“And Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He took away the foreign altars and the high places and broke down the pillars and cut down the Asherim and commanded Judah to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, and to keep the law and the commandment.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Here at the beginning of the description of the reign of King Asa of Judah, as is the usual custom, we get a kind of summary statement. In the following verses and chapters we get more details as to what exactly this looks like. I’d like to walk through those with you if you’ll let me.
When the nation of Israel split into two parallel, but rival kingdoms (Israel to the north and Judah to the south), the northern kingdom mostly just ran off the rails. They were the breakaway nation and so felt like they needed to establish their own identity that was different from their brothers to the south. For Judah, though, they mostly stayed on the straight and narrow…mostly. At least, most of the kings tried.
Their efforts are generally captured in two phrases: They removed the high places, and they encouraged the people to keep the law. These may seem simple, but there’s a lot of wisdom here. These are two really powerful things to do in terms of helping us stay on track with God. But, what are they?
Much ancient worship was centered around “high places.” The general belief was that the gods were up and the higher we could put ourselves physically, the likelier it was that we could get their attention. Various temples and altars were built on the tops of hills. Often these were put in conjunction with places where people normally did other things like winnow grain so that offerings could be made in the normal course of daily life to secure the gods’ blessings.
For Israel, the presence of these high places was a constant source of temptation away from the worship of Yahweh. There was a reason all worship was basically restricted to the temple. God knew that unsupervised worship would naturally devolve in to idolatry. He was right. It did.
For the various kings of Judah, removing the high places was about eliminating external threats to faithfulness. If the people had fewer options in terms of where and how they worshiped, they were more likely to worship the way everybody else who was in the same place was. If this was happening in a place where there were good and faithful priests who could instruct them in what was good and right and true, they were more likely to get a relationship with God right. The most faithful kings, then, were always the ones who removed the high places.
Doing that, though, wasn’t enough on it’s own. Simply taking away external threats to righteousness isn’t enough. We have to actively replace them with encouragements to do what is right instead. By openly encouraging the people to keep the law (in large part by conspicuously keeping it themselves), the most faithful kings, like Asa, did just that.
What all of this offers is a pretty good summary pattern for us to emulate in our own lives. If we want to stay on the right track with God, it’s going to take two basic things: eliminating external threats to unfaithfulness, and actively seeking to know and do the word of God.
Where there are things and situations and people in our lives which actively tempt us into sin, we need to remove these from ourselves and ourselves from these. Jesus made this point rather dramatically when He said it’s better to cut off a hand that causes us to sin than to let it destroy us. Whatever we need to do in order to create space between these temptations to sin and our lives is going to be worth it.
Now, sometimes, in some situations, this will have to be only mental space for a time rather than physical space, but where we can work toward that physical space, we will be all the better. Indeed, it was when the high places were actively removed that Israel most trended toward faithfulness as a nation.
In addition to this, though, we have replace what’s wrong with what’s right. We need to actively study the Scriptures that we might learn the words of God in order that we might put them more fully into practice in our lives. A fair amount of research backs this up. Followers of Jesus who spend the most time in the Scriptures tend to be the ones who are the most committed to their faith and its practice.
Eliminate the bad and make intentional space for the good. If we do just those two things, the summary of our lives will one day be as glowing as was Asa’s.