Matstsebah Stones (Memorial Day Special) | 31 min

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Memorial Day and the tradition of remembering

As a nation we are about to celebrate Memorial Day. It found its roots on the 5th of May in 1868, when General John Logan, who was the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, officially proclaimed it in a written order. It was originally named Decoration Day and was a day set aside to honor and decorate the graves of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers who had fallen on the battlefields across the nation.

After WWI the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war. We celebrate this day with parades and decorating graves of sailors and soldiers who died in uniform defending this great nation. In 1971, the National Holiday Act was passed making the last Monday of May the day to recognize the fallen heroes. At 3:00 p.m. on that day, people are asked to stop what they are doing and pause in silence and remembrance of those fallen. Flowers and flags are set besides stones placed to their memories.

How do you remember events in your life? Most people today use a camera or video to record events. Some people might take a flower and press it in some book to preserve it. Some people might frame some document or paper in a picture frame and display it in their home.

But cameras and videos haven’t been around since ancient times. During the Bible times, people sometimes remembered certain events with standing stones, called matstsebah or massebah, which literally means “to set up.”

The ancient Israelites and other nations of Canaan followed this custom. In the case of Israel, these standing stones were specific reminders of God’s covenant and supernatural acts He did on their behalf. Once erected, the story of the stone was passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition.

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A display of Canaanite standing stones (or remembrance stone) at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Israel.
A display of Canaanite standing stones (or remembrance stone) at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Israel.

God commands remembrance

At times, God ordered the Israelites to set up these stones. The main objective here is that God wants us to reflect and recall what He has accomplished in our lives. This is history. It is important to God, and it is important to us.  Look at what God says:

Isaiah 46:9-11 (ESV)
Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’…
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.

God tells us two wonderful things here: 

He is supreme and in absolute control. 

History is in essence His story.  Nothing has ever or will ever happen by random chance.  In the 1990’s scientists declared that random chance never occurs in our universe. That is what God has been saying all along. 

What happens in our lives is part of world history. And God has an influence in and on our lives.  This is why the Bible contains the phrase to “remember” what God has done in our past. And when we fail to take time and notice what God has done in and with our lives, we run the risk of becoming narrow-minded, proud, and relying only upon ourselves.

God wants us to take time and recall or “remember the former things of old… Look what is recorded in His Word:

Deuteronomy 7:18 (ESV)
…remember what the Lord your God did…

Psalms 77:11-12 (ESV)
I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.  I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds.

Isaiah 46:9 (ESV)
Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.

In the Old Testament times, God had the Israelites recall events so that their children and passersby would be impressed with what He had done. 

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man standing on stage facing and saluting an american flag durign a memorial day ceremony
Just as in our own culture we remember important events like memorial day, God commands the Israelites to remember important events. Photo by Brett Sayles on

Remembering important events

During the first Passover, God declared a command to recall the event.

Exodus 12:24-27 (GWT)
You must follow these instructions. They are a permanent law for you and your children. When you enter the land that the LORD will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. When your children ask you what this ceremony means to you, you must answer, ‘It’s the Passover sacrifice in the LORD’s honor. The LORD passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he killed the Egyptians.’ ” Then the people knelt, bowing with their faces touching the ground.

The Israelites did as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron.

They were to remember this event, this part of history forever. But even before this command, we find in the Bible another example of recalling a special event that God had done. Jacob had a dream of God’s house and glory. 

Genesis 28:18 (GWT)
Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had put under his head. He set it up as a marker and poured olive oil on top of it.

Jacob set up a memorial stone to recall the event. He later sets up another stone to mark an agreement between himself and his father-in-law. 

In Exodus 24, Moses had stones set up as a reminder of the events that had occurred at the Mt. Sinai. 

Exodus 24:4 (GWT)
So Moses wrote down all the LORD’s words. Early the next morning he built an altar at the foot of the mountain and [set up] 12 sacred stones for the 12 tribes of Israel.

In Joshua 4, God commands Joshua to set up stones to mark the miracle of crossing the Jordan Riveron dry land when it was at flood stage. And here, it is explained in detail why this stone monument is so important.

Joshua 4:21-24 (GWT)
At Gilgal Joshua set up the 12 stones they had taken from the Jordan. He said to the people of Israel, “In the future when children ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ the children should be told that Israel crossed the Jordan River on dry ground. The LORD your God dried up the Jordan ahead of you until you had crossed, as he did to the Red Sea until we had crossed. The LORD did this so that everyone in the world would know his mighty power and that you would fear the LORD your God every day of your life.”

After this event, Joshua again takes stones and sets them up in dedication to what God had done for the people. 

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In Joshua 8, after two major battles, Joshua writes the Law of Moses (the Book of Deuteronomy) on a stone. Though writing on the stones was unusual for Israelites, the making of stone monuments was a central part of Israel’s life and worship. These stones always reminded them of a historical event that was due to God. They also became a visible sign of the faithfulness of God that families of Israelites and gentiles would recognize for years.

Probably the most well-known example of a matstsebah or standing stone is found in I Samuel when the prophet Samuel set one up after a battle with the Philistines. He called it Ebenezer meaning the “stone of help”.

1 Samuel 7:12 (GWT)
Then Samuel took a rock and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer [Rock of Help] and said, “Until now the LORD has helped us.”

This stone placed high on a mountain would be in view of people passing by from all countries.  It was thus a reminder and a testimony of what God had done. That was the main purpose of the Israelites setting up these stones. They were reminders or symbols of the Lord’s blessings and help.

Purpose of a remembrance stone

Matstsebahs or standing stones today are found in many archaeological sites all over Israel. Some of these mysterious stones run from 1 to 10 feet high and today stand as an unknown witness to some event.

Some are in groups such as at Gezer and Hazor, but some are scattered all over the land. These stone memorials were used to mark some special or unusual event. 

God had the people of Israel to set up a matstsebah to mark an unusual or special event in their lives. 

  • It was to make known to them, their future generations and visitors what God had done for them. 
  • It was for the miracles He had performed. 
  • It was for the care He provided. 
  • It was for the blessings of life. 

When something significant happened to them, they were supposed to set up stones. But these stones were not to be worshiped. They were simply a reminder for them to recall and remember what God had done in their lives. And as people walked by them, they could ask the Jews what these stones meant and God would be glorified by them.

Peter even picked up on this ancient Jewish custom of stone monuments. 

1 Peter 2:4-5 (ESV)
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

We are the true matstsebah today, for God wants us to be a living matstsebah. But even so, it is not wrong today even for us Christians to still make use of an Ebenezer, matstsebah, or standing stone today.

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Creating a memorial day in your spiritual life

Do you have some significant event in which God performed an amazing feat for you? Maybe it is your salvation. Maybe it is a time when God healed you. Maybe it is a time that God answered a specific prayer or got you out of a predicament that was weighing heavily upon you. Why don’t you get pick up a stone and use it to remind you of that special event?

Set it up in the living room, kitchen, den, or wherever to be a matstsebah or Ebenezer. And when people ask you about the stone, you can tell them what God has done for you. We soon will be honoring Memorial Day, a day established for the fallen who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Many will lay flowers or place flags by stones of remembrance of these heroes. How about this year, we also set up a stone to honor the God who has helped us and given His Son Jesus for us, who died to give us life?