Chaos reigned in the royal residence at Jerusalem. Amon’s brief and godless occupancy of the throne had been brought to an untimely end by his servants, fearful, maybe, of a return to the cruel and idolatrous days of Manasseh’s early reign. With anarchic haste, ‘the people of the land’ turned on the assassins and slew them. Could it be that they had hoped for a revival of the immoral practices which accompanied idolatry, and saw in Amon a willing promoter of such behaviour? Whatever the reasons, they then took the eight-year-old Josiah and placed him on the throne, thinking, no doubt, that they could manipulate a boy king to achieve their ends; to their mind he was ‘the people’s choice’ – or was he?
Some 270 years or so before, as Jeroboam, king of the ten tribes, stood by his idolatrous altar at Bethel, an un-named ‘man of God’ suddenly appeared, and, addressing the altar rather than the king, he denounced, ‘O altar, altar, thus saith the Lord; Behold, a child shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and upon thee shall he offer the priests of the high places … and men’s bones shall be burnt upon thee’, 1 Kgs. 13. 2; the man of God then went his way. The prophecy, initially known only to those who heard it spoken, and to the old prophet who buried the man of God, was, however, retained in the memory of the men of Bethel, and handed down, 2 Kgs. 23. 17. The fact that it was recorded, and sealed in heaven, assured its fulfilment, but, perhaps, Jedidah, whose name means ‘beloved’, the mother of Josiah, was aware of the prophet’s words, and named her son Josiah, ‘given by the Lord’, in the hope that he would be the one to challenge the unbridled idolatry in the nation.
It is a significant indication of the morality of those days when we consider that Amon was only sixteen years of age when his son Josiah was born. The lad would have received no paternal guidance of any value, but would it be a speculation too far to suggest that he sat upon his grandfather Manasseh’s knee and, though young, was taught valuable truths born out of hard experience, and that his mother, who doubtless named him, was also an influence for good amid the corruption surrounding the child king?
The details of Josiah’s reign should be read and compared in both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. After the traumas which had engulfed the nation since the death of Hezekiah, the record of Josiah comes as a relief; a welcome sunrise after a dark and stormy night, a time of repairing, of restoration and attempted reformation. However, the commendable efforts of Josiah must be read in parallel with the writings of Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and, possibly, Habakkuk as well. All spoke of the forthcoming captivity, in view of the morally degraded state of the nation. Zephaniah, himself a descendent of Hezekiah, doubtless able to tread the royal courts, saw, at first hand, the low spiritual ebb to which the nation had fallen; he wrote, ‘Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city! She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted not in the Lord; she drew not near to her God. Her princes within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves; they gnaw not the bones till the morrow. Her prophets are light and treacherous persons: her priests have polluted the sanctuary; they have done violence to the law’, Zeph. 3. 1-4. What an indictment! And through such a quagmire, the young Josiah ‘walked in all the way of David his father’! 2 Kgs. 22. 2.
‘Spiritual progress’ should be the ambition of the Lord’s people in every age. It marked out the steps of godly men and women from patriarchal days, and throughout the biblical history of monarchy, captivity, and beyond. It was the desire of apostolic writers for the early church, and has been the aspiration of spiritual leaders and elders for their flocks to this present day. From his earliest years, Josiah made progress.
In coming to the throne he looked for a role model, one whose life would provide examples, and precedents which he could endeavour to reproduce. He found it, not in his immediate predecessors, nor yet in great-grandfather Hezekiah. Rather, his pattern was David, ‘the man after God’s own heart’. From this pathway, in those vital formative years, ‘he declined neither to the right hand, nor to the left’. The advice of Solomon to his son was to ‘walk in the way of good men, and keep the paths of the righteous’, Prov. 2. 20. The Hebrew believers were exhorted to ‘Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God … and imitate their faith’, Heb. 13. 7 ESV. Josiah did just that.
