LCN Article
The Young Reformer

May / June 2017

Ken Frank

In the history of Israel and Judah, the greatest Passover after the time of the Judges occurred in 622bc and was brought about by a 26-year-old king. This very significant Passover occurred during the last reformation of the Kingdom of Judah, ignited during a very dangerous time by King Josiah, who began his reign when he was just a boy.

Now we must ask the question: What influence can a young person have upon the course of national affairs? Can a young person change a nation for good? This bright young ruler did, and he’s the hero whose story we will examine.

Light After a Legacy of Darkness

CrownIn the 600s bc, Judah—existing on a landbridge between Africa and Asia—found itself sandwiched between major world powers. To the northeast of Judah was Assyria and Assyria’s growing rival, Babylon, while to the southwest, Egypt was Assyria’s ally. Armies passing from one region to the other would naturally come through Judah.

In addition to geopolitical troubles, King Josiah had an equally troubled family history. His grandfather Manasseh was one of the worst kings in Judah’s history, “who did evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord had cast out before the children of Israel” (2 Kings 21:2). His crimes included filling the nation with idolatry and even human sacrifice. He had a change of heart and repented later in life (2 Chronicles 33:12–13), but, sadly, his son Amon—Josiah’s father—would actually reverse some of his father’s good changes. Amon’s reign became so corrupt that his own servants killed him (2 Kings 21:23).

After the assassination of his wicked father, Josiah became king at the tender age of eight years old (2 Kings 22:1).

The Makings of a Righteous King

With all this negative influence from the errors of his father and grandfather, how does Josiah lead the last great revival before Judah’s captivity? After several generations of wickedness, he breaks this long cycle of wayward monarchs; he’s a light in a very dark age, reigning from 640 to 609bc. And like his great-grandfather Hezekiah, he instituted sweeping religious reforms throughout Judah, and even into the remnants of the House of Israel. He was one of Judah’s strongest spiritual leaders, serving God with repentance, humility, obedience and devotion. He is the only king of whom it is said that “he did not turn aside” (v. 2).

Josiah’s name meant “the Eternal Supports” in ancient Hebrew, and he certainly had godly support. Zephaniah prophesied early in Josiah’s reign, while Jeremiah started to prophesy later, around Josiah’s thirteenth year. His mother is actually named in the Bible: Jedidah, the daughter of Adaiah. When women are named in the Bible, it is a sign of significance. These two men and his mother surely had a profound impact on young Josiah, directing him towards God and away from the heathenism of his ancestors.

Josiah’s early life would have been guided by such adult influence to an obviously positive result: “For in the eighth year of his reign, while he was still young, he began to seek the God of his father David…” (2 Chronicles 34:3). When he was just 20, he began to purge the land. He wanted to consolidate worship in Jerusalem to prevent the rise of paganism once again. He also took his efforts to the territories beyond Judah, “cleaning house” in the cities of Manasseh, Ephraim, Simeon and Naphtali, which were still inhabited by remnants of the Israelite tribes that had been carried off by the Assyrians (vv. 6–7).

Reforms of the Righteous

What specifically did Josiah accomplish? We know that he began to purge the kingdom of pagan worship. 2 Chronicles 34 gives a detailed account:

…in the twelfth year [of his reign] he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the wooden images, the carved images, and the molded images.They broke down the altars of the Baals in his presence, and the incense altars which were above them he cut down; and the wooden images, the carved images, and the molded images he broke in pieces, and made dust of them and scattered it on the graves of those who had sacrificed to them.He also burned the bones of the priests on their altars, and cleansed Judah and Jerusalem.And so he did in the cities of Manasseh, Ephraim, and Simeon, as far as Naphtali and all around, with axes.When he had broken down the altars and the wooden images, had beaten the carved images into powder, and cut down all the incense altars throughout all the land of Israel, he returned to Jerusalem (vv. 3–7).

But his work did not stop with purging. He also set out to rebuild, sending his servant Shaphan the scribe to direct Hilkiah the high priest to take the money given by the people and deliver it to those repairing and restoring the Temple of God, which had been neglected and left in disrepair for so long (2 Kings 22:3–5)!

As the work to restore the Temple of God was being done, a discovery was made: “Then Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe, ‘I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.’ And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it” (v. 8).

Isn’t that amazing? After so much backsliding, God’s word had been hidden in some dusty, dark corner of the Temple. People had not read it—perhaps in generations—and the high priest discovered it as they were cleaning out the mess! When Shaphan the scribe goes to Josiah to update him on the progress, he informs his king about the discovery: “Then Shaphan the scribe showed the king, saying, ‘Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.’ And Shaphan read it before the king” (v. 10).

This was profound, even life-changing. It was as if Josiah had never heard it before—he was 26 and had never heard the word of God—at least not like this! “Now it happened, when the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, that he tore his clothes” (v. 11). That was the conventional reaction at that time, when you were personally shocked and horrified by what you’ve learned. Josiah was personally moved by the word of God.

What did he read? We can only speculate, but 2 Kings 22:19 might suggest that he heard the passages about the curses from Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, and he knew what was coming upon his people for their lack of faithfulness to God. And so he tore his garments.

