The time is circa 640 B.C., and Israel is a mess. The Northern Kingdom of Israel, previously run by an unbroken streak of terrible kings, had long been conquered and its tribes scattered forever. The southern kingdom of Judah was holding on, but diminished in size and power. While Judah had a good king here and there — mentioned in the Bible as one who “did right in the eyes of the Lord” — it boasted far more bad kings.
Over the course of 2 Kings, which I’ve been reading, you can witness this slow burn to an ultimate reckoning. God is very displeased with his people and their kings, who have largely turned away from him to accept other religions, and has his anger against them grow and grow. It’s repeatedly mentioned that both his anger is great but he refrains from judgment for the sake of the House of David. He continually extends mercy and grace, but there is a limit, and in 640 B.C. we’re almost at this point. The fall of Judah is imminent.
And an eight-year-old king is crowned: Josiah. His story is told in 2 Kings 22-23, and it is an absolutely riveting account in so many ways. From his youth, Josiah is remarkably different than his royal ancestors, doing what is right by the Lord, “walking in the ways of David,” and not compromising his values and beliefs (22:2). He’s a complete shift away from what’s been going on, and when King Josiah turns 18, he shows leadership and virtue the likes Judah had never seen. Ever.
First, he pays for the repairs to the Temple of the Lord, which had apparently fallen into disarray (22:5). During this reconstruction, the high priest Hilkiah discovers the Book of the Law (22:8) — Deuteronomy — and brings it to Josiah. It’s kind of implied here that neither Josiah nor Hilkiah nor pretty much anyone in the country had read God’s words. It had gotten tossed into a corner, left to be forgotten while the country fell into moral ruin.
So they read it together and it astounds and convicts them. Josiah is so moved to grief and remorse during this reading that he tears his robes (22:11), realizing that the country is in dire peril from God’s judgment. He sends for one of God’s prophets, a lady named Huldah, who confirms that God’s anger has become so great that God is preparing to wipe Judah off the map (22:16).
But God is moved by Josiah’s humility, this 18-year-old who is in tears because he understands the severity of the people’s faithlessness and sin. While God does not retract the judgment, he delays it for Josiah’s sake (22:19-20).
Josiah’s amazing story doesn’t end there. The king is determined to do right by his God and his people, and embarks on a series of reforms that are his eternal legacy, all the while painting a picture for us just how far God’s chosen people had fallen:
- He personally reads the Book of the Law out loud to all of the people in Jerusalem (23:2)
- He renews the covenant between God and the people: “To follow the Lord and keep his commands, regulations and decrees with all his heart and all his soul” (23:3)
- The people respond by also renewing the covenant (23:3)
- He cleans the Temple of the prostitution, idol worship, and pagan priests (23:4-7)
- He travels the country and tears down all altars and shrines for false gods
- He puts an end to people sacrificing sons and daughters in the fire to Molech (23:10)
- He gets rid of the “high places” that Solomon built for his foreign wives (23:13)
- He stops the use of mediums, spiritists, idol worship in homes (23:24)
And here’s what really caught my attention: Josiah orders that the Passover be observed (23:21). Why is this notable? Because as 23:22 says, “Not since the days of the judges who led Israel, nor throughout the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah had any such Passover been observed.” It’d been hundreds of years since the last Passover celebration, and even King David hadn’t celebrated what was one of the most important feasts in the nation’s history. But Josiah does, because he’s awesome like that.
This is Josiah’s legacy: “Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did — with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses.” (23:25)
That’s some of the highest praise I’ve seen handed to anyone in the Bible. And even though God’s judgment finally happens a few bad kings later, for 31 years Judah had peace and prosperity and a relationship with God that showed that the covenant was still working and active.
I just admire Josiah for so many reasons, not the least of which is how he became such a pillar of integrity and faith at a relatively young age. Even as king, he humbles himself before God. He doesn’t do what all of the previous kings did, which was to turn a blind eye to the idol worship, human sacrifice, and temple prostitution that was becoming more accepted. He reminded the people by simply reading God’s Word, and that showed how much power the message still had.
Josiah couldn’t save Judah, because it was already past the point of no return in that regard. But his actions, I believe, did save souls, kept God’s Word alive in the hearts of believers, and kept the Passover going so that one day, Jesus and his followers would sit down to partake of it in the Last Supper before the ultimate sacrifice was made.