Destroying the High Places: What Altar Do You Have in Your Heart?

One of the subjects consistently addressed throughout the Bible is idolatry. References abound in connection with Israel’s struggle with the gods of their neighbors, gods that could be seen, as opposed to their invisible Yahweh. Time and time again, the children of Israel gave in to the temptation to conform to the values of their neighbors rather than stand out and be different. Interestingly, one of the meanings of the Hebrew word for “holy” is “different” or “apartness.” The Israelites were called to be separate because they were adopted by the Creator, the one true God, whom they knew as Yahweh, their personal Lord.

The New Testament is equally insistent that idols have no place in our lives: [1]

1 John 5:21
Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

This article will set forth the New Testament perspective on dealing with idols and idolatry, and then take a look at “the high places” in the history of Israel and the difficulties they had because their leaders failed to destroy them as God commanded them to do.

Idols can take many forms, as overt as a statue of a god or as subtle as having greater trust in one’s talents or abilities than trust in the Lord. Because we do not have a statue of Baal in our backyard does not mean we are free from idols. It behooves every Christian to deeply consider if there are any obstacles in his or her heart that prevent intimacy with God.

To be in a personal relationship with the Creator is to recognize Him for who He is, the one true God. Unless He is elevated to this place in our heart of hearts, our relationship with God will suffer. To elevate anything or anyone to the same level as God in our hearts is to bring division in our relationship with Him and diminish our experience of His power and presence. That truth is highlighted over and over again throughout the Bible, and should be enough to get our attention and cause us to consider the state of our own hearts. The Apostle Paul addresses this issue in detail in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. And in 2 Corinthians 10, Paul identifies some very specific keys to removing these idols that we would be wise to reflect on:

2 Corinthians 10:4 and 5
(4) For the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds.
(5) We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.

Let’s unpack this passage that is just loaded with insights. The first thing we learn is that we are armed and in a war, whether we like it or not. Are we mentally prepared for this level of opposition? Any kind of “war” is for real, and there are real casualties. To be successful in this fight, we must be armed properly and practiced in the use of our available weapons. We should be very interested in finding out what our weapons are. Ephesians 6:12 and following identifies our one offensive weapon as “the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God.” In the above passage, three more weapons are identified, which all relate to the Word of God:

We destroy arguments.

We destroy every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God.

We take every thought captive to obey Christ.

First, we destroy arguments with the sword of the spirit. What are these arguments? They originate from Satan, “the father of lies,” and are promulgated by the worldly systems of human ideas and imaginations. These arguments are promoted via words and images in the media, public schools, by parents and friends, or anyone who is presuming to educate our conscience. We cannot do much about these arguments insofar as they are outside of us, but we can and must destroy the ones that have taken hold in our minds and moved us away from God’s Word. There can be no “peaceful coexistence” with an enemy bent on our destruction.

To demolish these internal arguments we need to pay attention to what we say in our hearts about ourselves (our “self-talk”), and compare that with God’s Word written to us and about us. It is the power of the Word of God believed in our hearts that demolishes these arguments that we elevate against God. We may not be responsible for the arguments coming into our minds, but we are responsible for removing them.

For instance, we may have believed the argument that people cause pain and therefore we don’t need others in our lives. If we swallow that argument, we will isolate ourselves from others, or at least enough to prevent our being hurt. But what does the Word of God say? It argues that we are to be connected to others in the Body of Christ and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We can’t very well do that by ourselves.

What if we accept the argument that we are unlovable or unworthy of God’s blessings? We will rebuff whatever love is extended to us and continue to believe a lie, resulting in our own spiritual impoverishment. If we think we are unworthy of His grace and blessings, we will feel distant from God and not go to Him in time of need because of our feelings of unworthiness. Thus, we will not experience His grace and mercy. We must stop arguing with God in our hearts and learn to accept His love.

Or what if we think we are without sin, either in general or regarding specific behaviors, and are living in denial? Then we must demolish those arguments that shield us from conviction for sin and prevent us from getting honest, growing in faith and grace, and being delivered from sin’s tyranny.

In short, we must identify and demolish any argument that disagrees with God’s opinion of us, our abilities, our value, our acceptability, our hope, our sinfulness, etc. We must accept and declare God’s arguments concerning who we are and what we can be.

Second, we destroy every proud obstacle (“pretension”—NIV; every proud and lofty thing”—Amplified; “every high thing”—KJV). This sure sounds easier than it actually is! These prideful obstacles are like concrete bunkers built into the stone walls of our unregenerate hearts and it will take some serious dynamite to dislodge them. Fortunately we have dunamis, “inherent power” via the holy spirit, the detonator of God’s Word, and the fuse of faith (to stretch a metaphor to the explosive point).

