The churches which bring to you the Reformed Witness Hour celebrate in this week their 75th anniversary. Seventy-five years ago the Protestant Reformed Churches were organized in defense and in joyful confession of the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace – that salvation is of God, thoughtGod, and to God, to whom be glory forever and ever. The Protestant Reformed Churches were organized in the confession that the grace of God is particular, shown to the elect in all things, that the grace of God alone can restrain sin in the heart of a man, that the grace of God is saving, and that man of himself is nothing. God is everything; man is nothing.
Over this confession, and out of this heartfelt belief, the Protestant Reformed Churches were born. This week we celebrate God’s faithfulness to us. And we call all who love the Lord Jesus Christ to rejoice with us for the great things the Lord has done for us. Surely every sincere child of God notes the testimony of God’s faithfulness over 75 years. Surely all who love the Lord Jesus Christ see in that a powerful witness that God is faithful and that God loves and preserves His truth on the earth.
Our theme today that we will use is: “Ebenezer: hitherto Hath the Lord Helped us.” It is taken from I Samuel 7:12.
A complaint that God brought against his church in both the Old and New Testament is that they often displayed a lack of spiritual hindsight. They did not know how to look backwards. They did not see what really had transpired over the years.
We must not be like that. Exactly when we are carnal, when we are glued to the hear and the now, when we are walking in our own way, then we have no vision for the future. But then we have no vision for the past, either. We must not walk that way. We must walk in the way of faith which says, “Ebenezer, hitherto hath the Lord helped us. Thanks, Lord, for Thy grace which has brought us this far. Go before us in all the days ahead.”
Individually that must be our confession as children of God. At any point in our personal life we must say, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped me.} Do you see that? Whether you were in the fire in darkness of trail, or whether the Lord gave you the sunshine of blessing and ease, you must say, “Hitherto, up to this point, the Lord hath helped me.” Is that what you see when you look behind you? Do you see the faithfulness of God to you?
But we must also do that as a church. And we must do that as a denomination of churches. God has done great things for us. The Lord has helped us. It is of the Lord alone that the church is kept in the truth of the gospel. That is His work and His faithfulness alone. To Him must be praise. We must pause, as churches and personally as believers, and look back. What do we see? By faith we see “Ebenezer, hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”
Samuel said these words in I Samuel 7:12 when he erected a stone and called it “Ebenezer.” When he erected that stone he was celebrating, first of all, a present help that God had given. That present help was repentance – true, heartfelt, life-changing, Spirit-wrought repentance. Repentance is the evidence that the Lord hath helped us. When the church and when the believer abides in personal, daily, genuine repentance before God, this is the evidence of the Lord’s faithfulness and grace.
In this passage we have one of the great revivals of the Old Testament church. From the heights of arrogance and pride, the arrogance of treating god according to one’s own whims and fancies, from that great height of pride of thinking that a mere outward show of religion is enough to give to God, God had brought them down and in mercy He had humbled them to the dust.
The history was this. Hophni and Phinehas, sons of Eli, had taken the Ark of the Covenant of God out of the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle to the battlefield as a good luck charm. And the Ark had been taken by the philistines. For twenty years the Philistines had dominated Israel. But God upheld His own honor and brought a plague on the Philistines, and the result was that the Philistines sent the Ark back with presents. The men of Bethshemesh showed that Israel’s great defeat before the Philistines had not produced spiritual humility in Israel. They looked into the Ark of the Lord of Hosts. And God killed fifty thousand men. The Ark was then taken to the house of Abinadab. Twenty years passed. Time for Israel to consider her ways. Time in which the young prophet Samuel took up the work of the Lord, preaching the Word of the Lord. Time when things were not right: the Ark, which was the sign of God’s presence among His people, was not in its place in the tabernacle. There was lack of zeal in Israel. There was the serving of idols. There was spiritual complacency and coldness and arrogance and pride.
But then, we read, there could be discerned among the people of God a new spirit. There was a weeping after Jehovah. Israel lamented for Jehovah. God worked repentance – a stirring up of their hearts before God – so that there were no more excuses, no more deceivings. Israel sensed that by their sins they had provoked God to withdraw form them. That repentance evidenced itself in concrete acts of holiness. The children of Israel put away the idols of Baalim and Ashtaroth and served the Lord only. And they went on to prepare their hearts unto the Lord. They understood the value of God’s ordinances of worship and thought it was very grievous to be without those ordinances.
