In my grandmother Totten’s Presbyterian hymnal from the 1950’s, the great eighteenth-century hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” has a word in it that would confuse most people nowadays. I had to look it up myself. The second verse begins: “Here I raise my Ebenezer: Hither by thy help I’m come.”
The reference would have been clear to my grandmother, and to Emily Dickinson, for that matter. The word “Ebenezer” is found in a passage in First Samuel, one of the historical books of the Hebrew scriptures. It describes an event, the celebration of Israel’s victory over the Philistine army, a victory that came against the odds, when the thundering voice of God threw the troops into confusion, and they fled. The passage reads: “Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying Hitherto hath the Lord helped us” (1 Sam 7:12 KJV).
There is a powerful moment in any religious conversion, perhaps to any faith, in which a person realizes that all of the mentors, and all that they have said, all of the time spent in reading scripture, or engaged in what felt like stupid, boring, or plain hopeless prayer, has been of help after all. It is nothing you have done, but all of it is one event, God’s being there, and being of help. The enemies you were facing, whatever obstacles seemed amassed against you, even your own confusion, have simply vanished. And you are certain that it is God who has brought you to thie moment, which may even feel like victory.
I have at my disposal any number of references to inform me that “Ebenezer” means “Stone of Help.” I also have the modern version of the hymn, which reads: “Here I find my greatest treasure; Hither by they help I’ve come.” Close, but no cigar. It’s not just that we have lost so much in translation. It’s a loss of biblical literacy, a fluency with the words of scripture that impoverishes the language of faith. And all of the sophisticated methods of biblical interpretation that we have devised in our time, even the best of them, won’t help us much if those words are not in the human imagination, in our hearts, and on our tongues.
– from “Amazing Grace”