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King Josiah of Judah (2 Kg 22:1 - 23:30, 2 Chr 34:1 - 35:27) and his Reforms

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Background and early life

Josiah was the sixteenth king of Judah (640 - 609 BC), ruling for thirty-one years. He was son of Amon, an evil king who was assassinated, ending a two year reign. He was grandson of Manasseh, the worst king of Judah, who burned his sons in the fire to Molech and put idols in the temple (2 Chr 33:6).

Out of this dreadful background, came Josiah, a good king, upright and outstanding. “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to the law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kg 23:25).

The summary statements of his reign say that he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left (2 Kg 22:1, 2 Chr 34:2).

It was amazing that Josiah was even alive, considering that his father's and grandfather's practice of burning children and even more amazing that he turned out to be a good king.

He was eight years old when he began to reign (2 Chr 34:1). There must have been some godly input into his life, possibly from Hilkiah the High Priest, Shaphan the scribe and secretary (later protector of Jeremiah), Ahikam (who also protected Jeremiah) and Achbor (whose son would not allow Jeremiah's scroll to be burned).

In the eighth year of his reign, when he was still a boy aged 16, he began to seek the God of David his father. He had a heart after God as a boy (2 Chr 34:3).

In the twelfth year of his reign, now aged twenty, he began to purge Jerusalem and Judah of the high places, the Asherim, and of the graven and molten images. As a young man, he set out to change the course of his nation. This was before he read the book of the law.

In the eighteenth year of his reign, when twenty-six years old, six years after beginning the purge and ten years after he began to seek God, he read the newly discovered book of the law and kept the Passover (2 Chr 34:8, 2 Kg 22:3,23).

Discovery of the book of the law (2 Chr 34:14,30)

The book is described in the following ways: The book of the law of the lord given through Moses (2 Chr 34:14). The book of the covenant found in house of the Lord (2 Chr 34:30). The book of the law in the house of the Lord (2 Kg 22:8). All the words of the book (2 Kg 22:16). All the curses written in the book read before king (2 Chr 34:24) We cannot be absolutely certain about the identity of this book. Many scholars conclude that it was a copy of the Book of Deuteronomy, as it matches these descriptions. It contained curses, and was given through Moses. It was known as the Book of the covenant, a covenant renewal document, and contains directions for the Passover (Deut 16).

How was was the book of the law lost?

There were times when the law was lost and disregarded (2 Chr 15:3, 17:9). The book of the law was probably lost during Manasseh’s reign, under all the idols he erected in the temple. It was found by Hilkiah, the High Priest, when purging, cleaning out and repairing the temple. Shaphan, the secretary, read it to Josiah (2 Kg 22:8).

The reading of the book of the law

We have to imagine the impact of the law being read to a king who had never read it? The king was commanded to write out a copy of the law and read from it all the days of his life (Deut 17:8).

Josiah's response to the law was to rend his clothes (2 Chr 34:19, 2 Kg 22:11), his heart was penitent, he humbled himself and wept before the Lord (2 Chr 34:27, 2 Kg 22:19). It broke his heart. He believed it and took the law seriously. He was distraught because his forefathers had been disobedient to the law. He saw that the wrath of God was going to fall on the nation (2 Chr 34:21, 2 Kg 22:13).

He sent an envoy to Huldah the prophetess to inquire of the Lord, who confirms Josiah's concern. God's response was the following: Evil and all the curses will come on this place and its inhabitants because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods. They have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands (2 Chr 34:24, 2 Kg 22:16). Therefore my wrath will be poured out (2 Kg 22:17). Wrath on this place will not be quenched (2 Chr 34:25), and they shall become a desolation and a curse (2 Kg 22:19).

However, Josiah will escape the coming wrath (2 Chr 34:26). The only way to escape the wrath of God is to be like Josiah and have a heart like his. Wrath is coming on Judah, but Josiah will be spared it because of his changed heart. The wrath was not averted, but held back until Josiah died (2 Chr 34:28, 2 Kg 22:20).

The peoples' response to the reading of the law: (2 Chr 34:29-33, 2 Kg 23:1-3)

Josiah had been so affected by the reading of the law that he wanted the people to hear it too. In obedience to Deut 31:10-13, commanding the public reading of the law before all Israel. Instead of the priest reading it, Josiah himself read the law to his people (2 Kg 23:2, 2 Chr 34:30). The peoples' reaction is not recorded.

Josiah's covenant (2 Kg 23:3)

The king made a covenant before the Lord (2 Kg 23:3), promising to walk after the Lord, to keep all his commandments, testimonies and statutes with all his heart and soul, and to perform all the words of this covenant that were written in the book. The people joined in the covenant (2 Kg 23:3). King Josiah made all who were present in Jerusalem and Benjamin stand to it. Was it voluntary or forced on the peoples' part? . “The inhabitants of Jerusalem did according to the covenant of God, the God of their fathers.” (Jer 3:10).

Josiah took away all the abominations from all the territory that belonged to the people of Israel and made all who were in Israel serve the Lord their God (2 Chr 34:33). This was forced, rather than voluntary. For all his days they did not turn away from following the Lord, the God of their fathers. This was short lived obedience, which only lasted while Josiah was alive.

We can see Josiah's heart. He initiates the renewal of the covenant and pledges to obey it. But what was the peoples response? In reality, they only went along with what the king said.

Josiah had just heard Huldah's prophecy of God's wrath against Judah. His response was not to fatalistically sit back and wait for it, but he leads his people in a covenant renewal ceremony. He leads them in righteous living, even though the wrath is coming due to Manasseh's abominations. Josiah was not like Hezekiah, who didn't care about those who came after him, as long as it didn't affect him (2 Kg 20:19).

