12. God’s Holy Mountain

Reaching into the Psalms 1 to 4:  12. God’s Holy Mountain

Psa 3:4    he answers me from his holy mountain.

God’s Presence: Again, how casually I have sped over these words with so little thought, and yet I suspect (is He telling me?) that here there are such profound truths to be mined as we meditate. Before we move on in this psalm, I believe there is something of significance that we have passed by without comment here in verse 4: “he answers me from his holy mountain”. What is that ‘holy mountain’?

Zion: Well, back in Psa 2 we read, “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” (Psa 2:6) Further back in 2 Sam 5:7 we read, “David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David.” That is the first reference to ‘Zion’ and it clearly meant Jerusalem. It had long been known as Jerusalem, occupied by the Jebusites who Israel had failed to overthrow initially (Judg 1:21), and it had not been taken until David arrived in power, when he re-established it as his base and subsequently the capital of Israel. When the ark was brought there, and later in Solomon’s reign the temple built, and filled with God’s presence (1 Kings 8:10,11), it became known as the ‘holy city’: “Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city.” (Isa 52:1)

Jerusalem: Jerusalem is described as “set high in the hills of Judah” (New Bible Dictionary) and one Internet site describes Jerusalem as follows: “Jerusalem’s seven hills are Mount Scopus, Mount Olivet and the Mount of Corruption (all three are peaks in a mountain ridge that lies east of the old city), Mount Ophel, the original Mount Zion, the New Mount Zion and the hill on which the Antonia Fortress was built.” When a prophet or psalmist refers to the ‘mountain of the Lord’ or ‘his holy mountain’ it can either mean Jerusalem generally or the hill or mountain on which the Temple was eventually built.

As David writes pre-the Temple, it is more likely to mean Jerusalem at large, Jerusalem the whole city. The designation ‘mountain’ may refer to the fact that all of the ‘hills’ of the Jerusalem area are well over 2000 feet above sea level, or it may simply be creating spiritual significance of a place of ascent on which God resides. A study of ‘mountains’ in the Old Testament must take us first to Moriah: Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Gen 22:2) Amazingly this was Jerusalem where Solomon eventually built the temple (2 Chron 3:1) equated today, it is said, with the vicinity of Calvary. What a symbolic picture. The second mountain that stands out is Sinai where God met with Israel during the Exodus (See Ex 19-). The imagery that goes with that encounter suggests inaccessibility except by divine permission. So often when people went there, the record says they went up to Jerusalem, that same picture of ascending to meet with God that Moses showed us. Thus Jerusalem becomes the place of encounter with the inaccessible God and the place of god’s offering of His own Son to save the world.

Tent of Meeting: God’s instructions to build a Tabernacle (Ex 25-27) appear to be His early means of bringing limited access to Himself by His people. It was also referred to as ‘the tent of meeting (Ex 27:21 etc.): Set up the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, on the first day of the first month. Place the ark of the covenant law in it and shield the ark with the curtain.” (Ex 40:2,3) and it continued in existence until Solomon replaced it with the Temple (see 1 Kings 8). However in the time of Eli and Samuel, after the debacle with the Philistines, the ark (and presumably the Tent) stayed at Kiriath Jearim (1 Sam 7:1,2) until twenty years later David took it to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6) where it was placed inside “the tent that David had pitched for it.” (1 Chron 16:1), but this was clearly different from the Tabernacle still pitched at Gibeon (1 Chron 16:39) The ‘tent’ was clearly simply the home or location for the ‘ark of the covenant’ that was seen to be the place where the presence of God resided on earth. As we noted above, both ark and tent of meeting (as this tent now clearly became) were taken to the temple by Solomon (1 Kings 8:1-4)

God’s Dwelling Place? The ark in the Tabernacle? The ark in the Temple? The ark disappeared in history, but the Temple remained until Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it during the Exile but until then the Temple (and the ark) had been the focus or ‘dwelling place’ of God on earth. Why is that so significant? Because it was there by God’s instructions, and it was a place of focus on God, a place where people could go to worship God (even though they could not encounter His presence hidden in the Most Holy Place, or the Holy of Holies). So when David prays and get answers, they come from the God who has revealed Himself and positioned Himself in the midst of Israel.

And Today? The writer to the Hebrews conveys something quite amazing when he speaks to us: “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire …. But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” (Heb 12:18,22) For us, Mount Zion is not just a mountain but a city and it is in heaven. At the end of his amazing visions recorded in the book of Revelation, John records, “One of the seven angels…. said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” (Rev 21:9,10) In the final words that follow it is clear that this heavenly city comes down to the newly recreated earth and is accessible to all, and Father and Son are in the midst of it. The mountain where God had been inaccessible, the place where the Godhead dwells, has finally come to be in the midst of redeemed mankind. In heaven or on the new earth, the dwelling place of God is accessible to redeemed mankind, to the people of God.

