God’s Holy Mountain
The concept of God living on a holy mountain is a significant theme in the Old Testament. However, this same theme frames the entire Bible. It begins with the garden of Eden in Genesis and ends with New Jerusalem in Revelation. In Genesis the elevated location of the garden of Eden is indicated by the fact that a single river flows out of Eden, before dividing to become four rivers. Genesis 2:10–14 provides a short and enigmatic description of these rivers.
While there is some uncertainty about the identity of all four rivers, the description implies that the garden of Eden occupies a raised position in the middle of the world. In keeping with this picture, the prophet Ezekiel designates Eden as both “the garden of God” and “the holy mountain of God” (Ezek. 28:13–16).
A New City
Leaping to the New Testament, the concept of a holy mountain city is linked to New Jerusalem. The author of Hebrews passionately exhorts his readers to remain faithful to the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus Christ, rather than returning to the older covenant associated with Mount Sinai. In doing so he makes a brief but noteworthy comment: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22).
A similar picture is found in the book of Revelation. In chapter 21 the apostle John records that an angel carried him away “in the Spirit to a great, high mountain” and showed him “the holy city of Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (v. 10). In both contexts, the mountain location of New Jerusalem resonates with the pattern found in the Old Testament. God dwells in a holy mountain city, and those who will dwell with him must be holy in order to live within this exalted metropolis.
Viewed in its broader literary context, the whole exodus-Sinai story looks forward to the restoration of the harmonious situation that existed between God and humanity prior to Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God in the garden of Eden. With its emphasis upon the need to be made holy in order to ascend into God’s presence, the exodus-Sinai story provides a model of how salvation will come through the death of Jesus Christ, the ultimate Passover sacrifice.
Who Can Ascend the Holy Hill?
Citizenship in God’s holy city belongs only to those who are sanctified by God.
The author of Psalm 15 begins his song by asking God:
O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? / Who shall dwell on your holy hill? (v. 1)
These questions recall the requirement to be holy in order to ascend Mount Sinai. In light of this, the contents of Psalm 15 resonate with the covenant obligations set out in the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant:
He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart; who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the Lord; who swears to his own hurt and does not change; who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved. (Ps 15:2–5)
A very similar idea comes in Psalm 24, where the author also asks:
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? / And who shall stand in his holy place? (v. 3)
Once again, the concept of “holy mountain” is associated with God’s presence in the sanctuary. As in Psalm 15, those who are permitted to ascend the mountain must display characteristics compatible with holiness:
He who has clean hands and a pure heart, / who does not lift up his soul to what is false / and does not swear deceitfully. (Ps. 24:4)
Although brief, the answer recalls the obligations of the Sinai covenant, especially the instructions in Leviticus regarding purity. The mention of “clean hands” and “pure heart” highlights the importance of moral holiness. This is the hallmark of those who will inhabit God’s holy city.
This article is adapted from The City of God and the Goal of Creation by T. Desmond Alexander.