Manasseh’s reign of 55 years, more than 50 years of which was devoted to the dismantling of whatever was left of Judah’s loyalty to Yahweh, was followed by two forgettable years of the reign of his no-account son, Amon. Though Kings does not even so much as mention Manasseh’s furious repentance at the end of his life, it is that repentance that may account for the fact, humanly speaking, that ungodly Amon’s son, Josiah, was a godly man, together, in all likelihood, with the influence of his mother. Josiah grew up at court during the very time his grandfather Manasseh, much more impressive a personality than his father Amon, was repenting of his sins, undoing as much as possible his program of thoroughgoing paganism, and, no doubt, speaking to his grandson of the terrible errors he had made and what he now knew about the living and true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
It should not surprise us that the author of Kings devotes considerable space to the last godly king of Judah before the exile. It was important for his readers to know what a good king does and how a righteous nation lives. You can find this history also reported in 2 Chron. 34-35 and in some parts of Jeremiah. The prophet Zephaniah was also at work during Josiah’s reign.
The time of Josiah’s reign was a time of transition in ANE politics. Assyria was on the wane and losing its grip on the Levant; Babylon was on the rise but not yet interested in Palestine. It was this situation that allowed Josiah to make forays into the former state of Israel to conduct reforming operations there and it was this political situation that tempted him to try for more against the Egyptians, the decision that led to his untimely death. [cf. House, 381-382]
v.1 That is, Josiah reigned from 640-609 B.C.
v.2 Only of Hezekiah has it been said so far that he walked in all the ways of David. Other good kings of Judah did so partially, but not completely. The reference to not turning to the right or left is from Deut. 17:20 and the laws given there for the conduct of Israel’s kings, fact that will become more significant as we proceed. For the author of Kings, Josiah was the best king Israel had after David himself, better even than Hezekiah. [Provan, 270]
v.3 Josiah was only eight years old when he became king, no doubt under the tutelage of counselors. It took him some time to get going as his own man. In Chronicles we read that Josiah began some reforming work when he was sixteen, but it begins in earnest only when he has reached full adulthood.
v.6 Obviously the temple had fallen into disrepair, neglected because it no longer occupied a central place in Judah’s religious life.
v.10 There remain many fascinating but unanswered questions about the nature of this book (was it as often thought the Book of Deuteronomy?), about the extent to which its contents had been forgotten in Judah (did Josiah actually not know the law of God?), and whether and how the book was recognized for what it was when discovered in the temple. Obviously it was a scroll, not a book as we know it, and obviously the ordinary Jew did not have his own copy of the Bible, something Christians today take for granted. It does seem very likely to have been Deuteronomy, as “Book of the Law” is a frequent title for that book in both Deuteronomy itself and the book of Joshua. In the total context it is likely that the Book of the Law would not have been lost from sight until the reign of Manasseh, who was unlikely to retain the book in a hallowed place when he was violating every one of its provisions! Where and how it was found is left shrouded in mystery. Did Hilkiah know it was there and hope that Josiah would respond as in fact he did?
v.13 It didn’t take much reading to realize that Judah was living a life that was the direct contradiction of the Law of Moses. The centralization of worship in Jerusalem was an emphasis of Deuteronomy.
v.14 We simply don’t know why Jeremiah, whose ministry began five years earlier, or Zephaniah was not consulted but Huldah was. But she is hardly the only woman prophetess in the OT and is obviously presented positively as a spokesman for the Lord as Miriam and Deborah were before her.
v.20 Josiah’s penitent response will bring a measure of God’s blessing but only for him, not for the nation as a whole. Though it is not said, it is surely understood that the people themselves were not nearly as penitent as Josiah had been.
23:3 Huldah’s prophecy made it sound as if the die were cast and there were no possibility of escaping Yahweh’s judgment for Judah’s sins. But other prophecies in the OT, couched in absolute and unconditional language, were, in fact, we have discovered, conditional and subject to change. We saw an example of this a few chapters back when the prophecy was delivered to Hezekiah that he was to die; not that he would die if he didn’t do something, but that he was going to die. But Hezekiah prayed to the Lord and his life was spared. In a similar way the judgment of King Ahab had already been announced when it was delayed because of his repentance, however superficial it proved to be. In fact it is a characteristic of OT prophecy that it is cast in absolute terms even if there is an unexpressed condition. [cf. G.B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible, 112-113] So there is no doubt that Josiah hoped to avert the coming catastrophe by bringing Judah back to the Lord. Nevertheless, even if Josiah understood the die to be cast and the oncoming judgment to be inevitable, reformation was still the right course for a righteous king. [Provan, 272]
Solemn ceremonies of covenant renewal dot OT history, as you know, and church history since. Some of you have been in Edinburgh and have seen the National Covenant of 1638 or the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, both documents that amounted to a pledge on the part of all who signed them to be faithful to the Reformed religion and to stand against its enemies. That is much like what we have here in 2 Kings 23. This isn’t the Lord himself calling his people to swear their loyalty to him; this is the king and people agreeing to do that themselves and solemnly ascribing their loyalty to this covenant of obedience to God.
