Recently someone asked me, “I’m intrigued by a phrase that’s repeated word for word in 2 Kings four times in 12:3, 14:4, 15:4, and 15:35 related to Uzziah and his father, grandfather, and son: ‘The high places, however, were not removed.’ What is this referring to?”
The “high places” is a shorthand term for places of pagan worship, usually (though not always) on hills or mountains to bring them closer to their false gods. They were centers of idolatry. The greatest time of compromise for God’s people in the Old Testament, the Israelites, was when in addition to worshiping Yahweh, the only true God, they worshipped false gods too.
To answer the question more fully I’m going to quote from three excellent sources. Bible Study Magazine has a great article by Adam Couturier about the high places. Here are four paragraphs from it:
A high place was a localized or regional worship center dedicated to a god. Worship at these local shrines often included making sacrifices, burning incense and holding feasts or festivals (1 Kgs 3:2–3; 12:32). Some of these high places contained altars, graven images and shrines (1 Kgs 13:1–5; 14:23; 2 Kgs 17:29; 18:4; 23:13–14). The Canaanites, Israel’s enemy who worshiped Baal as their chief deity, also used them.
Until a temple to Yahweh was built, the Israelites primarily worshiped Yahweh at a local center of worship—a practice that was not condemned. The prophet Samuel blessed sacrifices that were offered at high places, and Solomon sacrificed 1,000 burnt offerings on the altars in Gibeon (1 Sam 9:12–25; 1 Kgs 3:4). In 1 Kings 3:2, we find these high places were intended to serve Israel’s worshiping needs for a season “because no house had yet been built for the name of the Lord.”
…The temple, built in Jerusalem by Solomon, ushered in a new period of Israelite worship, bringing the 12 tribes together as one people to worship God in one place. Yahweh took up residency in His temple and the need for other centers of worship became obsolete (1 Kgs 9:3). But despite this new temple, God’s people were still found worshiping at high places.
Ironically, we find one of the first references to high places in the narrative of Solomon, the very king who built the temple. He taints the new era of collective worship by building high places for Chemosh, Molech and all of his wives’ foreign gods (1 Kgs 11:8).
In her book The Son of David: Seeing Jesus in the Historical Books, Nancy Guthrie—one of my favorite writers—also cites 1 Kings 11:5-8, which says Solomon “went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. …Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites…” Nancy then gives us a picture of the horrible practices involved with worship at these high places:
Perhaps this doesn’t shock us because we don’t really understand what it meant for [Solomon] to “go after” these gods. We don’t have any mental pictures. Ashtoreth was the Canaanite goddess of sensual love and fertility. To go after this god meant that Solomon likely went to the high places to have sexual relations out in the open with temple prostitutes. Milcom, the god of the Ammonites, was worshipped through child sacrifice, so we have to assume that perhaps Solomon lowered himself to throwing one of his children into the fire to appease this false god out of desperation to please some Ammonite wife.
Adam Couturier explains this about the kings after Solomon:
Recognizing that high places are not the way Yahweh desired to be worshiped, some kings, like Hezekiah and Josiah, tear them down (2 Kgs 23:8–9). Others, though they are called righteous, never tear them down, like Jehoshaphat (1 Kgs 22:43), Jehoash (2 Kgs 12:3), Azariah (1 Kgs 15:3–4) and Jothan (2 Kgs 15:34–35). Sometimes this was due to ignorance, as was the case with Josiah (23:3–25:27), but in most cases it was flagrant disobedience.
Related specifically to Uzziah and his son Jotham, The New American Commentary, which I recommend, says this:
Like Amaziah and Joash before him, Uzziah does “right in the eyes of the Lord.” He does not remove the high places, however, so he is not an ideal ruler.
…Jotham’s spiritual commitments are similar to those of Uzziah, Amaziah, and Joash. During his sixteen years, ten of which probably are spent as coregent with Uzziah (ca. 750–740), the leprous king (cf. 2 Kgs 15:5), he worships the Lord yet does not use his position of authority to remove the high places. Once more a king does not understand the nature of true worship. Nothing less can save Judah and guarantee the people a reasonably secure future.
So what does this have to do with us today? Deuteronomy 12:1-7 explicitly commands God’s people not just to avoid idolatry but also to demolish, break down, smash, burn, hew down, and blot out the names of those idols. For us, the word idol conjures up images of primitive people offering sacrifices to crude carved images. But an idol is anything we praise, celebrate, fixate on, and look to for help that’s not the true God.
Jesus says we cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24). We’re told that greed is idolatry (Colossians 3:5), like lust is adultery. The New Testament recognizes a figurative sort of high places, where Christ’s people worship false gods instead of the one true God. Like Israel’s kings, we have the responsibility to topple all the idols in our own lives in order to give Jesus full Lordship. The fact that they didn’t use their power and authority to remove the high places and worship God alone should be a sobering reminder to us.
When the apostle John wrote to Christ-followers near the end of the first century, most had nothing to do with carved idols. Still, his final words to them in the letter of 1 John were, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21). The New Living Translation captures the meaning this way: “Keep away from anything that might take God’s place in your hearts.”
May God give us His grace to recognize the idols in our lives, and, by turning to Christ alone and exalting Him, throw them to the ground where they belong.