So Samuel called them together to Mizpeh. At Mizpeh he erects Ebenezer with the words “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us,” that is, “in bringing to us repentance, in granting to us the grace of repentance and breaking down the hardness of our sins, in this we see that the Lord has helped us.” That is the evidence of God’s help first of all.
Certainly also on Samuel’s mind was the present help that God had given in granting Israel a great victory over the Philistines. The Philistines had interpreted Israel’s gathering together at Mizpeh as a military move, as a consolidation of forces. And they had come upon Israel swiftly in battle. We should note that. God’s people had come to a point where they wanted true and sincere dealings with their God. They had gathered for a spiritual reason, to weep over their sins and to seek God in faith. And the moment they do this, God sovereignly, by His hand, brings trouble to them. The Philistines come to attack them. Why? God seeks to try their faith, to point them to the Lamb of God, to make their prayers more intense. Do not think that the way of repentance guarantees a smooth earthly road. There are many who preach that. There are many who say, “Repent and your troubles will be over. Success and health, and no troubles anymore.” But I do not read that in my Bible. Exactly when God works inwardly in your heart and when He probes and when He pricks so that you no longer can rest except in Him, then also God very often will bring upon you trials in order to drive you to more fervency in prayer and to show you that He is indeed the treasure of all treasures.
God did provide a great physical help. For it was at that time that Israel was given a great victory. A mighty storm breaks out over the Philistines. Bolts of lightning run across the ground, breaking up the ranks of the enemy. Torrents of rain beat down upon them. Great, booming peals of thunder pound in their eardrums. God strikes terror in the heart of the Philistines and gives Israel a mighty victory.
But the help that God had brought was the grace which brought repentance. Hitherto hath the Lord helped us. What is the evidence of the mighty help of God among His church? This is the evidence: A body of those who live in genuine daily repentance before God. The evidence of God’s mighty help is the maintaining of the church in the gospel of grace – the maintaining that salvation is all of grace, that we of ourselves are sinners, and that our only help, our only salvation, is in the free mercies of God totally undeserved. When God brings such, when God brings repentance towards God, that is the evidence of His grace.
We need that help. We need that grace to repent. When there are times of dryness in the church, when the church seems blasé, when you say, “I don’t really care if I go to church or not. I don’t get anything out of it,” you are walking in impenitence. The strength of God among His people is when His people put away their sin, their gods of greed and covetousness, their gods of worldly pleasure and self. When God brings repentance, that is the help of God.
That help of God was always there in the past.
What makes Samuel’s statement so remarkable is that he makes it not only with reference to the present and most recent past, but he is referring back as far as memory can go. “Hitherto, up to this point, hath the Lord helped us.” He means, not only in this recent victory over the Philistines, but throughout all those dreadful twenty years and even before that, when the Ark of the Lord was taken – all that led to that moment, through it all God had helped them.
That is very remarkable. I could understand if Samuel had said, “At last the Lord has helped us,” or “Now, for once, the Lord has helped us,” or “This time the Lord helped us.” But he does not say that. He says, “Hitherto, up to this point, always, the grace of God has been working. The Lord, when He brought severe chastening, the Lord when He withdrew the felt sense of His presence when His people were serving other gods, the Lord when He brought them low under the hand of the Philistines, the Lord when He brought them to tears of repentance – always it was the Lord at work. It was always His faithfulness which kept the people of Israel from going to the destruction which they had so often chosen to follow.
Look back. Not only over the most recent events of our church life and personal life. Look back to the beginning. Go back as far as memory will go. Think back, child of God, what do you see as you scan the road you have traveled to this point? As you look over the valleys and the straight roads, the days of sunshine, nights of pain, what do you see? How do you account for it? How do you account for it that the church is preserved through the years in the truth of God? Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.
Can you, child of God, find one time when God was not faithful? The fact that the church of God exists on the earth confessing the truth is due to one force, one power: God’s faithfulness. Yes, there are times that perhaps personally as a child of God we think that He has forsaken us. But that can never be the case. The wonder of God’s love and grace as sealed on Mount Calvary’s cross is that the Lord is faithful. Great is Thy faithfulness. The Lord does not cast off His people. The covenant that God establishes is sure. For salvation is not a matter of conditions. It is not the Lord saying, “I will if you….” No, salvation is of the Lord, of His faithfulness, of His own promise. The Lord is our light and our salvation. The Lord is the strength of our life. Therefore the Lord hath helped us.
