How vividly young josiah remembered that proud day, only two years before, when his father was crowned king of Judah. But his father when aged twenty-four was murdered by his servants in his own home, and so at the tender age of eight, Josiah knew that he must occupy the blood-stained throne.
It was now more than half a century since King Hezekiah passed to his reward. His son, Manasseh, Josiah’s grandfather, had deliberately ‘built again the things destroyed’, undoing the good of Hezekiah’s reforms. His evil reign of fifty-five years in fact spelt the doom of Judah, and that despite his humility upon a season of personal captivity at Babylon. God never repented of the well deserved retribution for Manasseh’s reign.
The two-year reign of his son Amon was increasingly evil, quite unrelieved by repentance. He was murdered an arrogant idolater. Public opinion, however, ran counter to the foul deed which cut him short, and the conspirators were put to death, 2 Chron. 33. 21-25.
From family talk, Josiah would have known these things in a boyish way, and, with some regard Godwards, determined to do better. At sixteen he was truly ‘converted’, and for the next four years the need for national reform, no doubt, smouldered in his heart, fanned now and then perhaps by the good company of the prophet Zephaniah. Then at twenty his pious zeal burst into flame.
A little more background will help us the better to see this period of reform in perspective. The long succession of wicked rulers of the northern kingdom of Israel had brought about its fall to Assyria a century before, which the prophet Jeremiah felt should itself have caused repentance on Judah’s part, Jer. 3. 6ff. As we have seen, the southern kingdom also had known its evil kings, but several, though weak nationally, were commendably righteous personally, and a few had been thorough-going reformers, notably Hezekiah, already mentioned, whose reign compares in certain respects with that of his great-grandson, Josiah.
Almost at their close, the books of Kings and Chronicles each devote two chapters to king Josiah, who lived in the second half of the seventh century before Christ. The recon-ciliation of the two accounts of his reign involves some problems, particularly regarding the order of events, caused partly at least through differing emphasis upon the various phases of his religious reform. The spiritual import of the main events in question, however, is clear enough, namely, the king’s utter abhorrence of all forms of idolatry, his solemn regard for the Word of God, and his readiness to reinstate the passover.
During the period of six years after he was twenty years old, Josiah carried out sweeping reforms against idolatry, destroy-ing altars, smashing images, slaying the priests who led this false worship, not only in Jerusalem and the southern province of Judah but even throughout the alien occupied territory of the north.
It is written of the young king that ‘he turned neither to the right hand, nor to the left’; that is, he did not deviate from the way of the Lord, but, so far as he knew it, followed it unflinchingly. He neither went beyond God’s Word, nor fell short of its requirements. He severely curtailed all religious licence, but duties that had been neglected he performed.
After his return to Jerusalem, Josiah sent Shaphan, the secretary, to ask Hilkiah, the high priest, to count the money collected for the repair of the temple. Shaphan returned with ‘the book of the law’ discovered by Hilkiah in the temple. So concerned was the king at the contents of the book, that he sent a deputation to make inquiry of the Lord. Huldah, a prophetess in die city, returned word that evil would indeed befall Judah for their apostasy; but, for his humility before God, the king himself would not witness his kingdom’s fate.
Rather, however, than allow himself to become depressed realizing that impending judgement was declared, he still served his own generation, with even greater zeal and devotion.
Before a great gathering of his subjects in the temple, Josiah vowed to keep God’s laws, which he now had in written form; he also gained the concurrence of his audience in his good intention.
The king now swept the land, both south and north, with a new wave of reforms, similar in character to the earlier ones, but apparently on a more intensive scale. (It has been cogently argued that here the book of 2 Kings provides in the main a more detailed account, though out of true order, of the earlier reforms recorded in Chronicles.) Josiah did not wait for offend-ing matters to come to his notice, but purposefully sought to rectify all that was wrong in the forms of worship throughout the land. Certainly a great deal of upheaval and disturbance was incurred; nevertheless, where the pleasure of the Lord was concerned, his loyalty was sure. He refused to pursue a policy such as ‘peace at any price’, as in the case of a former king of the same city; for him it must be first ‘king of righteousness’, then, ‘king of peace’. So God would have us, both in personal and church life, not just passively to wait until some stray item is exposed, but actively and critically to review every aspect of conduct, that our ways might conform to His revealed will. This is not to condone that restless intolerance engendered by personal whims; it is rather to deprecate that complacent attitude towards what is contrary to the Scriptures, as though any form of worship or service is as good as another and better than none.
So thorough was Josiah’s uprooting of idolatry that at Bethel he even suspected, as of some sinister significance, a monument, which, upon enquiry, he ascertained to be the tomb of the prophet who, centuries before, had foretold his reign, 1 Kings 13. 2. Likewise, to some new converts who had ‘turned to God from idols’, another wrote ‘Prove all things; hold fast that which is good’. And, in such days as these, we do well to remember that for Paul the decalogue completes a cycle as he brings the last commandment up to the first, affirming ‘covetousness is idolatry’, Col. 3. 5.
In the year of these widespread reforms, there was held, under the supervision of Josiah, the principal feast of the passover and the feast of unleavened bread. Both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, which provide a full description of the feast, stress that the commemoration was ‘as it is written in the book of the covenant’, ‘according to the word of the Lord by the hand of Moses’, ‘as it is written in the book of the Lord’, and ‘according to the ordinance’. Both records assure us in similar words that ‘there was 110 passover like to that kept in Israel from the days of Samuel the prophet’.
The light of the narrative, which is swept across Josiah’s early years and focussed almost solely upon the eighteenth year of his reign, is allowed to fall just for a moment upon the manner of his death. In a conflict between the kings of Egypt and Assyria, the former decided to use a corridor through the land of Israel and, in a foolhardy attempt to intercept him, Josiah was mortally wounded. ‘And all Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. And Jeremiah lamented for Josiah; and all the singing men and the singing women spake of Josiah in their lamentations’, 2 Chron. 35. 24, 25. Zechariah appears to refer to this proverbial lament when he likens to it the day when ‘they shall look on me whom they have pierced’, Josiah’s Son and Lord, Zech. 12. 10.
In attempting to assess the spiritual worth of Josiah’s reforms, we cannot overlook the complaint of Jeremiah: ‘Judah hath not turned unto me with her whole heart, but feignedly, saith the Lord’, Jer. 3. 10. Had Judah turned to the Lord wholeheartedly, there is little doubt that the accumulated debt of national guilt would have been cancelled, 18. 7f. In spite of that, administratively, it is difficult to see how Josiah could have done more than he did to bring the people back to God.
A moment’s thought will show that eradication of idolatry does not of itself ensure restoration of heart. If, for instance, every idol which keeps us from personal and collective prayer were destroyed, that alone would not create a greater desire to pray. At best, it would merely clear the way.
What then is the overall lesson urged upon us from the times of Josiah? It is simply this. God’s people today are conscious of the need for revival. God has not denied us men of administrative ability, like Josiah, who rule with godly zeal. He has not denied us men of insight, like Zephaniah and Jeremiah, who declare His Word with challenging power. But if we are to enjoy true revival, not to say avert God’s disfavour, we must all, unlike Judah, turn to the Lord with our whole heart.