The two books of Kings get less attention than they deserve in contemporary Christian thought. They tell the story of the long rise and fall of the nation of Israel, from the death of the faithful King David to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.
The writer of Kings isn’t interested in history for history’s sake, though; the writer is preserving the mistakes made by the nation in hopes that future generations will avoid them.
If you’ve read through the books, you probably noticed that each king whose reign is recorded gets a “value judgment” by the author as either good, good with reservations or wicked. Of all of the kings described, only two receive a “good” mark. Six receive “good with reservations,” and the rest are judged as wicked.
One criterion prevails as the most important, separating the “good” from the “good with reservations:” whether or not they “tore down the high places.”
High places then
What were the “high places” that were so important to the writer of Kings?
The high places were the sites of false worship: they were places where idols were worshiped or where God was worshipped in a twisted way. They were sites where idolatry took place, and the righteousness of the kings of Israel and Judah were all judged according to whether they removed these stations for false worship or not.
Kings is not interested in the leaders’ political or military success — only in their faithfulness in tearing down the high places. Only two kings did this (Hezekiah and Josiah), and by the end of the book, God has punished the people for their unrighteousness with exile and loss of the Promised Land.
High places now
Idol-making is no ancient problem. Twenty-five hundred years later, we still build high places for false and irreverent worship.
One of the most prominent examples in American history is the “Religion of the Lost Cause,” a spinoff of Christianity not as open as it once was but still in full force today. Following the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, a new sort of hybrid religion venerating the old Confederacy and incorporating Christian practices emerged in the south.
It revered the old heroes of the Confederate army as forces for good fighting against the evil forces of the Union and saw the defeat of the South as analogous to the suffering and death of Christ. This suffering, southern practitioners of this civil religion believed, would one day be righted. Just as Jesus was resurrected from the dead, “the South will rise again.”
Of course, this hybrid worship of south and Christ was less than friendly to freed blacks, unwelcomed reminders of national defeat. The famous “Jim Crow” laws were enacted to make life miserable for blacks living in the South.
Following the passage of the “Jim Crow” laws, practitioners of Lost-Cause religion erected statues of Confederate leaders to intimidate and remind blacks that they were not welcomed in that area. The Confederate monuments that dot so many southern towns today were not constructed in the aftermath of the Civil War but during segregation and the Civil Rights movement, with the explicit purpose of intimidating blacks. They were erected as “explicit symbols of white supremacy.”
Think about it. Statues are not for recording history but for admiration and admonition. We have many ways of recording and remembering history: books, museums, battlefields and so on. We aren’t in danger of forgetting that a war happened. In postwar Germany, concentration camps remain as a reminder of the evil humanity is capable of committing. Statues of Hitler have been taken down.
There’s a difference between preserving history and venerating it.
The town where I went to college has a Confederate monument on its courthouse square that is currently being debated. I recently saw pictures of a group of white men holding machine guns and signs in front of the monument protesting calls for its removal. If those men walked two blocks over, they would find a county history museum with a fantastic collection regarding both the Civil War and the Jim Crow era in which this statue was built. Removing the statue isn’t erasing history; no one is calling for the museum to remove its exhibits.
God doesn’t like idol-worship. Neither does he like oppression or the intimidation of others. I can only imagine how my black brothers and sisters in Christ must have felt seeing men armed with machine guns standing in front of a statue erected to celebrate a culture in which their ancestors were beaten and lynched. These statues are literal idols.
If we take history seriously, perhaps we should remember the books of Kings. God doesn’t like high places, and no one who allows them to stand is righteous.
Jake Raabe is a student at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is also a co-founder of Patristica Press, a Waco-based publishing house.