We must understand that pride is protean, [2] and comes in many forms. It can show up as an elevated opinion of oneself or one’s abilities. This face of pride says, “I don’t need to change, I’m okay the way I am.” Or it might say, “I can’t change, I’m hopeless.” But how can we ever say that when God is there to help us be transformed by the renewing of our mind? What He commands, He will help us to do. He commands us to “be transformed,” and He will therefore be there to help us in the process if we have faith. Who is Pride to contradict God?

Pride also comes in the form of a low opinion of oneself, lower than God’s opinion. But how can you be proud when you feel like a slug? Well, if God says you are one of His holy ones, filled with the power of His Son, and you believe you are a slug, in direct contradiction to God’s Word, that’s another face of pride because it elevates its opinion above the opinion of God Almighty. This is something to think about, especially for those of us who like to throw pity parties and think that we can never change. To grow, we must see that we are arrogantly elevating our perverse opinion of ourselves above God’s. That is a “high thing” that must be torn down and destroyed.

Third, we take captive those thoughts that contradict the knowledge of God. What comes to mind when you think of taking captives? Is this a nice, friendly process in which both parties are cooperating with each other? Not hardly. To take a captive, you usually have to be armed with a weapon. “You’re coming downtown with me, creep,” Dirty Harry sneers as he drags his prisoner off to jail at gunpoint. Once we identify a destructive thought or “house of thoughts” (i.e., a “stronghold”), we need to have an aggressive attitude to take them into custody and remove them from our mind. How do we do that? We put the gun of truth to their heads, so to speak, back them out of our head, lock the prison door, and throw away the key!

How will we do all that if we do not have an accurate knowledge of God and His Word filling our head and heart? We must saturate our minds with the truth about ourselves from the parts of Scripture that tell us who we are in Christ. This we find primarily in the nine Church Epistles (Romans through Thessalonians).

If we don’t take these unruly thoughts captive, they will be like escaped criminals running loose through our heads and hearts. We have to put out an APB (all points bulletin, for those who never watched a cop show), and apprehend these bad boys. We can’t let them run loose and unidentified. We look at our thoughts and make them identify themselves: “Friend or foe?!”

The KJV phrase, “Every high thing” reminds us of the external warfare against idols that is a big part of the Hebrew Scriptures. Let us look at a few of the many verses that refer to “the high places” to learn something about the commitment that it takes to bring these down.

God first referred to the high places in the context of a stern warning in the Levitical law after He had reminded the Israelites of all the blessings that would be theirs for obeying Him. If they would disobey Him and serve idols, He would destroy their high places. What that meant in reality was that He would find someone obedient to Him who would get the job done. This would prove to be much harder and take much longer than it should have:

Leviticus 26:30
I will destroy your high places and cut down your incense altars; I will heap your carcasses on the carcasses of your idols. I will abhor you.

This general warning later became a very specific prophecy, which was actually carried out by God’s servant, Josiah, about whom we will read shortly. These “high places” are identified in Numbers as places of pagan worship that belonged to the peoples the Israelites were to drive out:

Numbers 33:50-52
(50) On the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho the LORD said to Moses,
(51) “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you cross the Jordan into Canaan,
(52) drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places.

God’s Word was very clear. When they went into the Promised Land, they were to destroy the high places, which were shrines and altars built on mountaintops and elevated places in order to be closer to their pagan gods. This was a common practice among the unbelievers, and God did not want His people to corrupt themselves by thinking that they were going to be closer to Him by being on a mountain. [3] God had drawn near to His people by giving them His Word, spoken to them directly and through the prophet Moses. The physical elevation of the high places was symbolic of an attempt on people’s part to approach God based on their own ideas and not on the basis of what He required.

Unfortunately, this simple directive to demolish the high places almost never got done, as we will see. First, we should note that Joshua, who led the children of Israel into the promised land, did not bring down the high places. Neither did any of the Judges bring them down.

Saul, the first king of Israel, not only did not bring them down but died upon them in battle with the Philistines:

2 Samuel 1:19
Our glory, O Israel [King Saul], lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen!

Even in the time of David, the high places were not removed.

1 Kings 3:2 (KJV)
Only the people sacrificed in high places, because there was no house built unto the name of the LORD, until those days.

David’s son Solomon not only did not remove the high places, but eventually restored their use as places to worship pagan deities.

1 Kings 3:3 (KJV)
And Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of David his father: only he sacrificed and burnt incense in high places.

Solomon’s compromise of God’s Word proved to be disastrous, and his great wisdom became folly as he devoted himself to the pagan gods of his wives, just as he had been warned against.

2 Kings 23:13 (KJV)
And the high places that were before Jerusalem, which were on the right hand of the mount of corruption, which Solomon the king of Israel had built for Ashtoreth the abomination of the Zidonians, and for Chemosh the abomination of the Moabites, and for Milcom the abomination of the children of Ammon, did the king defile.