A Poignant Psalm: For David it was the place towards which he uttered his prayers, which makes this psalm, headed by “A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom”, so poignant. Until then he had focused on God in Jerusalem but now he was on the run out of and away from Jerusalem and so his focus became more ‘long distance’ if we may put it like that. Yet there is another significant truth: even though David may not have close access to the Tent in Jerusalem, the Lord is still there; He has not departed Jerusalem, it is still HIS city and therefore there is a sense when David utters these words, they come with an underlying assurance that he is still in God’s hands, this is all happening because God is working out His disciplinary will for David and He, the Lord, is still the same and will still be there in Jerusalem for David to call to, and will still be there should the Lord allow him to return. God IS there – for us in heaven and for us by His Spirit, incredibly, indwelling us – and so it doesn’t matter what the earthly circumstances appear to be showing, in respect of the Lord, nothing has changed! He is there and He is there for us and He is there available to us because He has made it so! Hallelujah!

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51. Two Mountains

Meditations in Hebrews 12:  51.  Two Mountains

Heb 12:18,22  You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire…. but you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem

The flow: This book is full of analogies and now we come to yet another one. It is difficult at first sight to see the continuation, how this flows on from what he has just said but in the verses we have recently been considering he was speaking about discipline from God which only showed we are sons (v.5-11), then there was a call to strengthen up (v.12,13) and then some practical exhortations (v.14-17), at the heart of which there is the emphasis on the need for God’s grace (v.15) in order to be holy (v.14) and not to demean our spiritual heritage (v.16,17).

Two ways of looking: Now depending on how you think about God, those verses can either appear bad (painful discipline, needing to be holy, hard God who calls you to account) or good (God treating as sons who he loves and for whom He desires strength and blessing in the Christian life.) It depends very much on our starting position, what we think about God, and so perhaps that is why our writer now gives two pictures of how God has been revealed, in the Old and then New Testaments.

Sinai NOT our experience: Verses 18 to 21 remind us of some of the aspects of the experience Israel had with the Lord as an embryonic nation but says that this is NOT what WE have come to: “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” There was mount Sinai, scary signs, and a trumpet blast and a warning to not even touch the mountain and even Moses found it scary. But that is NOT our experience. It was their because they were in the early stages of learning about God but in our case we are a long way down the path of revelation with the whole Old Testament, and now much of the New in existence when this writer was writing.

Our Experience, Mount Zion: No, our experience is something quite different: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (v.22-24)  We need to look at the various elements of this passage.

God’s home: A threefold description of the dwelling place of God which perhaps is more easily understood in reverse: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” (v.22a) The city of the living God – the dwelling place where the heart and life of all existence dwells. It is a heavenly city, a place of fellowship and community, the reality of the dwelling place that had for years been considered to be the temple on one of the hills of earthly Jerusalem, Zion.  But that had been like a temporary stopping place for God’s presence which had slowly departed prior to the Exile, as seen in the book of Ezekiel. But we haven’t come (notice the verb indicates this has already happened  – ‘have come’) to a temporary place but the eternal dwelling or place where God can be found.

Home of the angels:  “You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly.” (v.22b) Wherever there is revelation of the heavenly throne room, there are angels. Be under no illusion, we have access to the heavenly throne room, for the moment purely by the Spirit in prayer or worship, but one day in reality. This is our home, our ultimate destination.

Home of the church: “to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.” (v.23a) Again revelations of heaven in scripture show there are people there. This is the destination for the church, all those born again, known from before the foundation of the world and whose names are recorded there.

Home of God the Judge:  “You have come to God, the judge of all men.”  (v.23b). We’re on a repeat track now, a form of Hebrew parallelism. We’ve already noted that it is God’s home, but it is also the place where He holds court , where He judges and  holds all mankind accountable.

Home of the redeemed:  “to the spirits of righteous men made perfect.” (v.23c) But it is not the place of condemnation, it is the place of revealing the saints, all the believers who have received Jesus as their Saviour, who have come to perfection, completion in the work of God. it will be a place of great joy.

Home of the Redeemer:  “to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (v.24) Jesus comes bringing in the new covenant sealed with his own blood, bringing about a completed work.

