The wise man in the book of Proverbs refers no fewer than fourteen times to ‘the fear of the Lord’. Among other benefits, it is ‘the beginning of wisdom’, 9. 10; it ‘prolongeth days’, 10. 27, and is ‘a fountain of life’, 14. 27. It was this same ‘fear of the Lord’ which had such a devastating effect upon the young Josiah on hearing the word of God read for the first time. His counsellors must have been astonished when, summoned to Josiah’s presence, they found the king in tears, with rent garments, holding the ancient scroll with trembling hands. His instructions were simple and precise, ‘Go ye, enquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book’, 2 Kgs. 22. 13. And so it was to Huldah, the prophetess, the servants of Josiah came with their concerns.
Huldah dwelt in Jerusalem. She was of the faithful remnant that lived close enough to the Lord for His word to be revealed to her; the servants sent by the king knew where to find one who could tell them the mind of God. Her husband’s family were also marked by fidelity. He was ‘keeper of the wardrobe’, those priestly garments which spoke of Christ, sadly neglected by the nation, yet faithfully preserved by a family during the ravages of Manasseh’s reign, awaiting Josiah’s reforms and the restoration of temple worship.
What then was Huldah’s message to Josiah? Quite simply, it was this: the nation was doomed, and the king would die! The dire warnings recorded long before, and in anticipation of, the nation’s idolatry would be soon brought to fruition. The righteous character of God could no longer bear with the excesses of sin; judgement was unavoidable. For Josiah, however, Huldah had a personal message. Because his ‘heart was tender’, because of his humility and tears in response to the discovery of God’s word, the judgement would not fall until after his death. We are reminded of the Lord’s words through the prophet Isaiah, ‘to this man will I look, even to him that is … of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word’, Isa. 66. 2.
Many years later, the apostle Paul would write, ‘by the law is the knowledge of sin’, Rom. 3. 20. In the spirit of that statement, the king gathered together the elders, the priests, the prophets and the people, and he ‘read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the Lord’, 2 Kgs. 23. 2. Taking the lead, Josiah then ‘stood by a pillar as the manner was’, 11. 14, and bound himself to a covenant before the Lord. The response must have been an encouragement to the young king as ‘all the people stood to the covenant’.
It is characteristic of the historical records of the nation’s kingdom years, that the second book of Kings records in some detail the moral, social, and religious reforms of Josiah, 23. 4-20, whereas only three verses are devoted to the Passover, vv. 21-23. By way of contrast, in the Chronicles record, which emphasizes the spiritual condition of the monarchy and the nation, the Passover is described precisely, 2 Chr. 35. 1-19, while the reformation throughout the land is dealt with in one verse, 34. 33.
Any recollection of Hezekiah’s reign would be a dim and distant memory in the minds of only the very aged of Josiah’s day. The intervening years of idolatrous excess during the reigns of Manasseh and Amon had scarred and damaged both the land and the people; no one under seventy years of age would remember better days. Such a consideration brings into focus the formidable task undertaken by Josiah as he commenced his programme of reforms.
It is always important when reading the narrative books of scripture to make constant reference to the writings of men raised up to prophesy during each period of history. What they provide is heaven’s perspective on the behaviour of kings and nations. In Josiah’s day, Jeremiah and Zephaniah both denounced without compromise the underlying malaise which continued to contaminate the people, in spite of the king’s best efforts to encourage obedience to the revealed word of God.
The apostle Peter writes of judgement beginning at, or from, the house of God, 1 Pet. 4. 17, and that is where Josiah began. Summoning the priests and the doorkeepers, he ordered the removal of all the paraphernalia associated with Baal worship and burned it at the brook Kidron. This valley, running between the city of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives had long been used as a refuse tip. The name means ‘black’ or ‘darkness’, appropriately so, since, over many years, first Asa, then Hezekiah and now Josiah destroyed and disposed of idols, images, and groves in its waters in their attempts to reform the nation; dark associations indeed!
Josiah then turned his attention to the idolatrous priests, those who burned incense ‘to the sun, and to the moon, and to the planets (only mention in scripture), and to all the host of heaven’, 2 Kgs. 23. 5. Close by the temple were the houses of the sodomites, and the weaving looms where women made curtains to adorn the grove, and to ornament the immoral rituals associated with idolatry. Josiah destroyed them all.
