In the midst of prophesy and Messianic passages, Isaiah 36 bursts in with historical narrative. King Sennacherib of Assyria is threatening Judah. This is serious. We learn from II Kings 18, which parallels Isaiah 36, that before Sennacherib threatens Judah, he completely besieges Israel and "takes it." So, the fear is real. If you've never read either the II Kings 18 or the Isaiah 36 passage, it's worth doing for the narrative alone.
Basically, Sennacherib sends his emissaries, one of which is his field commander, the Rabshakeh in Aramaic (Note: I love this name. It's fun to say out loud: the Rabshakeh!). He would have been infamous to Judah, and he suddenly appears on their doorstep. In full hearing of the ordinary people standing guard on the city wall, he taunts Judah, tells them to not rely on Egypt (good advice, actually, from what we've been reading through Isaiah), and says that no god has protected its people from the Assyrians. YHWH, the Hebrew god, will certainly not protect them. They may as well give up. The nervous officials from Judah tell the Rabshakeh to talk more privately with them in the lingua franca of those times, Aramaic, rather than the Hebrew that the ordinary people could hear. The Rabshakeh booms out, "Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the people sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and drink their own urine?" Yuck.
In the midst of all of this, the Rabshekah says something very interesting. Like Satan in the Garden of Eden, he seeks to sow distrust among the people of Judah and says that they can't rely on their god not only because no god has protected its people from Assyria but also because King Hezekiah of Judah removed the high places and altars and made the people worship solely at the temple in Jerusalem. He's trying to sow distrust between the people and Hezekiah and hints that their god won't listen to them because they can't worship him at the hilltop shrines that mirror the worship practices of every other nation at that time.
These are the infamous "high places," and the Bible lauds Hezekiah for finally tearing them down. Hezekiah is following God's laws, and this is even before they re-find the book of the law that has been lost for generations (which occurs under King Josiah). Hezekiah is going off of oral teachings that he has closely listened to. It's one of his incoming acts as king, and on top of that, he destroys Nehushtan, the bronze serpent from the days of Moses, that the people had started worshipping somewhere along the line.
Modern readers of Scripture know that everything Hezekiah has done regarding this is a good thing. In fact, God Himself applauds his efforts, and II Kings 18:5-6 says, following the section describing the destruction of the high places and Nehushtan, "He trusted in the Lord the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following him but kept the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses." Pretty high praise.
And yet, destroying the high places that had existed since the time of Solomon and the snake that had existed since Moses must have created a huge controversy and emotional upheaval in Judah. One that traveled across nations and got to the ears of foreign officials. The people of Judah must have been mad. And confused. They had worshiped YHWH and other gods for so long. They had incorporated pagan practices into their worship since pretty much the onset of their nation, and in some ways even before. Some people worshiped Ashtoreth and Baal up in the high places. Some people worshipped Baal and YHWH at the high places. And some people worshiped YHWH at the high places and the temple. It was syncretism; a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Bottom line, they were religiously devout. They were attending church! They were attending many church services! They were worshipping the God of Judah. And they were worshipping as their fathers, and grandfathers, and great-grandmothers, and great-great grandmothers had worshipped before them. As in, including the civic and pagan rituals that were similar to what the nations around them had done.
They were seduced by the high places.
Scott Morgan, writing an online article for Decision Magazine, says that the Bible mentions these high places a whopping 117 times. He adds, "these places became idols that subtly seduced God’s people year after year—they couldn’t stay away!" In applying what happened to Judah to today, Morgan writes,
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).
It's worth considering whether we fall into this trap, and it's very easy to think that one is worshipping the Lord when in fact other things have entered in.
I tried to consider what, on a national level, might be an equivalent of Judah's high places. It's very hard to critique a culture when one is inside of it, which is why Isaiah's work is so impressive and obviously God-inspired. One area I wonder about, particularly since it's been a bit of a topic this past year, is Christian nationalism. Many have noted that there is a difference between patriotism and nationalism, but we may be unclear on when one devolves into the other. Many are arguing that mainstream American Christianity has tended to lean toward the "God and country" model as of late. There is a long history of this coming out of the Reformation and while we may have various points of view on whether or not patriotism and the church should be bedfellows, the wider concern is when country actually becomes an object of worship.
As a possible application for what an American "high place" looks like, we can consider, as this article does, "when patriotism becomes idolatry" (https://christiansforsocialaction.org/resource/patriotism-becomes-idolatry/). The author writes:
The challenge for Christians is to simultaneously honor the virtues of sacrifice, service and freedom without idolizing the sin of nationalism, to celebrate bravery without romanticizing violence, and to realize that our salvation comes from the Prince of Peace and not the wars of men.
He goes on to say,
We may think it’s no big deal that our country’s flag stands alongside a pastor onstage, but try to imagine the apostle Paul and the earliest churches pledging their allegiance to Caesar and the conquering legions who were slaughtering anybody who stood in their way. As citizens of the United States, we’re trying to follow Christ within a similar context as the earliest Christians—living within a powerful empire, and susceptible to state-sponsored religion, where it’s socially, politically, and economically advantageous to adhere to certain political beliefs and leaders—even to the point of becoming a pseudo-theocracy.
Unfortunately, Christians have been historically gullible to nationalistic “Christianity,” and often treat our faith as a civic religion where we can establish a voting bloc and create enough influence to legislate laws, gain wealth, and consolidate power rather than sacrificially serve and love others.
Ouch! That sounds like a "high place"---God and something else holding our highest place of allegiance and devotion. Christians from other traditions may largely be unaware that there have always been Protestant groups who have refused to pledge allegiance to the flag, kneel during the national anthem, or join the military due to their Christian commitment. Eastern Mennonite University has a well-crafted statement on the Mennonite position regarding the flag and how this impacts their students: https://emu.edu/about/flag-anthem. The opening statement reads, "A question occasionally asked of personnel at EMU is, “Why does the university not display the U.S. flag on campus or play the national anthem at athletic events?” This statement offers an explanation for this practice. This practice at EMU does not spring, as some claim, from ignorance but is rooted in deeply-held historical beliefs that God is ruler of all nations, not just ours, and that our allegiance to God as such transcends all nationalities, even our own." It goes on to say, "Because of this, we abstain from such symbolic acts as displaying the flag or singing a patriotic hymn that was made official as America’s national anthem as late as 1931. While the singing of Francis Scott Key’s chosen poetry as set to music has become a part of the popular culture, it is not mandated by law. We acknowledge that not all Christians agree with our practice. We do believe that diversity of opinion and practice are valuable within the larger Christian church."
I bring this up because many may have the impression that being a political conservative and revering the flag are requirements for American Christians. And yet, Anabaptists have long exemplified how one can live a "peaceful and quiet [life]" (I Timothy 2:2) in the United States while staying out of the political fray. It is largely a very different perspective than what many Christians may be familiar with, let alone what the larger world thinks is part of routine Christian practice. I'll conclude with this interesting Brethren in Christ article that muses on what it means to disengage from the culture wars: https://bic-history.org/evangelicals-on-the-uneasy-tension-between-god-and-country/
We likely all have our high places, and I offer this one possibility of what may be, for some, a potential high place. As Spurgeon (had to end with a Spurgeon reference!) says in his sermon on Isaiah 36 (it's actually the sermon title), "In Whom Art Thou Trusting?" That is the ultimate question, and a great one to ask as we ferret out the high places in our lives.