v.4 Job #1 was clearing out the idols and destroying them. One cannot be in covenant with Yahweh and his enemies at one and the same time! [Provan, 272-273]The reference to Bethel recalls that it was at Bethel that Jeroboam I had built one of the two shrines, with golden calves, to compete with the temple in Jerusalem, so Judah had by this time recovered some of Israel’s former territory, a recovery made easier by the fact that Assyria was growing weaker by the day.
v.5 The second task was to eliminate from Judah’s priesthood all who had compromised with the program of idolatry that Manasseh had instituted.
v.6 Scattering the dust on the graves was a high insult paid both to the supposed god and to its worshippers. [Wiseman, 301] If you remember, Manasseh had reintroduced the Asherah – the pole of the same name was a symbol of Asherah, the consort of Baal – into the temple.
v.7 The NIV and ESV read “male cult prostitutes” and that may be correct, but the term can be used of both sexes. [Wiseman, 301] Literally it means “the separate ones” and, given the generic masculine, could refer to both men and women with similar roles in pagan worship. [House, 388]
v.8 No one knows which city gate was the “Gate of Joshua” in those days, but, of course, the first readers of Kings would have known precisely where it was.
v.9 The point seems to be that these deposed rural priests were provided for, they weren’t allowed to starve but were allowed to live on among their kinfolk. The main point is that they were not allowed anywhere near the Jerusalem temple, for fear they would bring back their corruption.
v.8 In other words, Josiah made a thorough job of destroying even the vestiges of idolatrous worship in Judah.
v.11 Every kind of idolatrous practice had been brought into use in Jerusalem and Josiah cleared the whole mess out.
v.13 “Mount of Corruption” is ironic. The Mount of Olives had become the Mount of Corruption because of what went on there. [Provan, 276]
The mention of Solomon’s having built those shrines for his wives emphasizes that Josiah had turned the clock back as far as the pre-idolatry days of Israel, before Solomon’s fateful decision to introduce idolatry into Israel’s life.
v.16 That prophecy we read in 1 Kings 13:1-2.
v.20 The references to Samaria further indicate Josiah’s growing power and the extension of his territory. He was moving northward in his reforming effort. In Deuteronomy we read that those who teach the people to follow other gods are to be put to death and that is what Elijah had done to the prophets of Baal, if you remember (1 Kings 18:40).
v.22 Hezekiah had overseen a great Passover celebration, which we read of in 2 Chronicles, so the question is: why does it read as if there had been none since the time of the Judges? Did David not observe the Passover? The sense is probably that there was a greater scale to this celebration, or perhaps a more national character to this celebration – notice the ESV’s “no such Passover had been kept” – a more central feast, rather than the family feast of older times. In any case, it is typical in OT literature to put comparatives in absolute terms.
v.27 A striking conclusion, given the glowing report of Josiah’s faithfulness and what we naturally have taken to be the turning of the spiritual tide in Judah. But, of course, all that Josiah did was objective and external. We do not know that the heart of the people was touched. And, in any case, the point of no return, as we noticed last time, had been reached long before this.
v.29 In Chronicles, Josiah’s unnecessary military intervention against Egypt is regarded as highly foolish. He died a comparatively young man, 39 years of age.
What we find described in this historical narrative is what would later be called a “revival.” It was a sufficiently significant change in the national life and character that it raised Jeremiah’s hopes of forestalling the threatened judgment of the Lord. When I was a young man, revival was all the rage. New books were being written that introduced us to the Great Awakening of the 18th century, to the Second Great Awakening in the first third of the 19th century, and to smaller, more concentrated revivals in the middle of the 19th century (for example the prayer meeting revival in New York City in 1857), about the revival among confederate soldiers during the Civil War, about the revivals in Wales and Scotland in the early years of the 20th century (in Aberdeen when we were living there, older people could still remember during the revival seeing businessmen fall to their knees in prayer right on the main street of the city, so overpowering was the sense of the unseen world). In the 1960s Martyn Lloyd-Jones was preaching on the hope of revival and the Banner of Truth magazine was acquainting us with figures, great and small, from the history of revivals. We were reading Jonathan Edwards again, and Arnold Dallimore on George Whitefield, and Cambuslang, Scotland and Enfield, Connecticut entered our theological/geographical vocabulary.
