Josiah, the Last Good King of Judah

Icebreaker: If you today—at the age you were now—you became President of the United States, what was something about the country you would change?

[Go around the room and answer the question]

So today’s icebreaker question applies to our lesson because we’re going to talk about a kid who does become king of Judah and enacts huge changes.

This is in the time period after the northern kingdom, Israel, has been overtaken by Assyria and all that’s left is Judah. Can someone please read 2 Kings 22:1-2.

Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign; he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jedidah daughter of Adaiah of Bozkath. He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.

Josiah becomes king at eight years old. That means by the time he’s your age, he’s already been reigning three to five years! Now at his age, it’s likely that someone would have been regent—that is, he would have adult supervision until he became of age. But there is no record here of a regency, though it does mention his mother, Jedidah and possibly she could have been his regent. Or possibly he could have had no regent at all. It’s also likely that at 13 he might be considered no longer in need of a regent, if he had one, because that’s when in Jewish culture, young people come of age and are considered adults.

Despite being so incredibly young for his whole reign—starting at the age of 8 and ending at the age of 39—it says that Josiah did what was right in the eyes of God and walked in the way of David. It says “like his father David.” That doesn’t mean Josiah is directly a son of David, just that Josiah is descended from David as all the kings of Judah were. But unlike other kings of Judah, Josiah actually behaved like a son of David, following after God.

At a young age, Josiah could have been led astray by bad people, but Josiah stood strong and follow God.

Someone read 2 Kings 22:3-7.

In the eighteenth year of King Josiah, the king sent Shaphan son of Azaliah, son of Meshullam, the secretary, to the house of the Lord, saying, “Go up to the high priest Hilkiah, and have him count the entire sum of the money that has been brought into the house of the Lord, which the keepers of the threshold have collected from the people; let it be given into the hand of the workers who have the oversight of the house of the Lord; let them give it to the workers who are at the house of the Lord, repairing the house, that is, to the carpenters, to the builders, to the masons; and let them use it to buy timber and quarried stone to repair the house. But no accounting shall be asked from them for the money that is delivered into their hand, for they deal honestly.”

In the 18th year of his reign—which means he’s 26—Josiah decides to refurbish the Temple. So money is collected from people and taken in to the Temple and now it times to count all the money up and pay the workers so they can begin repairing everything.

Basically it’s a huge contracting project to bring the Temple back to its former glory, because at this point the Temple has been around for four hundred years and probably neglected a little bit by all those bad kings in the past.

Someone please read 2 Kings 22:8-10.

The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.” When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it. Then Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, “Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workers who have oversight of the house of the Lord.” 10 Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “The priest Hilkiah has given me a book.” Shaphan then read it aloud to the king.

11 When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. 12 Then the king commanded the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Achbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary, and the king’s servant Asaiah, saying, 13 “Go, inquire of the Lord for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.”

So they’re doing this huge remodel, and cleaning out the Temple, and the high priest finds something, a book. But it’s not just any book, it’s a book of the law. He gives it to the secretary who reads it and immediately takes it to the king. He’s like “We took all the money and paid the workers just like you said but then we found this scroll!” And he reads it to the king.

The king is shocked by what he hears, not just shocked but he tears his clothes, which is a sign of great distress and mourning. Why? What’s going on here?

Let’s back up a bit. There is something we all take for granted in our day and age that they didn’t have back then and that thing is this: books. Everywhere you look we have books. They’re easily printed, pretty cheap to buy, and you can even borrow them for free from either your school library or the public library. Literacy and access to books is one of the things that our country is founded on. That’s why we have a free public education and free libraries. Because we believe that democracy is not possible without an educated citizenry.

But have books always been so easily accessible?

No. Not at all. The printing press that made creating books cheap wasn’t even invented until the 1400s AD. That’s nearly 2000 years after Josiah’s time. So what did people do before then? Well it depends what time period we’re talking about and which area of the world.

Some areas of the world—like the Egyptians—had paper made from papyrus that they could copy things down onto. Others had vellum, which is basically animal skin. Some peoples put things in stone, but stone is expensive and hard to write in.

