Great Texts of the Bible
The Stone of Help
Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and called the name of it Eben-ezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.—1 Samuel 7:12.
1. The Israelites had rejected the Lord as their God before the prophet Samuel was raised to teach them and to deliver them from their enemies, and consequently they were severely oppressed by the Philistines. Samuel assured Israel that if they would return unto the Lord with all their hearts He would deliver them out of the hands of the Philistines. They turned to the Lord; they put away their idols; they renounced their evil habits; and they asked the prophet to pray to the Lord for them. Their enemies, the Philistines, came against Israel when they were actually engaged in renewing their covenant with the Lord under the guidance of the prophet. “But the Lord thundered with a great thunder on that day upon the Philistines, and discomfited them; and they were smitten down before Israel. Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and called the name of it Eben-ezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”
“Are we not all guests of Allah?” says the Arab of the desert, as he welcomes the stranger to his tent and showers upon him all that hospitality can suggest. The simple words well indicate the situation. “Guests of Allah” are we all on our very entrance into the world, and “Guests of Allah” we remain to the close of our sojourn. We are partakers of a store we have not prepared, spectators of a beauty we have not conceived or executed, and sharers of a glory we only dimly understand.1 [Note: M. C. Albright, The Common Heritage, 135.]
2. “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.” The characteristic feature of the inscription lies in the word “hitherto.” It was no doubt a testimony to special help obtained in that time of trouble; it was a grateful recognition of that help; and it was an enduring monument to perpetuate the memory of it. But it was more, much more. The word “hitherto” denotes a series, a chain of similar mercies, an unbroken succession of Divine interpositions and Divine deliverances. The special purpose of this inscription was to link on the present deliverance to all the past, and to form a testimony to the enduring faithfulness and mercy of a covenant-keeping God.
The name “Ebenezer” has become a Christian name. The English Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who loved the Old Testament, were fond of giving Hebrew names to their children. They called their girls by such names as Hagar, Leah, Dinah, Kezia; and they might name their boys Abraham, Phinehas, Habakkuk, Ebenezer. Not only so, but a sailors’ chapel in England is often called a “Bethel”; so among the small and simple meeting-houses which used to serve for the Free Churches in country districts there was one here and there that went by the name of the “Ebenezer.”1 [Note: C. Jerdan.]
3. But was there not something strange in this inscription, considering the circumstances? Could Samuel have forgotten that tragic day at Shiloh—the bewildered, terrified look of the messenger that came from the army to bring the news, the consternation caused by his message, the ghastly horror of Eli and his tragic death, the touching death of the wife of Phinehas, and the sad name which she had, with such seeming propriety, given to her babe. Was that like God remembering them? Had Samuel forgotten how the victorious Philistines soon after dashed upon Shiloh like beasts of prey, plundering, destroying, massacring till nothing more remained to be done to justify the name of “Ichabod”? How could Samuel blot that chapter out of the history? Or how could he say, with that chapter fresh in his recollection, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us”?
All that had Samuel considered well. Even amidst the desolations of Shiloh the Lord was helping them. He was helping them to know themselves, helping them to know their sins, and helping them to know the bitter fruit and woeful punishment of sin. He was helping them to achieve the great end for which He had called them—to keep alive the knowledge of the true God and the practice of His worship, onward to the time when the great promise should be realized—when He should come in whom all the families of the earth were to be blessed.
That “hitherto” is the word of a mighty faith. It includes as parts of one whole the disaster no less than the victory. The Lord was helping Israel no less by sorrow and oppression than by joy and deliverance. The defeat which guided them back to Him was tender kindness and precious help. He helps us by griefs and losses, by disappointments and defeats; for whatever brings us closer to Him, and makes us feel that all our bliss and well-being lie in knowing and loving Him, is helpful beyond all other aid, and strength-giving above all other gifts.
I see the wrong that round me lies,
I feel the guilt within;
I hear, with groan and travail-cries,
The world confess its sin.
Yet, in the maddening maze of things,
And tossed by storm and flood,
To one fixed trust my spirit clings;
I know that God is good!
Not mine to look where cherubim
And seraphs may not see,
But nothing can be good in Him
Which evil is in me.
The wrong that pains my soul below
I dare not throne above:
I know not of His hate,—I know
His goodness and His love.
I dimly guess from blessings known
Of greater out of sight,
And, with the chastened Psalmist, own
His judgments too are right.1 [Note: J. G. Whittier.]
