How Shall We Look Back?

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 Samuel 7:12
Whether it is the Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC, or the memorial of the Civil War in Arlington, VA, or even that of tombstones of our loved ones who have gone to glory, we human beings have a habit of using stones as memorials. Such was the case also with Samuel, who on the occasion of a wonderful victory given to them by Jehovah, set up a stone of thankful remembrance, calling it “Ebenezer,” and saying, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”
So, with the passing of another year and at the start of a new one, I ask you as I ask myself, if we had a stone that marked the occasion, what would we engrave on it? Would we, with the same spirit of thankful remembrance, call it “Ebenezer,” and have the words, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped me” engraved on it?
It is important for us to remember that Samuel wasn’t thankful to God only for the joyful occasion of victory. It is easy for us to remember only the good and joyful events of our personal lives in the year gone by and thank God for them. But what about the unhappy events? Shall we forget that they ever took place, and thank God only for the good and joyful events? That would not do. Even saying that the Lord helped us through these unpleasant events and failing to thank God for them is not enough.
To be sure, in erecting that Ebenezer stone, Samuel gave thanks to God for both the good and the bad events that had taken place in the recent history and life of the Old Testament church. For let us not forget what led to the amazing victory God gained for them over the Philistines at Mizpeh. It all went back to the sad history of a crushing defeat at the hands of the Philistines at Aphek. At that time, the Israelites, led by the wicked sons of Eli, Phinehas and Hophni, had foolishly brought the ark of the covenant to the battlefield. They thought that by bringing the symbol of Jehovah’s presence out of the temple and into battle, God would be present on the battlefield and give them the victory. However, in so doing, they had sinned terribly against God. Not only was God angry with the desecration of temple worship at Shiloh by Phinehas and Hophni, but he was now also angry with the Israelites for putting their trust in the ark of God rather than in him, the God of the ark. As a result, God’s hand of chastisement was heavy. He caused the Israelites to suffer a heavy defeat to the Philistines. Thousands of them, including the two sons of Eli, were slain that day. The ark of the covenant was taken by the Philistines. And the priest Eli, on receiving news of the defeat and death of his sons, also died.
How was Samuel, and how are we going to thank God for bad events such as this? There is only one way. And that is the way of faith. A faith that embraces God’s astounding way of bringing us good through the bad, especially seen in the terrible suffering and death of his Son, our Savior, on the cross. A faith that embraces the promise of God that he works all things together for good to those who love him (cf. Romans 8:28). And therefore, a faith that embraces the fact that God is pleased to use the bad events of our lives for our good. In a word, we do not give thanks to God for the bad events in and of themselves, that is, in isolation. But we do so in light of the greater good that God accomplishes through it for us. When Samuel and the people of God saw the Ebenezer stone, they were not only to remember with thankfulness the amazing victory at Mizpeh but also the way they were led to that victory, begun by their terrible defeat at Aphek. For surely, by the time God had given them victory at Mizpeh, they had learned not to put their trust in their ungodly king, Saul. They had learned not to put their trust in the ark of the covenant, but rather in the God of the ark. They had learned not to remove the ark from the temple, which is where it belonged. They had learned these lessons and were sorry for their sins and failures. That’s how Samuel and God’s people gave thanks to God for both the good and the bad each time they saw the Ebenezer stone.
And that must also be our approach at the start of this New Year with regard to every single event—good or bad—that has taken place in our lives, in the past year and beyond. It is only in such a way that we will call our stone “Ebenezer,” and have the very same words etched on it. It is only in this way that it is not only a stone of thankful remembrance but also of joyful hope for the year ahead. That’s how we, the children of the living and true God, are to look back.