2 KINGS 22, 23, 24 and 25
It must have been a shock to Josiah: being made king of Judah at an age when most children have just started junior school! The very last godly king of God’s people, at the age of eight he ascended the throne and then reigned a total 31 years. At the age of sixteen, he started to seek the Lord, and at the age of twenty he noticed all the idols and altars to foreign gods and had them destroyed. Aged twenty-five, he turned his attention to the temple itself, ordering a national fundraising collection for its structural restoration and appointing administrators, architects and builders to be employed in the restoration work. Someone was clearing out a darkened corner of the building and discovered the Book of the Law; this would have been a copy of the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Old Testament – written (it is thought) by Moses.
Josiah – whose name means ‘Healed by God’ – did what many of us should start doing again: he actually read the scriptures and took them seriously! So seriously that he tore his own royal robes and declared that God was soon to bring justice and judgement down upon the rebellious nation. (Based upon what he’d just read.) To be doubly sure, he sent for a prophetess who confirmed that the Lord was going to bring disaster upon the city and its people and the entire land of Judah; this was in punishment for the sins of all the people throughout all the ages, but in particular for the crimes that Manasseh had committed before he had repented.
In my mind this raises a couple of questions: (1) Why did the Lord wait until things had actually improved and Josiah had initiated a time of national repentance and purification before starting to declare vengeance upon his people? (2) Why did God punish the wickedness of Manasseh, despite having seen his repentance and forgiven him? You wonder what would have happened if Josiah had not discovered the Book of the Law; would everything have carried on unchanged?
I don’t think so. It is better to think that the Lord prompted the rediscovery of the Law so that he could be merciful to Josiah and decree a stay of execution on Judah during Josiah’s lifetime. This is more consistent with God’s character and methods of operation. And also, even though we repent of our sins and are forgiven, it doesn’t mean that all consequences of our sins are totally wiped away. If a man violently attacks his neighbour in a fit of rage and injures himself in the process, then he might later be forgiven, but the injuries may remain and he might not get instantly healed by the Lord. All sin has consequences, and we must be aware that only in the Age to Come is the slate completely wiped clean!
Josiah took to heart the contents of the Pentateuch and stood in the restored temple, reading the words of the Covenant, and promising afresh to follow the Lord and to keep all his commands. The people all concurred with their king. After that followed a comprehensive purge of all artefacts of foreign religions, including their professional followers, the prostitutes, the mediums, the false priests, the child sacrifice equipment, the holy horses, all the high places where unauthorised worship was going on – even the ones that Solomon had permitted! – and the great pagan altar at Bethel. Moving outwards, Josiah even purged Samaria and its surrounding towns for good measure! The Passover was celebrated in way that had not occurred since the days of the prophet Samuel – not even in David’s and Solomon’s day! It was amazing!
Nevertheless, even after all this, it only served to delay God’s judgment upon the nation. According to the Lord’s own promise, it would not occur during Josiah’s lifetime, but that did not involve waiting too long. Necho, the king of Egypt, brought his army through Judah to assist the Assyrian army that was now engaged in battle with the newly-formed Babylonian empire. Rather recklessly, Josiah mustered his own army and marched out to oppose Necho, despite Necho explaining that he had no quarrel with Judah. Necho even claimed that God had sent him to join the battle and that by opposing Necho, Josiah would be opposing God! This may seem to be a spurious claim, but 2 Chronicles 35:22 tells us that this is exactly what God had said to Necho. We must recognise that the Lord is able to move and control godless foreign rulers with just as much ease as he moves the godly. This is just as true in our day as in Josiah’s.
Josiah foolishly continued with the battle and was quickly killed; bravery alone is insufficient for success in this life; it is also necessary to wait upon the Lord and to discover his will. But Josiah had been one of the greatest of all Judah’s kings and he deserved his lavish burial. The Book of Lamentations, probably written by Jeremiah, was apparently composed in Josiah’s honour. In the end, Judah perished into exile and had too few God-fearing kings to escape God’s threatened punishments. Josiah was a great king and a great man; he started young and continued to serve the Lord faithfully every day of his life. Let’s make the most of the years that the Lord gives us; we have no idea of how long or short they are – so let’s live our days in a sense of urgency to get the job done, whilst always working from the place of His rest.
We can read in Jeremiah the account of the exile. We read it again in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. Interestingly, Daniel the prophet was probably included in the Jews taken early into exile. King Jehoiakim had become Nebuchadnezzar’s vassal for three years, but the attack on the Babylonians by the Egyptian army probably encouraged Jehoiakim to rebel and attempt to change sides; unsurprisingly, this encouraged Nebuchadnezzar to attack Jerusalem again by way of punishment of the king. Jehoiakim died shortly before the city fell.
His son, Jehoiachin became king at the age of eighteen, for the last three months of the siege. Not a great time to take up the throne! It was obvious that it was futile to resist Nebuchadnezzar any longer and sensibly Jehoiachin surrendered and became Nebuchadnezzar’s prisoner. A large number of people, including most of the royal officials were taken back to Babylon, and Nebuchadnezzar then appointed Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, as king instead – at the ripe old age of twenty-one! Surprisingly, for a king ruling at such a time, Zedekiah reigned as long as eleven years. Just like the previous three kings who had followed Josiah, Zedekiah was another evil-doer in the eyes of the Lord and showed little political savvy too…
Nine years into his reign, Zedekiah himself rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar and this was the ‘final straw’: the entire Babylonian army was mustered and laid siege to Jerusalem for the last time. The siege took nearly two years, but the outcome was inevitable – mainly because the Lord had already prophesied through Jeremiah that the city was fall to Nebuchadnezzar. Foolishly, Zedekiah tried to escape rather than surrender, and was easily captured, tried, blinded, and taken in chains to Babylon. Many of his officials were executed. This time the entire contents of the temple and the palaces that had any value were collected and brought as tribute to Nebuchadnezzar; little of the nation was permitted to remain, other than a handful of poor people who were tasked with caring for the land.
Gedaliah was placed in control, under the authority of Nebuchadnezzar, and for a while there was peace. Gedaliah wisely urged submission to the Babylonians, just as Jeremiah had previously, but this was not an entirely popular message. Within seven months, Nebuchadnezzar’s vassal had been assassinated and, in fear of reprisals, the remaining people escaped to Egypt.
On a positive note, after the death of Nebuchadnezzar, the next ruler of Babylon released Jehoiachin from prison and gave him certain privileges as a royal captive. Much later, after seventy years of captivity, the Lord remembered his promise to Jeremiah and moved the heart of Cyrus, King of Persia, to set in the place the mechanism for the rebuilding of the temple and the resettlement of the Jewish kingdom. These are actually the final words of 2 Chronicles.
There is almost a welcome sense of relief that, at last, the punishment imposed by the Lord upon Israel and Judah has been completed – it had been hanging over them far too long. At least now the next phase – that of rebuilding the nation – can at last get under way.