Worshiping the Lord on the High Places

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Berry Kercheville

One of the more notable parts of the book of Kings is the evaluations of the kings of Judah. The king either “did what was right” or “did what was evil.” With two exceptions there is an additional comment for those who did what was right: “But the high places were not removed; the people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places.” This is said of Solomon, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Amaziah, Uzziah, Jotham, and Manasseh after he repented.

How will God judge a king and his people who did what was “right” but worshiped God on the high places? According to Deuteronomy 12, this was a major violation of God’s worship laws. Will they be condemned on the Day of Judgment?

I hope you feel the challenge of that question. Do we immediately conclude they will be lost since the pattern of worship God commanded was violated? Or, do we conclude God will overlook these sins? If we conclude the latter, should we make a big deal about being careful in how we worship God? Can’t we just do “most” of what God says and count on God saying, “He did what right except…”?

Let’s add another component. If we insist that kings like Asa will be lost for disobedience, how will we evaluate this comment about Amaziah: “And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, yet not with a whole heart.” (2 Chron. 25.2). Will Amaziah be saved? What if we do what is “right,” but not with our whole heart? Can we still be saved? What about Christians who insist on careful obedience, but are so focused on the details that they fail to love the world like God loves? In other words, like the Pharisees, what if we are rigid in patterns of worship but neglect faith, justice, and mercy (Matt. 23:23)? As the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal, will we justify ourselves, pointing our finger at the sinners of the world, but fail to have the compassion to save them? Or, can we place all our emphasis on faith, justice, and mercy and neglect to be careful to obey?

What Is Missing in This Conversation?

We are asking the wrong questions. Our question of how God will judge transgressions of revealed law misses the mark in three ways.

First, asking the question suggests that we are trying to find out how lenient God will be with disobedience. We must be careful that our motivation isn’t to discover how far we can push God before he says, “Enough.” That is not an attitude God tolerates. This question leads us to justify transgressing God’s laws.

Second, these questions cause us to begin drawing our own lines instead of observing God’s lines. And when we draw our own lines, those lines become moveable. If we justify one transgression, why not another? And then, how many transgressions will we justify? Where does it end and when are we simply being rebellious?

Third, since God does not specifically reveal what he will do when our “high places are not torn down,” it isn’t any of our business to ask how many commands we can disobey and still be saved. The “secret things belong to God” (Deut. 29:29). What is our business is plainly stated by Paul in 2 Cor. 5:9-10, “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please God. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” Therefore, the appropriate question is, “What is pleasing to God?”

God’s Warnings about Worship

Deuteronomy 12-13 prepared Israel for worship once they entered the Promised Land. God’s instructions give us important insights into how God thinks about the way we approach him. Undergirding the instructions of chapter 12 are the words, “be careful” or “take care” [same Hebrew word] used six times, and 35 times in Deuteronomy. Israel was far from careful, but in Ezekiel 36:27, God foretold that the Messiah’s disciples would be careful to obey. We are called upon to approach God with the same care that he had instructed Israel.

In 12:2-4, God specifically described the way the Canaanites worshiped their gods. But, God said, “You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way” (vs. 4). In verse 8, God  even warned Israel not to worship in the land in the same way they worshiped in the wilderness. There was a bit more “liberty” in the wilderness since they were constantly on the move. But once they entered Canaan, no one could continue “do what was right in his own eyes.” Moses gave the reason for this change in verse 10: “God will give you rest from all your enemies so that you will live in safety…” These words remind us of Eden where God designed the Garden as the original “rest.” There is a correspondence between the Eden rest and Canaan. Israel was allowed back into God’s home where they could enjoy communion with him. As in the Garden, since they were in his home, they had to abide by his rules if they wanted to stay in his home.

We need to understand that God’s attitude about living in his presence and in his temple has not changed. The “veil” is now torn apart and we enter boldly into the Most Holy Place (Heb. 10:19-20). We dare not disregard God’s rules of serving in his presence.

In 12:29-31, the Lord commanded Israel to not even inquire of how the nations worshiped their gods. God proclaimed that he “hated” all the ways they worshiped. There is something in this warning that we need to understand – there are often things that are enticing in the way man creates worship. Man’s worship appeals to the senses and ignores the fact that worship is about dwelling in the presence of God, learning to know God, and be pleasing to God. Though God’s worship is enjoyable and uplifting for those who desire God, it can be dull for those who want an emotional high. In verse 32, God added to his admonition to be careful by saying, “You shall not add to it or take from it.”

In Deuteronomy 13, Moses warned of a prophet, a close friend, or a family member who would “entice secretly.” Even if the prophet performed a sign or wonder, they were to disregard his words since God was testing them and had already told them how they were to worship. Moses concluded with these shocking words: “You shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him” (13:8-9).

What Was the Question?

To what extent will God judge those who violate his commandments? Will those who worshiped on the high places be saved? Will those today who worship the Lord, but have added to his commands, be saved?

That question is simply not the issue. The issue is, we need to be careful in his presence. We need to be careful to obey. We need to be careful to do what we know he has revealed. For example someone says, “I don’t think Acts 20:7 is a binding example requiring the first day of the week for Lord’s Supper observance.” Well, maybe. But when we partake on the first day of the week, we know we are doing what is revealed and therefore what is pleasing to God. If you partake on Monday – Saturday, you do not know! You are stepping into the Twilight Zone. Do not step into the area where you do not know. Would you have thought Nadab and Abihu would have been killed for offering a different kind of fire (Lev. 10:1-3)? Why would you want to test the Lord?

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29).