Revelation and elevation

July 15, 2012

David wrote, in Psalm 36:6, “Thy righteousness is like the great mountains.” The great mountains of the earth are regions of snow and ice, that remained inaccessible to men until the nineteenth century when adventurers developed mountaineering skills, and began to discover routes to the tops of the high peaks of the European Alps, and other mountains of the world.

The reason David compared God’s righteousness to high mountains must have to do with their altitude, and their metaphorical connection with high and lofty thoughts, such as the prophet Isaiah referred to when he described God’s thoughts as higher than those of man.

Isaiah wrote:

Isaiah 55:6-9
Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near:
Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

The human perspective is limited, but God’s righteousness is like great mountains, which are inaccessible, as it is high and lofty, and quite beyond our natural ability to comprehend. Paul wrote of God’s mercy towards those who have not believed the gospel:

Romans 11:32-34
For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.
O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!
For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?

Snowpatch Spire, Bugaboos, BC

Paul said the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel. [Romans 1:17]  In verse 20, he said that the invisible things of God are evident from the creation. In Galatians 3:7-8, he wrote that those who believe God are children of Abraham, and he called the promise given to Abraham that “In thee shall all nations be blessed,” the gospel. The promise of land also relates to the gospel, as the land may be interpreted metaphorically; the prophecy of Isaiah declaring that mount Zion will be established in the top of the mountains was fulfilled, when Christ ascended to his Father’s throne. Christians have come to this heavenly mount Zion, and Jerusalem. [Hebrews 12:22] The promised land represents the better country promised to the saints, their spiritual inheritance. [See Hebrews 11:16]

In Jacob’s dream at Bethel, where he saw a ladder reaching up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it, presumably conveying messages from God, representing a means of communication between heaven and earth, the revelations of God were associated with the land promise. Mountains are prominent parts of the promised land, in fact, the highest parts of it. Over the course of several centuries, when Israel dwelt in the promised land, many revelations were recorded, and preserved in Scripture.

Jacob was promised the land of Canaan. He set up the stone where he had slept as a pillar, which he called God’s house. In later prophecies, the kingdom of God is described as a stone that grows to become a mountain. [Daniel 2:35] The promise to David, of a kingdom, and that one of his descendants would inherit his throne, which would be an everlasting kingdom, revealed the gospel more completely. All the promises of God are metaphorical mountains. In Isaiah 65:9, Christ is described as “an inheritor of my mountains.”

The blessings and promises of God were associated with mountains when Jacob blessed Joseph. He said, “The blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills.” [Genesis 49:26] These blessings were durable, like the mountains.

The promises of God were associated with mountains when Moses blessed the tribes that descended from Joseph, as he made reference to “the chief things of the ancient mountains, and for the precious things of the lasting hills.” [Deuteronomy 33:15] What else could the “precious things of the lasting hills” signify but the promises inherited by Jacob, that were assigned to Joseph, and to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh? Later, those tribes were assigned the mountainous areas of Canaan as their inheritance.

The apostle Peter described God’s promises as “exceeding great and precious.”

2 Peter 1:3-4
According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.

Lutheran theologian Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg (1802-1869) assigned a similar significance to the high mountain referred to in Ezekiel 40:2. He argued against a literal approach to chapters 40-48. He wrote: [1]

Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg

Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg

“The symbolical interpretation is favoured, as Hävernick justly observes, by the form employed,—that of a vision,—the essential characteristic of which is to set forth ideas in a concrete and tangible shape.” In the whole of the Old Testament there is not a single vision to be found, in which the form and the idea conveyed coincide so completely, as would be the case here, if the literal interpretation were correct, and none in which there would be so little room for theological exposition. Yet the book of Ezekiel is the last book, in which we should expect to find a vision of such a description; so impenetrable, in general, is the covering of drapery under which the thought is concealed. It is of especial importance here to compare the vision in chap. viii.—xi., in which the destruction of the city is set forth; since the prophet himself, in chap. xliii. 3, describes the present vision as the counterpart of the other. In the latter, however, as we have already shown, a literal exposition is inadmissible, and a distinction must always be made between the thought itself, and the drapery in which it is clothed.

The preconceived antipathy to a literal exposition, with which we approach this section, is confirmed on further investigation. The whole section exhibits a series of phenomena, which are absolutely irreconcileable with such an interpretation.

The very commencement should suffice to put us on our guard against it. It takes us altogether away from the sphere of ordinary actions. “He set me”—we read in chap. xl. 2—”upon a mountain very high, upon which there was as the building of a city towards mid-day.” It is very evident, that we have here a representation of the future glory of the kingdom of God, under the figure of an exaltation of the insignificant temple-hill, similar to that which we have already found in Isaiah. (Michaelis says, “such as Isaiah had predicted that Mount Zion would become, not physically, but by eminence derived from dignity and the glory of the gospel”). In chap. xvii. 22,23, reference has already been made to a high and lofty mountain, in connexion with the  future glory of the kingdom of God. Zion, which looked very high even in Old Testament times, when contemplated with the eye of the spirit (Ps. xlviii. 3, 4, lxviii. 17), will rise in the future to an immeasurable height. If any doubt could possibly remain, with reference to the ideal character of this particular feature, and consequently of the whole picture, it would be removed by Rev. xxi. 10, “And he brought me in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God.”

The ideal character of the whole is also confirmed by the dimensions of the new temple, given in chap. xlii. 15 sqq., where it has been found necessary to alter the rods, so expressly mentioned, into cubits (Bottcher, Ewald, Hitzig, Thenius), for the purpose of getting rid of the ideal interpretation and carrying out the literal one.

