Hillsong’s Highlands, My Song of Ascents
The featured image is a picture I took on my trip to Koforidua in September, 2019.
Highlands is a deeply personal song to me. From the very first time I heard it, I knew it was going to be stuck on replay for a very long time. It is my song because I have needed the ‘encouragement’ in the lyrics, especially this year. No song has made me shed tears in worship than this one. Because what the song says is comfortingly true and painfully true at the same time. Benjamin Hasting who co-wrote the song is known to always put words together to communicate sound theology in worship songs in the most beautiful way. And this song is no different.
I have always wondered what the second part of the title of the song meant, ‘song of ascent’. I wondered what it meant but I never bothered to research to find out until I chanced on it recently. I read Psalms 127 a few weeks ago and the sub-heading of the chapter in the ESV Bible was ‘a song of ascents of Solomon’. I checked what songs of ascents were on Wikipedia and learnt that they are 15 chapters in the book of Psalms, from Psalms 120 – 134. The songs were sung possibly by Hebrew pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem or while ascending mount Zion or by the Levite singers while ascending the 15 steps of the temple in Jerusalem to minister. These are the 3 possible scenarios in which songs of ascents were sung by ancient Jews. So my aim for writing this piece is to justify why Hillsong’s Highlands is my song of ascents.
The song opens with the following lines:
O how high would I climb mountains
If the mountains were where You hide
O how far I’d scale the valleys
If You graced the other side
These lines are filled with promises man makes to God. Promises about how we would pursue him and run after him. If we were told God had tabernacled on mountain Afadjato, all our Christian life would be characterized by mountain climbing, – of course, to find God. If we were told God had graced the other side of the mountain with his presence, we would scale the valley to find him. Because he is precious to us.
The second stanza depicts the scenario of a person looking for God from a distance. The songwriter mentions how long he has chased rivers, “from lowly seas to where they rise / against the rush of Grace descending / from the source of its supply”. I can almost see a person running along the river banks, searching for its source. Only to discover that the source of the river, which in this case is Grace, is at the summit of a mountain. Such a beautiful sight it is to see Grace literally descending from the mountain. Now, this is a major theme throughout the song and it is the opposite of what we see in the first stanza. In the first stanza, we see man’s effort to find God. Then in the second, and throughout the entire song, we see God rather descending to find us or extending his grace to us from the mountain. (Please, bear this in mind as you read because I will make several references to it later). I watched this video in which Benjamin Hasting and Joel Houston explained the writing process and shed more light on the lyrics of the song. When it got to this theme, Benjamin said that it was like a ‘reverse pilgrim’ or I would call it a reverse pilgrimage. We all know a pilgrimage is a journey embarked on by a religious person to experience a holy place central to their faith. It is only in Christianity that we can see the theme of a ‘reverse pilgrim’ where instead of God setting himself on high and asking us to work our way there, he rather condescends to our level and comes to find us. It is so beautiful.
In the following paragraphs, I will be dealing with specific themes and imageries that stand out for me in the song.
The next thing I would like to address is the euphemistic language the writer employs while talking about valleys. The word ‘valley’ is used a couple of times in the song. Which is expected because I am almost sure you cannot talk about highlands or mountains and not make a single reference to the valleys. However, the songwriter refers to valleys differently on some occasions. The first of this is seen in the following lines, “In the highlands and the heartache”. The opposite of highlands is not ‘heartache’, it is valleys. But why does the songwriter say this in the first place? I believe it is so because human beings see the heights they want to attain as what they are and associate their low moments with how they feel about them. So we see the summit of the mountain we are climbing to as what it is without often associating it with the emotions getting there evokes. But the valley we are in is not seen as the landform that it is, but we associate it with how we feel about it – in this case heartache. Secondly, the songwriter makes reference to the valley in the following lines “So I will praise You on the mountain / And I will praise You when the mountain’s in my way”. The last line paints the picture of someone stuck in a valley who wants to get to the other side. The mountain is in his way.
This is just something that I noticed in the lyrics, the language and diction the songwriter employed in talking about the valleys.