So what happened next? 2 Kings 22 records that Josiah sent a delegation composed of Hilkiah the priest, Shaphan the scribe, Shaphan’s son Ahikam, Achbor son of Michaiah, and Asaiah, a servant of the king, commanding them, “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 aroused against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us” (v. 13). The five sought out Hulda, a prophetess.

Promise and Prophecy

She made an important statement to them, confirming that God’s word does not change: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will bring calamity on this place and on its inhabitants—all the words of the book which the king of Judah has read—because they have forsaken Me and burned incense to other gods… Therefore My wrath shall be aroused against this place and shall not be quenched’” (2 Kings 22:16–17). Concerning Josiah himself, however, God inspired Huldah to tell him that because of his responsive heart, his humility, and his compassion for his people, “I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; and your eyes shall not see all the calamity which I will bring on this place” (v. 20).

Thus we see that God promised Josiah that because of his righteousness, the judgment on Judah would not come in his lifetime.

Now Josiah may have wondered if God might relent, as he did concerning Nineveh in the book of Jonah. And it’s interesting that Jeremiah, one of Josiah’s contemporaries, wrote this from God: “[I]f that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it” (Jeremiah 18:8).

This could very well have motivated Josiah—he would do what was right and leave the rest in God’s hands. Christians today, in a similar way, also know the outcome of the last stage of man’s history. But we do what we can to proclaim God’s Truth to those who will heed. Josiah did not give up, nor must we! In fact, he stepped up his efforts to cleanse the land of idolatry. He left the ultimate outcome in God’s hands, as we do today—without neglecting the commission to follow and obey God.

Josiah’s next step was made all the more possible by his position. Note how important it is for a godly leader to provide direction: “Now the king sent them to gather all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem to him. The king went up to the house of the Lord with all the men of Judah, and with him all the inhabitants of Jerusalem—the priests and the prophets and all the people, both small and great. And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant which had been found in the house of the Lord” (2 Kings 23:1–2). He read, he took that responsibility, and he did not keep the word of God to himself! He shared it with his nation!

Standing by a pillar, Josiah read the book of the Covenant, and made a covenant to renew his nation’s obedience to God—and his people “took a stand for the covenant” (v. 3). So, like leader, like people! Now, they were repentant, they were changing, they were overcoming—because of the example of this godly 26-year-old king! He used his authority to make sweeping changes. And though most of us today are not kings and queens, we can still have an influence in the lives of others by our own examples.

Josiah continued to purge Judah and Jerusalem of sin—destroying the altars, idols and priestly offices that had been set up for the worship of Baal, sexually immoral religious practices, and the other hideous abominations that were going on, including child sacrifice (vv. 4–15). Some of the measures would have left a grave impression on the minds of the people, such as burying the bones of idolaters in their own places of worship to defile them and to warn people away (vv. 14–16). Some of the practices he abolished went all the way back to the time of Solomon.

And, as he was rooting out these practices, he committed one act of particular interest to Bible history and prophecy: “As Josiah turned, he saw the tombs that were there on the mountain. And he sent and took the bones out of the tombs and burned them on the altar, and defiled it according to the word of the Lord which the man of God proclaimed, who proclaimed these words” (2 Kings 23:16).

You see, long before, right after the reign of King Solomon, when Jeroboam set up the golden calf at Bethel, a man of God came and gave this prophecy earlier in the book of 1 Kings: “O altar, altar! Thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, a child, Josiah by name, shall be born to the house of David; and on you he shall sacrifice the priests of the high places who burn incense on you, and men’s bones shall be burned on you’” (1 Kings 13:2). That man of God prophesied about Josiah by name three hundred years before Josiah was born, and it came to pass exactly as God said! The grave of the man of God was still there, to which Josiah paid respect before continuing his work (v. 17–18).

The Passover Reinstated

When he returned to Jerusalem, Josiah made a profound decree: “Then the king commanded all the people, saying, ‘Keep the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant’” (v. 21).

A much more thorough account of this Passover is given in 2 Chronicles 35: “Now Josiah kept a Passover to the Lord in Jerusalem, and they slaughtered the Passover lambs on the fourteenth day of the first month” (v. 1). This occurred in 622bc when Josiah is 26 years old and is one of ten Passover observances recorded in the Bible. It is also the first centralized Passover in centuries, because Josiah invited these remnants of the house of Israel to come down and worship. He also reinvested responsibility to the Levitical priesthood, especially with regard to teaching the people about what had been neglected, and he returned the Ark of the Covenant to the temple, from where it had been removed during or before the reigns of Manasseh and Amon (vv. 2–6).

Josiah gave generously of his own stock to get things started (v. 7) and his example inspired others (vv. 8–9). This restoration of worship included not just the Passover, but also of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (v. 17) and had such an impact that it was described this way: “There had been no Passover kept in Israel like that since the days of Samuel the prophet; and none of the kings of Israel had kept such a Passover as Josiah kept, with the priests and the Levites, all Judah and Israel who were present, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (v. 18).