The fun fact one of the oldest stone documents is called the “complaint tablet to Ea-nasir” and is a clay tablet with cuneiform writing that is a guy complaining to another guy who sold him bad copper ingots. It was written in 1750 BC.  This guy was so angry he took the time to write a letter in stone to send to the copper seller and we still have it. That’s kind of amazing! And that’s the amazing thing about stone tablets, they last forever. But paper and vellum tend to degrade with time, and so that’s why we don’t have a lot of ancient paper scrolls and the ones we do have are missing parts or crumbling. It’s like how old books have yellow pages. Over time these things just degrade.

Because writing was so uncommon, most people, for most of human history couldn’t read. This is why certain religious practices have developed the way they have: this is why we memorize and have creeds like the Apostles Creed. For a long time in Christian history most people couldn’t read. They didn’t own a Bible, and even if they did they couldn’t read it. So Christians memorized creeds that summarized what being a Christian was all about, and they went to Church where a priest—who could read the Bible—would read it to them.

But that’s Christian history. With Josiah we’re talking about BC era history.

Josiah’s time period was actually a time of high literacy in Judah, but before Josiah’s time, before King David and the nation of Israel coming around, there wouldn’t have been a lot of reading. Most traditions and scripture would have been handed down orally. Tales of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, these would be stories that parents would tell their children.

Most of torah, that is the law would be handed down like that. Probably everything Josiah knew about the law he would know from it being told to him.

And then someone finds a scroll. In this time of high literacy in Judah, someone finds a scroll that has the law on it. Most people believe that the scroll found is the book of Deuteronomy. Josiah and the high priest find this scroll and they read it, and discover they have been doing everything wrong.

This is the problem with oral traditions. Over time things can get lost. But they find this ancient scroll, and it has the laws as described in Deuteronomy in it and they discover they’ve let things in Judah go off the rails. Josiah is like “No wonder God is so angry at us, we haven’t been obeying any of the laws that or words that he gave to us.” And Josiah doesn’t know what to do about this. So he sends his priest and his secretary and the others to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing about all of this new information.

Someone please read 2 Kings 22:14-20.

14 So the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to the prophetess Huldah the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe; she resided in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter, where they consulted her. 15 She declared to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Tell the man who sent you to me, 16 Thus says the Lord, I will indeed bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants—all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. 17 Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. 18 But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, 19 because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the Lord. 20 Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place.” They took the message back to the king.

So all of Josiah’s men go in search of a prophet and they find Huldah, who fun fact is one of the four names prophets of the lord who is a woman. (Those four women are Miriam—who was Moses’s sister, Deborah—the Judge of Israel, Huldah—who we meet here, and Noadiah—who we haven’t encountered yet in scripture). They ask her what they should do about this scroll and everything they have learned.

Huldah tells them that God is indeed mad about how all the people and Judah has gone off the rales, not following the laws. Primarily he’s upset that they have worshipped other gods, and because of that punishment is coming. But! Because Josiah heard the words and realized they had gone wrong and was repentant and humbled himself before God, that the punishment would not come now. Judah would be spared for another generation.

God always forgives those who repent.

Josiah’s men take this word back to him.

Someone please read 2 Kings 23:1-3.

 23 Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. The king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant.

Josiah has all the elders of Judah and all the people of Jerusalem gather, and they all go to the temple—it says every person small and great, so probably children and women and the sickly, everyone goes to the Temple. And there Josiah reads to them the words of the scroll. Then after the reading, Josiah makes a covenant with God to follow him and keep his commandments with all of his heart and soul, which seems to be a reference to Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

All the people there also joined in this covenant, promising to follow God. This is communal repentance of all of Judah to turn back to the ways of God.

But it’s not just enough to say you’ll follow God. Without actions, words are meaningless, so now it’s time for Josiah to do something about it.

Someone please read 2 Kings 23:4-6.

The king commanded the high priest Hilkiah, the priests of the second order, and the guardians of the threshold, to bring out of the temple of the Lord all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; he burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron, and carried their ashes to Bethel. He deposed the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to make offerings in the high places at the cities of Judah and around Jerusalem; those also who made offerings to Baal, to the sun, the moon, the constellations, and all the host of the heavens. He brought out the image of[a] Asherah from the house of the Lord, outside Jerusalem, to the Wadi Kidron, burned it at the Wadi Kidron, beat it to dust and threw the dust of it upon the graves of the common people. 

