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"Ebenezer" – biblical literacy and singing hymns

Before pastors discredit lines of hymns because they are “archaic” or “don’t make any sense today,” perhaps they should make sure that what they are complaining about isn’t a direct biblical allusion.

I’ve recently heard several pastors — with theology degrees, leading large churches — complain about the word “Ebenezer” in the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

“What’s with that? How many people in your congregation know what that means?”

Dismissing the word as a mere “archaism,” little do they realize that “Ebenezer” is actually a direct biblical reference to 1 Samuel 7:12:

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the LORD has helped us.”

Hardly a mere “archaism,” “Ebenezer” is a rich, biblical picture.

How many people in our congregations know what that means? Perhaps few. But this is a revelation of their biblical illiteracy, not cause to dismiss (or change) a biblical allusion in a hymn.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

4 Responses to "Ebenezer" – biblical literacy and singing hymns

  1. That's one of my favorite songs! And of course, being someone who likes to know what the words I'm saying actually /mean/, I looked that up when I was in college, and that verse is now one of my favorite verses.

    I think that when pastors point out that their congregation is ignorant of a Biblical allusion, it speaks more to the quality of the teaching and the desire of the listeners to understand than it does to the usefulness of the song. :)

    On the teaching side, it shows that the pastor has the attitude of "if we don't /already/ know what it means, it's of no use." This is patently false, and the fact that they would use this excuse shows that they are, in fact, merely incompetent at their job: to go look it up and teach it to their congregation. And they wonder why their people are continually immature!

    On the listener's side, nowadays it is too often the case that not only do they not /understand/ the word: they don't even /notice/ it, because they aren't paying attention to what they are actually singing. And when they /do/ notice it, instead of developing some initiative and finding out for themselves what it means, they assume that "because I don't understand it, it's not important". Or they wait for the pastor to spoon-feed it to them.

    Am I advocating intellectualism? Yes and no. No, in that I do not believe that you have to know everything to understand the things of God, nor that the more you know, the more spiritual you are. Yes, in that we are commanded to pursue the knowledge God in Christ, and a spirit of apathy and laziness toward knowledge in general is definitely /not/ the way to get that done. :-D

  2. I agree with the comments above that when singing we should endeavor to unerstand what we're saying. If we don't we can ask for help, look it up (now we have the internet), etc.

    I was at a church once when the song leader announced the hymn would be the C.W. hymn "And Can it Be". He said "We're going to skip verse 2. It says it's a mystery to the angels–well, it's a mystery to me to." The verse goes like this: "’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
    Who can explore His strange design?
    In vain the firstborn seraph tries
    To sound the depths of love divine.
    ’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
    Let angel minds inquire no more." This is an allusion to i Peter 1 where Peter states, "which things the angels desire to look into." Mr. Wesley was interpreting that as stating that the angels were intrigued by the plan of redemption. It IS expressed in rich poetic form and perhaps that was what stumbled the fellow. I wrote him a note that week but he never responded. ;0) ~Laurie

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