“But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the Lord his God and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.”
2 Chronicles 26:16 ESV
Oh, those pesky high places! In today’s reading, we saw Judah blessed with two good kings in a row: Azariah/Uzziah, who reigned a whopping fifty-two years, and Jotham his son, who reigned for sixteen years after that (see 2 Kings 15:2, 33). Father and son both received the commendation that they “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” But with both of them, that commendation came with a caveat:
Nevertheless, the high places were not taken away. The people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places (verse 4, also verse 35)
What was it about the high places that made them so hard to take away? Well, if John Calvin was right when he said, “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols,” then it is just human nature that we look for an image, something tangible, something we can see or touch to which we give our worship and attention. And God steadfastly refuses to be imaged. The only image of the invisible God we will ever have is Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:15), and even then, we know better (usually) than to offer our worship to a statue, painting, or portrayal of Jesus.
Why does God refuse to be carved, painted, sculpted, or imaged in any way? Because inevitably, we will make God look like ourselves. We will think we are worshiping God, when in reality we are worshiping an idealized version of ourselves. Or, we leave God out of it entirely and go straight to exalting ourselves.
This is what happened to good King Uzziah. After decades of leadership, military innovation, victories against enemies, and building and agricultural projects (see 2 Chronicles 26:1-15), he grew proud. He trusted in his own success. He thought the rules no longer applied to him. He entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense (something only the priests could do), and the Lord struck him with leprosy.
Beloved, this is the hardest high place. If it were only images of Baal or Asherah that needed to be pulled down, the people could have done it (the people DID do it a couple generations later, as we will see when we study Hezekiah). But when you put yourself in the high place, its a whole different ball game.
On a recent episode of the podcast “The Glass House,” with LifeWay President Ben Mandrell and his wife Lynlee, author Paul David Tripp made this astonishing observation:
I have become more and more deeply convinced that success in ministry is way more dangerous than failure. Success has the power to begin to change the way I think about me. To think that I’m something. To think that maybe I’m a “grace graduate.” To separate myself from the protection other people need. To begin to feel that I’m invincible and entitled. To cause me to take credit for what I could have never done or produced on my own.
This was Uzziah’s story. Uzziah set himself up in a high place, and verse 16 says it was to his own destruction. The human heart is indeed the hardest high place to tear down.