-Car, the prophet Samuel took a stone, stood it up and "named it Ebenezer, saying, 'Thus far the Lord has helped us.'" (1 Samuel 7:12, NIV) Ebenezer literally means "stone of help," and Samuel erected it as a reminder for all that God had provided a victory, that He had cared for His children.

Now the words of Robinson's song come into focus. He is placing a monument, something to help him remember that God brought him to this point. He goes on to speak of his desire for heaven and the amazing grace given through Christ. The image drawn should not be one of a miser with a cane, but rather a man on His knees, intentional in his remembrance of the God who saves.

We humans are a forgetful people. It's easy to poke fun at Israel for not remembering God's power, to laugh at the Apostles as they repeatedly don't get it. But despite our cries of "surely not I, Lord,” the truth is humanity is still pretty much the same. We believe in God, but stroll through life forgetting He is active. We pray passionately, but don't notice when He answers. We nod our heads to the sound of His commands, only to break them an hour after church.

God has a pretty good idea of human nature, and it's no accident that He commanded His people to celebrate feasts, offer sacrifices and gather in His name. These are all standing stones—Ebenezers—designed to jog our memories so we won't forget what God has done in our lives. The celebration of communion is a perfect example: how often would we meditate on Christ's death and resurrection if it weren't for that?

Ebenezers aren't just big rocks anymore. They're writings, tattoos, songs, rituals. The monuments around us still speak, and good art invites us to hear their stories. As Christians, we work to raise stones in the desert, pieces that silently shout to the world of a God bursting with love. Our paintings reflect the beauty of His creation, our photographs capture the struggles of a fallen world, our films point to the hope of His redemption. This art reminds both artist and audience of the One who invented invention and created creativity.

It is He who inspires above all, and we raise our Ebenezers that we and the world might remember who He is. After all, by His help we've come to this point. And we still need Him to make it the rest of the way.

David Condolora is an editor at Walt Disney Animation Studios. He explores the intersection of faith and film through pixelated glasses at davidcondolora.com.

7 Comments

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Gordon Bond commented…

Great thoughts, David! I'm glad to see aresurgance of hymns like "Come Thou Fount" in worship as well.In my opinion, many contemporary offerings are repetitiousand lack substance. In contrast, the old hymns dwell in rich themes that demand self examination andreflection. Other favorites of mine include "And Can It Be" and"Be Thou My Vision".

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Gman commented…

Great hymn! For an excellent version checkout Sufjan Stevens Christmas album. Mumford and Sons also doa cover of the Sufjan Stevens version, but I think its only on Youtube.

Enjoy

David Condolora

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David Condolora commented…

I love the Sufjan version, but I haven't heard the Mumford and Sons one. I'll check that out, thanks!

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Kristendellapace commented…

I know this came out a few weeks ago but this was the perfect time for me to read it! I never realized how powerful an ebenezer was (and yes i thought it was an old crochety guy with a cane too!), thanks for clarifying. We forget so often what our Father does for us.My absolute favorite thought of yours is this one..."As Christians, we work to raise stones in the desert, pieces that silently shout to the world of a God bursting with love"....very moving!

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Steve Oostdyk commented…

That's one of my favorite hymns. Irun apart time side business selling hymns on CD and MP3 piano accompaniment on line. I hear from many small churches from all over the country who are leading worship services without any accompaniment because they are getting smaller and smaller. I think the younger generation is really missing out on the substance that are in these old hymns.

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