“High places” are routinely vilified and destroyed in the books of Old Testament Scripture which cover the monarchy period. In those books, high places are associated with the worship of pagan gods and are violations of Israel’s unique, covenant relationship with the Lord.
This being the case, when one reads 1 Samuel 9:12 (and 1 Samuel 10:5), one may have reason for a momentary pause. In 1 Samuel 9:12, Samuel, the prophet/judge of Israel, is clearly participating in worship of the Lord at a high place at the district of Zuph. In 1 Samuel 10:5, men in a procession of prophets (often called a School of the Prophets) have just left a high place.
The topic was raised in Bible study last Sunday, and here is the essence of the answer I provided with a bit of extra background. Given that others may have the same question, I’ve posted the information here at my website for anyone else seeking an answer on the issue.
Several things need to be considered in these verses before we truly understand how and why Samuel and the School of the Prophets were participating in activity at a high place.
High places, as the name suggests, were numerous locations that were geographically elevated. Israel is a very geographically diverse region – it contains plains, hills, valleys, and mountains. Many Israelite cities contained an area that was designated as a “high place.” Often, the high place was located just outside the city or district, as seen in the examples provided here from 1 Samuel 9 and 10. For the most part, high places were open-air worship centers without walls or ceilings, although some did have shrines or other buildings built on the site.
At the time of the events in 1 Samuel, the Temple was still a generation away (one may even say two generations away) from being constructed. Also, the nation’s future capital where the Temple would be built, Jerusalem, was years from being established since Israel’s national center would not be selected until after David was made king.
The future importance of recognizing Jerusalem as the religious capital of Israel would become linked to recognizing the authority of the king’s government. The early government, after all, only existed through the blessing and recognition of the Lord. After the monarchy was established in David, Jerusalem made the capital, and the Ark of the Covenant brought to the city, (and later when the Temple was completed there) little doubt remained that the city of Jerusalem was an important part of Israel’s national identity.
The Old Testament prophets understood that pagan worship on high places was, in essence, treason against the Lord and treason against the king, since government and people were both blessed by the special covenant relationship they had with the Lord. As such, good kings often outlawed high places and destroyed them as threats against the nation. Evil kings turned a blind eye to the high places, or worse, participated in pagan worship rites themselves.
As a result of later generations of false worship on elevated sites, the very term “high place” eventually became associated with idolatry and pagan rites. During the time of the Divided Kingdom (after King David and King Solomon), kings of Israel and Judah were often judged in part by whether or not they had purged their lands of the high places (see 2 Kings 12:1-3 and 14:1-4 for just two examples). Archaeology has uncovered small idols at such sites, and it is clear that worship of fertility gods and other agricultural-based worship rites were held at some elevated places.
However, at the time of these stories in 1 Samuel the monarchy had not yet been established. There was no capital city yet, and the temple was not even in its planning stages. While there was probably indeed false worship at some high places at the time of these stories (and before), that does not mean there was false worship at all high places.
In these stories, Samuel and the prophets are at high places which pose no political threat since there is no monarchy, and we see that the worship performed there was not false worship. Samuel’s presence makes it is obvious that it was indeed the Lord who was worshiped. While Samuel was just a man and as capable of error as the next person, his zeal for the Lord is clear throughout the Scriptural record. The prophet was never corrected for actions of worship at any time, including his actions at the high place outside the district of Zuph.
Therefore, in these two passages we can conclude that Samuel and the prophets did nothing that displeased God in worshiping at this particular high place. The sacrifices, worship and prayer offered at this time, at this high place location, were indeed honoring the Lord and pleasing in His sight.
High places in the Old Testament would later deserve an overall negative connotation because of the false worship that was practiced at the overwhelming majority of them, but there is nothing about the activity in 1 Samuel 9 and 10 to give us pause.
As the later story of the anointing of David makes very clear, “the Lord looks to the heart,” and there is nothing in the heart of Samuel in these passages that should cause us to cast doubt on the judge/prophet of Israel.