God gives His people instructions on how to relate to Him. Because He has created people, He knows best His design for how we know Him, how we should serve Him, and how we ought to worship Him. In 2 Kings 17 we find an account of the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel. It is evident there why the nation fell and what was wrong with the sacred pillars the Israelites built (2 Kings 17:10).
In roughly 721 BC, Israel was defeated and taken into exile by the kingdom of Assyria (2 Kings 17:6). The writer explains why this happened in 2 Kings 17:7–18. Israel had sinned against God and turned to other gods (2 Kings 17:7). The people began to follow the customs of other nations rather than those God had put in place for them (2 Kings 17:8). They also sinned secretly against God. It seems they were even trying to make it appear they were following God (2 Kings 17:9). The Israelites had abandoned what God designed for them. They built their own high places in all their cities on which to worship other gods (2 Kings 17:9). This means that they made the worship of false gods a central part of city life in all their towns. They also built sacred pillars and idols including Asherim, which were symbols of the worship of a female deity (2 Kings 17:10). The sacred pillars the Israelites built were part of Israel’s adopting other nations’ practices for worshiping their false gods. The people of Israel would burn incense at those locations to the gods of the various nations of Canaan (2 Kings 17:11).
Centuries earlier, God had delivered the people of Israel from those nations that lived in the land of Canaan and had given the land to Israel. God had instructed them not to worship the gods that those peoples had worshiped. Instead they were supposed to be holy—set apart. They were supposed to be different, showing the world who the one true God really was. Part of God’s clear instructions was a prohibition of setting up sacred pillars to false gods: “You must never set up a wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build for the Lord your God. And never set up sacred pillars for worship, for the Lord your God hates them” (Deuteronomy 16:21–22, NLT).
Instead of being faithful with the task of holiness, the people of Israel wanted to be like the other nations around them, so they stopped loving and worshiping God, and they failed to obey what He had instructed them to do. They chose to adopt the customs and worship systems of other peoples. They even built sacred pillars as were used in the worship of these false gods. Of course, there was nothing wrong with constructing pillars, but these sacred pillars located and supported places of worship of false gods. God had instructed the people to approach Him in a certain way and in a certain place—Jerusalem, specifically. It was in the temple in Jerusalem that God would interact with the people. Yet the people rejected God’s design and pursued other expressions of spirituality on their own terms.
The sacred pillars the Israelites built provide a cautionary tale for people today. As God is the sovereign Creator, He has determined and designed how we can know Him and how we should worship Him. It would be foolish of us to instead dictate to Him how we will worship (or not worship) Him. The nation of Israel had to learn that lesson the hard way, and, even in their failing, we see that God was patient with the people (2 Kings 17:13). He had an incredible level of mercy on them even though they continually rejected Him. Ultimately, they had to pay the price for their rebellion. We would be wise to learn from that example and remember that God is paying attention to the “sacred pillars” we construct in our own lives.