Five Star Mountains
In addition to their natural characteristics of height, durability, and beauty, mountains have served as places of refuge, hideaways, or enjoyment such as mountain climbing, hiking, and winter sports. Mountains at times form natural boundary markers between countries, or other geographical locations. Ancient gods were at times associated with mountains as was the case with the Ugaritic god Baal Zaphon. Mountains are also familiar in figurative language or many common idioms. Thus one can have a “mountain of work” piled on his desk or face a “mountain of debt” or enjoy a “mountain top experience.” In sum, mountains and their significance enjoy wide familiarity in human experience. It is small wonder, then, they are also objects of frequent mention in the Bible.
Indeed, mountains and hills were particular places of interest in Israel. They are singled out for mention several hundred times in the Scriptures. Due to their durability, height, and make-up, they often became natural places for refuge and security, territorial boundaries, and strategic military locations (cf. Josh. 14:12-15). In the days of the Midianites some Israelites sought refuge in hills and mountains (Judg. 6:2) and in the time of the Philistines (1 Sam. 14:22) some sought refuge in the hill country of Ephraim. A fleeing Elijah hid in a cave on Mount Horeb (I Kings 19:8-18). Mount Tabor served as a vantage point from which Barak was able to rout the forces of the Canaanites led by Sisera, which were deployed below in the Plain of Esdraelon across the eastern fork of the Kishon River (Judg. 4:12-16; 5:19-2).1
Their height above the landscape and reaching heavenward often made mountains and hills important as sites for various activities, including those associated with sacred worship.2 In the ancient Near East particular deities often were associated with a specific mountain as the scene of that god’s or goddess’ home. Thus the Ugaritic god Baal lived on Mount Zaphon (i.e., Mount Cassius in Syria). According to a well-known text from Ras Shamra, the god Baal sent messengers to the goddess Anat to come to him and when she does, because
I understand the lightening which the heavens do not know,
the word which men do not know,
and earth’s masses cannot understand,
Come and I will reveal it:
in the midst of my mountain, the divine Zaphon
in the sanctuary, in the mountain of my inheritance,
in the pleasant place, in the hill I have conquered.3
In the case of revealed religion, Israel’s covenant Lord, Yahweh, is not identified with or confined to any distinct mountain even though he descended to certain mountains and was particularly associated with Mount Sinai and Mount Zion.4 Unfortunately, hills and mountains all too often became sources of Israel’s idolatrous worship practices for which God’s people were sternly reprimanded by God and his prophets (e.g., 2 Kings 17:10-12; Jer. 2:20; 3:6).
Nevertheless, mountains could serve as places revelation (e.g., Rev. 2:9-10) or carry the sense of God’s presence so serve as places of special worship and meeting with God. Indeed, “Almost from the beginning of the Bible, mountains are sites of transcendent spiritual experiences, encounters with God or appearances by God.”5 Thus God instructed Abraham, “Take your son—your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah! Offer him up there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will indicate to you” Gen 22:2).6 Mountains were also associated with God’s power. The prophet Habakkuk reports that in connection with God’s intervention on behalf of his people, presumably along their Exodus journey, God shook the earth and “ The ancient mountains disintegrate; The primeval hills are flattened” (Hab. 3:6).7 Likewise, in special praise of God’s delivering power David reports that having called on the Lord for help, the Lord delivered him with great force: “From his heavenly temple he heard my voice; he listened to my cry for help. The earth heaved and shook, they heaved because he was angry” (2 Sam. 22:7b-8; cf. Ps. 18:6-7).
It is not surprising, therefore, that mountains occupied an important place in Jesus’ earthly ministry. Jesus instructed his disciples, “on a mountainside” (Matt. 5:1) and on one occasion, having gone up a mountainside and sat down with his disciples, fed 5,000 people (John 6:3). Mountains comprised a special refuge for Jesus to spend time alone with his heavenly Father in prayer (Matt. 6:45-46; Luke 6:12; John 6:15). The Mount of Olives served as a special place, which Jesus frequented (Luke 22:39), hence became the scene for Jesus’ prayer and subsequent arrest (Luke 22:40-52).8
Our consideration of mountains, rather than being of a general nature will focus on five specific mountains, which are particularly noteworthy as important scenes of divine activity.9 After a brief survey of specific incidents in the scriptural record of each mountain, some summary conclusions will be drawn followed by applications to “living on a mountaintop” in connection with Christian living will close the study.
On the very day marking their departure from Egypt as the third month, as the Israelites were encamped before Mt. Sinai, “Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain” (Exod. 19:3).10 In the narrative that immediately follows (Exod. 19:3-34:38), Moses receives God’s instructions for Israel and delivers them to the people. Accordingly, his going up and then going down Mount Sinai to address the Israelites forms a repeated theme throughout these chapters. In the present instance (Exod. 19:3-6) Moses receives God’s reminder that the Lord himself alone was Israel’s Redeemer who had delivered the people out of their bondage in Egypt and brought them safely to Mount Sinai. Further, if they would obey the terms of the God-initiated covenant with them, Israel would be the Lord’s “special possession” and would constitute “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5-6).
