Though Joel H. .Johnson wrote the text for this hymn, I feel I ought to note that Ebeneezer Beesley wrote the music. Woo! As a bonus, I really like the music, but I feel more qualified to talk about the text, so I will. Sorry, music buffs.
Mountains and temples have long been metaphorically linked in Christian theology. When there haven’t been temples, mountains have been the next best thing. Moses got the Commandments on a mountain, Nephi climbed one to ask about his broken bow, and the brother of Jared went there to figure out what to do about the dark ships.
There are several great layers to the mountain-temple metaphor.
First is the height of mountains. Since God is at the metaphorical highest point, a tall mountain is the closest we can get to him. (Well, except airplanes, but those are new inventions. But actually, this gives me a new respect for airplanes.) A mountain doesn’t put you where God is, but it puts you close enough to converse with him. I like that there’s effort involved in the process. I don’t know that I could get to the top of a mountain on my first try, anymore. I would have to work up to it. Similarly, not just anyone can go into the temples. Actually, that’s not true. Any and all are encouraged to go to temples, but there is still a requirement of fitness. The temple is spiritual, and a mountain is physical, but to get to the closest point to God, you’ve got to do some work.
Next is the similarity of beauty and peace. In both mountains and temples, the surroundings are often beautiful and quiet. There is time for reflection and for stillness. In fact, it’s almost impossible to avoid. You can’t even get the internet in either place! Sometimes it’s difficult for us to let go of all the things we’re used to paying attention to, hard for us to focus on one beautiful but unexciting thing for a while, but in the end, it’s worth it, and it makes us better.
Last is the perspective. I have a distinct memory of sitting halfway up a mountain, looking down at the city, and I could just barely see the cars below. There were so many, and I knew that each car had at least one driver, and many had passengers, too, and there were many times the number of people inside that were in cars, anyway. There were clearly hundreds and thousands of people down below. I tried to wrap my mind around the fact that they were all much like me, that they had their own worries about work and school and relationships and so on, and they were just as valid as mine. It was hard to believe, though. All those little tiny people with their little tiny insignificant worries. But instead of making my worries seem more important, it taught me that they were small, too. My little crushes or grades on that little GE class didn’t have eternal significance. They’d be forgotten again in a year. And sometimes, still, when I’m getting panicky about life, my instinct is to get to a mountain, where I can use my increased perspective to remember how tiny mt worries really are. Temples, of course, give a spiritual perspective, with similar results.
This hymn doesn’t ever actually say “temples,” but the metaphor is in place, and working hard. On top of the mountain is an ensign, or a flag, which is metaphorically God’s word. God promised he would share it, and he kept his promise. And now that that flag is there, now that God’s word is in his temples, there’s an additional reason to make the trek.
Again, with the both places, the more you go, the fitter you get, physically and/or spiritually. The fitter you get, the more other people take notice and think they might like that for themselves. Many of them go, and get fitter themselves, and attract others, too.
In this way, the gospel spreads itself, as people recognize its goodness and seek it for themselves. In this way, one banner on the top of one mountain is visible to the whole world. And if we will make ourselves fit and go, we can save ourselves, our peers, all our posterity, and also the people who came before us.