In your Old Testament reading, have you come across the term high places? Mentioned 117 times, high places were centers for Canaanite idol worship that the Jews were commanded to tear down. But instead, these places became idols that subtly seduced God’s people year after year—they couldn’t stay away!
What about today? Are followers of Christ still tempted by high places? Let’s ask it a different way: Do believers sometimes succumb to today’s “ism-idols”—rampant materialism, impure sexism or me-ism?
What can we learn about overcoming recurring, seductive sin from the stories about high places? Something mentioned 117 times is more than an archeological curiosity!
The Hebrew word for high place is bamah—mountaintop, open-air altars on elevated knolls near towns. According to 1 Kings 14:23, the Canaanites “built for themselves high places and sacred pillars and Asherim on every high hill and beneath every luxuriant tree.”
Even before Israel crossed the Jordan into Canaan, Moses exhorted the Jews to “demolish all their high places … [or they] will become as pricks in your eyes and as thorns in your sides” (Numbers 33:52, 55).
Why was God so concerned about these mythical Canaanite deities? Just look at some of the gods that people worshiped in these places:
El—supreme head of the Canaanite pantheon of gods, supposedly the father of creation.
Baal—lord of earth and rain (prerequisites for successful harvest in a dry land).
Ashtoreth—goddess of fertility. Canaanite farmers visited her shrines to mate with cult prostitutes to guarantee crop fertility.
Dagon—principal god of the Philistines. Dgn means grain in Hebrew and Ugaritic and is associated with wheat harvest. In 1 Chronicles 10: 8-10, when the Philistines found King Saul’s dead body on Mount Gilboa, they “fastened his head in the house of Dagon.”
Molech (Moloch, Milcom)—Ammonite god to whom children were sacrificed. At Gezer, archaeologists have found clay jars containing the charred bones of babies.
Chemosh—a Moabite deity, “honored with horribly cruel rites like those of Molech, to whom children were sacrificed in the fire” (Unger’s Bible Dictionary).
That’s just six of 26 major Canaanite gods and goddesses! High places were not harmless shrines—God’s people were seduced to flagrant sin at these altars. Isaiah rebuked them: “Are you not children of rebellion … who inflame yourselves among the oaks, under every luxuriant tree, who slaughter the children in the ravines?” (Isaiah 57:4-5).
King Solomon succumbed to wheedling from his Canaanite wives and built a high place for Chemosh and Molech on the mountain east of Jerusalem.
Today we don’t construct idolatrous clay figurines of Baal or attend worship services for Asherah, but our temptations are just as seductive and perhaps even more subtle.
Believers today might avoid obvious “high places” such as theft, child abuse or explosive anger. But we tend to be casual about what writer and Bible teacher Jerry Bridges calls “respectable sins.” We rarely speak of envy, worry, spiritual pride, sexual window-shopping, gossip or strife as sin. But these habits are nothing but sinful deeds of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21).
How do we deal with today’s version of high places where idols abound? I have discovered four “dashboard indicators” from a 25-year-old king who decided to put an end to 800 years of idol-accommodation: Hezekiah, who reigned from 715 to 686 B.C., 215 years after Solomon’s collapse.
Dashboard Indicator One: Have I given myself permission to adopt a casual attitude toward sin?
God wanted to drive out the Canaanites because of the wickedness of the Canaanites—not because of the goodness of the Jews (Deuteronomy 9:5). God is not casual toward sin!
By contrast, the Jews were casual about idolatrous high places for 800 years. Solomon is a good example. As he grew older, his wives “turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not wholly devoted to the Lord his God” (1 Kings 11:4). And then he built a high place for his wives.
Like Solomon, we might give ourselves permission to flirt with temptation but still try to retain a vibrant heart for God. But Solomon couldn’t—and we can’t either. The more we entertain worldly high places in our hearts, the more our love for God slips away.