The basic condition of the Sinai Covenant was simple enough: Israel’s obedience to the terms of the covenant would not only bring God’s blessing and special care, but as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation God’s people would constitute a special channel of blessing to all people. The promise of Israel being God’s special possession is echoed in many places in the Bible. The word translated “special possession” means basically “property,” especially one’s personal possession. Thus Israel was God’s personal possession (Ps. 135:4). A gracious God had purchased her, redeeming her out of Egypt not because of Israel’s own goodness, but simply because he loved her and he would be faithful to the earlier promise made to the patriarchs (Deut. 7:6-11). He entered into covenant with his people, asking only that they should love him and be faithful even as he had been toward them (Exod. 19:5). This means that they should reflect his holy standards in their lives and thus be assured of seeing good success (Deut. 26:16-19).
After delivering God’s call and charge to his people, Moses returned to God’s presence on Mount Sinai with the people’s pledge to do all that the Lord had commanded (Exod. 19:8b-9). He then receives further instructions for the people. Because on the third day God was going to descend upon Mount Sinai, the Israelites were to sanctify themselves so as to be conscious of standing in the holy presence of the Holy One of Israel (vv. 10-13). The mention of the third day is reminiscent of a theme that occurs in many places in the Scriptures. It is used for a variety of reasons and occasions, such as the completion of a preparatory waiting period (1 Kings 12:5, 12), as a day of special spiritual activity (Gen. 22:4), including purity or healing (Lev. 7:17-18; 19:6-7), and is specially celebrated as the day of Christ’s resurrection (Luke 24:5-7).11
Having received the Lord’s instructions, Moses once again went down the mountain. With the people duly prepared, as promised, the Lord descended upon Mount Sinai and “The whole mountain shook violently” (Exod. 19:18). With the mountain covered with smoke due to God’s descent, Moses was again summoned up the mountain into God’s presence. There he receives new instructions in the form of reinforcing the warning against any attempt by anyone to ascend or even touch Mount Sinai as well as the need for complete purity (vv. 19-24)-- all of which Moses carried back to the people (v. 25).
There follows an account of God’s speaking first to all the people, in which the Lord revealed the terms of his covenant to a fearful people (Exod. 20:1-21).Subsequently he communicated through Moses his teachings concerning the spiritual and moral standards as well as every aspect of living as a covenant community (Exod. 20:22-31:18). In the course of receiving all of these words Moses made at least two trips up the mountain. On the first trip he was accompanied by the leaders of Israel (Exod. 24:9-11), while on the second (24:12ff.), he remained in God’s presence for “forty days and forty nights” (v. 18).
Unfortunately, while Moses was there, the people despaired of seeing Moses again and turned away from their prior commitment to God. They fell into the idolatrous sin associated with the making of the golden calf (or bull; Exod. 32:1-6), thus incurring God’s wrath. After pleading with God to spare the people (vv. 7-14), Moses came down the mountain and rebuked the people (vv. 15-30). Moses then went up the mountain to intercede once again for his sinful people (vv. 31-34). Although God subsequently punished the people by a means of imposing a plague (Exod. 32:35), he graciously extended his previous promise of blessing to Israel as the patriarchs’ heirs and told Moses to go on to lead the people toward the promised land (Exod. 33:1-3).
The following verses in the book of Exodus recount various incidents that took place before Mount Sinai (Exod. 33:4-40:34), including Moses’ final trip up the mountain (34:4-28).12 As he does so, Moses carries two new stone tablets, on which God would write again the words of the former tablets that Moses had broken in his anger with the people (Exod. 32:19). After Moses had spent another forty days and nights on Mount Sinai with the Lord, he came down the mountain and led the people in carrying out the various stipulations of the covenant. When this was completed, “The cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34). A postscript describing the manifestation of the Lord’s leading of his people closes the Exodus account (Exod. 40:35-38).
It may be seen, therefore, that as we noted earlier concerning mountains in general, Mount Sinai served as a place of God’s presence, power, and instructions concerning the Sinaitic (or Mosaic) covenant. For Moses, it was also a place of special individual worship in the very presence of God. In connection with this truth is the narrative concerning Moses’ glowing face after his last personal encounter with God (Exod. 34:29-35), which not only demonstrated that Moses had been in the presence of the Lord, but testified to God’s greatness and glory. It is interesting to note however, that on Moses’ second descent from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand—“when he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him” (Exod. 34:29). Because the glow on Moses’ face made the Israelites fearful, Moses would put a veil on his face. “But when Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would remove the veil until he came out” (Exod. 34:34). This process was repeated throughout the remaining time before Mount Sinai (v. 35). Moses’ glowing face also was a visible symbol that Moses alone was God’s designated human leader among the people of Israel.13 So important was the significance of this incident that Paul referred to it in his discussion concerning the superiority of the New Covenant to the Old Covenant (2 Cor. 3:7-18). Because of its relevance for believers, we shall return to this incident in connection with the symbolic value of mountains (and Mount Sinai in particular) for Christian living.
