In ancient Judah, during the times of the kings, the people wavered back and forth from obeying God and sinning greatly. The nation's behavior was largely dependent upon the disposition of the King. If the King loved and served God, the Law was enforced, and the people's hearts were toward God, if the king disregarded God and His Law, the people did so as well. If, after the reign of an evil king, a righteous king began to reign, the righteous king would cleanse the land of sin and purge evil from the midst of the people. Cleansing of the land meant destroying and removing all vestiges of paganism, idolatry and immorality. Altars to foreign gods were torn down, idols were cast out and burned, priests dedicated to foreign gods were often put to death and shrine prostitutes were driven out of the land. As the land was cleansed from outward symbols and devices of sin, spiritual revival manifested in the hearts of the people. A nation, created to glorify God, would once again fulfill it's role on the earth.
God gave Israel, upon it's inception, very specific instructions about how, when, and where to worship. Among the rules given to Israel, God commanded that the people sacrifice to Him only and only at the Tabernacle, which would be located at a place He designated(later the Temple in Jerusalem). During times of national apostasy, Israel would participate in the worship of foreign gods, practice immoral behavior, sacrifice their children and build altars to God in high places all over the land. When God split the nation of Israel into two kingdoms, Judah, the southern kingdom, went through periods of apostasy and revival, depending on who ruled as king at the time. Sadly, the northern kingdom, Samaria, never experienced national revival.
Studying through the book of II Kings, you will see each king of Judah described as to whether of not they followed after God. The Kings that followed after God cleansed the land, and the degree of their commitment to God determined how far their reforms went. The one reform that often went unmade was the removal of the high places of worship. The Hebrew people constantly struggled with the idolatry and the pagan practices of the people and nations around them. The Hebrews also had a penchant for erecting altars to YHWH on high hills in order to offer sacrifices closer to home, rather than travel to Jerusalem to sacrifice. God specifically forbade this practice, and even though it was done in worship to Him, it was not worship that God prescribed or wanted. A king that was truly committed to God would remove the high places and order the people to sacrifice and worship at the Temple.
As believers, we come to the Lord with many sins and practices that are displeasing to Him. Some are outward, blatant, and open, while others are inward, secret and hidden. Our outward sins can be compared to the open idolatry and immoral worship practiced by apostate Judah. In our process of sanctification, we, through the work of the Holy Spirit, begin to purge our lives of behaviors and practices that displease and dishonor God. Though we may not have idols, altars or shrine prostitutes in our lives, the process of sanctification can be considered the same as Judah's removal of idols, the cessation of immoral or self destructive behavior, and the tearing down of altars to foreign gods. We, hopefully, get to a point where we look pretty good on the outside and do not exhibit any blatantly immoral behavior, but what about our hearts, our attitudes, our secret indulgences that we do not let anyone else know about. These secret, hidden and inward sins can be compared to the High Places of worship that should have been removed by a reformed minded king.
As believers, we are sometimes quick to point out the hypocritical outward sin of others, while harboring inner sins, and feeling superior to those who are still struggling(or not struggling, but indulging)outwardly. This may very well be more hypocritical and displeasing to God. God said, "I Am that I Am" and that is a description that would serve the believer well. If I unrepentantly harbor hidden sin, am I truly being honest with my brothers and sisters, to whom I am presenting myself as sin-free? Does being critical of others not lead to self righteousness? Self righteousness is one of the worst traps in which a believer can be ensnared, especially since it is a trap of ones own design.
"I don't drink, smoke cuss or chew, nor do I go with girls who do," may be a nifty little catch phrase, but it sounds more like a prideful pronouncement of self righteousness, when one considers what message is really being conveyed. This phrase is reminiscent of the Pharisee that Jesus spoke of in the Temple who was thanking God that he was not like the tax collector who was also in the Temple praying. The tax collector recognized his sin and was repentant, while the Pharisee was guilty of, at the very least, the sin of pride. The Pharisee's prayer reflected his acknowledgment that outwardly he had mastery over sin and looked pretty good to others, but neglected to acknowledge his inner and secret sin. Self righteousness led to self delusion. The tax collector came to God as he was and acknowledged, "I am that I am, a sinner, please forgive me." Jesus said the tax collector, an outward sinner seeking forgiveness was accepted by God while the "good" Pharisee was rejected because of his self righteousness. Jesus, on another occasion, accused the Pharisees of being "white washed tombs" looking good on the outside, but inwardly full of death.
The Pharisee in the Temple suffered from the same self delusion many in the church suffer from today, the "At Least I'm Not Like That Guy" Syndrome. We forget that Jesus is the standard so we compare ourselves to others and ignore the sin that is eating us up from within and, ultimately, hindering our relationship with God. The Psalmist said, "search me oh YHWH, see if there is any hidden way in me that displeases you." David opened himself up to the ultimate inspection, knowing that he may not be pleased by what was about to be revealed. Am I willing to open myself up to such an inspection? Are you? We must be willing to do this in order to avoid the trap of self righteousness. When an ancient king in Jerusalem made reforms, he was commended by God for removing the high places, the final and most difficult of reforms.
I always feel a sense of disappointment when I read, "however, he did not remove the high places," when reading the histories in the book of 2 Kings. This should not evoke disappointment towards these kings, but towards myself for not dealing with sin that I harbor. I acknowledge that I will never be perfect, I will continue to commit sins, inward and outward, as long as I live. I cannot be satisfied with this, however, my goal should be a life that pleases God. My motivation for demolishing my heart's high places should be the reality that Christ has provided for me that which I could never achieve for myself, righteousness in the eyes of God.
For a believer, dealing with sin should be done as a matter of devotion, not out of fear of discipline or retribution, nor should it be a matter of how we look to others. The believer's relationship with God is a personal matter that should be between each individual and God. Failure to obey should create a sense of remorse that leads to repentance, not fear of being caught or found out by others. Destroying high places of the heart should be out of love and devotion toward our savior who loves us.
I challenge you to examine your heart and allow God to reveal to you the high places that you have been harboring. What few people realize is that dealing with sin is liberating, not restrictive. When a person overcomes sin, there is freedom from bondage and a sense of relief that leads to peace with God and ultimately, joy. King Hezekiah and King Josiah tore down the high places in Judah, following their example, believers in Christ must tear down the high places that represent hidden sin in order to fully enjoy fellowship with our creator and redeemer.