The blood of Abel?  Abel was slain by Cain and God said to Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries out” (Gen 4:10) i.e. it cries out for justice. Jesus said, “Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.” (Lk 50:51) i.e. Abel was the first human being to have his blood shed by violent means, the first to cry out for justice. The Hebrews writer writes of him, he “still speaks, even though he is dead” (Heb 11:4),  and so there is a sense whereby his spilled blood continues to cry out to God for justice to be applied, i.e. it demands for justice to be done, but, we now read, the blood of Christ “speaks a better word”  The Message version puts it well: The murder of Jesus, unlike Abel’s—a homicide that cried out for vengeance—became a proclamation of grace.” And the Living Bible puts it, “ Jesus himself, who has brought us his wonderful new agreement; and to the sprinkled blood, which graciously forgives instead of crying out for vengeance as the blood of Abel did.”  Abel’s blood demanded justice, Jesus blood brought mercy and grace and forgiveness through justice being satisfied.

And so: We started out by saying that it is possible to take some of the earlier verses negatively and so that is why the writer comes with these explanations. Everything about these verses shouts, “God loves us, Jesus died for us, he’s for us, all so we could share eternity with him in the most wonderful of experiences.”  Hallelujah!

9. Refuge Restored

MEDITATIONS IN ISAIAH – No.9

Isa 4:5,6 Then the LORD will create ….. a shelter and shade from the heat of the day, and a refuge and hiding place from the storm and rain.

You may not have noticed it but there is a phrase that keeps on cropping up in Isaiah: “in that day”. So far it has appeared in 2:11,17,20, 3:7,18 and now in chapter 4 in 4:1,2, to make seven times in these three chapters. It is simply a day of the Lord’s appointing. It is not a chance day, but a day when God decrees something specific will happen. It shouldn’t be seen as a single day because it refers to a number of things happening which clearly will take time to occur. Recap: the LORD alone will be exalted in that day,” (2:11) when man’s pride is brought down and God alone exalted (also 2:17). In that day men will also give up their idols and flee from them (2:20). In that day no one will want to take responsibility for leadership (3:7). In that day the finery of the women will be gone (3:18) and they will desperately look for male covering (4:1). Finally on that day will come the restoration of the Lord (4:2).

We see in this study the end result of the Lord’s activity which so far has seemed somewhat negative as He deals with the unrighteous people. Now we see what He has been working towards. “In that day the Branch of the LORD will be beautiful and glorious.” (4:2a). A branch is a shoot off the trunk that has grown distinctive in its own right. Often in Scripture the Lord refers to Israel as a plant. It is a convenient picture that conveys a lot. It is something planted by the Lord (established in the Promised Land by the Lord), it is fed by the Lord (His word and His Spirit provide nourishment for them), He tends it and cares for it, and He expects it to produce fruit (righteous living). But when the enemy comes and attacks it, it is chopped down, hence Isaiah’s later reference to a ‘stump’ (6:3, 11:1) but for now the focus is on a branch, a new shoot from the old tree. This new shoot will be beautiful and glorious. This new work of God in the people will be beautiful to behold and will have the light of God shining in it.

But there is more: “and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel.” (4:2b) There will be survivors from what the Lord does with them (it will not be their end) and they will feel good about the state of the land. Now that could mean the physical state of the land which has become fruitful again after the pillaging enemy has gone, or it could be the general state of righteous wellbeing. Whichever it is, it is good being there! Moreover, “Those who are left in Zion, who remain in Jerusalem, will be called holy, all who are recorded among the living in Jerusalem.” (4:3). All those left alive after the enemy has gone will be seen to be a special, set-apart, people of God. That is what holy means. They will be clearly seen to be the people of God who are different! (unlike the present where they are just the same as any other idol-worshipping people of the world).

“The Lord will wash away the filth of the women of Zion; he will cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem.” (v.4a) Jerusalem is going to be transformed and all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of the women of Jerusalem, who had dominated the city, will be taken away and will just be a past memory. All of the injustice will be removed. How? It will happen by, “a spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire.” (v.4b). Obviously the hand of the Lord will bring judgment on the people and the unrighteous will be burned up (removed) by the fire, which may be literal fire or simply the cleansing effect of a marauding army from abroad.

But that isn’t the end of it: “Then the LORD will create over all of Mount Zion and over those who assemble there a cloud of smoke by day and a glow of flaming fire by night; over all the glory will be a canopy.” (4:5) This echoes the Lord’s provision of protective security that Israel had known when they left Egypt (Ex 13:21,22 and Ex 14:20). It was a sign of His very presence that provided protection for them. Thus this protection is, “a shelter and shade from the heat of the day, and a refuge and hiding place from the storm and rain.” (4:6). Put very simply, His presence will protect them from anything that might harm them. It is a picture of total security.

