Almost everyone who hears the word “Ebenezer” will immediately think of Ebenezer Scrooge, the bad guy from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It has been termed by some scholars the second-best known Christmas story in the western hemisphere (the first and best known one being the account in Luke’s Gospel). A great story of redemption and hope, it has had an incredible impact on society long after its original publication in 1843.
If you haven’t studied London’s history, you might not realize how harsh and difficult life was at that time and place. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, bringing with it both benefit and loss. The city was filthy, crowded, noisy, and always at risk of epidemics. Medicine was still an inexact science, and the need for personal hygiene was not well understood. Open sewage poured into the Thames, the river running through London, from which 80% of the population got their drinking water. Manure was ankle deep on many streets due to horse-drawn carriages and herds of cattle driven to the slaughterhouse.
If any of that sounds bad, it was worse if you were poor. The Victorians dealt with indigence by enacting the New Poor Law. Required to deal with those considered criminally in debt, municipalities created the poorhouse, which was little more than a prison where one worked to pay off debts at impossibly low wages. Sometimes entire families – women, men, and children – could be imprisoned, sent off to segregated poorhouses. Gross indignities were heaped upon those who were sentenced to the poorhouse; people often went to extreme lengths to avoid this fate.
Dickens himself grew up with poverty, humiliation, and broken dreams, but God ultimately used his background to serve a greater purpose. Perhaps because his own father was consigned to a poorhouse at one point, Dickens felt great outrage at the utter lack of compassion for the impoverished. That theme permeated his works, particularly this one. It is important to note that his opinion came not because Dickens was some kind of crusading social reformer; it arose from his Christian faith. Initially he planned on writing a pamphlet about the issue, then felt inspired instead to frame his argument in a fictional setting – specifically, a ghost story. He needed cash badly, too – his relatives were trying to borrow money from him, he was behind on his mortgage payments, his wife Kate was pregnant with their fifth child. Nevertheless Dickens insisted that the book sell for a ridiculously low price so that almost anyone could purchase a copy.
The name for his antagonist Dickens drew straight from Scripture:
“Then Samuel took a stone . . . and named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the LORD has helped us.’”
Now that makes all kinds of sense, doesn’t it? Actually, it does, if you know a little Hebrew and look at the entire context.
A unique biblical figure, Samuel was both judge and prophet, coming into Israel’s history during a time of war, moral decay, and corruption. Facing another battle with their perennial enemies, the Philistines, the Ark of the Covenant was sent out with the troops as if that would magically ensure victory. It did not. The Ark was captured, and the High Priest and both his sons all died the same day.
But as in the days of Moses, the LORD showed himself greater than the false gods of the Philistines and the Ark was returned. This led to nationwide repentance and revival, which in turn prompted God to protect them from another enemy attack. It was then that Samuel, in the very spot where the Ark had earlier been captured, set up a stone marker, naming it “Ebenezer,” meaning “stone of help.” In doing so, Samuel was following a long-standing tradition (see, for example, Genesis 28.18 & Joshua 24.26-27). It was a visual aid to remind the people of how God had helped them in the past, so that they would trust Him to help them in the future.
Scripture attests (and if we are honest, we will, too) that humans are so quick to forget how God has pulled us through; so easily drawn away from Him. Does that resonate with you? You might want to think about setting up an ‘Ebenezer’ of your own.
That can be a rock, if you want. Perhaps you could keep a list or write a journal, or perhaps have a mentor whom you can call upon in need. The point is, have someone or something to which you can turn to remind you of God’s grace and steadfast love when times get tough and your faith falters. Perhaps you might even become that sort of person to someone else … because life will get tough, and we all need help at some point.
Ebenezer Scrooge, a man who begins the story with a heart of stone, is transformed by supernatural intervention, becoming a great help to mankind. By that reckoning, A Christmas Carol is as much an Easter story as it is a Christmas story.
Looking back on his life, Dickens wrote, “I know that, but for the mercy of God, I might have been . . . a robber or a vagabond.” But he didn’t; he chose to allow his pain and suffering to become redemptive instead of becoming bitter.
What about you? You don’t need to be scared out of your wits before you reach out to your fellow man, do you? Think how many people are out there desperately waiting for a blessing, a meal, a kind word, an adoptive home. How much longer must they wait?