The Call of the Hills
“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.” Psa_121:1
It is generally held by those who are competent to judge that this Psalm dates from the period of the exile. It was written by one who was far away from Palestine, a prisoner in distant Babylon. If that is so, it gives a new significance to the words of this text, for Babylon was a level country, a land of vast and monotonous expanse. And it was out of the dreariness of such a land that the psalmist thought of the hills which he had once loved to look on and which were dyed with the memories of home.
When I lived at Oxford, a good many years ago, one of the tutors lay dying of cancer. It was a summer of perfect warmth and beauty and every meadow was a haunt of dreams. But the dying man was a native of Iceland, and amid all the glory of those days, the cry on his lips was to get back to Iceland just that he might see the snow again. That same feeling breathes in this verse: “I unto the hills will lift up mine eyes.” The writer was an exile, far from home; he was in a land where everything was strange. What did it matter to him though Babylon was fairer than the country of his birth? The hills of his homeland were calling him.
The Psalmist Was Thinking of God
Yet we should do scant justice to the psalm if we thought there was nothing but homesickness in it. The deepest longing of the singer was not home. The deepest longing of his heart was God. It is difficult for us to realize that feeling, thanks to the teaching of the Lord Christ Jesus. We know that in Africa God would be as near us as here in Scotland. And though in a measure the Jew perceived that too, for he knew that the eyes of God go to and fro throughout the earth, yet nowhere did he stand so near to God as in the land of the Temple and the altar. It was for God, then, that this singer longed. It was towards God on which his heart was set. He was God-sick far more than homesick as he strained his weary eyes towards the west. And the strange thing is, that as he turned them so, looking and longing for the living God, what he saw was not any temple made by man—”I unto the hills will lift up mine eyes.” Somehow, as his heart went out to God, there rose before him the vision of the hills. It was when his spirit was most deeply moved that he longed for the cathedral of the mountains. And I think you will find that that is always so, and that always, from the earliest date of time, it is to man as a religious being that the mountains have had a message and a call.
Mr. Ruskin, in his Modern Painters, has called attention to a suggestive fact. It is that the greatest painters of the Holy Family have always a hint of the mountains in the distance. You might have looked for a vineyard or a pleasant garden in the sunshine, but in the greatest painters that you find, it is “to the hills will I lift mine eyes.” What they felt, with one of those intuitions which are the birthright and the seal of genius, was that for a secular subject a vineyard or a meadow might be a fitting background; but for the Holy Family and for the Child of God, and for the love of heaven incarnate in humanity, you want the mystery, the height, the depth, which call to the human spirit from the hills. It is not to man as a being with an intellect that the hills have spoken their unvarying message. It is to man as a being with a soul, with a cry in his heart for things that are above him. That is why Zeus in the old pagan days came down to speak to men upon Mount Ida. That is why the genius in painting Jesus Christ throws in its faint suggestion of the peaks.
The Hills Speak of Our Ups and Downs
Now it is not very difficult to see wherein this kinship exists. The intellect may be as a lowland scene; but the spirit of a man is always highland. We talk sometimes about a smiling landscape; at other times about a landscape of contentment. And you know the kind of scene these words convey with its quiet beauty and its wealth of rest. The cows are standing knee-deep in clover, and the brook has a murmurous and drowsy sound, and everything breathes the beatitude of peace. It is all tranquil, all beautiful, and the gentle love of God seems resting on it.
Yet tell me, in such a scene as that, do you detect the story of your life? If you do, either you are a saint or else the shallowest of living creatures. Most of us are so restless within that such a landscape never can portray it. Aren’t there times when we are in the depths and feel as if we could never rise again; prayer seems useless and the heaven is brass and all we have ever striven for is vain? Please, God, we want to be rescued from that depth and start climbing up the hill again. The clouds will scatter and the clearer air will start us singing as we mount. These are our yearnings; these are our defeats; these are our hours of anguish and of glory; and we cannot speak of them but in the language which we have borrowed from the silent hills. Not in the loveliest village of the plain is there the transcript of the human spirit. It is too high, too deep, too full of tears ever to find its analogue in that. Its sacrament is the region of the mountain with its wild loneliness and rugged liberty, with its depths where there is gloom and peril, with its peaks that rise into the realm of God.
