Rev. Gritters is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hudsonville, Michigan. This Meditation is the text of the pre-synodical sermon preached by Rev. Gritters in First PRC on June 11, 2001.
Esteemed brethren of synod and beloved church of Jesus Christ, if the PRC are anything, they are churches that by the grace of God preach the grace of God—sovereign, irresistible, particular grace, in Jesus, God’s Messiah. If the PRC desire to be known by something, they desire to be known as churches willing to deny themselves and take up their cross for the sake of the defense of that truth. Those were our origins. That is our history since our beginning. For this, we are profoundly grateful to God.
Esteemed brethren of synod, if the PRC will remain anything acceptable to God, and therefore useful to God, they must do so (preach grace) in a spirit and attitude that reflects that grace which they preach. One great threat to genuine thankfulness which we are called to express is that we defend and preach that grace in pride. Contradictory as that may seem, it is a real danger that we preach grace in pride, and forget that the salvation of us and the preservation of God’s church is all of God.
The remedy for that sin and the power for a right spirit is the Word of God (always the Word)—particularly the word in the text before us. There Samuel instructs the people of God—then and now—to recognize and from the heart confess: “Hitherto hath Jehovah helped us.” The remedy for that temptation is that we hear the gospel that we stand for and have stood for for 75 years. The Lord has helped us; the Lord is our Rock; we are what we are, not because of our strength and our faithfulness, but because of God in His sovereign, irresistible grace.
As we begin our labors of synod—the work of the churches—for another year, little is more important for us as delegates and churches than such a recognition—such a humble, contrite recognition: “Hitherto hath Jehovah helped us.”
The battle with the Philistines
Samuel erected a large stone memorial in memory of God’s gracious help for the people of Israel up to this point. Here, rather than a pile of stones as some memorials were, the memorial erected was one large stone—a slab of granite or some other stone, stood on end, perhaps as much as 10 or 15 feet high. One can still see such memorials in the ruins in the land today. This was a memorial of Jehovah’s help. It was so named: “Ebenezer—Stone of Help.”
Thus, when the children would come by this stone and ask, “What does this memorial mean?” parents would remind their children what God had done and shall do.
Israel had gathered in public assembly to worship Jehovah, confessing past sin, beseeching God’s blessing on their nation. Twenty years earlier, Israel had suffered a stunning defeat by the Philistines when foolishly they took the ark into battle, supposing that it would work like a magic charm: “Bring the ark, and we shall succeed.” Even the children present tonight remember that these were the days of Hophni and Phinehas, priest-thieves in the temple, when pathetic Eli died in his tragic fall, when Ichabod was born (“the glory has departed”). In the righteous judgment of God upon Israel’s pride and presumption and worldliness, God delivered the ark into the hand of the Philistines. Indeed, to uphold His own honor, God forced the Philistines to return the ark, on account of the pestilence that appeared wherever it went. But twenty years passed, with the ark sitting in the obscurity of the house of Abinadab, unused.
During this time, Israel came to repentance. God had called young Samuel to preach the glory of the mercy and grace of God, by which the Lord worked a new spirit in the hearts of the people so that they “lamented after the Lord.” So Samuel called them to a public assembly at Mizpeh, to worship God and express their repentance and love for the Lord (v. 6).
But while Israel was there, the Philistines heard of their gathering and prepared to fight against them. Did they misinterpret this as a gathering for war, or did they simply see it as an opportune time to attack the vulnerable—an unarmed enemy, with women and children? In any case, they came up against Israel to war.
But God is the God of Israel. He loves His people, hears their cries, and will not allow them to be overthrown. So He sends a great storm that breaks out over the Philistines. Bolts of lightning flash from the heavens, breaking the ranks of the enemy. Torrents of rain beat down upon their faces. Great, booming peals of thunder pound in their ears. God strikes terror in their hearts, causing them to flee. Israel pursues, and defeats. God gives Israel a great victory.
Samuel erects a stone. Ebenezer: “Hitherto hath the Lord helped.”
The battle in the church today
We assemble tonight to commemorate God’s victory for us in preserving us as churches against all attacks of the enemy to destroy us. The PRC have many enemies, many we have not even seen, enemies that hate the PRC as a manifestation of the true church in the world, who desire to see her destroyed, who perhaps hate us more because we understand our weaknesses, have seen our sins, and know our vulnerabilities. They are mighty powers! They include influential people! They have powerful weapons in pulpit, magazine, and radio. They desire to destroy our confession of the truth and our life of holiness and antithetical living.
