My dear friend sent me this question- What does the term high places mean in respect of Israel’s idolatry? What is its significance today?
Thank you for the question. When I started typing an answer to this question, it became a long answer with couple of pages. Sorry for this long answer or an article based on this important question. The topic is not that easy to understand without understanding little bit background and then applying to our lives today. Please read below. If you like the answer, please share with others.
Pantheism to Monotheism- Yahweh called children of Israel out of Egypt to fulfill His promise to Abraham.
We can see many references to high places in the Old Testament scripture in the Bible. The LORD God delivered the children of Israel out of Egypt and sent them to the promised land by His outstretched arm to fulfill His promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. In Egypt, the children of Jacob (Israel) multiplied greatly and it was the divine time for the LORD to fulfill his promises to Abraham regarding the land, nation and the worldwide blessings. Although the purpose God called them out and led them to the promised land was to fulfill His promise to Abraham (which was later reiterated to Isaac and Jacob), He had a specific clear-cut expectation about His chosen people in the new promised land, it’s law and worship system. God called them out of a pantheistic culture (worship of all so-called gods) to monotheism (belief and worship of only one God). Monotheism is the basic idea presented in the Pentateuch when Moses, the great leader of Israel, wrote the first 5 books of the Bible. In fact, monotheism is the message of the whole of Bible and not pantheism.
Yahweh stipulated the rule of the people in the land of promise.
God gave them the law that they would practice in the land through Moses in Exodus and repeated to the second generation in Deuteronomy. He also gave the details about their worship and sacrificial system to the tribe of Levy in the book of Leviticus. Moses upon the direction of the LORD said to them, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The God speaks in the Bible that “I am the Lord, and there is no other; there is no God but me. (Isaiah 45:5). “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.” (Isaiah 46:9). “ I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior.” (Isaiah 43:11). Pantheistic belief system believes all types of gods. The LORD God called them out so that they can represent the one true God on this earth.
God reminded them many times about the danger of worshipping idols and images. “You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below.” (Deuteronomy 4:15-18)
Now the LORD also said when the children of Israel went to possess the promised land which is the land of Canaan, the land there had multiple gods and the people there worshiped all other so-called gods who were not real or true God. Lord commanded they must not worship the LORD their God in their way. Listen to the commandment of the Lord in Deuteronomy 12:1-7, “These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has given you to possess—as long as you live in the land. Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. You must not worship the LORD your God in their way. But you are to seek the place the LORD your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. There, in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the LORD your God has blessed you”.
In short, Israel must destroy completely all the high places on the high mountains, break down their altars, cut down their gods and wipe out their names. They must not worship the LORD in their way. This was a fight between the truth and lie. There is only one God who created the heavens and the earth and all in it. The one and true God cannot substitute by any other false man-made gods.
Numbers 33:52 also gives them the same commandment. It says, “Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places.” God did not want Israel to be any part of any idol worship because He is the only one and true God.
It appears before the temple was built by Solomon in Jerusalem according to God’s commandment and thereby all the tribes of Israel can come together and worship God and bring sacrifices in a localized place, there were worship locations in some localized places which is sometimes referred as high places. This practice of worshiping in local high places apparently was not condemned in the Bible at that time. Prophet Samuel used to visit different high places and He built an altar for the LORD God in Ramah. For example, 1 Samuel 9:12-19 tells us Samuel sacrificed in high places. But it appears the high place mentioned here was not part of any idol worship center. Even prior to all this, Genesis 12:6-8 says Abraham built altars to the Lord at Shechem and Hebron. But when Abraham, Samuel and Elijah worshiped the LORD God, these were identifiable places of worship and were apparently devoted to the worship of the LORD God of Israel or built for the purpose of worshipping Yahweh, the one true God of Israel.
In olden times, these localized worship sites were places of worship but later apparently called high places. But there is a difference – the pagan high places were devoted to idol worships and therefore God clearly commanded the children of Israel not to worship the LORD in that way. These pagan places are called high places because these were usually set up in an elevated place and it had a stone pillar or pole made by wood to show these are places of worship. The animals, idols, goddesses, and fertility deities are also worshipped in these high places. The Canaanite god included Baal (lord of earth and rain), Ashtoreth (goddess of fertility and farmers had relationships with cult prostitutes to make sure a good crop fertility in the year), Molech (ammonite god and children were sacrificed there), Chemosh (a Moabite god and children were sacrificed in fire) and Dagon (King Saul’s head was fastened in the house of Dagon).
They failed to obey the commandment of the Lord in its entirety and they were seduced by the pagan high places and what it offers to them for lustful and temporary satisfaction.
Though Israel was commanded to tear down and destroy the false worship system, they did not completely obey this command of the Lord and it became a snare for them. Maybe they were so familiar with the Egyptian idol worship system while they were living in Egypt or maybe idol worship places seduced the children of Israel to visit these places again and again due to the sexual immorality and lustful passions offered and practices in these pagan high places. It is almost apparent that Solomon could not control his sexual passions and that is the reason why he had many foreign wives and they influenced him even to build altars in high places. It was very tragic to think the same person who built the temple of Yahweh later in his life due to his uncontrolled lustful passions ended up building up altars for other gods in these high places. Another apparent reason was the social influence of the land. The pagan altars had feast and festivals and it was easy for the Israelites to succumb to the society’s influence.
