Although most Westerners would think of mountains and hills as very different from one another, in the biblical landscape the two terms were used almost interchangeably. We often see mountains and hills used in parallel to illustrate the same idea. For instance, in Psalm 114 we read, “The mountains jumped like rams. The hills jumped like lambs” (v. 4). The two terms are not contrasted, but rather represent the same idea.
Mountains are often used as images of wilderness and extreme conditions. They are usually barren and unpopulated areas and are used in the Bible for refuge or hiding. Lot fled to the hills with his daughters after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:30). David ran to the hills to escape from Saul (1 Sam 26:1). Armies ran to the hills when they were defeated (1 Sam 14:22). During the exile, the Israelites were described as lost people who “wander around on the mountains. They go from mountains to hills. They have forgotten their resting place” (Jer 50:6)
More positively, mountains are used for covenant making and renewal. The visible presence of a mountain served as a reminder of commitments made (Exod 19-20; Deut 27-28). Many notable events of the Old Testament occurred on or near mountains, including the Garden of Eden (Ezek 28:13-15), Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22:1-14), Moses and the burning bush (Exod 3:1-2), and Moses meeting with God (Exod 19). In these cases the mountain was symbolic of a transcendent encounter with God (“the mountain of God”). Individuals ascended physically to meet with God spiritually.
Unfortunately, the mountains often became places of pagan worship as well. The Israelites were told to “completely destroy all the worship sites on the high mountains, on the hills, and under every large tree. The people you’re forcing out worship their gods in these places” (Deut 12:2). This is a common Old Testament theme. Jesus looked to the mountains as places of transcendent spiritual experience when he went up on a mountain to be with God. The rugged beauty and solitude of these high places enabled him to commune with his Father (Matt 14:23; John 6:15). The transfiguration, one of the most striking spiritual encounters the disciples had, occurred on a mountain (Matt 17:1-8; Luke 9:28-36).
Mountains also serve as an image of mystery and divine power. Quaking mountains instill fear and point back to the God who controls nature (Ps 46:2; Isa 64:3). The psalm writers praise God for being “more majestic than the ancient mountains” (76:4) and having “righteousness. . . like the mountains of God” (36:3). God’s eternal power is measured against the seemingly eternal nature of mountains: “Before the mountains were born, before you gave birth to the earth and the world, you were God” (Ps 90:2). The wild, ancient beauty of mountains evokes expressions of awe and wonder at their Creator.
THE MOUNTAIN OF GOD
The most important scriptural mountain is the mountain of God: first near Eden (Ezek 28:14); then Mount Horeb (Exod 3:1), which was later called Mount Sinai (Exod 19); and finally Mount Zion (Isa 24:23), where the temple stood in Jerusalem. These places carried with them a sense of transcendence, but added to that are images of holiness (Exod 19:23; Isa 11:9) and authority (Ps 43:3; Isa 24:23). As people looked up to the mountains, visible for miles around, they were reminded of God’s presence among them and above them. The mountain of God that is to come will, like Mount Sinai, be the birthplace of God’s law (Isa 2:1-5; see also Exod 19-20) and will be covered by cloud and fire (Isa 4:5; see also Exod 19). But unlike Sinai, which was primarily a place of fearsome judgment, Zion will be a place where people are welcomed and nurtured (Isa 2; see also Exod 19). It will be a place of holy celebration rather than condemnation. The people of God will be planted on God’s mountain (Exod 15:17), transforming it from a place of wild barrenness to a place of cultivated fruitfulness. The mountain of judgment and mystery is transformed into the prominent symbol of redemption and communion with God.