But the Lord defeats them. He has! And we gather tonight beseeching God that He may yet in the future preserve and protect us as Protestant Reformed Churches in the world.
If He shall, it will not now be by nature—thunder and lightning, rain and hail—but by the mighty power and thunder of His Word. By the Word He discomfits them, puts them to flight, and smites them. By His Word He watches over His children, preserves them, allows them to worship Him in peace.
We memorialize tonight (with grateful hearts) the great victories of God by His Word to preserve His churches here. That’s why we are here, why we are what we are. And if we shall be something in the future, we shall be something because of that.
The real help of Jehovah
But the great help God gave was not so much the victory over Philistines. His great help was that He gave them repentance and victory over sin. Their great need was not only for strength to fight the enemy outside of them, but for strength to fight the enemy within. What they needed to beseech God for (the faithful among them had been doing that for 20 years!) was that God would give them the grace of repentance so that they would do what is said in verse 2: “Israel lament(ed) before theLord.” They were penitent before God. They confessed their sins, poured out water before the Lord and said publicly, “We have sinned before Jehovah.”
That is the victory He gave before the thunder and battle in the field. In this way, they had victory over the enemy.
You see, the reason they assembled before the Lord for worship was to express publicly their sorrow and beseech God to bless them again. That they “lamented before Jehovah” means that they missed the Lord and His favor. They grieved over their sins that led to the Lord’s displeasure and a sense of His absence. Indeed, they also grieved over the Philistines’ oppression of them. But they also missed the Lord, who had departed on account of their sins: they lamented after the Lord.
This was not enough! Samuel was not satisfied. “Your sorrow, if it is a godly sorrow, will produce fruit.” What fruit, Samuel tells them in verse 3: “If ye indeed return to the Lord with all your hearts, put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you, and prepare your hearts unto the Lord, and serve him only.” That was not as easy as we might think. Their idols were fashionable, modern, satisfying, attractive, with free and easy revelries to please their carnal minds. God’s worship was simple, severe, self-denying, with little to attract the human heart.
But Israel put away their idols and together confessed their sin and their love for the Lord. And in that way, the Lord gave them the victory, preserved them as a nation.
What needs emphasis here is that God worked this great work in them! About that Samuel says: “The Lord helped us! God gave us that sorrow! God worked in us lamentation and confession. And God gave us the ability to put away idols, prepare our hearts to the Lord, and serve him only.” Repentance is God’s work and gift.
Do you think that when Samuel erected that stone, called the children together, and said, “The Lord helped us,” that he wanted the children to think only about that stunning defeat of the Philistines when they turned tail and were defeated!? Don’t you think so. When the parents saw that stone and told their children that the Lord helped them, they said, “The Lord helped us in that victory because the Lord gave us the victory in the way of our sorrow for sin and repentance before Him.”
For this they thank Him! In this (repentance!) the Lord had remembered and helped them!
“Ebenezer! Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”
In the way of repentance, godly sorrow, God gives the victory and preserves His church. This is the help we need desperately: the grace of repentance. The church must lament after the Lord. But this is not enough. Repentance is needed! The church must put away idols if she is truly sorry, desires God’s preserving care over her as a denomination…. “Godly sorrow leads to repentance.” Sins of pride, materialism, pleasure-mindedness. “We have sinned! We were proud, carnal, self-seeking.”
What is the evidence that God has helped the PRC? If we would look and listen to find proof among us that God yet preserves us as churches, what would it be? We must look for a people who live in daily, genuine repentance before the Lord. Real evidence of God’s mighty help is a church that lives the gospel of grace—in the absolute conviction that salvation is all of grace, that we of ourselves are sinners (nothing but sinners), and that our only help, our only salvation, is in the free mercies of God—totally undeserved.
How we need that help! “Turn us, O God, and we shall be turned.”
In this way, as the church lives in daily repentance, she has the victory.
We will not survive as churches unless we, by God’s grace, worship in humility, depending on the sovereign grace which we preach.
If we survive as churches, it will not be with the attitude: “Thanks, Lord, that we’re not like those other churches….” If we will survive, it will be with the attitude: “Lord, we are just like them, no different. We are worse than they are. Why do You spare us? Why do You preserve us? We deserve none of this! We deserve to be destroyed at the hands of all the enemies. In thy mercy, preserve us.” In the way of repentance.
A Great Power
If the way of Israel’s deliverance is repentance, the power of their victory is the blood of the Lamb, covering their sins. The power behind the battle and all of God’s work in delivering us is God’s love and faithfulness to them who are in Jesus Christ.