The Help of the Lord
“Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”
1. We need the help of the Lord.—Samuel seems to suggest that the Israelites had done their part. They had fulfilled the national expectation that every man should do his duty. Yet the achievement and glory of the deliverance which the Israelites had experienced, and the mercy which they had received, he ascribes entirely to Jehovah. It was His right arm that had gotten them the victory. He thundered from the heavens, sent panic into the hosts of the Philistines, and made them an easy prey to the Israelites.
Every man who understands his own heart, and who knows his own weakness, will readily assent to the proposition that we daily need in the soul the help of God in Christ. What light and warmth are to the animal world, what a mother is to her young child, God is to our religious life. Our spiritual life is born of God, and we need His grace to overcome the sin that is within, and the temptation that is without. To stand up against all forms of social evil uninjured in soul is to stand in the strength of One who only can “make us dwell in safety.”
The stone was a Te Deum: it bore no man’s name, not even Samuel’s; it said, “We praise thee, O God.” Throughout Europe there is no lack of monuments, streets, and bridges which are named after battles; but only some of the inscriptions on them give God the glory. Even Lord Macaulay’s lines are not to be commended which he puts into the mouth of the Huguenots about the battle of Ivry—
Now glory to the Lord of Hosts, from whom all glories are!
And glory to our sovereign liege, King Henry of Navarre!
Surely the Huguenot prince had no glory at all, by reason of the glory that excelleth.1 [Note: C. Jerdan.]
2. The help of the Lord is always equal to our need.—In the old world, kings and warriors acknowledged the impossibility of standing up against those whom God helps. Moses was more than equal to the King of Egypt because God was with him. And the Christian man can say to-day, without fear of failure, “He that is for us is more than all the forces that are against us.”
Tired! Well, what of that?
Didst fancy life was spent on beds of ease,
Fluttering the rose-leaves scattered by the breeze?
Come! rouse thee, work while it is call’d to-day!
Coward, arise—go forth upon the way!
Lonely! And what of that?
Some must be lonely; ’tis not given to all
To feel a heart responsive rise and fall,
To blend another life into its own;
Work may be done in loneliness; work on.
Dark! Well, what of that?
Didst fondly dream the sun would never set?
Dost fear to lose thy way? Take courage yet,
Learn thou to walk by faith and not by sight,
Thy steps will guided be, and guided right.
Hard! Well, what of that?
Didst fancy life one summer holiday
With lessons none to learn, and naught but play?
Go, get thee to thy task; conquer or die!
It must be learned,—learn it, then, patiently.
No help! Nay, ’tis not so;
Though human help be far, thy God is nigh,
Who feeds the ravens hears His children cry.
He’s near thee wheresoe’er thy footsteps roam,
And He will guide thee, light thee, help thee home.
3. God’s help is conditioned on our co-operation in faith and love.—“He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that seek after him.” Jesus answered and said, “If a man love me, he will keep my word: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.”
(1) Divine help is conditioned on prayer. “And Samuel said, Gather all Israel to Mizpah, and I will pray for you unto the Lord.… And the children of Israel said to Samuel, Cease not to cry unto the Lord our God for us, that he will save us out of the hand of the Philistines. And Samuel took a sucking lamb and offered it for a whole burnt offering unto the Lord; and Samuel cried unto the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him.”
O Thou who dwell’st between the cherubim,
Bow down Thine ear, and hear my sad complaint,
Bow down Thine eye, and see my deep distress;
Save, Father, that Thy children and the world
May know that Thou and only Thou art God.
In every gone-by trouble Thou hast heard,
Thou hast upheld, till now! Across the waste,
The dreary wilderness of trodden years,
Faith can full many an Ebenezer see,
Pillars erected to commemorate
The answered prayer, the great deliverance known.
I plead no merit, Lord; no worthiness;
I plead Thy Name, Thy promise; yea, I look
To Thee in Thy true temple, confident
That while the prayer of faith is lisped without,
Our great Melchizedek will incense give
From His gold censer in the sanctuary,
Perfumed by which my prayer acceptably
Will reach the presence of the Lord of Hosts.1 [Note: Ebenezer Palmer.]
(2) Divine help is further conditioned on self-help. God helps those who help themselves. He works in living men and women. We must use the grace we have if we want more. We must walk in the light that shines to-day if we want more light to-morrow. Our Lord healed the withered hand after the man had “stretched it forth.” The blind man had to “wash in the pool of Siloam” before he received his sight. If there is one man God cannot help it is the man who sits with folded arms waiting for something to turn up. “Things work together for good.” God works in us, and we are to “work out our own salvation.”