Josiah takes action. He orders his priests and guardians to take everything idolatrous out of the temple of God. They burn the idols in the fields and even remove the ashes. He deposes the priests of those other gods. He destroys the shrines to these other gods. And it goes on and on. Josiah cleans up all of Judah in these like twenty verses and it just goes to show how fall Judah has fallen and how they’re not following the torah at all. They were idols in the Temple, in what is literally God’s house on this earth! That’s clearly not what God wanted, but it seems they didn’t even know that.

How were they supposed to know if they didn’t have a written description of the laws? Well there had been prophets up to this point, prophets who told multiple kings that what they were doing was wrong. God isn’t constrained to written words. He uses people, and he used multiple people to tell the kings they were astray, but before Josiah none of them listened.

And now Josiah has.

Following the law isn’t all just cleaning house! Someone read 2 Kings 23:21-23.

21 The king commanded all the people, “Keep the passover to the Lord your God as prescribed in this book of the covenant.” 22 No such passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, even during all the days of the kings of Israel and of the kings of Judah; 23 but in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this passover was kept to the Lord in Jerusalem.

Josiah commands the people to celebrate Passover. Who remembers what Passover is? [Let them answer.]

Passover is the celebration of God’s plagues passing over the Hebrews in Egypt, and the Hebrews being freed from their slavery in Egypt. Apparently they had even forgotten to celebrate Passover! And this is a Passover to end all Passovers. Unlike that has been seen in a long time. So after all that clean up they end with a big Passover party! Sounds like a nice way to end a lot of hard work.

Someone please read 2 Kings 23:26-27.

26 Still the Lord did not turn from the fierceness of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. 27 The Lord said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel; and I will reject this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.”

These verses underscore that something is still coming for Judah, that the punishment is still coming. It’s added as a tag here at the end of Josiah’s story, that despite everything he’s doing the wrath is still coming.

I want to comment briefly on this and the nature of God. It’s likely that 1st and 2nd Kings was compiled during or after the Exile—that is the after Judah gets conquered and the exile of the people of Judah begins. That means the author knows what’s coming, the author knows that despite everything Josiah has done, it’s not going to postpone the Exile, because the author—or compiler of these stories—lives after the start of the Exile.

From the perspective of the author there is only one reason why Judah would be allowed to undergo such a traumatic event, because God is punishing them. This is the author rationalizing why such a traumatic event as the Exile is allowed to happen.

And I don’t think that’s untrue per say. Nothing can happen without God allowing it.  I just think this can give us the impression that God is an angry God who only wants to punish and if he gets mad no amount of repentance is going to fix things. But I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t think that’s the impression of God we get from the Bible as a whole. I think if Judah had stayed true and stayed repentant, God would have preserved them.

But they didn’t. After Josiah some kings make bad decisions, especially in regards to how they handle these other empires around them. I also think that after generations of Judah not following God, the country as a whole has become weak, its borders picked away at, and no amount of repentance was going to fix its weakened state. Sometimes God allows us to suffer the consequence of our action. And it’s not a punishment per say. It’s just God allowing us to learn from the natural outcomes of our own actions.

Sometimes suffering our own consequences helps us grow as people. And I think that’s what God was letting happen here.

And Josiah’s reign doesn’t end pretty. There are politics and big movements at work in the land, the sort of movements that are going to lead to the inevitable Exile. Assyria—the country that that took over Northern Israel—has been conquered by Babylon. And Egypt is on the move. Someone please read 2 Kings 23:28-30.

28 Now the rest of the acts of Josiah, and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah? 29 In his days Pharaoh Neco king of Egypt went up to the king of Assyria to the river Euphrates. King Josiah went to meet him; but when Pharaoh Neco met him at Megiddo, he killed him. 30 His servants carried him dead in a chariot from Megiddo, brought him to Jerusalem, and buried him in his own tomb. The people of the land took Jehoahaz son of Josiah, anointed him, and made him king in place of his father.

Josiah tries to stop Egypt’s movements and it results in his death. And that’s the end of Josiah’s reign and probably the last good time for Judah.

Because Babylon is coming. And God is going to allow Babylon to win.