God did not save Israel because of their repentance. No conditions needed to be fulfilled before the Lord saved them (one of the battles that we had to fight as churches, too). But God saved by and because of the one sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We must see that in the text. When Israel gathered to express their sorrow, when they were praying, crying, the Philistines came. But Israel did not despair. They did not conclude: “Our repentance must be of no use; God has not heard; He will destroy us anyway.” Rather (as true repentance always does), they were humbled further and expressed dependence on God. “Samuel, cease not to cry….”
Samuel, faithful leader and priest that he was, said: “Bring me a lamb, a little sucking lamb, innocent and pure and without blemish.” And after they slit the throat and shed the blood of that lamb, placed it on the altar and started it on fire, the smoke of the lamb ascended. God smelled the savor of that sacrifice. And as the sacrifice was burning and the Philistines were coming, God heard the prayers of the people.
But be clear here: God did not hear them saying, “O Jehovah, save us because we are sorry.” Or: “Lord, save us—and we ought to be saved because we really are not so bad.” God heard their cries that said: “Faithful God, save us on the basis of the lamb that was slain.” God heard that prayer, and He gave deliverance on the basis of that lamb on that altar on that day.
And when that memorial was set up and all the people gathered after the victory was won, and the parents were telling their children what happened, if they were faithful parents they would not only say: “Did you see the terrible thunderstorm?” They would not only say: “God worked repentance in us.” They would also say: “Did you see what Samuel did? An innocent little lamb, without guilt, pollution, or any filth, was slain for our sakes. And we look forward to the day when God will send His Lamb—the real one—the final high priest, for our sins. We must trust in Him.”
If we have done anything as churches; if we are anything as PRC; if we shall be (if the Lord tarries) anything, be it known to us all that it is only by the grace and blood of the Lamb.
Have we gained any victories? Conquered any enemies? Snatched out of the hand of the enemy any souls (in missions) to make them members of a true church and worship according to the Word of God? Have we exposed and rooted out any foreign agent, comforted any souls, lifted any burdens, corrected any erring brother, defended truth against error, or the way of holiness against corruption? Let it be known that the power of the church in all her labors is the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. We have done nothing and shall do nothing except by the Lamb!
But how so by the Lamb? How does the Lamb discomfit the enemy? How does He put them to flight? How are others drawn in and saved? By the preaching of the Lamb and His blood! By faithful, pure, heartfelt, preaching of the grace of God in the Lord Jesus—slain!
The PRC preach Christ, slain from before the foundation of the world, because God loves His church and determined in eternity that she will be saved. What routing of the devil by that Word! What thunderbolts that drive away the enemy! When that Word is preached, the enemy knows he can do nothing to destroy the church, because before the world was made, God had the church in His heart and said about her: I will save her! I am the Rock beneath her! What comfort for the church of Christ! It shall always be in the world, and never be destroyed! Because the Lamb has been slain in eternity! What occasion for the people of God to worship in humility, to gather with their children in gladness: God has chosen us from before the foundation of the world, not because of our goodness, but in spite of our sinfulness!
The PRC preach Christ crucified as substitutionary atonement for all our sins, so that no works merit God’s favor, but salvation comes by Christ alone! What comfort is that word for poor sinners fleeing before the enemy! What a driving away of guilty consciences! What routing of those who accuse: “You don’t belong to the church, you will not be part of it in the end because of your sins!” We shout with the apostle: “Who can lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth! It is Christ who died….” We are part of the church covered by the blood of the Lamb!
The PRC preach this Christ crucified as risen, ascended, and poured out through His Spirit, empowering His church to serve Him. By Him we can have the victory over sin, we are able to defeat indwelling sins. Thus, when on a Sunday evening we are strong in faith but Monday morning weak and wondering, we remember the word: “I am God, faithful; you have strength in Me.” Thus, when we see the enemy coming, and when we are fearful he will enslave us, and we say, “I can’t stand before him; I’m going to fall,” we look to the blood of the Lamb slain. Under that blood every day the people of God come. Because of the preaching of that blood we may say, “Hitherto the Lord hath helped us.”
How can it be explained that there is still a PRC in America? Preaching! Thus, although we do not forget for a moment the faithful elders and deacons of past days, we are especially thankful for the seminary and the pastors who have preached that gospel of sovereign grace all these years.
What must we maintain if we pray that the PRC continue until the Lord returns? Preaching! For this the Protestant Reformed Churches are known. For this we are not proud, but grateful.
