The geography of the nation of Israel often reflected key spiritual truths. During the time when kings ruled the nation (once united and later divided), one feature is repeatedly noted in the narrative but often missed by readers – the “high places” in Israel.
There was one high place in Jerusalem that was reserved for the worship of God. This was where the temple was sited. God had instructed that this was the only place assigned to be His dwelling place. All other sites would lead to idolatry (Lev 17:3-5).
Nevertheless, before King Solomon built the temple, people “were still sacrificing at the high places” (1 Kgs 3:2). The king joined them (1 Kgs 3:3) and later these high places, competing with the temple in Jerusalem, became a snare for the nation. High places were considered sacred and appealed to the superstitious idol-loving people, who followed the practices of their neighbours. Many disobedient kings continued to allow and even promote idolatry in these high places (2 Kgs 16:4).
Even the good kings seemed to have tolerated these high places, perhaps because it was difficult to regulate every rural area. Popular spirituality that is against the ways of God is not easy to remove. Though Joash did “what was right in the eyes of the Lord”, the high places were not removed and the people continued with their idolatrous practices (2 Kgs 13:2-3). So it was with Uzziah, also known as Amaziah (2 Kgs 15:3-4) and Jotham (2 Kgs 15:34-35).
Only Hezekiah was able to destroy the high places, but this was short-lived, for his son Manasseh rebuilt them and reintroduced blatant idolatry (2 Kgs 21:3). Later, after Manasseh suffered as a prisoner of war, he repented and removed traces of idolatry in the nation. He did not clean up the sites thoroughly because the high places were still there. And, ingeniously, the people “continued to sacrifice at the high places, but only to the Lord their God” (2 Chr 33:17).
How stubbornly the high places remained in the spiritual geography of the land! This truth reflects what goes on in our souls.
We proclaim Jesus to be our Saviour and Lord, and rightly so. He died for us and now rules over us. However, we often do not let His authority be expressed in every nook and cranny in our hearts. We may be guilty of harbouring “high places” where modern idols are secretly, and perhaps unconsciously, served.
“Even while these people were worshipping the Lord, they were serving their idols” (2 Kgs 17:41).
Christians must search their hearts to see if there are any areas that are resistant to the grace of God. Perhaps it is a sinful habit, a prejudice, a grudge, or greed and anxious lack of trust in God.
The more dangerous kind is sin dressed up in religious clothes. Like the people in Manasseh’s time, Christians may habitually use old sinful pathways of thought and behaviour, but rationalise it by covering these with Christian stuff on the surface. Remove the superficial Christianity, and you will find sinful high places lurking within.
Pride can be camouflaged as religious ambition, greed as blessings from God, anger as indignant righteousness, the worship of self as the worship of God, self-promotion as animated service. Old idolatries and superstitions are not shed when prayer is made into an exercise to manipulate God with spiritual techniques or when the church becomes a place for competition and one-upmanship.
We are reminded in Scripture that sin tends to stick stubbornly on the inner landscapes of our souls. Half-hearted attempts at discipleship will not get rid of it. Instead, we are to “put to death” persistent sins (Col 3:5) – an expression that reminds us of weeding, pulling the mess out, roots and all.
Revivals in the Old Testament often did not go deep enough. It may be the same today. Is it not time to let the Holy Spirit scour our souls to rid us of remaining sins and idolatries? It may be painful but it is good. It is always good when the King’s shadow falls graciously and authoritatively on every part of our lives, when we learn to love Him with all our hearts.
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Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon was Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000 to 2012. Currently retired, he now keeps busy with an active itinerant ministry speaking and teaching in Singapore and overseas.