After his death, Solomon’s son Rehoboam clashed with Jeroboam and the kingdom split. Jeroboam became the king of Israel, and led the people into idolatry by erecting golden calves in Bethel.

1 Kings 12:32 (KJV)
And Jeroboam … placed in Bethel the priests of the high places which he had made.

Instead of being faithful to God’s command that only Levites be priests, Jeroboam even let anyone who wanted to be a priest be one (1 Kings 13:33). But in the midst of all this idolatry an unidentified man of God prophesied against the altar on the high place, and spoke of a king to come named Josiah who would destroy the high places:

1 Kings 13:2 and 32 (KJV)
(2) And he cried against the altar in the word of the LORD, and said, O altar, altar, thus saith the LORD; Behold, a child shall be born unto the house of David, Josiah by name; and upon thee shall he offer the priests of the high places that burn incense upon thee, and men’s bones shall be burnt upon thee.
(32) For the saying which he cried by the word of the LORD against the altar in Bethel, and against all the houses of the high places which are in the cities of Samaria, shall surely come to pass.

King Asa [Jeroboam’s grandson] was a good king of Israel, but also failed to remove the high places. He is one of a few kings of both Israel and Judah who were described as being good kings except for the fact that they failed to remove the high places. This shows God’s grace and mercy upon those who were not exactly living up to His expectations, but who were nevertheless pleasing Him in some ways. Others were terrible kings who openly worshiped pagan gods on the high places.

1 Kings 15:14 (KJV)
But the high places were not removed: nevertheless Asa’s heart was perfect with the LORD all his days.

1 Kings 22:43 (KJV)
And he [Jehosaphat, Asa’s son] walked in all the ways of Asa his father; he turned not aside from it, doing that which was right in the eyes of the LORD: nevertheless the high places were not taken away; for the people offered and burnt incense yet in the high places.

After Jehosaphat there were a string of kings that also failed to remove the high places. How easy it is to see the power of example. What each king did not do made it easier for those who followed to ignore also.

2 Kings 12:3 (KJV)
But the high places were not taken away: the people still sacrificed and burnt incense in the high places.

2 Kings 14:4 (KJV)
Howbeit the high places were not taken away: as yet the people did sacrifice and burnt incense on the high places.

2 Kings 15:4 (KJV)
Save that the high places were not removed: the people sacrificed and burnt incense still on the high places.

2 Kings 15:35 (KJV)
Howbeit the high places were not removed: the people sacrificed and burned incense still in the high places.

2 Kings 16:4 (KJV)
And he [king Ahaz of Judah] sacrificed and burnt incense in the high places, and on the hills, and under every green tree.

2 Kings 17:11 (KJV)
And there they burnt incense in all the high places, as did the heathen whom the LORD carried away before them; and wrought wicked things to provoke the LORD to anger:

Samaria was a place made particularly notorious for mixing of all kinds of pagan worship with the worship of Yahweh.

2 Kings 17:29 (KJV)
Howbeit every nation made gods of their own, and put them in the houses of the high places which the Samaritans had made, every nation in their cities wherein they dwelt.

Remember in John 4:20 when the Samaritan woman at the well asked Jesus about where to worship? He told her not to worship on a mountain but “in spirit and in truth.”

The Samaritans had been among those who continued the practice of worshiping in the high places.

One of the only kings who really got the job done for God was Hezekiah.

2 Kings 18:4 (KJV)
[Hezekiah] removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan.

But Josiah was the king who did the best job of pulling down the high places. He was the one who had been prophesied about many years before, as we read before in 1 Kings 13:32. 2 Kings 23 goes into great detail about all that Josiah did to get to the root of the idolatrous practices and destroy every last vestige of them.

2 Kings 23:4-5, 8, and 19-20
(4) And the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest, and the priests of the second order, and the keepers of the door, to bring forth out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels that were made for Baal, and for the grove, and for all the host of heaven: and he burned them without Jerusalem in the fields of Kidron, and carried the ashes of them unto Bethel.
(5) And he put down the idolatrous priests, whom the kings of Judah had ordained to burn incense in the high places in the cities of Judah, and in the places round about Jerusalem; them also that burned incense unto Baal, to the sun, and to the moon, and to the planets, and to all the host of heaven.
(8) And he brought all the priests out of the cities of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had burned incense, from Geba to Beersheba, and brake down the high places of the gates that were in the entering in of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on a man’s left hand at the gate of the city.
(19) And all the houses also of the high places that were in the cities of Samaria, which the kings of Israel had made to provoke the LORD to anger, Josiah took away, and did to them according to all the acts that he had done in Bethel.
(20) And he slew all the priests of the high places that were there upon the altars, and burned men’s bones upon them, and returned to Jerusalem.

