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The Mountain of God

by | Aug 12, 2023

Montana Mountains

God’s Holy Hill

When you think of mountains, depending on where you live, you may think of something like the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains in the American West.  Or perhaps the majestic Swiss Alps or even Mount Everest.  In the Ancient Near East, a mountain could refer to something like Mount Olympus in Greece, which stands at just under 8,000 feet, or something more akin to the site of Mount Zion in Jerusalem, which is only about 2,500 feet in elevation (and doesn’t really tower over the surrounding hills).  A mountain in the Middle East could refer to merely the largest hill in an otherwise flat plain.

I call out to the LORD, and he answers me from his holy mountain – Psalm 3:4

The Psalms refer to mountains or hills more than a dozen times.  Depending on the version, the word for mountain and hill can be used interchangeably.  And most references to mountains refer to God’s holy mountain.  When gazing at a majestic peak towering over the surrounding range it might be easy to call it holy.  But is King David just marveling at a majestic peak or is there more going on with this imagery?  To fully understand these references, we must go back to ancient belief systems.

In the ancient world, it was commonly held that the gods lived on mountains.  Zeus lived on Mount Olympus, while Mount Hermon was said to be home to the palace of Baal and the abode of the fallen angels.  To the surprise of many moderns, Israel basically held the same belief.  Moses receives the Ten Commandments directly from Yahweh at the top of Mount Sinai.  This belief is carried through to the Psalms.  The symbolic mountain top is where you would encounter God.  It is the natural intersection on earth where you could come closest to reaching the heavens.

When the Tabernacle, later to be replaced by the Temple, was moved to Mount Zion in Jerusalem, even given its modest size it became the mountain of God. Mount Zion became God’s holy hill.  It is important to note that a mountain does not become the dwelling place of God because of the mystical qualities of a particular location.  A mountain or hill becomes holy precisely because God chooses to show His presence there. So where is the mountain of God?  Wherever God shows His presence!

Standing in God’s Presence

Psalm 84 is a psalm of pilgrimage.  It describes the pilgrim journeying through hills and valleys until he reaches the Temple in Jerusalem.  The pilgrim notices birds nesting in the Temple structure and becomes envious because they were so close to God’s presence.  The belief was that the closer you were to the Temple, the closer you were to God.

My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.  Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, LORD Almighty, my King and my God. – Psalm 84:2-3

The reason that the Psalms are full of references to longing to be in the courts of the LORD stems from this ancient belief that the closer you lived to a holy mountain or a temple, the more you would experience God’s presence, protection, and blessing.  A city that was home to a prominent temple, like the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, enjoyed the protection of that temple and the deity who dwelt there.  To live outside the city was to be in the wilderness, vulnerable to other unknown spirits.

This concept can be difficult for modern people of faith, who are taught that God’s Spirit is everywhere and always with us.  This teaching emerges from the New Testament, where God’s Spirit is given to believers at Pentecost after Jesus ascends to heaven.  The experience turned the ancient worldview upside down, with proximity to a sacred place no longer being necessary to experience God’s presence.

Mount Olympus

Mount Olympus in Greece

The Temple Mount

The Temple Mount / Mount Zion in Jerusalem, as seen from the Mount of Olives.

Climbing the Mountain

Who can ascend your holy hill? – Psalm 24:3, Psalm 15

A couple of times, the Psalmist asks this question.  Keeping in mind that the mountain of God is not necessarily a towering, jagged peak, the answer is not those who have the stamina and climbing skills to reach the peak.  Each time this question is posed the answer is, “The one who has clean hands and a pure heart.”  Ascending the mountain of God had little to do with mountaineering and everything to do with holiness.

This hearkens back to the book of Exodus at the site of one of the original mountains of God – Mount Sinai. God instructs Moses to put boundary stones around the base of Sinai. God adds, “Tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death.’”  Everything that is not holy is consumed by the holiness of God – not because God is mean and vengeful, but because a god who is not holy is not much of a god.

King David understood this. As much as he longed to ascend God’s holy hill to be in God’s presence, the presence of God was also a dangerous place to be if one were not completely clean and pure.  This is why the ritual purifying of the Tabernacle and Temple was described in such detail in the Old Testament.

Navigating the Journey

Again, the New Testament puts a spin on this worldview.  Fortunately, the person of Jesus took on our impurities so that those who accept this gift have unprecedented access to the presence of God in a way that kings in the Old Testament could only imagine.  This is where an understanding of the symbolism of the Mountain of God can help us fully appreciate what it means to approach God today.

Yet it is so easy to take it for granted.  Have we lost a sense of sacred space?  If God is everywhere, as we like to say today, is everywhere holy or is anywhere holy?  It helps to recognize that there are some places where the veil between heaven and earth is thinner.  When we are in such places, we should pay attention!

Every year, I enjoy spending a week in a cabin in the mountains. I have come to believe that the cabin is a holy space. Not because the cabin itself is made of mystical material, but because my focus is to be with God and remove all other distractions. Which brings us to the larger principle that hasn’t changed over time: Even though it is true in one sense that God is everywhere, God’s presence is strongest in spaces that are kept holy, be it a mountain cabin or a person’s mind and heart.

To listen to a full discussion on this topic and other insights from Psalms, listen to our podcast series, Symbolism in the Psalms.

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