As the highest peak in a mountain range that extends from the bay of Acre on the Mediterranean coast inland to the plains of Dothan, Mount Carmel’s southwestern slopes were famed for their fertility (2 Chr. 26:10) and majestic beauty (Songs 7:5-6). Two of the mountain passes through this range were scenes of well-known biblical events: Megiddo (2 Chr. 35:22) and Taanach (Judg. 5:19-22). Of particular interest is a contest between Elijah, the prophet of the Lord, and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18), which took place on Mount Carmel.14
Although the account of this contest is told in 1 Kings 18, the background for it is found as early as 1 Kings 16:29-34. There we learned that Ahab, rather than being concerned with true vital faith, followed the worship of the Caananite storm god Baal-Malqart. Accordingly, as chapter seventeen opens, Elijah informs the king that, “As certainly as the LORD God of Israel lives (whom I serve) there will be no dew or rain in the years ahead unless I give the command” (1 Kings 17:1). Such literally was the case until the third year of the drought and resulting famine.15
Due to God’s command, Elijah arranged through a trustworthy official of Ahab named Obadiah (who was also a loyal follower of the Lord, 1 Kings 18:12) for a contest with Baal’s prophets on Mount Carmel. Having carried out Elijah’s instructions, Elijah, King Ahab and 450 prophets of Baal as well as many people gathered on Mount Carmel in order to witness a test as to who really was God, Yahweh or Baal (1 Kings 18:16-19; cf. also Josh. 24:14-15; Matt. 6:24). Having arranged the terms of the contest as to whether Baal or Yahweh would send fire to burn the particular sacrifice, Baal’s prophets were unsuccessful. Baal failed to respond to their petition or sacrifice (vv. 20-29). When all of their frenzied attempts failed, Elijah demonstrated the Lord’s true position as the only God by first drenching the sacrifice with water. This took place at the time of the evening sacrifice.16 A demonstration of the divine power came as Elijah called on God as, “fire from the LORD fell from the sky. It consumed the offering, the wood, the stones, and the dirt, and licked up the water in the trench.”17 The people gathered there were convinced that Yahweh “is the true God!” (v.39).The prophets of Baal were taken down from the mountain and were executed (v. 40) and shortly afterward, a “heavy rainstorm” came (v. 45).
The whole period of time as well as the specific contest clearly showed that Baal was not the one to be sought for help, especially in the time of drought. The people should be petitioning the only true and living God. The contest on the mountain had been one that was sorely needed, for when Ahab and Jezebel had sanctioned paganism, vital faith on diminished greatly (yet, cf. 1 Kings 18:11-13; 19:14-15). Mount Carmel was not only apropos as a traditional sacred site testifying to the presence of the Lord (1 Kings 18:30), but the altar’s broken-down condition mirrored Israel’s spiritual degeneration. As well, the availability and use of twelve altar stones (vv. 31-32) served as a visible reminder that both Israel and all the twelve tribes owed their allegiance to their covenant Lord.
Thus a mountain site once again served as a place where the God of heaven validated his faithful servant (Elijah) and contacted his people for whom he cared greatly despite their abandonment of him. Israel was to learn that a merciful and gracious God is ever available to his people who call upon him in full sincerity and genuine faith (cf. 2 Chron. 7:14; Neh. 9:17-18; Hos. 6:1-3; 10:12; 11:18; 14:14; Joel 2:12-13; 2 Pet. 3:9). It was a fitting lesson for God’s people under the Old Covenant and remains so for those who are heirs of the New Covenant.
The Mount of Transfiguration
The scriptural account of Jesus’ glorious transfiguration is told in Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; and Luke 9:28-36.We may take as a basic setting of the full account the record in Matthew 17:1-3:
Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John the brother of James, and led them privately up a high mountain. And he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. Then Moses and Elijah also appeared before them, talking with them.
Luke (9:29) adds that Jesus took the three disciples with him in order to pray and the transfiguration happened as Jesus was praying. All three accounts report that Jesus’ inner transfiguration was evidenced outwardly by the alteration in the appearance of his clothing, which became “white as light,” “radiantly white, more than any launderer in the world could bleach them” (Mark 9:3)—indeed, “very bright, a brilliant white” (Luke 9:29). As Edersheim describes it, “What they saw was their Master, while praying, ‘transformed.’”18
Although the precise mountain on which this amazing event took place is disputed, some maintaining the traditional location on Mount Tabor, while others favor Mount Hermon, or Mount Meron in northwestern Galilee, the presentation of a record of this event in all three synoptic gospels underscores the authenticity of Jesus’ transfiguration. Actually, none of the scriptural authors was concerned to identify the particular mountain on which the event took place. It is the transfiguration, not the location, which is significant.
The Greek verb translated “transfigured” (Matt. 17:2; Mark 9:2) was used in secular Greek in a variety of ways.19 Meaning basically “to change into another form,” the transformation could involve an outward change perceived by the senses, but on occasion, an inward spiritual one as well. The root idea is appropriately used in several fields of knowledge. Geologists apply it to rocks whose structure is so completely altered that their original form is no longer seen. Such rocks are called metamorphic rocks. Biologists use this root to designate changes in the natural world by which creatures adapt to a new environment or a way of living such as tadpoles becoming frogs. This process is termed “metamorphosis.” Certain linguists speak of a process known as “transformational grammar whereby meanings in the deep structure of language are transformed into the resultant words of the surface structure of the sentence.