The Mission of the Jewish People
Now it is very notable, that being so, that God should have led His people into Palestine. For when God has a work for nations to fulfill He is careful to set them in the right environment. You know what the great mission of the Jews was. You know the task which God entrusted to them. It was not to be leaders in intellect like Greece. It was not to be builders of an empire like Rome. The task of the Jew was to keep alive the thought of the divine, to stand in the midst of the polluted world as witnesses of the true and living God. Preeminently, the mission of the Jew was the religious and the spiritual mission; the soul was his science and his art. And the thing to note is, that in being called to that, they were delivered from a level land and brought into a country that had so many hills that they could not lift their eyes without beholding them. That was not a natural migration, for the trend of migrations is usually the other way. It was not a journey congenial to the Jews, for they dreaded the mountains then; they did not love them. But the hand of God was in it all, leading His people, whose mission was religion, into a land preeminently fitted to nourish and foster the religious life.
The Place of Mountains in the Old Testament
The Old Testament is the record of the soul and is written against a background of the hills. It is true that it does not open in the mountains, but in the luxuriance of a garden. Its opening scene is an idyllic picture in the bosom of an earthly paradise.
But when man has fallen and sounded the great deeps and begun to cry for the God whom he has lost, then we are driven from the garden scenery and brought amid the grandeur of the hills. It is on Ararat that the ark rests when the judgment of the waters has been stayed. It is to a mountaintop that Abraham is summoned to make his sacrifice of Isaac. And not on the plain where the Israelites are camped, but amid the cloudy splendor of Mount Sinai God reveals Himself and gives His law and enters into covenant with man.
Can you wonder that the exiled psalmist said, “I will lift up mine eyes until the hills”? They were dyed deep for him with sacred memory and rich with the precious heritage of years. Nor was it merely a heritage of home; it was a heritage of God and of the soul. Among the hills Israel had learned everything that made her mighty as a spiritual power.
By way of contrast, we might think a moment about what we call the bible of the Greeks. That is a name which we often give to Homer, and in a large measure it is justified. Now, as you know, one of the poems of Homer is a long account of the wanderings of Ulysses. Through many cities and many lands he goes. He is the very spirit of unrest incarnate. Yet very rarely in that noble poem do you read of the towering grandeur of the hills. You find exquisite paintings of many kinds of scenery, but scarcely a recognition of the heights. I do not know one scene in all the Odyssey where the mountains tower aloft as an environment. And the strange thing is that in the Old Testament there is hardly one scene of more than usual meaning that is not set within the circle of the hills. Ulysses is the spirit of unrest—but then it is not spiritual unrest. It is not the voyage of the human soul into the depths and heights of God. When you have that, you have a highland Bible—a Bible with Ararat, Moriah, Sinai—a Bible where you hear the mountain-call and lift up eager eyes unto the hills.
Mountains in the Life of Jesus
The same thing meets us still more forcibly in the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Christ is not only the lover of the soul; He is also the lover of the hills. You could take the mountains out of the life of Socrates, and it would make little difference in that life. You could take the mountains out of the life of Shakespeare, and you would hardly alter it at all.
But did you ever think of what would happen if you took the mountains out of the life of Jesus? There would be no more Nazareth embosomed in the hills with its prospect to the south of storied places. There would be no temptation—no conquest of the devil—-on the top of a mountain that was exceedingly high. There would not be any Sermon on the Mount. The Transfiguration would be gone forever. And all those hours of secret prayer alone among the hills would be missing. Strike out the hills, and the Mount of Olives goes with its wrestling through the blood-drops to the victory. Strike out the hills, and there is no more Calvary with its cross and His pierced hands and riven side. Strike out the hills, and the place of our Savior’s ascension to His Father-God is missing. Did it ever occur to you how, when our Lord was risen, He said “I go before you into Galilee”? When His life was over and His victory won, where did He go?—back to the hills again. The crowd was to call Him in the coming ages, and He was to hear the calling of the crowd. But in that morning when He rose victorious, He went into the hills.
We Need a Gospel That Is Deep and High
And now in closing let me dwell upon the genius of Christianity. It seems to me that if it is to be true to Christ, there must be the spirit of the mountains in it. We are always in danger of robbing our Christian faith of what is grand and rugged and mysterious. It is so gentle, so full of love, so exquisitely sweet and lovely. And the very presence of that quiet beauty in the Christian calling and the Christian character is apt sometimes to dim our eyes a little to the greatness and the grandeur of the Gospel. So consider more than the lilies of the field. Lift up your eyes unto the hills and remember how our Savior loved them, for in them there is a symbol of the message of the Gospel. We need a Gospel that shall be deep and high—deep as our sin, high as the throne of God. We need a Gospel that, far above all voices, will brood on us with unutterable peace. And it is just because in the Gospel of God’s love we have that height and depth and everlasting strength, that we can lift up our eyes unto the hills and find we are not far away from Christ.