Perhaps we take for granted this picture because it is so simple. It says that when we are restored to a right relationship with the Lord, His very presence with us acts as a protection and security like nothing else does. If we are Christians, we need to know that this is our position today. We have been restored to a right relationship with God through the work of His Son, Jesus Christ, at Calvary, and so today we have totally security as His children. As you read your New Testament, catch this truth again and again. Let it establish you and maintain you in peace. When the enemy seeks to upset your equilibrium, don’t let him! Declare the truth and hold onto the peace that is rightfully yours. As the apostle Paul said, stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” (Eph 6:13)

2. Survivors

MEDITATIONS IN ISAIAH – No.2

Isa 1:9 Unless the LORD Almighty had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.

Isaiah challenges us over this matter of God being a God of love, because he records God’s dealings with Judah and Jerusalem during a time when all was not well in the nation and they were far from being the people that God had called them to be. Now we have to recognise and remember certain basics here.

First, God had called Israel at Sinai to be His special people: if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5,6). That had been God’s invitation to them, and they had responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said.” (Ex 19:8). That had committed the nation to this ongoing relationship with the Lord. Essentially Israel were to be God’s prototype nation, a nation that would receive His guidance (laws) on how to live in accordance with the way He had designed mankind and to be able to relate to Him despite being part of sinful mankind (ceremonial/sacrificial laws).

Second, they were still human beings with free will which meant that if they were to live out this relationship with God, they needed to choose to do that. Of course they were also free to choose to do the opposite, i.e. to go their own way, which is what they often did. Now when they lived contrary to God’s design-laws for them, when they were out of relationship with Him, then they failed to receive God’s blessing (decree of goodness and protection) and because they were spiritually weak, they so often also became morally, economically and militarily weak which made them vulnerable to attacks from surrounding predatory nations. Now sometimes this is attributed simply to their sin, and sometimes it is specifically attributed to the Lord’s hand of discipline on them, and we need to understand this feature of their life.

Because they were supposed to represent God to the rest of the world, and represent His goodness, as perhaps was seen at the height of Solomon’s reign, when they went away from Him they were revealing a very different picture of God’s people and were thus misrepresenting the Lord. Because of this the Lord would do all in His power (beyond taking away their free will) to bring them back into a good place, a place of relationship and a place of blessing. Now we shouldn’t see this as anything strange, this absence of His blessing when they turned away from Him. Imagine a child brought up in a wealthy home. They have everything they could want. They are truly blessed, but then they decide to ignore their parents and leave home and they fall into bad ways. Obviously they are now no longer in the place of receiving all the good provision of their parents at home, but we would not blame their parents for this; it is simply that they have chosen to move out of the place of blessing, and that it how it so often was with Israel.

So in Isaiah chapter 1, we find Isaiah identifying this time as such a time: “Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him” (1:4). He describes Israel as sinful (wrong-doing), loaded with guilt (it IS their fault), children (of God), given to corruption (corrupt – tainted or infected [by sin], think of a corrupted hard drive on a computer) and why? Because they have forsaken or spurned God and turned their back on Him, just like the child I cited as an example just now.

And what had happened to them? “Your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire; your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you, laid waste as when overthrown by strangers.” (1:7). They had become weak and malnourished and thus a prey to enemy invaders. Look how he pictures them now: “The Daughter of Zion is left like a shelter in a vineyard, like a hut in a field of melons.” (1:8). They stand out like a sore thumb, we might say, in their desolated state, like a hut left after harvest, standing all alone (implied). Then comes our verse today: “Unless the LORD Almighty had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.” (1:9) Sodom and Gomorrah, of course had been totally destroyed, but the Lord, Isaiah says, has saved them from that. And there we find a feature of the Lord’s activity with this sinful people: He constantly saved a remnant. The Lord was not going to allow this people, who he had saved from Egypt to be a light to the rest of the world, to be totally destroyed.

Again and again He preserved some of them, the righteous remnant, we will see. Yes, even though the majority of the nation turned away from God, there would always be a few that would remain faithful and these ones the Lord always preserved. They were not going to get swept away in the folly of the majority. In His love for the nation, He would preserve the righteous ones, even when an enemy came in and plundered the land. These ones would be saved even from that invader. We will see this activity of the Lord again and again in these chapters of Isaiah, and indeed in the writings of the other prophets as well. The others may perish in their folly as they refused the word of the Lord coming to them, refused the Lord’s attempts to bring them back from that folly and save them, but the righteous ones of the Lord would be preserved and maintain the name of Israel. Watch for this as you read the prophets.