Yes, we do that in weakness, because the messengers are but men—weak, sinful men. But we repent of that weakness, too, and beseech God (ask the prophets to cease not to cry to God for us) to forgive us, strengthen our pastors to know the Word, and give us students whose hearts are right with God, so that they may be able to preach the gospel of sovereign grace.
If we are anything as PRCs; if we shall remain anything as faithful and true churches; if we shall do anything further as PRCs, it shall be through the Lamb slain….
But then it will not be by using preaching, or precious Reformed doctrines, as “magic charms,” as though we may suppose that all we need to do is say the right words in the preaching. It was possible for Israel to fall into that sin: They would take the ark, and then assume all would be well. They had done it before; God had fought for them; He will do so now. It is possible for the PRC to do so. Then all the concern is for right words said, the name of Christ mentioned, the antithesis spoken, Reformed formulae repeated regularly. But there is no heart and love for these truths…. And no victory then either.
Nor will the victory be without prayer. Israel prayed, crying to God from their hearts. Indeed, it was through Samuel, their intercessor. They begged Samuel not to stop praying for them. But they prayed. And through prayer—crying unto God, ceasing not to cry unto God—God gave them victory. That was the difference between the battle against the Philistines 20 years before, and this battle by Mizpeh. Then they had only the symbol of God’s grace in the ark with them; now, they have the reality. Then, the spiritual guides, carnal Hophni and Phinehas; now, spiritual Samuel. Then, they rushed into the fight, unconcerned about their sins; now, they have a sense of them, having confessed them and obtained a sense of pardon. Then, puffed up by vain presumption, they went out in their own strength; now, animated by a calm, confident hope, trusting in God.
Thus, when the Philistines draw near, an unseen ladder comes down from heaven on which angels descend to fight for them. The smoke and blood of the Lamb establish them as a mighty people and army of God.
Israel and Samuel erect a memorial, called Ebenezer. The purpose of the memorial? To recognize God’s help in the past, and memorialize it and perpetuate the memory of it for future generations.
“Hitherto” needs the emphasis here. “Hitherto” looks way back, and links the present deliverance to all the past ones, and forms a testimony to the enduring faithfulness of God. “Hitherto” refers not only to the battle of that day, or to the preceding repentance, or even to the sacrifice. “Hitherto” includes these, but also points back to all the days of Israel’s history. Thus far, in all these things, the Lord has helped us!
“But that is a strange word to use here,” some might object. “Samuel,” some critics might have said, “don’t you remember what happened on this ground 20 years ago? Are you forgetting the Philistines’ horrible victory? Eli’s tragic death? The wife of Phinehas appropriately naming their child, ‘The Glory has Departed’? Samuel, you ought to say, ‘Finally,’ or ‘Now the Lord has helped.’ But don’t say: ‘Thus far!’….” But Samuel did not say: “Finally,” or “Now, God has helped us….” But rather, “All the way back and up till now….”
Had they objected so, Samuel would have preached: Do you not remember 20 years ago? The Lord was helping us then, too. His love is everlasting, His mercy endureth forever, His grace does not change! Do you not know that, because you are Israel, and your purpose is a high purpose—to be molded and formed and shaped into a people that knows and proclaims the truth of the living God—that sometimes you need not only victories but defeats? And do you not understand, when (now) God awakens in you a sense of sin in your heart, that 20 years ago you needed that defeat, so that you would lament? Though God’s hand was a heavy hand, and that way was a painful way, and being without the ark was not what we would have chosen, that’s what God did because He loved His church.
Don’t you see—you must not say: “Now finally…” but “hitherto,” all the way back so every work of God forms another link in the chain back to creation. Whether that’s a mercy and victory… or chastisement and painful defeat (personally or ecclesiastically), the Lord is helping us because the Lord is God and will do for His church what He must do.
A silver vessel, destined for a high purpose, is passed through the fire not once, but three or four times, because of the high destiny the vessel has. So the church. Her destiny? The highest—to show forth the praises of Him who called her out of darkness into His great light. But we don’t do that easily, quickly, immediately. God does a great work upon us, helping us—sometimes through the fire. He’s our Rock, our Help.
Happy is the people who, believing the faithfulness and love of God, can take such a view today. Happy always! Rejoicing evermore! Understand this!
So let us listen to stories of the aged saints. Not just to the stories of the victories… but of the battles, the losses, the defeats. Of 1924. Of 1953. Of the shame, sorrow, pain—the stories of division within, loss of families, churches, officebearers…. And then “bracket” all of that (what God has done for us as church and personally—both sorrow and joy) under the word: “Hitherto….” He has helped, shall help. He’s our Rock. Unchangeably the same in Jesus Christ.