The northern kingdom, Israel, had plunged deep into idol worship in high places because of the influence of their first king Jeroboam. The united monarchy under Solomon was divided into two- northern kingdom (Israel) and southern kingdom (Judah)- mainly due to the sin of Solomon. Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, became the king of Judah (2 tribes of Israel) and Jeroboam became the king of the remaining 10 tribes. Jeroboam did not want the people in his kingdom to go down to Jerusalem to worship in the temple built by Solomon fearing he will lose their allegiance. For people, it was a long journey to come down to the temple as well. He built two temples for his state and placed golden calves- in Bethel and in Dan. Calf worship was not new to Israelites but was now re-introduced to them and thereby the high places and idol worship centers became part and parcel of the northern kingdom, Israel. The southern kingdom, Judah, could not restrict the temptation and influence of these high places and immoral worship systems.
Yahweh always saw idol worship as harlotry and resulted in their captivity
The LORD always considered joining with these idol worship system as a harlotry/adultery to Him. It is like a husband-wife relationship. When a man or woman goes outside the marriage and has an illegitimate relationship outside the matrimonial commitment, it is called harlotry. The LORD wanted their full allegiance. By going to these pagan high places and participating in idol worships, the children of Israel provoked the anger and wrath of God, because they were going after man-made gods leaving the truth of one God who created all. God warned them to stay away from these pagan high places through His prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea etc. repeatedly, again and again. There were few kings who tried to destroy the high places and pagan altars in the southern kingdom. But when the next king came to the throne, the practice continued again. The adamant and continuous disobedience of Israel and Judah by participating in these pagan worship system in high places and their on-going interest in such idol worship resulted in the captivity of both northern kingdom (Israel) and southern kingdom (Judah) going into exiles as slaves. The one proud and great city of Jerusalem was in ruin and desolation. Children died in the arms of their mother because of no food and drinks, only pain, crying and weeping left in the city. The result of God’s severe punishment and the bitter and painful experience of evil and suffering due to their sins are portrayed in the Book of Lamentation in the Bible.
However, their deep interest in participating in these idol worship was completely purged out when Judah came back from the Babylonian captivity. Never again we see such idol worship thirst in Israel. They learned the lesson when God allowed them to go through the severe crucible of punishment by a seventy-year exile.
Is high place have any significance for us today?
Jesus said to the Samaritan woman this. A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. God is Spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the spirit and in truth. (John 4:21-24). Therefore, the place is not important in our worship today. It does not mean that you should not have a building where believers can come together and worship Him. You do not need to go to Jerusalem or any so-called sacred places to worship God. Jesus also said in Matthew 18:20 that “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Hence, when two or three or more gather in His name there is He and we can worship Him in Spirit and truth – with the help of the Holy Spirit and in the knowledge of the truth about God.
If particular place or location does not have any significance for worshipers today, what is the high place incident of the past teach us today? You see what happened to them in the past was this -they were influenced and seduced by the society in which they were living. This seduction originally happened in Egypt even before their exodus and they could not get away from the temptations and seductions these high places offered.
Remember Bible says in James 4:4 “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy to God.”
Bible also says in 1 John 2:16, “ For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life-comes not from the Father but from the world.” Then it says there in the next verse, “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” 1 John 2:17.
Jesus said in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Bible says in Colossians 3:5, Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”
I believe, whatever that tempts you, seduce you to be away from the will of God becomes an idol and that is what apparently high places signified today. This could be an illegitimate and uncontrolled sexual passion, living in sexual immorality, greed for money and thereby you send up serving money instead of God who promised to meet all your needs, the high pride of life like the rich man in Jesus’s explanation. He ignored the poor Lazarus who was needy while he lived his life in pomp and luxury. Constantly going after the pleasures of this world, looking for what world can offer you and make you happy instead of looking for how God can make you truly happy and joyful. What is that tempts you and seduces you in this world? High places tempted and seduced the children of Israel due to what it can provide them for temporary pleasure and enjoyment etc. They were asked to destroy it but they did not. We the New Testament believers are asked to “put to death” certain passions and habits of our sinful old lives because Bible says we are crucified with Christ (Romans 6). Romans 6:11-14 says, “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as ]instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”
Remember Jude wrote this in his small letter that he was about to write about the salvation we share. But he felt compelled to write and urge us to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. The ungodly people pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only sovereign Lord. (Jude 3-4).
Are we holding on the faith that was once for all entrusted to us wholeheartedly? Are we perverting the grace of God into a license for immorality? Are we effectively guarding us against the influence of false doctrines that creeps into our society? Jude says such false teachers are blemishes at your love feasts. Are they eating with you without the slightest qualm- they that feed themselves?
Keep in mind, the term high place is not used in the New Testament. Although the term is not seen, the snare and the potential for failure is vividly understandable in the New Testament books. In short, high places that tempt and seduce us are all around us. Such high places have the power to ruin and destroy our spiritual life. If we continue flirting with these high places that we have seen above from the New Testament part of the Bible, God’s judgment can come upon us. This is what Israel’s history solemnly warn us. How much careful we should be to fight the good fight, finish the race and keep the faith that is once for all entrusted to us? How important it is for us to put to death those sins that easily entangles and hinders us to run the race of faith? Especially when we live at this end of the age, Peter reminds us in 2 Peter 3:11, “Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness.”