The verb, which is found only three times in the Greek New Testament, appears first here in Matthew 17:2. Applying the force of the Greek root it means that on this occasion Christ’s essential inner excellence shone out so brightly that not only was his intrinsic glory seen but his very clothing glistened with dazzling brightness. Luke’s recording of the fact that this mountain transformation took place while Jesus was praying is significant in at least two ways. (1) It testifies to Jesus’ own personal commitment to the habitual practice of prayer. Indeed, Jesus was a man of prayer. He was so committed to time spent with the Father in prayer that Mark (1:32-37) reports that even though Jesus could be extremely busily engaged in ministry, he still rose long before daybreak and found a place where he might be alone with his Father in prayer. To be sure, Jesus prayed at other times of the day (cf. Mark 6:46; 14:32-42). The important thing is that Jesus’ praying is reflective of a settled habit of life. (2) It may point to the fact taught elsewhere in the Scriptures that another avenue of the believer’s growth in grace alongside of the Word of God (2 Cor. 3:18; 1 Tim 4:4-5) is through prayer (cf. Phil 4:6-7; 1 Tim 2:15; 1 John 5:14).
Nor should we overlook the fact that it was altogether fitting for the two men who appeared on this occasion (Moses and Elijah) were men who spent time with and/or ministered for God. As Moses’ experience with God on Mount Sinai was life-changing for him and for his fellow Hebrews and as Elijah’s experience on Mount Carmel as well as later on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:9-18) provided distinct points of change in their ministry for God, so Jesus’ transfiguration served as a turning point in his earthly ministry. Doubtless this was the case for the “inner three” who were with him, even thought on this occasion they were instructed “not to tell anyone about the vision until the Son of Man is raised from the dead (Matt. 17:9; cf. Mark 9:9; Luke 9:36). The ministry changing nature of this event is further underscored in the fact that shortly afterward the disciples were reminded again of Jesus’ recent declaration (Matt. 16:21) that he must go to Jerusalem, be killed, and rise on the third day (Matt. 17:22-23). The path to the cross and resurrection day now was distinctly underway.
Of further importance in the transfiguration account is the fact that at a strategic point, “A bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my one dear Son, in whom I take great delight. Listen to him!’” (Matt. 17:5). Although those present at Jesus’ baptism had heard a similar confirmation of Jesus’ relation to the Father (Matt. 3:17), on this occasion the three not only heard the Father’s testimony as to his Son Jesus, but they saw Christ’s transfiguration, which testified to his deity. Moreover, they themselves received instruction from God to listen to Jesus—that is, not just to hear him but, “to listen to his teaching and submit to his authority.”20 In light of all that these three disciples had witnessed, how could their lives and relation to Jesus ever be the same again? They should now surely realize beyond any doubt that not only was Jesus their teacher, but truly the Christ, “The Son of the Living God” (Matt.16:16). It is not surprising, then, that “When the disciples heard this, they threw themselves down with their faces to the ground” (Matt. 17:6).21 In light of all of this, Edersheim rightly observes,
First, it was (and at that particular period) a necessary stage in the Lord’s History,viewed in the light in which the Gospels present Him. Secondly, it was needful for His own strengthening, even as the Ministry of the Angels after the Temptation. Thirdly, it was ‘good’ for these three disciples to be there; not only for future witness, but for present help, and also for special reference to Peter’s remonstrance against Christ’s death-message. Lastly, the Voice from heaven, in hearing of His disciples, was of the deepest importance. Coming after the announcement of His Death and Passion, it sealed that testimony, and, in view of it, proclaimed Him as the Prophet to Whom Moses had bidden Israel hearken.22
The account of Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountain is thus extremely important for what occurred there—wherever the location. This mountaintop experience is not only significant as an authoritative historical event, but was also crucial to the disciples’ ministry and testimony, especially after the death and resurrection of Christ. Is no less important for today’s believer, for as we saw earlier, the verb “transfigured” occurs two more times in contexts vital for believers of all time. Because of their crucial importance, we shall turn to them in the closing application.
The Mount of Olives
The Mount of Olives is connected with a “ridge running parallel to the Kidron Valley, east of Jerusalem.”23 The specific mountain known as Olivet, or the Mount of Olives, is identified as Jebel-et-t£ur, which is located east of the Temple area. Although most commonly the Mount of Olives is of particular interest to the readers of the New Testament, two passages in the Old Testament are also of significance to biblical history and eschatology.
The first is to be found in Ezekiel 11:22-23. Ezekiel, who saw in a vision the glory of the Lord leave the Temple (Ezek. 10:18-19), now witnesses its departure from Jerusalem: “Then the cherubim spread their wings with their wheels alongside them while the glory of the God of Israel hovered above them. The glory of the LORD rose up from within the city and stopped over the mountain east of it” (11:22-23).24 Although the mountain is not specifically named, it is commonly believed that it is the Mount of Olives. Thus Cooper remarks, “According to rabbinic tradition, the glory of God tarried on the Mount of Olives for three and a half years awaiting some sign of repentance and when there was none, ultimately departed. The departure of the glory of God from the Mount of Olives was the first step in the judgment process.”25
The glory of God is frequently referred to as the Shekinah Glory. Although the term Shekinah does not occur in the Scriptures, the root verb meaning “to dwell” does, hence the naming of God’s dwelling in glory on earth among men. The Shekinah Glory had descended on Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:16-17) and then had guided the Israelites all along their wilderness journey (Num. 9:15-17) to the land of inheritance (Deut. 12:10-11). God’s glory had filled both tabernacle (Exod. 40:34-38) and the Temple (1 Kings 6:11-13). Ezekiel records the leaving of both the Temple and Jerusalem due to Israel’s apostate heart, not to return until the great millennial reign of the Messiah among his repentant and redeemed people (Ezek. 43:1-4; Joel 3:17-21).
