Our songbooks contain some beautiful and rich songs, many of which happen to have been written decades ago. Sometimes, however, the images and language are a bit difficult to understand. I am reminded of the story about the little boy who after services one Sunday morning asked his mother, “Who was Ebon Pinion, and what was he doing in the garden with Jesus?” Let’s consider some of the more difficult passages in our songbooks as we seek to truly understand what we sing (cf. 1 Cor. 14:15).
“Night with ebon pinion, brooded o’er the vale…” — The word, “ebon” is a form of the word “ebony,” which is a dark shade of the color black. “Pinion” is an old word for “feathers” or “wings.” “Vale” is a form of the word, “valley.” Therefore, when we sing this line, we might paraphrase it in this manner: “The night’s black wings covered the entire valley.” It is an image of the valley near Jerusalem where the Garden of Gethsemane was located, and it paints a picture of the heavy burden and loneliness that Jesus felt on that occasion. That must indeed have been a terrible night for the Savior as He waited and prayed earnestly to God.
“Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’ve come…” — Just as we Americans have our monuments to great battles, so did the ancient Israelites. In 1 Samuel 7:12, Samuel set up a stone monument to commemorate Israel’s victory over the Philistines. Samuel named the stone “Eben-hezer” which in Hebrew literally means, “stone of the help.” When Samuel set up the monument, it was to recognize that God was the One who had granted the victory to His people. When we sing, “here I raise my Ebenezer,” we are declaring that without God’s help and blessings we could not have come to this point in our lives. Further, we are expressing confidence that God will not abandon us now (cf. Heb. 13:5).
“In vain in high, in holy lays…” — As we sing the first verse about the “Wonderful Love of Jesus,” the author seeks to help us recognize that nothing we merely say could fully express the praise and worth of Jesus and His love for us. A “lay” is an old Scottish psalm or poem. So the author is here saying that the highest and holiest poetry available is merely a vain attempt to describe the wonderful love of Jesus. No matter how beautiful or eloquent our words, we can never do full justice to the beauty and richness of God’s love. What a humbling thought!
“On Zion’s glorious summit stood…” — This image derives from any number of scenes described in the book of Revelation. “Zion” was the name of a literal hill in ancient Jerusalem, but it also became a figurative Old Testament image of the place where God dwelled in a covenant relationship with man (cf. Isa. 2:1-4). In Revelation 7:9-17, John describes an “innumerable host” standing before the Lamb of God, having their robes washed in the Lamb’s blood. The message of this song, then, is that the suffering we endure in this life is not worthy to be compared to the rich inheritance that awaits us in heaven, “on Zion’s glorious summit.” We may indeed suffer sword or flame in this life, but the victory is ours through Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 8:18).
Though many congregations of the Lord’s church are beginning to discard some of these older songs, I believe we would do well to consider their rich meaning. With a little helpful explanation, they can draw God’s people nearer to Him. May we always sing with understanding! — JB