The Mountain of Isolation
E. J. Strange, Bridgwater
3. THE MOUNTAIN OF ISOLATION
‘And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone', Matt. 14. 23.
Man is by nature a social being and loneliness is shunned or even feared as a rule. The Lord Jesus, perfect Man, loved the company of those whom He called His friends, and it was one of the bitter ingredients of His cup of sorrow that in the end they would leave Him alone. The mysterious cry, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’, Matt. 27. 46, tells of One who for our sakes became the most lonely Being in the universe.
Alone He bore the cross,
Alone its grief sustained.
In the discipline of life, however, there are seasons that call for deliberate withdrawal from the society of men, and in the life of the Lord Jesus we find many such occasions. This mountain scene is one of them for we read, ‘he was there alone’.
The verse which forms the heading of the article is intimately connected with what had gone before, the feeding of about five thousand men, beside women and children, and with what comes after, the walking of Jesus upon the sea. We shall think, therefore, of the isolation of the Lord Jesus on the mountain firstly in relation to the multitude, secondly in relation to the Father, and thirdly, in relation to the disciples.
Jesus was in Galilee and an outstanding miracle was performed because of His compassionate heart. He sees the vast crowd of people, five thousand men besides women and children, He sees them hungry and tired, as sheep without a shepherd, and His great heart goes out in pity. With but five loaves and two fishes He feeds that great multitude.
Twas Springtime when He blessed the Bread,
And Harvest when He brake!
The effect of this miracle upon the multitude is told by John. They said, ‘This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world’, 6. 14. Jesus saw that they would come and take Him by force to make Him a king. He, therefore, constrained His disciples to get into a boat and go to the other side, while by the force of His own personality and word He dismissed the multitude. Having done this, He withdrew Himself and went up into a mountain to pray. The reason for this deliberate isolation from the multitude is thus clearly indicated by John. His kingdom was not of this world, neither is the kingdom of God meat and drink. They sought to make Him king because of the satisfaction of their natural appetites. He recognised their natural need and satisfied it, but His kingship must be based on higher grounds than this. Not for loaves and fishes must men follow Him; ‘Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed’, John 6. 27. Though He leaves the multitude for the splendid isolation of the mountain, and though the multitude leaves Him when they hear the spiritual nature of His teaching, we who have heard Him and who know Him must say with Peter, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life’, John 6. 68.
We must ever recognise, and minister to as far as lies in our power, the material needs of men. But from this withdrawal of our Lord from the multitude that He fed, let us learn the spiritual nature of the call of Christ, that ‘the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost’, Rom. 14. 17.
The isolation of the mountain was on this occasion, as always, a time of prayer for the Lord. He went up into a mountain apart to pray. This is one of the many glimpses we have in the Gospels of the glory of the unbroken communion between the Father and the Incarnate Son. In His prayer life the Lord Jesus was unique. He never prayed with men - He prayed for men. His was a communion that was untainted. ‘No sin disturbed Thy prayer’. We are not permitted to know the nature of His prayer on this occasion. (Only in John 17 are we told in detail how the Lord Jesus prayed and whenever we come to this prayer we should come as it were with bated breath and with the shoes from off our feet, for we stand on holy ground, the very Holy of Holies).
Campbell Morgan writes of this verse in Matthew, ‘He was on the mountain alone with God. It was one of those rare and beautiful and brief occasions in which He broke away from the pressure of the crowd and was alone with God. It was His place of rest, of joy, of quietness, of perfect peace’. Here upon the mountain top we learn the secret of His unfailing calm, of His unswerving purpose, of His steadfast devotion to the will of the Father that led Him unfalteringly to the accomplishment of the great work of redemption at Calvary. The mountain of isolation was for Him the secret place of the Most High.
The work of the disciple of the Lord is with the multitude reaching out to their need, but if his service is to be effective, if he is to be kept free from a jaded, irritated spirit, if he is to be saved from depression because of the fickle nature and material outlook of the crowd, if, then, he is to become more like his Lord, he also must withdraw to the mountain of isolation with God, and know the sweet rest of true communion.
First we note that the disciples were dismissed before the multitude. They had wanted to send the crowd away hungry, but now that the miracle of feeding had been done, the Lord first of all sends them away, directing them to the other side of the sea. Why did He send them away? The answer lies in the mood of the people who wanted to make Jesus king. How warmly the disciples would have supported the proposal! How often they were disappointed that the thoughts and purposes of their Lord were so different from what they expected. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts’, Isa. 55. 9. They had yet to learn the great lesson that the pathway to glory lay along the road of humiliation, and that before the King would be enthroned, He must be nailed in shame upon the tree.
While, however, the Lord dismissed His disciples in order to be alone, He did not forget His own in that mountain solitude. He never does! Mark tells the story very graphically: ‘And he saw them toiling in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them: and about the fourth watch of the night (i.e., between 3 and 6 in the morning) he cometh unto them, walking upon the sea’, Mark 6. 48. He comes to them from the mountain of isolation with His word of good cheer, ‘It is I, be not afraid’. He comes to encourage them with His presence; He comes to bring His peace even to the elements, for the wind ceased. And as these men saw and felt the wonder of it all, they worshipped Him, saying, ‘Of a truth thou art the Son of God’.
May we not see in this beautiful story that which should cheer and encourage us in our day? The same Lord Jesus, who from the loneliness of that mountain saw His disciples in their discouraging circumstances, is now upon the mount of God, no longer alone, but surrounded by the adoring host of heaven. Yet He sees us in the darkness of our night, in the discouragement of our circumstances, in the depression that comes to us from a sense of failure and frustration, and in the darkest hour He manifests Himself, saying as He did of old, ‘Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid’; and, as to the disciples of old, there comes into our hearts the sweet balm of His peace, and we worship Him as our Lord, the Son of the living God. And yet again we remember that just as those few disciples represented His Church, so in the world’s darkest hour, when the faithful few are toiling in rowing, He will come for them. Meanwhile upon the mount of God, He intercedes for us.