In connection with that future day the prophet Zechariah prophesies that the Lord’s “feet will stand on the Mount of Olives to the east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in half from east to west leaving a great valley” (Zech. 14:4). In that future day, “The LORD will then be king over all the earth” (Zech. 14:9).26 The whole scene creates an awareness of God’s power and intervention into human history.
As mentioned in the opening introduction, the Mount of Olives was a place of special importance associated with Jesus’ earthly ministry. Thus as Jesus and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem on that day known as Jesus’ triumphal entry, at having reached “Bethphage at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples” (Matt. 21:1) with instructions concerning the securing of a donkey upon which Jesus was to ride. Of further importance is the fact that Matthew cites Jesus’ riding upon a donkey as a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9. Matthew’s account goes on to mention that the disciples “brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them, and he sat on them” (Matt. 21:7). As France observes, however, “Common sense rather than Greek syntax requires that the “them” must refer to the clothes (the most recent antecedent) rather than the two animals.”27
Because the other Gospel accounts only mention one donkey, some have suggested a contradiction between Matthew’s record and the other Gospels. Proper consideration of the Hebrew text of Zechariah 9:9, however, demands that Israel’s coming king would be seated upon a male foal of a female donkey. Matthew’s mentioning of the foal and the mother cannot be construed as a misunderstanding of Zechariah’s words to mean that Messiah would ride on the mother donkey or both donkeys. Simply put, Matthew mentions the mother not to equate her in any way with the donkey of Zechariah’s prophecy, but to emphasize what Mark and Luke plainly say, that the donkey upon which Jesus sat was unbroken (Mark 11:2; Luke 19:30). Moreover, a young, unbroken animal would welcome his mother’s steadying presents on such an occasion and readily follow her, especially in the new experience of bearing a rider. Accordingly, no contradiction exists either in the details of Matthew’s quotation of Zechariah or between himself and other Gospel writers.
During the ensuing passion week Jesus taught in the Temple courts (Luke 21:37). It was on the Mount of Olives, however, where he taught his disciples concerning future events connected with the end of the age and his second coming to earth (Matt. 24:3-25:46; Mark 13:3-37; Luke 21:7-36). On the evening marked in Jewish tradition as the time of the Passover, after Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Passover and observed the Lord’s Supper, they sang a hymn and “went out to the Mount of Olives” (Matt. 26:30). There in a spot on the slope of the Mount of Olives called Gethsemane, which was frequently visited by Jesus and his disciples (John 18:2; cf. Luke 22:39-40), Jesus left his disciples and went alone to pray to the Father. The disciples, however, rather than praying, fell asleep. When Jesus had returned to them a third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look the hour is approaching, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us go. Look! My betrayer is approaching!” (Matt. 26:45-46). The Mount of Olives is then becomes the scene also of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest (vv. 47-56). The Mount of Olives is also memorable as the place of Jesus’ post-resurrection ascension into Heaven (Acts. 1:10-12), to which he shall return (Zech. 14:4; cf. Rev. 1:7).
The final mountain for our consideration is Mount Zion. By Mount Zion is commonly understood the Temple mountain in Jerusalem. In contrast to Mount Sinai, where the Israel of the exodus event met God and experienced his awesome presence, Mount Zion later became his earthly dwelling place (Pss.68:29; 74:2; Isa. 8:18; 18:7) from which he emerged to give his people “power and strength” (Ps. 68:35).
In a great many cases God’s dwelling place is simply called “Zion” (Ps. 9:11), a name that also is sometimes extended to all Jerusalem (Ps. 97:8) together with its Temple mount (Pss. 48:1-2, 9-14; 87:1-3). Although God occasionally delivered Zion from its enemies (Isa. 31:4-5), because of their sinful preoccupation with idolatry, God judged his people by allowing Jerusalem to be captured and many of its people to go into exile. Yet, because God has chosen Zion as his earthly dwelling place (Ps. 132:13-14; cf. Ps. 146:10), Jerusalem was assured that it would again be restored and renewed to even greater glory, and it will again be God’s earthly home (Micah 4:7). “The LORD will rule over the restored faithful remnant and strong (or populous) nation in Mount Zion, the site of the temple that contained the ark of the covenant, representing the Great Shepherd-King’s earthly throne. According to Zech 14:9 he will reign not just over “them” but also over ’the whole earth.’”28
Nevertheless, before that becomes The Lord’s permanent residence, Jerusalem will in a future day be the focal point of attack by enemy armies. When that takes place and matters look the worst (Zech. 14:1-2), God will intercede for his people (Zech. 14:3). In the nearby valley of Jehoshaphat, God will “sit in judgment on all the surrounding nations” (Joel 3:12). As the prophet Joel describes it, “The LORD roars from Zion; from Jerusalem his voice bellows out. The heavens and earth shake. But the LORD is a refuge for his people; he is a stronghold for the citizens of Israel” (Joel 3:16), and “On Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who survive just as the LORD has promised; the remnant will be those whom the LORD will call” (Joel 2:32). Jerusalem will be made holy (Isa. 4:3-4) and then, “The LORD will create over all of Mount Zion and its convocations a cloud and smoke by day and a bright flame of fire by night; indeed a canopy will accompany the LORD’s glorious presence” (v. 3). As Oswalt observes, “A nation which has become progressively more unlike God in its moral character will, in that day, become holy. This is the purpose of judgment and of redemption, that people should be like God.”29 Thus Zion will be, “The seat of Yahweh’s world government. Peace will prevail, Yahweh’s word will issue from it, and all the Gentile nations will flow to it. Yahweh will reign from there, the city of the great king (Ps. 48:1-8) . . . Those who inhabit this eschatological Zion will be the saved remnant (Is 4:2-6), who have been purged by fire and washed clean so as to be perfectly consecrated to the Lord.”30