Hengstenberg concluded that Ezekiel 40-48 is an allegory, and he dismissed attempts at a literal exposition, calling such attempts unworthy of any close investigation, but he was also aware of the difficulties in an allegorical approach. He wrote: [2]

The section, chap. xlvii. 1—12 is a transparent allegory, and the attempts at a literal exposition are so evidently without force, that they are utterly unworthy of any close investigation.

The literal explanation founders on the new division of the land among the tribes, which is described as being perfectly equal and altogether regardless of the circumstances of actual life; and also on chap. xlvii. 22,23, where foreigners are said to be placed on the same footing as the children of Israel in relation to this division. The thought may easily be discerned through the transparent covering: “The difference between Jew and Gentile, which existed under the Old Testament, is completely done away.” (Michaelis.)

Thus then the literal exposition is inadmissible. At the same time it must be confessed that there are serious difficulties in the way of the allegorical or symbolical interpretation, which was a very favourite one in ancient times. It cannot be denied that there is a certain amount of truth in Hitzig’s words, that “symbolical exposition can, in certain cases, only be carried out in a forced manner and without any proof whatever, in other cases not at all; and Hävernick ought to have given examples to prove the statement made in his commentary, that it is possible to carry it out in a manner at once perfect and beautiful.” Vitringa has fully proved, that the author goes far too minutely into architectural details, for an allegorical interpretation to be maintained throughout, however clear it may be, that in particular passages it is absolutely necessary. The measurements, for example, which extend to the breadth of the doors and the thickness of the walls, present an insuperable barrier to such an interpretation;—if we admit, that is, that in the department of biblical symbols it is never allowable to have recourse to fancies and guesses, but that the means of sober interpretation are always fully provided.

We will endeavour, then, to avoid the difficulties to which the two methods are exposed.

The promised land included mountains, valleys, plains, rivers, coasts, seas; the land included areas having marked differences in elevation. Certain areas were relatively high, and others were low. The connection between the revelations of God and the promised land was foreshadowed by Jacob’s dream at Bethel. Those revelations, like the land, include some things that are high like mountains; they are expressed in parables, metaphors, and mysterious prophetic symbols; but Scripture also includes much more that is expressed in plain language.

Since the mountains may represent God’s righteousness, and promises, many commentators and expositors err by saying that the mountains always represent kingdoms. The promise of a perpetual kingdom to David is referred to as a mountain because it is part of the gospel, which reveals God’s righteousness, but it does not follow that prophetic mountains always represent kingdoms.

Scottish minister and theologian Patrick Fairbairn (1805-1874) vainly defended the idea that the mountains of prophecy represent kingdoms. In an appendix to his book he wrote: [3]

Patrick Fairbairn

The first passage, probably, in which a kingdom is presented under the symbol of a physical elevation, or a mountain, is the historical notice in 2 Sam. v. 12, where it is said of David’s interest as king, “And David perceived that the Lord had established him king over Israel, and that He had exalted his kingdom:” it had now sensibly become a conspicuous thing, a height in the earth. Writing in Ps. xxx., and at a later period, of the vicissitudes which he experienced on the throne, he says, “Lord by thy favour thou didst make my mountain to stand strong; thou didst hide thy face, and I was troubled.” In Ps. lxviii. 16, the hill of Zion, which had already been chosen as the seat of the kingdom, is taken for an emblem of it, and the other and loftier, but more remote hills, stand for images of the rival kingdoms of the heathen: “Why leap ye, ye high hills? This is the hill God desireth to dwell in; yea, the Lord will dwell in it for ever.” In Ps. xlvi. 2, the mountains are spoken of as “shaking in the midst of the sea,” and the figure is explained by the introduction of the reality at ver. 6, where it is said, “The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved,” or rather shook. The hill of Zion with its fortress is identified with the kingdom of God, and addressed as symbolically one with it in Micah iv. 8, “And thou, O tower of the flock, the stronghold (hill) of the daughter of Zion, unto thee shall it come, even the first dominion, the kingdom also shall come to the daughter of Zion”—compare also Dan. ix. 16, 20. In Ps. lxxvi., the greater heathen kingdoms are denoted, not only mountains, but “prey-mountains,” as being apparently raised to the gigantic height they attained for the purpose only of laying waste and destroying others. Babylon, in particular, is called by Jeremiah, chap. li. 25, “a destroying mountain, that destroyed all the earth”—not as Bishop Newton interprets, vol. i., chap. 10, “on account of the great height of its walls and towers, its palaces and temples,” but from its lofty and domineering altitude among the political eminences of the world. And hence, quite naturally, in the Apocalypse, which gathers up and applies the symbolical imagery of the earlier prophets, in a whole series of passages mountains are used as the familiar designation of kingdoms, chap. vi. 14, viii. 8, xvi. 20, etc.

The Apocalypse gathers up and applies the symbolical imagery of the earlier prophets in Revelation 21:10, where John says, “And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God.” This clearly alludes to Ezekiel 40:2. The fact that John shows the holy city descending from heaven towards the earth, must signify its mysteries being solved, and the truth becoming less remote, and the meaning of prophecies being made less obscure, as Christ reveals the truth. This agrees with the message preached by John the Baptist:

Luke 3:4-6
As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth;
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

References

1. Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg. Christology of the Old Testament, Volume 3.  T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh. 1858. pp. 59-60.

2. Ibid., p. 60-61.

3. Patrick Fairbairn. Prophecy viewed in respect to its distinctive nature: its special function, and proper interpretation. T. and T. Clark, Edinburgh. 1856. pp. 496-497.

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