The Omnipresent God
This is also a major theme in the song; the fact that God is present both on the highlands and in the valleys. Human beings can be extremists in our understanding of God sometimes. Some people are of the view that the proof of God’s presence with his children is the abundance of good things – this is one extreme. The other extreme has reduced God to a ruthless taskmaster who takes his children perpetually through tough times. And so people who hold to this “theology” are of the view that if you are not going through a tough time, then God is not with you. Or God is only present in the tough times. This is why the manner in which the songwriter handled this theme was so comforting for me. He said, ‘in the highlands and the heartache/ you are neither more or less inclined’. Then he also said in the chorus:
So I will praise You on the mountain
And I will praise You when the mountain’s in my way
You’re the summit where my feet are
So I will praise You in the valleys all the same
God is neither more or less inclined in both the highlands and the valleys. Which means God is not more present on the top of the mountain than he is in the valley and vice versa. I find this to be so comforting. Then in the chorus, he mentions that God is the summit where his feet are. If only this could be my thinking, I believe more than half of my problems in this life would be solved. This implies that wherever you find yourself (whether in a valley or at the mountain top), God is the summit where your feet are. Therefore, so far as God is with me, a valley is a summit and a summit is still a summit. God is everywhere. He was on the throne with David and he was with him in the wilderness. He was with Joseph in Potiphar’s house and in the prison with Joseph. He was with Daniel in the king’s court and in the lion’s den. The settings may change in our lives, but our God remains the same and ever-present. Little wonder the songwriter goes on to mention that “No less God within the shadows / No less faithful when the night leads me astray / You’re the heaven where my heart is / In the highlands and the heartache all the same”.
I did mention that this was a major theme in the song earlier in this post. The 3rd stanza communicates this theme profoundly. It opens with the following lines ‘O how far beneath Your glory / Does Your kindness extend the path’. The kindness of God is seen in the way he extends a path reaching very far beneath his glory. Why? Because that is where you and I are. We have sinned and fallen short of his glory. And the chasm our sins created between God and us is too wide for good deeds to diminish. Hence, he being the kind God that he is, extended a path that reaches way beneath his glory to where we are.
The next stanza talks about how God would run so fast if it was even just so he could shadow us through the night. The language here is heavy with paradox. For who would need to be shadowed through the night? The night is dark and cold hence no sane person would need shade in the night. Therefore, this line indicates that we need God, even more, when physical conditions convince us that we don’t. And it is good news that the song paints the picture of God being even more eager than we are to have him shadow us through the night. We serve a God who pursues. A father who upon seeing his prodigal son approaching would leave everything he is doing and run to embrace him. This is who our God is.
This theme is also very evident throughout the song, especially in the 6th stanza and the last one. In the 6th stanza the songwriter says:
For who could dare ascend that mountain
The valleyed hill called Calvary
But for the One I call Good Shepherd
Who like a lamb was slain for me
This is in reference to Psalms 24 where David asks a similar question. Seeking somebody who is worthy, somebody who has clean hands and a pure heart to ascend the mountain of the Lord. If we could remember the message in the first stanza of the song, we would know that no human is qualified to ascend the holy mountain of God. Because the requirement has been stated here by David. The person must have clean hands and a pure heart. Thank God we didn’t have to do that on our own. Thank God Jesus descended from heaven just to ascend the holy mountain of God for us. The songwriter refers to that holy mountain as Calvary. The 6th stanza ends with a very interesting irony: the good shepherd who was slain like a lamb. It is not surprising at all that the shepherd was killed like one of his sheep because he laid down his life for his sheep. This is how the bible defines a good shepherd. Children of God, we have a good shepherd in Jesus.
From the gravest of all valleys
Come the pastures we call grace
A mighty river flowing upwards
From a deep but empty grave
These few lines paint the picture of a deep valley that is covered by pastures – metaphorically representing the grace of God. I believe it is normal to see pastures in valleys because rivers often flow from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the valley. The songwriter goes ahead to tell us there is a mighty river flowing upwards, from a deep but empty grave. The deep but empty grave is referring to the tomb Jesus resurrected from to give us grace. When he talks about ‘a mighty river flowing upwards’, a river that defies gravity, that, I didn’t know about before I heard this song. It is even more complicated when you try to understand this phrase against the backdrop of other lines in the same song. Earlier in the song, he says, ‘… the rush of grace descending’. Then in this stanza, he says there is grace (pastures) at the bottom of the valley that are being watered by a mighty river that flows upwards. All of this is to communicate to the listener of this song that, Grace is found where God is. And since we have established the fact that God is both on the mountain and in the valley at the same time, then Grace is available in both locations.
Some of us think we need grace only in the valley. But we need grace on the summit of the mountain as well because it is easier to fall from the top of a mountain. When everything is ok for you and you have no worries or right after you receive a blessing from God, you might idolize the blessing and trivialize the essence of the God who gave it to you. Paul said ‘I have learnt to abase and abound’, meaning he has learnt to remain a faithful servant of God in luck and in plenty. We need the grace of God when things are bad as much as we need it when things are good.
‘Highlands’ is indeed a song I will forever sing as I go up the mountains of life, when I get to the summit or even when I am painfully stationed in the valleys. I will sing this song of ascents in praise of the one who is my summit wherever my feet may stand.