The Mountain of the Lord
Has there ever been a time when people were not calling out for God to do something about the state of the world? "How long, O Lord?" As we write, the Middle East is in a state of confusion and unrest, as the 'Arab Spring' takes its course. It would be foolish to state what is going to happen next, for by the time you read this the situation may have changed. Amid it all, we wonder how Israel may be affected, surrounded as it is by hostile neighbours in the interplay of power politics.
It is not an entirely new situation, for the situation that existed 2700 years ago has been described in similar terms. "The tiny countries of Israel and Judah were surrounded by quarrelsome neighbours and crushed between world empires. This was the period of Assyria's great expansion and culture.... and it was the military exploits of this great empire which form the backcloth to the prophets' words. Her power to crush was seen as the instrument of divine anger, and this period saw terrible examples of its use. Egypt, continually denounced by these prophets as a 'broken reed', untrustworthy, was no decadent power. It was the century of Assyria's might and Egypt's culture" (E H Robinson in Four Prophets). The prophets referred to are Isaiah and Amos, Hosea and Micah, all prophesying at about the same time, telling the people of Israel that if they considered themselves God's special people living under His protection, then they should live in His way, obedient to His laws. Which they were not doing. Which explained the troubles they were going through at that time.
However, each of these prophets looked beyond their present troubles to the 'last days' - a time when the people would obey God and trust Him, and He would take control. Hosea states, "the time will come when the sons of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God and David their king, and in the end they will come in awe to the Lord and his goodness" (2.5) Amos says, "The days are coming, the Lord declares, when the ploughman will overtake the reaper, and he who treads the grapes will overtake the sower, when the mountains are wet with new wine, and the hills grow soft with it. That will be when I bring back the exiles of my people Israel, to rebuild deserted cities and live in them, to plant vineyards and drink their wine, to make gardens and eat their fruit. And I will plant them in their own land. Never again shall they be uprooted from the land which I gave to them. The Lord, your God, has spoken." (9.13-15).
Isaiah, right at the beginning of his prophecies, tells what he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem: "In the last days the mountain of the Lord's temple will be established as chief among the mountains, raised above the hills, and all nations will stream into it. Many peoples will come and say, 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths'. The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations, settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more." (2.1-4) This was a vision for his own nation, of what would be the situation when God acted and God's people behaved like God's people. The vision was of all the families of earth being blessed. The response which Isaiah urged upon the people was "Come O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord" - a contrast to the way they were behaving. He had a burning vision of what God would eventually do - but did it depend on their obedient response?
Micah includes this identical vision in his prophecy (4.1-4), almost word for word. It would be interesting to know how many of the people at that time were familiar with these words. Micah goes on to add a further verse: "Every man shall sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid for the Lord Almighty has spoken." (How topical for the needs of the twenty-first century, in Libya this year, or the Ivory Coast!) Micah here shows that God's rule is not just the politics of who is in authority, but results in simple blessings for ordinary people. His response is different from Isaiah's, not "Let us walk", an exhortation, but "We will walk", a promise. "All the nations may walk in the name of their gods, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever." In a world of many nations and many religions, it is a pledge of loyalty to the Lord our God.
Seven hundred years later this prophecy had not been fulfilled. Even our Lord did not bring world peace under divine rule, just like that. He began a peaceful work in men's hearts. We can see the results today - the yeast of the kingdom is still working secretly. So how should the prophecy be understood? As one looks at commentaries on the ancient prophecy, two lines of interpretation are apparent (even within the same commentary!) One line is to apply the Isaiah prophecy to the Christian church - following Peter's thought (1 Peter 2.9,10) that Christians are heirs to the Old Testament people of God - a select race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's possession, who are now the people of God. So one comment reads, "that the Lord is in her... is the only glory of the church. Her role is to draw men, not dragoon them; but their need is of God's uncompromising truth and rule, the firm centre to any perfect circle... the vision issues in appeal not to dream of a world movement one day, but to respond in the present and on the spot."
The other comment has the heading 'The ultimate triumph of God's grace towards Israel'. "Mount Zion symbolizes the uniquely authoritative revelation of God through the scriptures.... Gentiles... will come not merely as individual proselytes but like a flowing river in order to be taught by Yahweh concerning his saving truth so that they may lead God-pleasing God-serving lives..... This points beyond this present age to a future era when Christ will have complete control here on earth... and the uninterrupted peace and harmony of the millennium will prevail over all the world." [Extract from commentary on Isaiah, Micah, in The New Bible Commentary: Revised 1970.]
So these prophecies have been studied for a further two thousand years. When the Scots of the eighteenth century were engaged in writing their paraphrases of scripture in verse (such as, 'The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want') they also made a paraphrase of this prophecy. Their version is still sung. "Behold the mountain of the Lord In latter days shall rise On mountain tops above the hills And draw the wondering eyes." As with the two versions of the prophecy in scripture, there were varying versions of the paraphrase. 1745 - "In latter days the Mount of God, His sacred house shall rise" 1795 - "On mountain tops the mount of God In latter days shall rise." (The version best known is attributed to Michael Bruce, a young student and poet, who died of tuberculosis aged 21. The son of a weaver, he was a delicate child, contemplative, devotional and humorous, the pet of his family and friends. With help from a legacy he was able to go to Edinburgh University, but his life ended in disease and poverty. It was John Logan, a fellow student, who adapted the hymn and published it in a collection in 1781.)
Comparing these metrical versions is of interest, each writer working to reproduce the scripture in memorable verse. Groups of faithful people were still finding in God's kingdom a source of hope. But the little variations in the text reflect how there were and are variations of viewpoint, even today. For an example, take the last verse.
Bruce's version reads 'Come then, O house of Jacob, come To worship at his shrine; And, walking in the light of God, With holy beauties shine'. This is a straight metrical version of Isaiah's original. When it was sung by a churchful of Scottish Presbyterians, it was taken to heart by a group who found no difficulty of thinking of themselves as the 'house of Jacob' who saw themselves in the line of succession as God's special people and took all the Old Testament promises to themselves. In the version which appeared in the BBC Hymnal of 1951 a slight alteration had been made, to 'Come then, O God's own people, come'. The Old Testament phraseology had been discarded, but the thought was similar, and surely we truly are God's own people in this generation and need the exhortation to worship and holy living. On the other hand, in the version found in Hymns and Psalms (Methodist, 1983) the thoughts are shuffled around a little, referring in this last verse to the river of people who would climb Mount Zion, 'Come then, O come from every land To worship at his shrine' This is an invitation to anyone from any nation who may become a Christian in this age of the gospel, not a reminder to a special people. The mountain of the Lord is large enough for all. Eventually all the world will come and worship in the kingdom, and for those who are willing, the door to it is already open.