In 1–2 Kings, the presence of “high places” serves as a type of litmus test for Israel’s morality. When the kings build these worship sites, the people forsake Yahweh for foreign gods. When they remove them, God is pleased and promises His presence (2 Kgs 18:3–4; 22:2; 23:4–27). What were these high places? And why were they so detrimental to Yahweh worship but yet surprisingly acceptable at times?

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.

The term “high places” was translated from the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), not from the Hebrew. The term conjures up images of remote hilltops, but in the biblical context, it wasn’t limited to mountaintops; Jeremiah 7:31 locates a high place in a valley and 2 Kings 23:18 at a city gate.

High Places Weren’t for Lowly Worshipers

When the Israelites first entered the promised land, they were told to destroy the high places, idols, and molten images of the Canaanite inhabitants (Num 33:52). They were also instructed not to worship at high places that were Canaanite sites (Deut 12:2–3). They were told Yahweh wanted to be worshiped in another way: “You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way. But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there” (Deut 12:4–5).

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.”

Temple Worship

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). The tipping point toward tragedy comes with the opening words of 1 Kings 11:1: “Now King Solomon loved many foreign women.” The compromise he made would lead the nation astray: “His wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was David his father” (1 Kgs 11:4).