(3) Divine help is also conditioned on whole-hearted consecration to God. “And Samuel spake unto all the house of Israel, saying, If ye do return unto the Lord with all your heart, then put away the strange gods and the Ashtaroth from among you, and prepare your hearts unto the Lord, and serve him only; and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.”
Lord, oft I come unto Thy door,
But when Thou openest it to me,
Back to the dark I shrink once more,
Away from light and Thee.
Lord, oft some gift of Thee I pray;
Thou givest bread of finest wheat;
Empty I turn upon my way,
Counting a stone more sweet.
Thou bidst me speed; then sit I still;
Thou bidst me stay; then do I go;
Lord, make me Thine in deed and will,
And ever keep me so!1 [Note: Lizette Woodworth Reese.]
Memorials of Help
“Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpah and Shen.”
1. This stone in Celtic would be called a cromlech. From the earliest times men have reared stones; for instance, the stones of Stonehenge, and the great and lonely cromlechs that you meet with, both in the far East and in the far West. These stones reared by men in the distant past indicate their littleness and their greatness. They indicate their littleness, because they are conscious that their time on earth is brief, and that they will soon be forgotten; and they, therefore, desire to link the memory of their life, their joy, their victory, or their devotion, with some permanent memorial which in after years will record where they suffered and conquered and prayed. Thus man, knowing that he has but a short time to live, tries to defy the ravages of time, and, in erecting the cromlech, confesses his transience. Yet the cromlech witnesses to the greatness of man—that man is able to invest with such associations a stone that was before uninteresting. A mere block of granite or limestone becomes ever after interesting, because one man sinned, suffered, repented, conquered, prayed.
What do I think of souvenirs? I like them much, provided they are not costly. Yet I know not whether I do not like even more to dispense with symbols altogether. For they gather round them, by constant use, new associations, by which the old are obliterated, the precious and hallowed first ones. All things worn or often seen are liable to this. The old habit of erecting an altar of stones to commemorate any signal event was different. It was revisited only at the interval of years, and infallibly brought back the old feeling with which it had stood in connection once. But ornaments, and such things, collect accretions of daily incidents which they suggest, and the symbol does not naturally, but only arbitrarily, recall the person or idea intended to be consecrated by it. I have an insuperable objection to presents—almost a monomania; I am happier without receiving.1 [Note: F. W. Robertson, Life and Letters, 172.]
What a wonderful tribute it is to the greatness of human life that it can associate with a stone undying memories. It is the power of associating human life with Nature that makes these lands in which we live so fascinating. Why is it that Americans cross the Atlantic, and come again and again, and spend months and almost years, in our country? They have broader and richer territories yonder, nobler rivers, more magnificent and splendid ranges of mountains than they ever find in Great Britain. But here the race was cradled, and as the train rushes through our tiny island there is hardly a single point of view anywhere which is not interesting because of associations of human life that cluster around the mouldering walls of the ancient abbeys and cathedrals.2 [Note: F. B. Meyer.]
Last summer I sojourned for a few days in a village situated on the northern slopes of the Ochils. While there I heard frequent reference made to a curious stone called the “Ebenezer Stone,” said to exist in a lonely spot far up among the hills. I resolved to see it, and set off one beautiful day, along with some friends, to look for it. After a long climb, and considerable search, we found it—a plain stone like a small gravestone, two feet six inches in height, and two feet broad. On the upper edge was deeply cut the word “Ebenezer.” On one side was an inscription in Latin, which I translated thus: “Here out of darkness light shone forth, therefore glory be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, my God; and the name of this place is Light.” On the other side were the well-known words of Isaiah: “Who is among you that feareth the Lord, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God.” What was the meaning of it all? That stone with its inscriptions is a monumental record of a soul’s history. More than a hundred years ago, a stranger came to these parts and set up as a sheep-farmer. He was reserved, moody, and distant. He had been trained for the ministry, but, owing to theological doubts, had never taken orders. He was long under the cloud. He walked in darkness and agony, until one blessed and ever-memorable day, on that lone hillside, the light shone upon his troubled soul, and he found God and peace. And so, like the patriarchs of old, he set up his stone of Ebenezer, of thankfulness to God, and there it stands to-day after a hundred years, an encouragement to every troubled and benighted soul.1 [Note: D. Watson, In Life’s School, 177.]
I wonder if there ever was an old homestead in America which did not have its Ebenezer stone in the front yard; the old stone that was allowed to remain, the survivor of the rocky field of one hundred years ago, before the house was built, and all the rest were cleaned out, while this old rock was left. Its hard surface scooped out here and there to hold a little water for the robins and the sparrows that come to bathe and drink in the morning; its old sides embossed and bronzed with lichens and mosses, altogether worn with the feet of the children of three generations, embowered in wild vines and flowing honeysuckle—it stands there the sign of God’s blessing from the wilderness of the past!2 [Note: E. J. Haynes.]