By the time Josiah was sixteen, ‘while he was yet young’, 2 Chr. 34. 3, progress was evident. Still continuing to appreciate the example of David, he now began to seek after ‘the God of David his father’. As he learned more of the character of the one true God, at twenty years of age he turned his attention to the offensive trappings of idolatry, which littered the city, and the land. There had been no king over the ten tribes of Israel for more than fifty years, since Assyria had carried them away, and re-peopled the land with a motley selection of immigrants, 2 Kgs. 17. 24-34. So, Josiah extended his reforms into the northern territory, as far as Naphtali which is in Galilee.
Six more years passed by and Josiah’s spiritual progress continued. Gathering around him a group of faithful supporters, he set his sights on repairing the temple; the God of David his father had now become his God, and this was Jehovah’s chosen dwelling place, 2 Chr. 34. 8. The Levites had been conscientious in gathering the atonement money during the years of reform, and this was now made available to the builders to commence the renovation of the temple. Since the days of Solomon, the temple had endured a somewhat chequered history. Instead of it being the focal point of Israel’s national life, the unity of the nation had been destroyed by Jeroboam, who placed idols in Bethel and Dan to prevent the ten tribes from worshipping at the Jerusalem temple, 1 Kgs. 12. 26-31. In the years that followed, the temple suffered neglect, and defilement in varying degrees, though some kings such as Asa and Jehoshaphat did seek to uphold the law and maintain the temple service. Joash, for whom the temple had been a place of refuge for the first six years of his life, repaired the building, after the ravages of Athaliah. Hezekiah, in his day, carried out a major restoration, after its abandonment by Ahaz who ‘cut in pieces the vessels of the house of God, and shut up the doors’, 2 Chr. 28. 24. Now Josiah, after the worst excesses of Manasseh’s reign, commenced a programme of work to reinstate the fabric of the building. ‘The men did the work faithfully’, 34. 12, and, in due course, a measure of order was established; the Levites regained some of their former dignity, and there were scribes, officers and porters. Something vital, however, was missing, and its discovery was about to revolutionize and revitalize the whole project!
As the work continued in the temple and the silver was carefully measured out to meet the cost, underneath it all, Hilkiah found a book. To his priestly eye, there was no mistaking its contents; this was ‘a book of the law of the Lord given by Moses’, 34. 14. How long it had lain there unopened, unread, and unheeded, Hilkiah had no idea. It may have been placed in the temple by Hezekiah at the commencement of his reign, over eighty years before, in accordance with the word of God through Moses. In Deuteronomy chapter 17, some 350 years before the monarchy was introduced in Israel, instruction was given to regulate the life and behaviour of kings. Among other directives, he was to write a copy of the law in a book. More than that, it was to be with him, he was to read it all the days of his life, in order that ‘he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them’, v. 19. Hilkiah knew that, whatever its provenance, it must not remain hidden.
His first thought was to share his discovery with Shaphan the scribe; he was one who would be expected to know something of the law and its importance. The response of different individuals on being brought face to face with the word of God is remarkably instructive. Hilkiah knew it was important, and he knew also that others should be aware of it. We can well imagine that it was with trembling hands, and bated breath, that he exclaimed, ‘I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord’. Its significance, however, was lost on Shaphan! Having taken the book from Hilkiah, 2 Kings chapter 22, verse 8 tells us, ‘he read it’, with no apparent effect!
It would seem that one of Shaphan’s duties was to hold a regular audience with the king to keep him abreast of progress. On this occasion, as usual, he informs Josiah of the finances, the overseers, and the workmen. Then, remarkably, almost, it would appear, as an afterthought, he said, ‘Hilkiah the priest hath given me a book’, which he proceeded to read to the king. The effect on Josiah was immediate and devastating, ‘when the king heard the words of the law, he rent his clothes’. Having called his advisors, his privy council, his first instruction was ‘Go ye, enquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book … for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us’, 2 Kgs. 22. 13.
What effect does the word of God have on our lives as we read it?