All of this will be accomplished through God’s anointed, the Messiah (Isa. 52:7-8; Rev. 19:11-21), who will reign in glory and in great power (Ps. 2:6-12; cf. Isa. 24:23). “Zion will be desired as the place of worship for all people (Jer 31:3-6; Mic 4:1-2; Zech 14:9-11, 16-18). . . . With him lies the hope of being a member of that redeemed multitude that will enjoy the presence of the LORD and his blessings forever (Rom 8:30-34; 1 Pet 2:4-10). Therefore, New Testament believers are to conduct themselves with all godliness in eager anticipation of that blessed time (Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-8).”31
So it is that at the climax of earth’s history the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, will live among and rule over a redeemed people of God in the refreshed and revitalized earthly New Jerusalem, the prophesied Zion (Isa. 65:17-25). As Motyer explains with regard to Isaiah 65, in that blessed environment life will be “ totally provided for (13) totally happy (19cd), totally secure (22-23) and totally at peace (24-25).”32 Mount Zion thus becomes linked with the fuller concept of salvation: “The LORD lives in heaven; he fills Zion with justice and fairness. He is your constant source of stability; he abundantly provides safety and great wisdom; he gives all this to those who fear him” (Isa. 33:5-6). Accordingly, Smith remarks, “God will not just encourage people to be righteous, he will also ‘fill’ the place with godly characteristics.”33 As we shall note in the concluding application, the perspective of Zion likewise takes on great importance for New Testament believers as well.
Each of the mountains examined above was shown to be a scene of spiritual significance, hence together they play a “starring role” among the many places and themes in the Scriptures. At Mount Sinai the Lord’s glory and power were forcefully demonstrated to the Hebrews gathered there at its base. Moreover, the Lord presented to them his high and holy standards that he expected them to carry out as his covenant people. We also noted the danger in which they placed themselves by turning to worship other so-called gods rather than obeying the Lord and his prescriptions for worship .Compounding the sin was the fact that the Lord himself, who had redeemed them out of Egypt was present (though enveloped in a cloud) on the top of the very mountain before which they were encamped. Not to be forgotten also is the fact that Moses cared so much for God’s reputation and his people’s welfare that he interceded with the Lord so that he would not totally destroy the people. To their credit a great many people subsequently joined Moses in carrying out the Lord’s worship instructions. Unforgettable, too, is the fact that when Moses came down from being personally in the presence of the Lord, “The skin of his face shone” (Exod. 34:29).
At Mount Carmel the Lord again demonstrated his great power in such a way that all who were present realized that he alone is the only true God. For the Lord sent fire to so consume Elijah’s sacrifice that it even burnt “the wood, the stones, and the dirt, and licked up the water in the trench” (1 Kings 18:38). The subsequent sending of the rain was a reminder that only the Lord is sufficient to meet all of man’s needs and problems.
A highlight of the revelation on the Mount of Transfiguration was the presence of Elijah and Moses. The fact that they were there bore witness to the reality of immortality already hinted at in several Old Testament passages (e.g., Job 19:25-27; Ps. 17:15; Dan. 12:2-3), for although Elijah was taken into heaven without seeing death, Moses was not (Deut. 34:5-8). Of central significance is the truth that Jesus was shown to be the unique Son of God and Israel’s long awaited Messiah to whom believers are to listen and respond. For the disciples who were present on the mountain, it was an event, which was important to their spiritual growth and ministry—especially after the death and resurrection of Christ (cf. 2 Pet. 1:16-21).
Adding to this portrait of Christ’s deity are the many scenes of Jesus ascending the Mount of Olives to have personal communion while praying with the Father. The Mount of Olives is therefore of special significance not only in the unfolding plan of God, but as an attestation to the earthly ministry of God incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Mount of Olives also plays a major role as the place from which Christ both ascended and to which he shall return. He shall come as the Divine Warrior who both delivers his people and brings judgment to the unbelieving nations.
Mount Zion stands as a solemn reminder of God’s dwelling among men both in the past and in the future. It is also a reminder of his superintending of the flow of history and the great importance of being conscious of his holy presence (Ps. 125:1-2; Isa. 6:1-4).
Moses’ and the Israelites’ experience on Mount Sinai also bears application to today’s believers. Because at Sinai the Lord revealed to Israel his standards for holy living in the form of covenant regulations, it reminds believers of the importance of the Word of God in order to achieve a holy walk before the Lord. Israel’s failure to mind the Lord’s instructions likewise reminds today’s believers of the dangers of neglecting the Lord and the Scriptures. Moses’ intercession for his people is also exemplary for today’s believers of their high privilege of interceding with the Lord for the needs of others.