2. But in order that a memorial may have its value for the spiritual life, it has to be erected on a battlefield of the past, and it has to be the sign of our consecration to God’s service in the future.
(1) Our memorials are erected on the battlefields of the past. Samuel’s Ebenezer was placed on the site of an old battlefield. Twenty years before, a battle had been fought and lost upon that very site. Then the fields, which were now waving with corn, had been drenched with the blood of 30,000 men. There the corpses had been heaped highest, for there the last terrific conflict took place around the ark, where Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli, with desperate vigour, gathered the people of Israel to preserve the sacred ark which, against the best judgment of Eli, had been brought into the van of the battle.
But it was not only the scene of defeat, it was the scene of victory; for, during the twenty years that had intervened, Samuel had been building up, had been reconstructing, the Hebrew State, until that great meeting at Mizpah. There he had rallied the whole nation round him, and there he had revived the national unity; there he had brought the people back to allegiance to God; they had swept down the mountain-side in irresistible onslaught, and when the Philistines attacked they overcame and drove them down to Bethcar. And so the stones reared up in a field which had been the scene of the most disastrous defeat, became twenty years after, because of moral and spiritual work that Samuel had done, the scene of the most stupendous victory.
Now and again in the history of the world it has happened that the same spot has witnessed first a defeat and then a victory. During the Middle Ages the republic of Genoa, in Italy, was often at war with the republic of Pisa. On one occasion the Genoese were badly beaten in a sea-fight near the little island of Meloria; but the time came afterwards, in the year 1284, when the Genoese admiral, Oberto Doria by name, directed his warships to the same spot, and said, “Here is that rock; a Genoese defeat made it famous,—a victory would make it immortal.” The result of the second battle was a great victory for Genoa. Half the Pisan fleet, of seventy-two galleys, was destroyed. The power of Pisa was crushed. So great was the number of prisoners taken by the Genoese that it was said, “To see Pisa, you must now go to Genoa.” And Pisa was compelled to give up to Genoa the whole of Corsica and part of Sardinia, and to pay a fine of 160,000 gold pieces.
Are there not battlefields in our life which have been the scenes of our disgraceful defeat? Are there not stones in the walls of our houses which have looked on and beheld our abominable and shameless sin, our irritability, our jealousy, our hot unkind and cruel words, things which, as we remember them to-day, fill our heart with horror that ever we could have had aught to do with them? But these same stones and bricks and walls are to look down upon victory where there was defeat, upon might where there was weakness, upon purity where there was defilement, upon the sweet and holy temper where there was the ungovernable passion, upon standing erect with God’s light upon our brow, where we were prostrate beneath the heel of the enemy.1 [Note: F. B. Meyer.]
(2) The stone of help erected by the Israelites was a witness to the consecration of the people to God’s service. First Samuel made them put away their gods; and they vowed they would, and cast them from their pedestals, and the licentious impurities and usages were disavowed. Then the prophet of God took a ewer of water, whilst all the people watched him narrowly, and he poured out the water upon the ground. How it flashed in the Oriental sunlight! And as he did so he set forth the desire of himself and the people to pour out their hearts in confession before God, a most significant and beautiful sign. It was often referred to afterwards, as when some one said, “Ye people pour out your hearts before him.” So, as he poured out the water, they poured out their tears, their sighs, their repentance, their yearning after a better life. But that was not all. The Philistines began to steal up the passes, and the people cried out with alarm. Samuel took a sucking lamb and sacrificed it whole upon the altar, to indicate the entire surrender of the people to God.
The Odin Stone in the Orkneys had a hole through which men passed their hands, and, thus holding them, swore fealty to each other,—a practice recognized by the law of the islands down to a very recent period. Even as late as 1781 the elders were specially severe on a young man whose character was held in evil repute because he had “broken the oath of Woden.” This stone was eighteen feet high, and stood outside the circle of Stennis.1 [Note: G. H. Dick.]
The Past, the Present, and the Future
“Thou hast not suffered me to see the Hereafter, but Thou hast allowed me to behold the Hitherto, and verily the Hitherto is glorious.”2 [Note: G. Matheson.]
Happiness is the shadow of things past,
Which fools still take for that which is to be!
And not all foolishly:
For all the past, read true, is prophecy,
And all the firsts are hauntings of some Last,
And all the springs are flash-lights of one Spring.3 [Note: Francis Thompson.]