Josiah's purging of idolatry in Judah, Samaria and Bethel

Josiah cleansed the land of idolatry by a combination of killing the idol worshippers and removing the idols, mostly by removing the idols and idolatrous places of worship. Josiah was trying to avert judgement and fulfilling his vow to keep the covenant.

In his twelfth year of his reign he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem (2 Chr 34:3). Reforms and purging continued after the public reading of the covenant (2 Kg 23:4-20), lasting from his twelfth to his eighteenth year.

He performed a thorough radical cleansing of idolatry which had built up over the previous four hundred years. He brought all the vessels made for Baal, Asherah and for the host of heaven out of the temple. He carried the ashes to Bethel, where idolatry started with Jeroboam's two calves (2 Kg 23:4).

He deposed the idolatrous priests, who burned incense at high places to Baal, the sun and moon and constellations and the host of heaven (2 Kg 23:5).

He brought Asherah out from the house of the Lord to outside Jerusalem and burned them in the Kidron valley, beaten into dust and scattered on graves of common people (2 Kg 23:6).

He broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes which were in the house of the Lord, and where women wove hangings for Asherah (2 Kg 23:7).

He brought all the priests out of the cities of Judah and defiled the high places where the priests burned incense from Geba to Beersheba.

He got rid of the high places (2 Kg 23:8). He broke down the high places of the gates that were at the entrance of the Gate of Joshua (governor of the city) (2 Kg 23:8b). He defiled the Topheth in valley of sons of Hinnon that no one might burn his son or daughter to Molech. He made this place the place the burning garbage dump of Jerusalem (2 Kg 23:10).

He removed the horses of the kings of Judah which were dedicated to the sun (2 Kg 23:11) and burned the chariots of the sun with fire (2 Kg 23:11b).

He broke down and cast the dust of the altars on the roof of Ahaz and the altars of Manasseh into the Kidron brook (2 Kg 23:12). He defiled the high places east of Jerusalem, the mount of corruption which Solomon made for Ashtoreth, Chemosh and Milcom. He broke down Asherim, pillars and filled their places with the bones of men (2 Kg 23:13).

He broke down the altars of Baal, hewed down incense altars, broke Asherim, graven and molten images into pieces, made dust of them and strewed it over the graves of those who sacrificed to them (2 Kg 23:6, 2 Chr 34:4). He burned priest's bones on their altars (2 Chr 34:5).

In Israel (Samaria) and in cities of Manasseh, Ephraim, Simeon and as far as Naphtali, be broke down altars, beat Asherim, hewed down incense altars, before returning to Jerusalem (2 Chr 34:6). Josiah was not content with merely cleansing Judah, he cleansed Samaria, the old northern kingdom, now under Assyrian rule - a radical cleansing.

He got rid of mediums and wizards in the land (2 Kg 23:24).

His final and ultimate purge of history was in Bethel in Samaria, the original headquarters of idolatry. Josiah was the only king to deal with this place, where idolatry had started with Jeroboam I, the root of idolatry, the seat of evil (2 Kg 23:15-20). This action had been predicted 308 years before (1 Kg 13:2), where Josiah is predicted by name. He pulled down the high place at Bethel, broke it into pieces, crushed it into dust and burned the Asherah. He burned bones on the altar and defiled it. All shrines and high places in Samaria were removed and destroyed (v19). He slew all the priests of the high places and burned them on their altars.

The Keeping of the Passover - a statement of covenant fidelity

Josiah kept the Passover as part of keeping God's covenant. It expressed his covenant faithfulness and God's covenant faithfulness. No Passover like it had been kept in Israel since the days of Samuel the prophet as was kept by Josiah and the priest and the Levites and all Judah and Israel, who were present and the inhabitants of Jerusalem (2 Chr 35:18). It took great faith to keep something no else had adhered to for 400 years. It was kept according to “all as it is written in the book of the covenant” (2 Kg 23:21).

Hezekiah had also celebrated a Passover, but not on the correct day, and only few attended (2 Chr 30:1). The courtiers who went out urging attendance were scorned and mocked. Only a few men from Asher, Manasseh and Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem (2 Chr 30:10).

The results of Josiah's reforms

The sad reality was that there was no lasting change in the people. Josiah's reign was Judah's last chance to repent and escape the wrath of God (individually). Even Manasseh repented, showing it was possible for them to repent. There was outward reformation in the land, but no inward transformation in the people. Outward renewal, without inward renewal. Josiah was sincere in his repentance and was commended, but the people immediately fell back into idolatry after his death. The places and objects of idolatry were removed under Josiah, but idolatry was still in the hearts of the people.

Twenty-three years after the death of Josiah, Judah fell to Babylon in 586 BC, a swift decline. Josiah's actions were commendable and right. It was good to remove the idols, but it did not cause a lasting change in the peoples’ hearts, showing their hardness of heart.

When Josiah was twenty-one years old, the prophet Jeremiah began to prophecy (Jer 1:2), seeking to give footing for Josiah's reforms. Josiah was causing outward reformation, removing idols. Jeremiah called for inward reformation, a change in peoples' hearts and true repentance. The real heart of the people is revealed in Jer 3:10, “Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretence, says the Lord”. Josiah's covenant is mentioned in Jer 11:3,6. Jer 11:9-17 describes the hearts of the people.

The people only served God as long as Josiah reigned (2 Chr 34:33). God did still not turn from the fierceness of his great wrath due to the sins of Manasseh (2 Kg 23:26-27). Wrath was due to the accumulated past sins of Manasseh and present evil in peoples' hearts. Josiah gave the last call to repentance before the fall of Judah. Like Noah, Josiah and Jeremiah are examples of God's faithfulness in warning people to repent. If a king could repent and turn against the evil before him, then so could the people (2 Kg 23:25).