You can see that only when you look by faith. Apart from faith a person would look back and maybe be filled with nostalgia, resentment, anger. Apart from faith a person does not see anything, because apart from faith in Jesus Christ what has taken place in a person’s past is that a person is sliding down to hell. It is by faith, the gift of God, that we can interpret the past. Then we see the mighty hand of God.
This, of course, did not excuse Israel’s sin. Samuel does not mean to say, “Oh, well. Let’s just chalk up all the errors of the past to experience. The Lord was there and He helped anyway.” It does not mean that we blaspheme this glorious truth and say, Our sins somehow served the purposes of God, therefore there is no sense worrying about them. God had His way of helping an impenitent people. It was His grace, but it was something I do not want and do not want it to be necessary in the church’s life.
In the way of sin, God’s people do not experience the presence of God’s help. Oh, the Lord is faithful. But in the way of sin, in the way of apostasy, when the church forsakes the truth of the Word of God, then they cannot experience at that time, in that way, the presence and the power of God. The Lord shows Himself powerful and faithful to those whose hearts are perfect before Him.
The Lord has helped us. We confess that, as Protestant Reformed Churches, this week. We were organized in the defense of the Reformed faith of holy scripture. We were organized in commitment to the truth and doctrine of the Word of God. The Lord hath helped us. The Lord hath kept us. It was of His grace. Therefore, we are assured that he will help us always.
Samuel set up a stone. It was a boulder, or a slab of granite, or perhaps polished marble. It was a stone of most permanent substance. Stones and monuments stand throughout the ages. It represented something permanent, something unchangeable. By the stone it was meant: This truth will always be. The Lord helped us. Jehovah, the rock, the I AM THAT I AM, the unchangeable God in covenant love and purposes, the unchangeable, covenant-keeping Jehovah, He helped us. And He will help His church and people even unto the end. For He has made an everlasting commitment to us to be our God throughout all the ages. Past and present help tell us that there is also the certainty of future aid. Will god remove His favor from the church of Jesus Christ? Will God take His eye from His church for one moment? Shall He ever abandon the church of God on earth? No! Wherever that church exists, by the grace of God, committed and faithful to the truth of holy Scripture, God will show Himself their present aid, their future hope, their stay, their confidence. Boldly we may say, “The Lord is my helper. I will not fear what man can do unto me. This God is our God forever and ever. He will be our Guide even unto death.”
Of the future we know nothing except this: God is our refuge and strength, our mighty fortress, a helper ever near us.
When one first looks back by faith and sees the faithfulness of God, then he can go on into the future confident and eager to do the will of God. We read in Acts 26:22, “Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great.” That is, Paul says that his strength to go on when things had changed and when he was led in a way of difficulty, when his freedom had been taken away and he was to be sent into a prison and everyone seemed to regard him as some kind of fanatic, then the apostle says, “I continue.” Why? First of all, because of the past. God never failed. God’s help was always there. Therefore, looking to the future, “I continue to witness, both to small and great, of the grace of God.”
Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.
Look back. Is that what you see? Is that only what you see in the history of the church – not man, not the convictions and strength of men. But do you see the Lord faithful, sure, the helper of His people? Who, for the glory of His name, will maintain to Himself seven thousand who will not bow to Baal? Who, for the glory of His name, will maintain a witness on the earth that salvation is of God and God alone? Who, for the glory of His name, will maintain a church on the earth which boldly confesses: “God is everything and man is nothing’?
When you see that, then you can go forward to serve Him in a life of repentance, in a life of love for the truth, in a life of love for Him and for the glory of His name, confident that He will help us until we are brought to His side in glory.
Let us pray.
Father in heaven, looking back over the history of the church, we are led to one conclusion: Great art Thou and faithful. Lord, Thou hast helped us, Thou hast kept us. And looking to that faithfulness revealed in the past, evidenced now in the present, we are confident in the future. Grant, O Lord, to us that we might, in the days before us, witness both to small and great of the gospel of the grace of God. To Thee be praise and honor, world without end, in the church, forever. Amen.