The fires on the hillsides of Israel and Judah flickered with clockwork regularity, fires that illuminated for the people in the villages below where their allegiance and hope had found its home. In Jerusalem, the holy city, the feet of the worshippers carried them away from the temple and up hilltops covered with poles of wood and trees decorated and adorned in honor of the goddess Asherah. The worship of Yahweh God in the temple was to be marked by reverential holiness and an acknowledgement of sin. Asherah demanded carnal reverie and sexual offerings in order to gain favor. Yahweh dwelt with his chosen people in spirit. He had delivered his people through feats of strength and provision. He had proven his faithfulness and love over and over again, and in return he had asked to be the sole recipient of Israel’s faithfulness and love. However, the rules of the law had not suited Israel's true desire, so they fashioned new gods out of wood and gold and gave themselves to them in unbridled sexual passion. On the high places won for them by Yahweh God, Israel sank into the depths. Wood driven in the ground on the hillside would become the symbol of Israel’s impending slavery.
The Old Testament is littered with references to the goddess Asherah and her place in the history of Israel’s worship. As time progressed she would not be limited to just the high places, but would find a place in the temple of Yahweh God himself. Israel never rejected Yahweh in a wholesale fashion, they always leaned on and maintained pride in their place as the chosen people of God. They longed for and demanded the blessing of God because of his promises to them through the covenants made to their forefathers. In order to maintain a semblance of who they were called to be, Asherah would become the “wife” of Yahweh and would be given a place of honor in the temple in Jerusalem. In the halls constructed for the worship of the God of heaven, the people of Israel brought in the Queen of their debauchery and presented her to Yahweh as a bride. Speaking of coming judgement, the prophet Jeremiah facetiously references the people’s feasts for “the queen of heaven” and the peoples love and honor given to her above God himself. As God had proclaimed himself Israel’s father, the broken hearts of the people would give birth to a destitute, false, and wicked mother. There were brief periods of time where good kings like Josiah would remove Asherah from the temple and destroy the high places, but as quickly as she was removed, kings like Manasseh would welcome her back into the holy places with open arms. Modern archeological discoveries in the land of Canaan have found figurines fashioned in her likeness residing in every aspect of Israel’s life. Women would hold her as they birthed children and pray for safe deliveries, Men would seek her blessing as they gave themselves to prostitutes in her honor, and families would pray for her fertility to bless them as they grew crops to sustain their family. Israel would soon learn the truth of Isaiah’s warning...God will not share his glory with another.
Asherah was not the only dead god that Israel would swear allegiance to. She was joined by gods like Baal and Molech, each demanding their own sacraments of carnal expression in order to gain their favor and blessing. All would eventually be welcomed into the temple of God, turning what was once a shining display of God’s presence in the midst of his people into a den of death and sexual debauchery. In a horrific display of how far the hearts of the people had fallen into the darkness, Israel’s kings would cut the throats and sacrifice their infant sons in fires of worship to the god Molech. In the depths of their rebellion Israel was blind to the fact that God was still crying out to be their God while shouting his warnings through the prophets of the brutal judgement that was on the horizon. In their darkness, Israel was confident that they were secure as the people of God even as their actions told a story of a people who had no idea who he was.
Israel’s sin has never left the heart of mankind. They wanted God on their terms. Their worship was crafted in a way that fulfilled the desires they had for themselves, never the desires God had for them. The worship that God had laid out, through Moses and the law, sought to change a lost and wayward people into the image of a supreme and holy God. The worship Israel made for themselves sought to change a supreme and holy God into something small and common birthed out of their own desire. It seems impossible that temple prostitutes would be brought into God’s holy places so that the people could live in sexual “freedom” as they simultaneously worshipped the God who had declared his hatred for it. Rather than God, the people’s hearts decided what worship would become, and whenever that is the equation communion with God will be replaced with his judgement.
Israel would be conquered by her enemies as God would burn the temple to the ground with fire, consuming the gods that had found their home there. Asherah, Baal, and Molech would melt in the hot heat of God’s demand for holiness. Israel’s pride and self dependence would meet the same fate. The people would eventually return in oppression to their homeland. A new temple, smaller and less grand, would eventually be built. God would be silent for 400 years. No prophet would speak. No king would lead. Asherah and her lifeless compatriots would fade into the darkness as Israel’s hope began to do the same. But… God always fulfills his promises, and he never abandons his people.
As wood driven in the ground on the high places outside of Jerusalem had marked the rebellion of his chosen people, God, in his goodness, would take the symbol of their brokenness and use it for their redemption. Just like the Asherah poles of Israel’s past, years later, another pole would find its place on the hillside outside of Jerusalem. The feet of the worshippers would once again make their way up the hillside and away from the temple. Where the hearts of his chosen people had once given themselves to other gods around poles of wood, Jesus would hang on a cross to make atonement for their sins. As the eyes of Jesus scanned the faces of his accusers, as his heart remembered the sins of Israel’s past, as his ears heard the sounds of cursing and rejection, as his flesh felt the searing pain of being joined to the symbol of Israel’s death, his voice would cry out and echo over the hills of Jerusalem…”Father forgive them.” Wood driven in the ground would no longer be the symbol of Israel’s slavery it would become the sign of her deliverance.
There is a striking question to ask of our own hearts in the modern church. As we have created massive spectacles of worship all over the world, drawing thousands of people to the sounds of our songs, are we worshipping out of a desire to be made into the image of the resurrected Jesus or are we worshipping in a way that is demanding that he be made into ours? Are our lives marked by a desire for holiness and surrender, or are do we feed every carnal desire throughout the week and then declare ourselves the people of God in the darkened rooms of our worship gatherings. We are now children of grace born out of the love of God. However, grace is our freedom to be made into the image of Christ never our excuse to stay the same. The apostle Paul writing to the church in Rome poses the question in chapter six, “shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” The answer he gives is a resounding NO! He continues by asking, “how can we who have died to sin continue to live in it?” In chapter twelve of the same book he equates worship with physical sacrifice…
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.
Worship is transformation. Worship is sacrifice. Worship is the presentation of a broken people to a perfect God in order to become something different than what they were. Worship is never marked simply by passionate declarations of allegiance, it is marked by the gritty day to day act of change, sacrifice, and dying. Jesus says as much in Luke chapter nine where he says, “If anyone wants to come after me they must die daily, take up their cross and follow me.” Israel wanted God’s promises absent from his holiness. We must not fall into the same way of thinking in our worship. Are we allowing our worship of God to change us into his image, or are we setting the terms for our worship and demanding that God change into ours?
The Old Testament is saturated with story and metaphor that still lives in every dead cavern present in the heart of man. Where the means of grace have changed and found their being in Jesus, the broken places of our hearts have remained unmoved. God’s heart beat and grieved for his children in the Old Testament just as it does now. God longed for a redeemed people who would become his chosen family and would reflect his goodness. The stories of Israel prove that this could never happen through nationalistic dreams and the leadership of fallen kings. We needed a true king who could lead us to the heart of the Father. After God’s wrath was poured out on Israel for their unrighteousness and rebellion, his love would compel him to pour out the entirety his wrath on his only son, as he hung on a pole, outside the city on the high places. God’s people would be born again in Jesus himself. May we become those who worship in spirit and in truth through the grace given through Jesus our true king.