1. The Past.—The Ebenezer was set up by Samuel just after an ungrateful and sinning people had repented. God was merciful. The storm of lightning and the crash of thunder that had scattered the Philistines might have scattered them. But under the divinely-wise leadership of Samuel the great convention at Mizpah was closed by the erection of this stone; and it meant gratitude to Jehovah who both pardoned them and fought for them. There is an important sense in which we do not or ought not to forget the things which are behind. It is true we must be progressive as Christians and as Churches in all Christian excellences; we are not to become fossils; we are not to become mummies, standing erect but dead; we are to press on towards perfection. But a great impulse to progress comes from the retrospect of mercies received and victories won for us; so that we are not to forget the way by which God has led His Israel; with David we say,” Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.”
We delight to look down a long avenue of trees. It is delightful to gaze from end to end of the long vista, a sort of verdant temple, with its branching pillars and its arches of leaves; even so should we look down the long aisles of our years, at the green boughs of mercy overhead, and the strong pillars of loving-kindness and faithfulness which bear up our joys. Are there no birds in yonder branches singing? Surely there must be many, and they all sing of mercy received “hitherto.”1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]
Oh, to go back across the years long vanished,
To have the words unsaid, the deeds undone,
The errors cancelled, the deep shadows banished,
In the glad sense of a new world begun;
To be a little child, whose page of story
Is yet undimmed, unblotted by a stain,
And in the sunrise of primeval glory
To know that life has had its start again!
I may go back across the years long vanished,
I may resume my childhood, Lord, in Thee,
When in the shadow of Thy cross are banished
All other shadows that encompass me;
And o’er the road that now is dark and dreary,
This soul, made buoyant by the strength of rest,
Shall walk untired, shall run and not be weary,
To bear the blessing that has made it blest.
2. The Present.—Those pillars, the sacraments, the songs of praise to which past mercies prompted, are scenes or means of present fellowship with God. We cannot live upon a vanished vision, or a good impression twenty or twenty-five years old. God is always new and fresh and bright as the dawn. The light is sweet, and it is a pleasant thing for the eyes to behold the sun. Have we a fellowship with God as we see Him in Christ, sweet and restful and refreshing, every day as we read a chapter of the Holy Book, as we kneel or walk about with Him in heart-easing conversation?
3. The Future.—“Hitherto” means more than it says. It looks forward as well as backward, and sees the future in the past. Memory passes into hope, and the radiance in the sky behind throws light upon our forward path. God’s “hitherto” carries “henceforward” wrapped up in it. His past reveals the eternal principles which will mould His future acts. “He has helped, therefore He will help” is no good argument concerning men; but it is valid concerning God.
We may reason from the past to the future, but our confidence for the future must be based on the help of Him who in the past has not suffered us to be overthrown. The Christian’s life is bound up in God, and only he can say of the past, the present, and the future: “But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead: who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us.”
When a man gets up to a certain mark and writes “hitherto,” he is not yet at the end, there is still a distance to be traversed. More trials, more joys; more temptations, more triumphs; more prayers, more answers; more toils, more strength; more fights, more victories; and then come sickness, old age, disease, and death. Is it over now? No! there is more yet—awakening in Jesus’ likeness, thrones, harps, songs, psalms, white raiment, the face of Jesus, the society of saints, the glory of God, the fulness of eternity, the infinity of bliss. O be of good courage, believer, and with grateful confidence raise thy “Ebenezer,” for
He who hath helped thee hitherto
Will help thee all thy journey through.1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]
Before us lie the hills, sunlit with promise,
Fairer fulfilments than the past could know,
New growths of soul, new leadings of the Spirit.
And all the glad surprises God will show.
Davies (J. LI.), Spiritual Apprehension, 329.
Dick (G. H.), The Yoke and the Anointing, 187.
Humberstone (W. J.), The Cure of Care, 83.
James (J. A.), Sermons, iii. 189.
Jerdan (C.), Gospel Milk and Honey, 89.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Deuteronomy–1 Samuel, 283.
Matheson (G.), Moments on the Mount, 201.
Meyer (F. B.), Samuel the Prophet, 53.
Pentecost (G. F.), Bible Studies: Mark and Jewish History, 221.
Salmond (C. A.), For Days of Youth, 364.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, ix. (1863), No. 500.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Morning by Morning, 365.
Williams (T. M.), Sermons of the Age, 85.
Christian World Pulpit, xlii. 22 (Hall); lxi. 244 (Meyer).
Expository Times, vii. 86 (Ford).
Homiletic Review, l. 386 (Haynes).