We can use a few Josiahs today:
Many of you know about the bright light that was King Josiah of Judah who reigned in a very dark period. His story is worth recounting, since our own days are so very dark, and we can use a bit of encouragement along the way. And given the amazing renewal that occurred through him, we can also pray, ‘Do it again Lord.’
The historical background to his reform work is this. The northern kingdom Israel had already been judged by God for its sins, idolatry and disobedience. The Assyrians captured its capital Samaria in 722 B. C. The rule of Josiah was late in the southern kingdom Judah. It would fall fairly soon in 587/6 B. C. Josiah died around 25 years before that time.
Things had been going downhill real fast in Judah and divine judgement was already promised. The 50 or so year reign of Manasseh and his son Amon was the worst of a bad bunch. So when renewal and reformation occurred under Josiah, it was a case of too little too late for ungodly Judah.
But still, it was an incredible renewal indeed. His story is told in 2 Kings 22-23:30. We read this about him in 2 Kings 22:2: “And 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 or to the left.”
He had begun his reign as king when he was eight years old. But the main activity found in these chapters happened in the eighteenth year of his reign. You recall the story: he was having the temple repaired when “the Book of the Law” was found (v. 8). This probably refers to the book of Deuteronomy. We read about what happened next in verses 10-13:
Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king. When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Akbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant: “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.”
In chapter 23 we read about how Josiah renewed the covenant. In verse 3 it says this: “And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people joined in the covenant.”
We then read about how he got rid of idolatrous priests, pulled down idols and statues, smashed pagan altars, and celebrated the Passover. Verse 25 says this about Josiah: “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 all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him.”
Yes, this was an amazing king during some amazing times. But as mentioned, it was not enough, because Judah was too far gone, and God’s judgment still would be coming, as verses 26-27 declare. Yet this period of renewal was remarkable indeed. Given that he ruled for 31 years, well over a decade of this renewal had taken place.
A few lessons for us today are well worth considering. One obvious lesson is that God can use rather young people to achieve his purposes. That should be comforting to my younger readers. While experience and wisdom are valuable for God’s leaders, God does not need to only use older Christians to do his work.
A second clear lesson is this: no matter how dark the times and how evil the days, God is able to turn things around – at least for a period. This was one of the greatest reforms mentioned in Scripture. And in church history we read about similar things when very dark periods are interrupted by God-given revival and reformation.
A third lesson is this: true biblical renewal and reformation is always based on the word of God. When young Josiah rediscovers the book of the law, it brings about immediate changes: he repents of his sins and leads the people in repenting of their sin, thus beginning his work of renewal and reform. See more on this here: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/12/27/20504/
And a fourth lesson of these two chapters is that when God moves and seeks to deal with his wayward people, only a thorough and radical response will do. This means not just returning to the Lord in deep and heartfelt repentance, but dealing harshly with all idolatry and sin. As Iain Provan puts it:
“Josiah’s renewal of the covenant was followed by the destruction of Baal-worship in Jerusalem; those truly in covenant with the Lord cannot also be in covenant with God’s enemies (cf. Deut. 7:1-6). Josiah now proceeds, likewise, to remove all trace of apostasy from Jerusalem and Judah. Everything to do with Baal and Asherah and the worship of the starry hosts is subject to radical treatment.”
Dealing harshly with foreign gods and idols is something we often read about in Scripture – even in the New Testament. We are not to play around with this stuff, but deal ruthlessly with it. See more on this here: billmuehlenberg.com/2018/04/14/on-dealing-with-idols/
A fifth lesson is one’s parentage need not determine one’s course in life. Josiah had an evil father and a very evil grandfather. Yet he ended up resembling his great-grandfather Hezekiah, who also undertook reforms (although Josiah’s reforms were even greater than his). So we need not be bound by our upbringing or our lineage. God can do new things and undo old things.
A sixth and sobering lesson is that sometimes God’s mercy can and does come to an end. He is not always going to strive with man. He will not always extend hope and mercy. Sometimes his only recourse is judgment. His long-suffering patience with us will come to an end. A quote from R. C. Sproul that I often use is relevant here:
We hear all the time about God’s infinite grace and mercy. I cringe when I hear it. God’s mercy is infinite insofar as it is mercy bestowed upon us by a Being who is infinite, but when the term infinite is used to describe his mercy rather than his person, I have problems with it because the Bible makes very clear that there is a limit to God’s mercy. There is a limit to his grace, and he is determined not to pour out his mercy on impenitent people forever. There is a time, as the Old Testament repeatedly reports, particularly in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, that God stops being gracious with people, and he gives them over to their sin.
A seventh and related lesson is this: even if we know that one can only go so far with social and cultural renewal, because God will one day come again in judgment, we can still get involved. We must be faithful until the very end, seeking to be salt and light in a dying culture. Philip Graham Ryken puts it this way:
But what if our own society is too far gone? What if we were successful in bringing a postmodern reformation – accomplishing important goals such as ending abortion, achieving racial reconciliation, and restoring the gospel to its proper place in the life of the church – yet our nation still fell under the judgment of God? Would it have been worth the effort? Or would it have been an exercise in futility?
Josiah’s example teaches us to do our best in the worst times. Even though his repentance and reformation could not rescue the nation, his life and ministry still brought honor and glory to God. In his guide to redemptive history, S. G. De Graaf wrote:
“Josiah knew that the judgment upon Judah was sure to come, but he wanted to press ahead with the reformation of Judah anyway. In this he showed a diligence unmatched by any king before or after him. He did not declare that there’s no point in reformation since it could not save Judah anyway. He wanted to go ahead with the reformation solely for the sake of the honor and righteousness of the Lord. The Lord has a right to be served, even if our service does not bring about our salvation.”
Amen to that. So often today it seems like seeking to be salt and light is almost a lost cause. But Jesus said we are to occupy till he comes. No matter how bleak or hopeless things seem, we must continue to do what is right, and leave the results up to God. And that may be the most important lessons of all to be found in these two chapters.