This scripture guide is adapted from the Summer Settings sermon guide Mountains I. For more Summer Settings sermon guides, click below.
We start with mountains because there is an abundance of Bible passages related to mountains. If you are interested in a survey, here is a list, but some notable examples are Noah’s ark resting on Mount Ararat, worship and sacrifices in God’s leading of Abra(ha)m (including the command to sacrifice Isaac), the Ten Commandments, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, etc. There is even the possible translation of “God Almighty/God Most High,” el Shaddai, as being “God from the Mountains.” The recommended passage, however, is Elijah’s demonstration of God’s power on Mount Carmel because it incorporates a number of the mountain motifs that we find throughout the Bible and that were important in ancient religious practices.
When we join the story, Elijah has been in conflict with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel over the turning of the nation and the people toward Baal. Meanwhile, a drought has stricken the land and God has appointed Elijah to be His messenger. By God’s guidance and a little help from Obadiah, Elijah proposes a contest on Mt. Carmel.
If you’ve spent much time in the mountains, you know that a clear day can quickly become overcast and stormy as the prevailing winds push the air against the mountains. As the day goes by, moisture builds up and clouds form at the tops of mountains, often resulting in storms. Because of these phenomena and because ancient religions built their cultic practices and understandings of the gods around observations of the natural world, mountains were perceived as dwelling places of gods, or at least the places where gods chose to make themselves known. The storms, with their winds and lightning, showed the gods’ power, and the rains were the gods’ blessings, allowing the people to be nourished and the crops to grow. The clouds and storms also built a sense of both mystery and divinity around mountains, which we still find around the world today (see Paektu in Korea and North Korean propaganda and Machapuchare in Nepal).
As a result, people often built their places of worship on top of mountains, whether those places were temples, sacrificial altars, or mere ebenezers (cairns) that marked an historic encounter with God or gods. The Bible gives us examples, notably Abram setting up an ebenezer in the hills of Bethel (Gen. 12:8). Since the mountains in the Levant are not especially wooded, these cairns and altars would have been visible to anyone who could see a particular mountain. That said, through the Old Testament, we find God directing His people to focus their worship not only on Him alone, but on the central location of the temple in Jerusalem. Hence, we find the condemnation of “high places” and generic worship spots that could be co-opted by other religions and peoples, both sullying the primacy of Yahweh and corrupting the people’s worship.
Ahab and Jezebel were all too happy to see this happen, so Elijah knew that a showdown on the top of Mount Carmel would be an attractive invitation to demonstrate who was really God (Yahweh) and who…well, didn’t exist (Baal). At the start of chapter 18, God had told Elijah to present himself to Ahab and that God would send rain, which was one of His promises to the people during the exodus regarding the land where He was leading them (i.e.- rain from God as opposed to the flooding of the Nile). Mount Carmel provided an ideal setting, with views to the west over the sea and the east to the Jezreel Valley. The moisture that gathered off the sea at Mt. Carmel came down and watered the valley either through rain or through the “cataracts” (see Psalm 42), but the valley would have been completely parched by this time in the story.
In this and other Old Testament references to mountains, it is interesting to note that God was often willing to play by His opponents’ rules to demonstrate His authority. In this case, He allowed for a sacrifice alongside a pagan cult practice on the pagans’ home turf. The contrast, however, is in the simplicity. There was one prophet, one prayer, and even the heightened drama of extra precious water being doused on the timbers. Still, God responded immediately.
Many people today have what they might call spiritual connections to mountains, but this passage serves as a reminder of God’s authority and primacy. It also shows God’s blessing in choosing to work where He desires even when His followers are outnumbered and persecuted. Additionally, even though God’s desire was for His people to know Him as a God who operates through promises and faith, He was willing to reveal His authority over natural processes. God could indeed make it rain, but we don’t need to do rain dances (or even make sacrifices, for that matter, although Elijah did) to summon him.
Transitioning toward next week and a New Testament exploration of mountains, Psalm 121 provides a tension with some word play. Many mountain lovers have their great-grandmothers’ cross stitch of these first two verses framed somewhere in their homes or mountain homes, which may be ironic. Yes, this is a psalm of ascents, so it was recited while going up toward Jerusalem, but the answer to the question, “from whence cometh my help?” is “the Lord.” It’s not, “the mountains,” and the answer of “the Lord” is a contrast from pagan religions who looked for their gods on mountains. Psalm 121 insists that the Lord is present and watches over us. So, while it is nice to life our eyes to the hills and even to find God’s presence there, we acknowledge that whether we are high or low, God is with us. One could even extend this to the announcement of John the Baptist and the prophecy that with the arrival of the Lord with us, the mountains will be made low, the valleys lifted up, and his paths made straight. So, while there are other places where God emphasizes His presence beyond the temple (Ezekiel and Jeremiah come to mind), we now know that God has chosen to come to us in both humility and power.
Allen Thompson is senior pastor at Fairview Presbyterian Church in North Augusta, South Carolina. Allen attended Pittsburgh Seminary (M.Div.) and Fuller Seminary (D.Min.) His wife, Kelsey, is a Marriage and Family Therapist, and they have two children.
Allen enjoys golf, hiking, camping, cooking pigs, ice climbing, and live music. He loves to imagine being in the story and culture of the Bible, wondering how we might have responded to God then and how we can follow Jesus now. As an “ideas” person, Allen is passionate about working with others to find out how God is calling us to use the many gifts and resources the Holy Spirit provides.
Allen holds a Doctor of Ministry (Fuller Theological Seminary) and a Master of Divinity (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary).
Given the Old Testament connections between mountains and God’s glory (Exodus, Isaiah 4, etc.), quotes regarding glory would be appropriate.
The TPW page has a plethora, but one by Max Lucado fits well here:
God will use whatever he wants to display his glory. Heavens and stars. History and nations. People and problems.
Mountain-related imagery is easily found inside and outside of Scripture, but a good illustration for the difficulty facing Elijah in Samaria can be found on TPW’s illustration page on power (see below). Elijah’s craft was in trusting God to act even in the midst of Baal’s prophets’ home ground, thus relying on God to reveal His own power in an unmistakable way.
“Who Said That?”
During his years as premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev denounced many of the policies and atrocities of Joseph Stalin. Once, as he censured Stalin in a public meeting, Khrushchev was interrupted by a shout from a heckler in the audience. “You were one of Stalin’s colleagues. Why didn’t you stop him?” “Who said that?” roared Khrushchev. An agonizing silence followed as nobody in the room dared move a muscle. Then Khrushchev replied quietly, “Now you know why.”
Today in the Word, July 13, 1993.