2 Chronicles 35:20 highlights that this observance took place the very same year that the Book of the Law was discovered. Josiah had immediately implemented the necessary changes.

The young king wanted to cleanse the land and the peoples’ hearts from idols! He implemented great changes that helped to banish idolatry in his time, but his efforts yielded spiritual fruit as well: “Now before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses; nor after him did any arise like him” (2 Kings 23:25).

But there was still an accounting to be made for Israel and Judah’s sins: “Nevertheless the Lord did not turn from the fierceness of His great wrath, with which His anger was aroused against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked Him” (2 Kings 23:26). The judgment against Judah and Jerusalem was only postponed during the reign of Josiah—it was not rescinded. Manasseh’s apostasy was a permanent infection, even though he himself later had a change of heart. The nation was too far gone, and even then Josiah’s reforms lasted only until his death. “And the Lord said, ‘I will also remove Judah from My sight, as I have removed Israel, and will cast off this city Jerusalem which I have chosen, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there’” (v. 27). Judah, Jerusalem and the temple would all be lost in 586bc.

And today, we Christians are responsible for conducting ourselves according to God’s word, as a body of believers and as individuals, though our world still has to suffer the Tribulation ahead.

Josiah’s Death Fulfills Prophecy

Josiah’s reign may not have ended the way that one would expect for so righteous a king in God’s sight, but it was one more lesson in how God works all things according to His will. The book of 2 Chronicles details the fall of Josiah, as he went out to war against the king of Egypt at that time, the Pharaoh Necho (2 Chronicles 35:20–27).

The kingdoms of Egypt, Syria, and Babylon all had their conflicts and politics, and the little kingdom of Judah was caught in the middle of these warring powers going back and forth across its territory, as was mentioned before. “After all this, when Josiah had prepared the temple, Necho king of Egypt came up to fight against Carchemish by the Euphrates; and Josiah went out against him” (v. 20). Necho ruled Egypt from 610 to 595bc. Necho’s object was not to fight against Judah (v. 21)—rather, he was trying to go and aid his ally, the Assyrians, against the Babylonians, who had moved west and were threatening Syria and Judah. Necho worried that these forces would eventually work their way down and threaten Egypt itself. But along the way Josiah goes out against him and delays him. In doing so, Josiah gets caught up in a current of events that ultimately was being guided by God (v. 21) to bring Judah’s eventual fate upon it, and he is mortally wounded by Egyptian archers, eventually dying in Jerusalem (vv. 23–24).

Though Josiah’s decision to fight the Egyptians seemed to go against him, even his death fulfilled a previous prophecy—that he would not see the “calamity” God would bring upon the nation of Judah (2 Chronicles 34:28). And in this fulfilled prophecy, we see the echoes of another prophet of God: “The righteous perishes, and no man takes it to heart; merciful men are taken away, while no one considers that the righteous is taken away from evil” (Isaiah 57:1).

Lessons from Josiah’s Life for Ours

Upon his death, Josiah’s reformation ebbed away, regrettably. Judah was overthrown at last by the Babylonians, and the stage was eventually set for the next phase of Israel’s history.

What lessons can we learn from the life of this young king? First, remember that Josiah’s father died when Josiah was only eight years old. He grew up without his natural father. His was likely a sorrowful childhood, in a dangerous time. Growing up without a father, but with godly influences from his mother and God’s servants, Josiah learned to seek God early in life. And that is important! Don’t wait until some imagined age when you will get serious, knuckle down and begin to serve God. Seek God early in life, even if you do not live in a godly home. Continue to seek God, even as Josiah did. He continued what he began, and that can be difficult at times when you’re on your own as a teenager. But be faithful, as Josiah was. You’ll be tempted to think that it’s not going to work. But trust God!

Next, we read that Josiah obeyed the word of God even though he lived in an evil age, just like you and I do. He did what God said, regardless of the world around him. He was going to make changes—in his life, and with all those he could potentially influence. There’s a difference between doing right in the sight of people, and doing right in the sight of God. Josiah chose the latter. When we read that he began following the word of God, then God’s House was restored, and the Passover along with it. That will be true in any history or any age of God’s Church—following and obeying the word of God will restore the Church, in body and in spirit.

Finally, we live in a time when the word of God is buried and forgotten in the world, even though we have millions of copies of it all across the land and all around the globe. Churches don’t teach from it! What’s popular today is “feel good” and “health and wealth” psychobabble, which is an empty shell, leaving people without truth—without knowledgeof what God requires. Josiah humbled himself and appealed to God’s mercy, and for that his people enjoyed the greatest Passover in hundreds of years—even greater than that of his great-grandfather Hezekiah, who also implemented a great reformation. Josiah was a great king, teacher and example. Young people, you can make an impact for God for the people of your time and age.

And, even though we know what is determined for our peoples because of our national sins, we’re still accountable to God to fulfill our mission of preaching the Gospel to those who will listen and respond, just as Josiah did, and God judges us for our faithfulness to the task. Changing world events is God’s business. But all of us, young and old, can serve God as did Josiah—as we are admonished, with all of our hearts, all of our souls, and all of our strength (Deuteronomy 6:5). So make that difference—in your time!