Particularly instructive is Paul’s reference to Mount Sinai. Using figurative language he contrasts the experience of those gathered at that mountain during the early days under the old covenant to the potential for believers under the New Covenant (2 Cor. 3:12-18). In so doing he affirms that the Holy Spirit brings to the believer full liberty to behold the glory of the Lord in the Scriptures and thereby to be “transformed into the same image from one degree to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (v. 18). The word “transformed” is once again the one that we noted in connection with the account of the Mount of Transfiguration.
Two facts emerge from the use of this verb here. (1) “In contrast to the glory seen on Moses’ face, there is no prospect of the evangelical glory fading or diminishing, but only of its increasing more and more until the coming in person of the Lord of glory Himself.”34 (2) At Mount Sinai the believers were informed that they would be God’s “special possession” (Exod. 19:5). Because New Testament believers partake of the promise made to the patriarchs through faith in Christ (Gal. 3:6-9, 15-18, 26-29), they are also counted God’s special possession. As such, like Israel of old, they are reminded that they are constituted “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). Accordingly, they are to serve God and reflect his holy standards in their walk.35
Further information for godly living may be learned from the other mountains we have considered. Thus the contest on Mount Carmel reminds the believer that nothing should displace the Lord as the center of his life, whether in the worship experience or in the everyday pursuits of life (cf. 1 John 5:21). Mount Carmel testifies as well to the mercy and goodness of God in his concern for his people via his correction and care. This challenges believers to let God’s goodness flow out through them to others (cf. 3 John 11). Elijah’s calling on God and the Lord’s answer should serve as a stimulus to prayer, while understanding the great potential in doing so in accordance with God’s will.
In a distinctive way the Mount of Olives reinforces our previous understanding of a mountain as a place, which testifies to God’s presence, power, and purposes. As the place where Jesus spent so much of his time, especially during his last week of earthly ministry, it challenges believers to come to grips with his teachings given there. Because Jesus spent so much time in prayer at the Mount of Olives, it is a solemn reminder of the need to spend a special time in prayer to the Lord.
The Mount of Transfiguration is likewise instructive for Christian living. As noted in our earlier discussions, the Greek verb “transfigured” (Matt. 17:2) occurs twice elsewhere. We have already seen its use by Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:18. Paul also employs this verb in challenging the believer to present himself as a living sacrifice, the whole person inside and out is to go on being transformed, so as to realize the will of God (Rom. 12:1-2). With such a commitment the believer continues to be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). This involves an attitude of full surrender to Christ in every area of living.
In our consideration of the transfiguration account we saw that Jesus’ transformation took place during a time of prayer. This suggests strongly that one means for the believer’s growth in grace is through prayer.36 Time spent in daily communion with God allows the structure of our beings, already dramatically changed at conversion, to be further transformed. By knowing God more intimately, we learn to think his thoughts after him and so to be more like him. The word “transformed,” which we have considered three times instructs us concerning the means at the believer’s disposal for the metamorphic process of the Holy Spirit to be effective: (1) a godly attitude of full commitment to Christ, (2) an effective prayer life, and (3) the consistent study of God’s Word.
In many ways a consideration of Mount Zion brings all of this into clearer perspective. Not only do biblical texts relative to Mount Zion point to the presence, power, and holiness of God, but they also assure believers that they partake of the blessings associated with Zion. These are available to them through their union with Christ Jesus: “You have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the assembly and congregation of the first-born, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant” (Heb. 12:22-24). As Bruce explains, “Christians have come to no sacred mountain which can be touched physically but to the heavenly dwelling-place of God, the true and eternal Mount Zion. . . . The new Jerusalem has not yet come down to men, but in the spiritual realm they already have access to it. They have become fellow-citizens with Abraham of that well-founded city for which he looked; it is the city or commonwealth which comprises the whole family of faith, God’s true dwelling-place.”37 Lightfoot adds: “When they came to Christ they came to Mount Zion. …In Christ and with the new covenant they share spiritually in the city. The language possesses an air of the Christian‘s glory and triumph.”38
While believers eagerly await his second coming (Titus 2:11-14; Rev. 22:20), they have the high privilege of serving and representing the Lord Jesus Christ in full commitment to him. Through their union with Christ and as indwelled by the Holy Spirit, for committed believers there is full potential for living on the highest plane (e.g., Rom. 12:1-2; Phil. 2:13; Col. 1:27). Not only from Mount Zion, but applying the lessons we have learned from all of the mountains we have considered assures us that in so doing we may enjoy each day as a “mountaintop experience.” As we go, may each of us reflect the sentiments of Johnson Gatman, Jr.:
I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining ev’ry day—
Still praying as I’m onward bound,
“Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”39
1 See further Richard D. Patterson, “The Song of Deborah,” in Tradition and Testament , eds. John S. and Paul D. Fineberg (Chicago: Moody, 1981), 123-60.
2 Excellent discussions concerning the importance of mountains and hills may be found in standard dictionaries and word studies. See, for example, G. A. Lee, “Hill; Hill Country; Mount; Mountains; etc.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 2:713-16; S. Talmon, “Har,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, eds, G, Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 2:427-47; and Heinrich Seesemann, “Őρος [oros],” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, eds, Gerhard Kittel andf Gerhard Friedrick, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 5:475-88.