And then we found ourselves – though we didn’t necessarily know it at the time – in the midst of a revival, what is remembered as the “Jesus movement.” Large numbers of people became Christians, a number in this room became Christians in those few years. It was especially a movement of the Spirit of God and of salvation among the counter-culture movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but across the spectrum of young America, before the movement died out in the later 1970s. Some of you may remember Explo ’72, a great Christian convention held in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, now widely thought to be the climax of the Jesus Movement. It was the moment the Jesus Movement met and merged with mainstream American evangelicalism. Many things that we now take for granted, such as contemporary Christian music as the music of the church’s worship on the Lord’s Day, were brought into the mainstream through the Jesus movement.
But here we are, that revival now nearly 40 years behind us, and our culture’s headlong rush to oblivion continues unabated. That was precisely the situation in Josiah’s day and in the years that followed. There was a revival, 23:2-3 indicate that there was some significant response on the part of the people; there was certainly a major reformation of Judah’s worship and religious life, but it was short-lived and could not arrest the deep-seated patterns of unbelief that by this time were fixed in the hearts of the people of God as a whole.
As revival fires diminished among Reformed Christians in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century books began to appear expressing opinions that were unthinkable just a few years before. Some evangelical scholars, even some Reformed evangelical scholars, and ministers began to argue that revivals were often more man-made than God-sent, that they were movements influenced more by psychology and sociology than theology, that they did more harm than good, and that historical accounts of them were often overblown, in many cases creations of the imagination rather than the report of historical facts.
Few of our men actually doubted that there was a Great Awakening or denied that God does work more mightily in salvation in some times and seasons, but they discovered that even stalwart heroes of our Presbyterian past, such as the great Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge, were by no means unqualified enthusiasts for these Awakenings. Hodge even criticized Whitefield for contributing to disunity in the church by criticizing ministers who weren’t as excited about some features of the revival as Whitefield was. Hodge also pointed out, for example, that in revivals, the spectacular, the unusual, the rare, becomes the norm and the unhappy result of that is that the ordinary ways that the kingdom of God grows in the world come to seem unimpressive and uninteresting and unimportant in comparison. So, Hodge pointed out, the dramatic conversions of the revival period, sudden, powerfully emotional, instantly life-changing – think of the conversions of the Wesleys, or John Newton, or William Cowper, for example – came to be thought of as the norm, the way everyone was supposed to become a Christian.
This development, in turn, led to two very unfortunate results. First, in order for everyone to have such a conversion, it had to be manufactured in the imagination and the revivalism of Charles Finney was the result. Finney, as is now well known, developed a technology of conversion – the invitation system, the anxious bench, and so on – a technology designed to enable everyone to seem to become a Christian in the same dramatic, instantly life-changing way. This, alas, proved to be a perfect recipe for creating inauthentic spiritual experience and even Finney was found admitting later in his life that his converts left a lot to be desired. Second, the special place of the Christian child, the covenant child, the child of Christian parents was forgotten. These children too now were thought to need a powerful conversion experience. The place of nurture in the Christian home was overwhelmed by the expectation of a powerful conversion experience for anyone and everyone who was being saved. We are still paying the piper for that great mistake! Most real Christians in history have never had a powerful, sudden, dramatic conversion experience and to require them to have one is effectively to demand that God alter his historic way of working in the hearts of those who are being saved. God does not usually submit to our demands!
Other books written over the past 20 years made a point of observing that most of the cults that now dot the landscape of American Christianity – the Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventism, Mormonism, and so on – were conceived in revival periods, when, as in the Jesus Movement, there is characteristically all manner of fervid speculation about the soon coming end of the world. You may forget that Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth was the single most influential book of the Jesus Movement! With revivals one must take the bad with the good. When a man’s heart is stopped, desperate measures are required to restart it. But the fact that paddles may be necessary to restart a heart hardly means that it would be healthy to apply a defibrillator to your heart every morning when you get up. An injection of atropine and adrenaline may restart a heart that has stopped, but that doesn’t mean it is wise to give yourself such an injection every morning before breakfast. What I mean is that God may use all manner of violent and dramatic means to awaken the dead, but it is not his ordinary way and the extraordinary comes with all manner of disturbances. The devil takes his part, takes advantage of the opportunity, unbelief is masked as Christian faith, and so on, which seems to be why this isn’t the Lord’s usual way! Revivals account for a tiny fraction of Christian history and the growth of the kingdom of God. To count on them as the answer to our spiritual malaise which we had begun to do in the 50’s and the 60’s was always a mistake. It is ours to bear faithful witness to the gospel and to live in our homes, our churches, our neighborhoods, and our places of work as recommendations of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The rest is up to the Lord who works when and how he pleases. I’d love for another revival, but it would be foolish for me to wait for it as if absent revival there is nothing for us to do and no reason for hope. As the Scripture teaches us, we are never to despise the day of small things, not least because most days are days of small things.
