At our church’s gathering this past Sunday, we sang a famous hymn from the 1700’s, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The melody and tune of this song are incredibly beautiful, memorable, and singable (just as the best corporate worship songs should be). On the other hand, the words are, how do I say it, a little outdated. I mean seriously, who today actually prays the words, “Father, here I raise my ebenezer, here by Thy great help I come.” What in the world does that even mean? I asked some students at church camp what an “ebenezer” is, and the most common answer I got was, “a grumpy old man”.
This begs the question, why in the world would we sing that, and if we don’t understand something, should we just not sing it altogether?
Surely God is no fool. He hears words attached to our hearts, not empty words that we don’t understand. Isaiah prophesied about people who don’t understand what they are singing, and ultimately don’t actually mean what they sing, “This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). Jesus himself tells us in John 4:24 that “God is Spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Not only do the words need to be true, but we need to grasp them in our intellects (truth) and let these glorious truths capture our heart’s affections (spirit). We must be informed worshippers. So I want to take a minute to break down two of the key words in the popular hymn.
First off, an ebenezer literally means “stone of remembrance” and it comes from from 1 Samuel when the Lord gave the Israelites an incredible, against all odds, victory over the Philistines. Israel’s king set up a stone, something common, to represent something incredible, the Lord’s help. So when we sing, “Here I raise my ebenezer, here by Thy great help I come. And I hope by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.” We are saying, I remember and recall the Lord’s victorious work in my life, chiefly in our salvation, and I am going to let God’s past work fuel my future hope. When adversity strikes and trials come, we look back and remember him who was faithful to be our help and we speak that truth to our souls. “The Lord will be our help,” “The Lord will get us through,” “The Lord has never failed us and he won’t start failing us now.”
A fetter references shackles to be used to restrain and bind a prisoner, typically a fetter would be placed around the ankles. In other words, that prisoner aint goin’ nowhere. When we sing, “Let Thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee,” we are making a desperate plea for the Lord to keep us, to bind us, to “chain us” to himself. By God’s grace, we realize with the prophet Jeremiah that our hearts are desperately wicked. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” Only the Lord can keep us; we cannot even keep ourselves. What a beautiful way to declare our dependence on the Lord!
Here’s my my two cents, there is too much depth and beauty in this hymn for us to simply yawn words that we don’t understand. Let’s not be people who are “satisfied with making mud pies when we are offered a holiday at the sea” as C.S. Lewis said. And let us not throw out a song altogether because it feels “outdated” to us. Singing a song from the 1700’s reminds us that we didn’t come up with this whole Christianity thing. We stand upon the shoulders of giants in the faith who stand on giants, from generation to generation. May we be a people who allow the word of Christ to drench our hearts by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with thankfulness in our hearts to God (Colossians 3:16).