3 Michael David Coogan, ed. and trans., Stories from Ancient Canaan (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), 92.
4 See further, Martin Selman, “Har,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 1:1053.
5 See further, “Mountain,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, eds. Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III (Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 1998), 573.
6 The Lord, of course, provided the substitute ram for the actual sacrifice, hence the mountain was named “The LORD provides” (Gen. 22:14). The following verses (vv. 15-18) are important in the chain of texts that furnish details as to the full provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant. As Kenneth A. Matthews (Genesis 11:27-50:26, The New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2005], 298) observes concerning Gen. 22:17-18, “This culminating passage gathers descriptions of the Abraham promises from earlier narratives and expands upon them.” See also Walter C. Kaiser, The Promise-Plan of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 84-89. It has been suggested that this event foreshadows the details and implications of Christ’s sacrifice. See further the discussion in Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 310-11. In their concluding application they remark, “In taking an oath to bless Abraham and all the nations through him, God guarantees the promise to Abraham’s offspring (Gen. 22:15-18). Abraham’s obedience prefigures the active obedience of Christ, who secures the covenantal blessings for Abraham’s innumerable offspring.”
7 See the discussion by Waylon Bailey, “Habakkuk,” in Kenneth L. Barker and Waylon Bailey, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephanian, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999),
8 See the NET note on Luke 19:29. Matthew identifies this specific place on the lower slope of the Mount of Olives as Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36).
9 Thus the title of our study, Five Star Mountains.
10 A great many events are recorded concerning Israel’s stay in the Sinai Desert (Exod. 19:1-Num. 10:10).
11 For details, see Richard D. Patterson and Michael E. Travers, “The Third Day Motif,” Biblical Studies Press, 2008.
12 U. Cassuto (A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, trans. Israel Abrahams [Jerusalem: Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, 1953], 436-37) correctly concludes that Exod. 33:21-33 looks forward to Moses final trip up the mountain.
13 See further, the excellent discussion by Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, The New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 735-36.
14 See Richard D. Patterson and Hermann J. Austel, “Kings,” in I Samuel – 2 Kings, eds, Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 3:773-80.
15 Although Luke 4:25 and James 5:17 speak of a 3 ½ year drought, the difference may be easy to explain. The New Testament passages may be using conventional language for a time of tribulation (cf. Dan. 7:25; 12:7; Rev. 11:3) or the Kings passage maybe an approximate time value. The differences also may be due to variations in time measurement.
16 For details, see C.F. Keil, The Books of the Kings, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. James Martin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 247.
17 Some have suggested that the fire was kindled by a lightning strike heralding the approach of a mammoth storm (1 Kings 18:45).
18 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), 2:96.
19 See, for example, Nigel Turner, Christian Words (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1980), 410-11.
20 John A. Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: The American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), 572.
21 Jesus’ words to his disciples to “not be afraid” (Matt. 17:7) are reminiscent of the risen Christ’s tender communication to aged Apostle John (Rev. 1:17-19).
22 Edersheim, Life and Times, 2:101.
23 R.L. Alden, “Mount Of Olives,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Ed. Merill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975) 4; 299.
24 In a subsequent vision Ezekiel sees the future return of the glory of the Lord coming from the east, the direction from which it had departed (Ezek. 43:1-4).
25 Lamar Eugene Cooper, Sr., Ezekiel, The New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 145.
26 See further Thomas McComiskey, “Zechariah,” in The Minor Prophets, ed. Thomas Edward McComiskey (GrandRapids: Baker, 1998), 3:1230-31; Andrew E. Hill, in Minor Prophets, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, ed. Philip W. Comfort (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2008), 599. It is of further interest to note that a prominent fault does exist running east to west through the southern section of the Mount of Olives.
27 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, eds. Ned B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 772.
28 Kenneth L. Barker, “Micah,” in Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, The New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 89.
29 John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 147.
30 “Zion,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, eds., Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III (Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 1998), 981.
31 Richard D. Patterson in, Minor Prophets, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, ed. Philip W. Comfort (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2008), 145.
32 J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), 530.
33 Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 1-39, The New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2007), 554. It should be noted that a whole theological perspective known as “Zion Theology” has been championed by many. See for example, John T. Strong, “Zion, Theology of,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Wilhem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 4:1314-21.
34 Philip E. Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 118. See further Hughes’ full discussion on pages 107-121.
35 It is of interest to note that in the KJV the term “special possession” is rendered “peculiar treasure.” With such an understanding, believers should be encouraged so to live as to produce treasured-filled lives (cf. 1 Cor. 3:12-13; 2 Cor. 4:1-7). Thus they may experience the abundant life that Jesus promised (John 10:10).
36 It is interesting to note that for Jesus as well as for many of God’s choice servants that special time was early in the morning. This serves as a splendid example for believers in that for many the morning is already a special time when their hearts and minds are yet fresh and unencumbered by the pressures of the day. It must be noted, however, that not all believers are “morning people.” The spiritual principle is nonetheless applicable: that part of the day when we are “at our best” is the time, which we need to set aside to come into the Lord’s presence, so as to praise and thank him for his goodness, to find forgiveness for any sin that may disrupt our fellowship with him, and to gain strength and direction for daily living (cf. Matt. 6:9-15).
37 F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 372, 374-75.
38 Neil R Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970), 238.
39 Johnson Gatman, Jr., “Higher Ground.”