The revival under Josiah was typical of revivals in a variety of ways. First, it was relatively short-lived, really only a movement of something more than ten years in length. The Great Awakening was shorter still if the periods of dramatic activity are added up. Second, it dramatically affected the public worship of the church. As at the Reformation and as in the Great Awakening, the public face of the revival was seen in church, in the public worship of the people of God. Suddenly many more were in attendance; there was more vitality; the congregations began to sing in full voice; the Word of God was listened to with rapt attention, and so on. That was how most people experienced Josiah’s revival: in a root and branch transformation of their practice and experience of worship. Third, the revival stemmed from a new and vitalizing hearing of the Word of God. It was the impact of the Bible, or that part of the Bible that had been written to date, that led Josiah to undertake his reform of Judah’s worship and led many of the people to join him. So it was with the Reformation, the Great Awakening, and every revival since. Suddenly the Word of God was found to have a terrible power over the hearts and minds of large numbers of people who had been indifferent to it before. Words that were read or preached to little effect before now suddenly were the hammer that breaks the rocks into pieces. As you may remember, Edwards had preached Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God to his own congregation shortly before he preached it to such amazing effect in Enfield. It had had little effect on his own people but it turned Enfield upside down. The Holy Spirit was at work in and through the Word and hearing the Word of God changed people’s lives. Fourth, the revival was ignited by the leadership and initiative of a relatively few men. Just as you cannot account for the Reformation – which, remember, was a spiritual revival as surely as it was a doctrinal and ecclesiastical reform – without Luther and Calvin, so you cannot imagine a Great Awakening without Whitefield and the Wesleys in England or without Jonathan Edwards in the colonies, or a Scottish revival in the 1830s without Chalmers, William Burns, and Robert Murray McCheyne. This revival was characteristically a movement with powerful leadership, in this case the very able King Josiah. Fifth, revivals always amount to a judgment pronounced on the status quo. That is why they are always so controversial even in the church. What was happening before, so the advocates of revival will always maintain, was not enough or was positively a hindrance to the salvation of people and so it had to be replaced and those who supported the old way had to be swept aside. Just as the papacy and the church bureaucrats were furious at Luther, just as the Anglican priesthood was generally hostile to the Wesleys; just as Edwards had his enemies among the congregational pastors of Massachusetts, and Chalmers and McCheyne were despised by the comfortable parish pastors of the Scottish church, so Josiah had to impose his reform upon a mostly unwilling clergy – hence the executions of priests – and, as it would become clear later, upon a mostly uninterested population, and hence the violent destruction of so many shrines and temples as part of Josiah’s effort to lead the people of God back into the ways of true faith. There is always a kind of spiritual violence in revivals.
And there is one other feature of Josiah’s revival common to revivals ever since. Revivals, in the nature of the case, highlight the impotence of human effort or, if you will, the impotence of the law to create spiritual life. What becomes clear in revivals in a way more obvious than at other times – indeed, the essential demonstration of a revival and in a revival – is that divine grace, the recreating work of the Holy Spirit is absolutely necessary to bring new life and salvation. This is also the captivating aspect of revivals, the sudden eruption of divine power, the conversions of many who had no thought whatsoever of becoming earnest, active Christians themselves, who had never had loving thoughts toward Jesus Christ, suddenly finding themselves not only believers but champions of his glory and gospel. It is Pentecost all over again! There is that surprise here. Who would have thought Josiah would be Judah’s best ever king with the pedigree he had! But even then, it was some years after his ascension to the throne before the fireworks began. But when they began, what a change was made.
But, as well, it was a change that proved to be very limited in its scope and its depth. We are rightly glad for everyone who embraced the truth of God and began to trust the God of Israel again, but most did not. Even many who were at first caught up in the revival did not last; just as so many did not last in Northampton in Edwards’ day. Jonathan Edwards had later to admit that a very large portion of those who had been added to the membership of the church during the heady days of the revival had over time returned to the world. Revivals are the historic demonstration that salvation is by grace alone and is the sovereign working of God alone. Salvation is a gift that the Lord God gives to whom he pleases and when he pleases. Josiah did what he could, but only God could save Judah and the time for that was past. Doing the right thing was all to Josiah’s credit, but changing the practices of Judah’s worship couldn’t by itself change Judah’s heart. The law was powerless, being made weak by the flesh, as Paul would later put it.
Sad to say, at the last, Josiah’s revival is the historical demonstration that salvation is of the Lord and only of the Lord, and the Lord being no longer willing to grant it to Judah, not even the very best efforts of Judah’s very best king could undo what Manasseh had done.
Usually sola gratia is proved by salvation; but sometimes it is proved by its absence.