Josiah, then, was the agent of God who fulfilled the Word of the Lord spoken back in 1 Kings 13:2. Josiah is clearly a type of Christ, the king who would love God enough to do the hard work of removing all the idols and places of idolatrous worship from the land, no matter how popular or conventional they had become.

It is easy to imagine how a young Jesus reading about Josiah would have internalized the lesson of this good king’s life—that sometimes you have to dig deep and be willing to buck the system in order to bring needed changes. Perhaps this fueled his passion when he overturned the tables in the Temple, incurring the wrath of the authorities that eventually contributed to his crucifixion.

An interesting verse in 2 Chronicles shows how subtle and persistent idolatrous worship and practices had become in Israel.

2 Chronicles 33:17 (KJV)
Nevertheless the people did sacrifice still in the high places, yet unto the LORD their God only.

They probably thought that they were really making an improvement by worshiping only Yahweh at the high places, but they had completely compromised His Word! Instead of removing the high places according to the Word of the Lord, they used the altars to worship the Lord contrary to His Word. In doing so, they were only “rearranging the furniture on the Titanic,” as it were. They maintained the forms of pagan worship as the platform for worshiping the true God, contrary to what God wanted them to do. If one is going to worship God, shouldn’t he or she do so in a way that blesses God? He wanted them to pull down the high places and not think that they were getting closer to Him by standing on hilltops! Getting closer to Him was and is a matter of the heart, and of obedience, not physical elevation or any other fleshly condition.

We believe and pray that we can be a ministry that pulls down the “high places” where biblical truth has been supplanted by pagan philosophies. This requires fortitude and an uncompromising attitude that will not be popular. But “mainstream” Christian doctrines that are the result of compromise with pagan philosophy will have to be removed for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be relevant, powerful, and as influential as it ought to be.

The Protestant Reformation did many godly things to restore truths that had been lost for generations, but the reformers did not get the job done. They failed to get to the root of the problem of mixing pagan ideas with Judeo-Christian truth in the early centuries after Christ.

On the practical side, which is how we began this article, there are also “high places” in our personal lives that must come down if we are to please God. If we want His wholehearted approval now and at the Bema, we must continually be transforming ungodly beliefs and behaviors that contradict God’s Word. We must determine to climb up to the high places and destroy them. And whatever is lifted up against the knowledge of the true God we must identify and replace, no matter how comfortable we are with it or how long it has been around.

We are called to be faithful to our God and to our Lord. We are being called to go all the way and remove all the high places, those “proud obstacles” to intimacy with God and Jesus Christ. No half-hearted effort will suffice, just as it didn’t suffice for Israel and Judah. We need to manifest the heart of Josiah, or better yet, the heart of Jesus Christ, as we go forth on this quest.

Like it or not, we are locked in a battle with the enemies of God and Christ, and they seek to pervert and water down the Good News of Jesus Christ in a multitude of ways. There can be no compromise with such spiritual terrorists. As it is written in Ephesians 6, we wrestle against wickedness “in high places.”

Ephesians 6:12 (KJV)
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

It is interesting that this phrase “high places” occurs here in this context of the spiritual battle. Perhaps this helps us understand why God wanted the “high places” removed, because they represented the influence and activity of demonic forces dedicated to the destruction of Israel and thus the Christ line. This is why God told His people to destroy them, because He knew their idolatry would weaken and destroy them otherwise. Israel’s persistent compromise with idolatry led to their captivity by a string of foreign powers and the total loss of their kingdom and sovereignty as a nation. “Jacob’s trouble,” the time of tribulation still to come for Israel and chronicled in the book of Revelation, is another consequence of their disobedience and failure to honor God as the only true God (see Jer. 30:7 and Dan. 9:27).

Let us resolve to be individuals, and an assembly of believers, who seek above all else to be faithful to God and His Word, both the Living Word, Jesus Christ, and the Written Word, the Bible. Let’s stand for what is true, and share it with others in true love. We are blessed to be a part of this high and holy calling with you, and we appreciate your support and your stand with us.

We may be an outnumbered group, like Gideon’s 300, but we are a threat to the Enemy—maybe more than we will know until we “know as we are known.” Let’s keep stickin’ it to him by submitting to God and pleasing Him first and foremost at whatever cost to our comfort and convenience.


[1] It is interesting that the word “idol” never occurs in the Gospels, even though Jesus often addressed the idea of putting God first. No doubt he had in mind Israel’s history of idolatry when he taught them to love nothing more than God. See Luke 10:27.
[2] Proteus was a sea god in Greek mythology who could change his form at will to avoid detection.
[3] It was common for the pagan peoples to associate their gods with the physical features of the land, and the true God was discouraging that idea in favor of a more spiritual relationship mediated by His direct involvement by miracles and by the prophets. Illustrating this idea is 1 Kings 20:28, which records God’s judgment against the Arameans.

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