The next stage of Josiah’s reforms took him out of Jerusalem and into the surrounding countryside from where he removed all the priests who had officiated at the many high places, from Geba in the north, to Beersheba in the south. These priests were not ‘put down’ as those who served the idols in Jerusalem; maybe they served out of ignorance or coercion. Josiah brought them to Jerusalem and made provision for them. However, they were not permitted to engage in the temple service in view of their association with idolatry. Cleanliness has always been a prerequisite to service. Isaiah wrote in anticipation of those who would return from exile, ‘Be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord’, Isa. 52. 11. Better to be a ‘vessel of clay’ and clean, than a ‘vessel of gold’ and defiled, 2 Tim. 2. 20-21.
Josiah’s work continued. Not only did he destroy and defile the abominations left from the days of Manasseh and Amon, but also rendered unusable the remnants of idolatry built by Solomon for his wives almost four hundred years earlier! These had been constructed on one of the high ridges of the Olivet range which became known as ‘the Mount of Corruption’, for obvious reasons. Moving on to Bethel, once revered as the house of God, yet for many years a centre of idol worship at the altar raised by Jeroboam, Josiah broke down, stamped on, and burned the offending tokens of evil. The ultimate act which finally desecrated the altar beyond even pagan use was the cremation on it of ‘dead men’s bones’ in fulfilment of the words spoken some three hundred and fifty years before by ‘the man of God out of Judah’, 1 Kgs. 13. 1-3. So, having zealously applied fire and sword throughout the cities of Samaria, Josiah returned to Jerusalem.
The narrative of Josiah’s reign is then taken up in 2 Chronicles chapter 35, where the keeping of the Passover is recorded in detail. The Passover, from its inception in Egypt, was intended to be a focal point on Israel’s calendar. It would seem, however, that over the years of their national history it had become for many of the people little more than an arbitrary ritual and there were, no doubt, periods when it was forgotten by some, especially after the division of the tribes. There are, nevertheless, seven significant Passovers recorded in scripture. The first was in Egypt on the night of Israel’s exodus. A further occasion was in the wilderness, noted in Numbers chapter 9. On entering the land, the Passover was again kept at Gilgal, as recorded in Joshua chapter 5. Then, although reference is retrospectively made to the feast in the days of Samuel, David and Solomon, no detail is recorded until Hezekiah’s reign, 2 Chr. 30. 15ff. The fifth occasion of note was that kept by Josiah after the barren years of his immediate forefathers, and such was the order, the magnitude, and the celebration of it that no likeness had been seen for almost five hundred years, 2 Chr. 35. 18. Then, ‘the children of Israel, which were come again out of captivity’ in Ezra’s day, kept the Passover, and ‘the feast of unleavened bread’, Ezra 6. 19-22. The seventh and final Passover, toward which all others pointed, is recorded in the Gospels, as the Lord Jesus, on that night in which He was betrayed, would say to His disciples, ‘With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer’, Luke 22. 15.
Josiah ensured that the ark, long neglected, was restored to its rightful place; the priests and Levites stood in their due order. The singers and doorkeepers were in their places and all was prepared by the fourteenth day of the first month. Josiah generously provided 30,000 lambs and kids, together with 3000 bullocks from his own flocks and herds. This inspired others to make provision as well, and the last national acknowledgement of their Redeemer God was observed before the dark clouds began to descend on the kingdom years of the chosen people.
For we read, ‘after all this’, when all seemed set fair for a progressive revival in the land, with Josiah still only a young man of thirty-nine years, events took a dramatic turn; Egypt’s Pharaoh Necho embarked on a military adventure. His objective was Assyria; he had no quarrel with Josiah, but had to move his army through Israel’s territory to reach his intended adversary; Josiah chose to oppose him. Pharaoh did his best to discourage him, claiming divine guidance, which may well have been true! He also had no desire to risk losing men and time before facing Assyria. Josiah would not desist, but disguised himself, never a wise option in scripture, and paid the price for his folly at the hands of Necho’s archers.
It seems a sad end for one who ‘did that which was right in the sight of the Lord’; however, God’s purposes were moving on, and no army or nation would obstruct their completion. Jeremiah, and all the singing men and women, mourned for Josiah, as well they might; the monarchy had only twenty-two years, six months, and ten days to run before the throne of Israel was finally vacated, awaiting yet the coming of One, ‘whose right it is’, Ezek. 21. 27.