As a new believer in Christ I was startled when I heard a friend pray, “Lord, help me to love You and hate sin.” I had never considered actually hating sin. Psalm 36:4 describes the wicked man by saying, “He plans wickedness upon his bed … he does not despise evil.”
Are you giving yourself permission to flirt with temptation? Ask God to give you a hatred of sin.
Dashboard Indicator Two: Do I allow previous failures to stop me?
Have you ever tried to eradicate a particular sin from your life, but like a thistle in an Iowa pasture, it grew back even stronger? No wonder many believers have all but given up on achieving victory over pornography, worry about kids, bitterness toward an unkind boss, and the list goes on. Every time we attempt to break a sin habit, the enemy throws it back in our faces. Why even try?
From Solomon to Hezekiah, 30 kings (12 in Judah, 18 in Israel) failed to remove the high places. Even “good kings” such as Asa and Jehoshaphat failed to remove the high places from the land. But something in Hezekiah’s walk with God told him past failures should not dictate his future.
Dashboard Indicator Three: Are you a Christian loner?
There’s an old African saying: “To travel fast—go alone. To travel far—go with others.”
Rather than haranguing the nation to avoid the high places, Hezekiah recruited a few faithful cohorts—the Levites. The job of the Levites was to assist the priests by skinning animals and participating in holy convocations. The Levites were only a few in a nation of many.
Still, starting at home, within 16 days the Levites dramatically cleansed the temple in Jerusalem of Canaanite worship paraphernalia. Then Hezekiah ordered a massive celebration, and the Levites “sang praises with joy” (2 Chronicles 29:30).
Next, Hezekiah sent messengers throughout Israel inviting every Jew to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem—not at their high places. Some couriers were well received, while others were scorned. Nevertheless, Jerusalem hosted a historic seven-day Passover celebration.
Then the unexpected happened. The people were so moved they spontaneously traveled to the cities of Judah to break down Asherim poles and destroy the high places and altars (2 Chronicles 31:1). Wow! And it started with a few faithful teammates who were willing to support Hezekiah in following the Lord wholeheartedly.
Who can help support your spiritual walk? Two suggestions: First, find friends to study the Word with you. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, you need a team.
Second, what trusted friend or pastor can you talk to about recurring sin? Find someone who can help, not merely sympathize.
Dashboard Indicator Four: Are you focusing on eliminating sin or on pleasing God?
Hezekiah didn’t merely exhort people to stop going to high places. Instead, he restored true, God-centered worship at the temple, and the people realized that they did not need to worship Baal and Ashtoreth (2 Chronicles 29-30).
Though it seems counter-intuitive, sin is not defeated by focusing on getting rid of it. Rather, focus on replacing it with something that is pleasing to God.
A friend once tested my concentration ability. “Forget about the number 13,” he said.
“OK,” I replied, eager to prove myself. “I’m avoiding 13 starting now!”
He paused a moment, then asked, “What number did I tell you to forget?”
“Uh … 13,” I stammered.
“And what number are you thinking of now?” he asked.
Psalm 34:14 says, “Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” When we do good, evil departs. To eliminate a sinful pattern, find a God-pleasing substitute.
But first, submit to God. In the past I tried hard to “resist the devil” as James 4:7 instructs. It wasn’t working! I had overlooked the first phrase of James 4:7, which says, “Submit to God.” Resisting without submitting won’t work! First submit in simple prayer, then substitute.
A few years ago I was lying in bed one sleepless night pondering why a certain sin kept recurring in my life. Then a thought hit me: What is it that I don’t understand about God that makes this sin so attractive?
That was a breakthrough! High places in our lives are more seductive when we believe the lie that God cannot provide all we need. Sin seductively warbles that it can meet your needs better than God. But God has already provided everything you need—everything! You don’t need to trek to high places anymore. ©2012 BGEA
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New American Standard Version, ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif.
Scott Morton is International Funding Coach for The Navigators. He is the author of “Funding Your Ministry,” “Down-to-Earth discipling,” “Tired of Do-List Christianity?” and his latest, “For You, My Friend.”