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The Last Righteous King

Date: December 1, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
1 advent candle lit in the wreath

Scripture: 2 Kings 22:1-1-23:3, 21-27

Before we get started on the story of Josiah, we need to backtrack and set the scene.

Josiah’s great-grandfather was Hezekiah, described as doing right in the sight of the LORD, who had faced down the Assyrians when they came to try and conquer Jerusalem. He had a long illness, after which the king of Babylon, not yet a superpower, sent representatives to visit him. He showed these Babylonian envoys all the treasure of Jerusalem, which prompted the prophet Isaiah to warn him that Babylon would one day conquer Jerusalem.

But Hezekiah, in what can be seen in hindsight as an expression of terrifying denial, brushes the warning off and says, “Well, it won’t happen in my lifetime, so why worry?” [1]

Hezekiah is succeeded by his son Manasseh, his exact opposite in the historian’s eyes, which evaluate the kings based on how faithful they were to the commandments of the LORD. He was a wicked king and undid everything his father had done to try and keep the nation faithful to God. He built altars to other gods in the Temple itself, among many other offenses; and made the land run red with innocent blood.

2 Kings says Manasseh reigned for 55 years; historians aren’t sure that number is accurate, but in any case he had the longest reign of any king in Jerusalem since David and Solomon. Manasseh’s wickedness was the last straw for the LORD, who vowed to destroy his people—wipe Jerusalem as one would wipe a dish, it says—because they had been unfaithful to God’s commandments from the moment they had been brought out of Egypt.

Manasseh was Josiah’s grandfather, and he was succeeded by his son, Josiah’s father Amon. Amon was every bit as wicked as Manasseh, and reigned only two years before being assassinated.[2] Then eight-year-old Josiah took his place. Josiah was the last king of Judah that the historian evaluates as having done “what was right in the sight of the LORD.”

Some time around 621 bce, when Josiah had been on the throne for eighteen years, he ordered that the Temple be thoroughly cleaned and renovated. All of the idols and altars to false gods that Manasseh had brought into the Temple were removed. Then, one day, Josiah ordered that the high priest Hilkiah take all the money that had been collected for the renovation up to the workers; and while Hilkiah was there, he found “the book of the law,” which was probably an early version of Deuteronomy.

It’s not clear whether the book was found in the collection box, or in a pile of trash; or it could be that Hilkiah had known where it was for some time but chose that moment to bring it to the king’s attention. In any case, the king’s secretary Shaphan reads the book, and then takes it to the king and reads it aloud to him.

Josiah, hearing the commandments in the book, realizes how very far his people had fallen from what God expected of them, and immediately begins to make more changes. And he has the book read to all of the people, and leads them in a ceremony renewing their covenant with the LORD their God. He orders high places and altars all over the land destroyed, ends worship of foreign gods like Molech, who apparently demanded human sacrifice; and ultimately re-instituted the celebration of Passover.

The historian’s view of Josiah is without exception positive. Like his great-grandfather Hezekiah, he’s described as totally faithful to God and God’s commandments, and the historian says no king like him had come before him and none succeeded him. (There were, actually, only four more kings of Judah after Josiah, and all of them were, according to the Deuteronomistic historian, wicked.)

If that’s all we knew of the story, we might be able to say it’s all well and good. But it’s not. There is more to the story—nothing that makes Josiah any less of a righteous king, but they make us wonder just how much good his relentless faithfulness actually did for his people.

After Shaphan reads the book of the law to Josiah, the king commands him and a delegation of other leaders to go and inquire of God, through the prophetess Huldah, to find out whether there was anything that could be done to avert God’s promised wrath. Huldah tells them that God’s mind would not be changed, no matter what Josiah does. The destruction promised in Manasseh’s time was going to happen; God was not going to turn aside this time. The only good news in Huldah’s message from God is for Josiah himself: His faithfulness, his penitence, his desire to turn himself and his nation back to God, had not gone unnoticed, and so Josiah would not see the destruction that was coming for his people, but would die a relatively peaceful death. [3]

And finally, after the nation celebrated the restored Passover, and Josiah’s reign is again summarized positively, after all Josiah had done to turn his own heart and the heart of his nation back to the LORD, comes this crashing statement, which is where our reading for today ended:

Still the LORD did not turn from the fierceness of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. The LORD said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel; and I will reject this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.”

It was all for naught. Nothing Josiah did made any difference at all in the fate of his people before God.

I struggle with this story. Josiah was good, he did good, he led his people to do good; but it was too late, and didn’t change God’s mind one iota about destroying Judah.

Choon-Leong Seow, in his commentary on 2 Kings in the New Interpreter’s Bible, says that Josiah’s story teaches us that we cannot achieve salvation on the basis of our own efforts. No matter how hard we try, no matter how much good we do, we cannot save ourselves. He says this story should remind us that we are saved only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. And certainly a great deal of the New Testament tells us precisely that; but that’s not the only thing the New Testament tells us.

John the Baptist urged his followers to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” [4] In other words, as James said, “[F]aith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”[5] Our actions are the main way we demonstrate our faith. If we’re saved by faith, it changes the way we act—just as Josiah’s repentance changed the way he acted.

And for heaven’s sake, Jonah was sent to Nineveh, the capital of his people’s most brutal enemy, and when the king and his city repented, they were spared God’s wrath. Why doesn’t Josiah’s repentance and subsequent reform spare Judah?

I just don’t get it.

Maybe what we need to do is put ourselves not in the shoes of Josiah or his generation in Judah, but in the shoes of Manasseh and his generation. Had they acted differently, maybe it wouldn’t have been too late when Josiah came on the scene. Maybe the lesson for us from 2 Kings is to think not just about ourselves but about the effects of our choices and actions on our children and grandchildren.

Or maybe it’s this…

Some have said that a good test of a person’s character is whether or not they do the right thing when nobody’s watching. Maybe doing the right thing even when you know it won’t bring any rewards, as Josiah did, is an even greater indication of good character.

Josiah knew going in, because he had his advisers consult the LORD via the prophetess Huldah, that his nation’s fate was already sealed. But he did away with idols and altars to false gods, and re-instituted practices commanded in torah anyway. Even though his nation was doomed, Josiah did what was right in God’s sight.

Historians take a much longer view of just about everything than the average person. We know that the nations rise and nations fall. The Roman Empire, despite all it accomplished, eventually fell, and so have many, many nations and empires throughout the history of humanity. So in a historical sense, we might say that every nation or empire that exists on this earth right now is, ultimately, doomed. Nothing lasts forever, except God.

Yet like Josiah, we have our own moment in time, a period in which we have the choice whether we will do good or evil in the sight of the LORD. Our actions may not stop the march of history, may not do anything to ensure the longevity of our nation or our people; but no good we do can ever be considered a waste.

Josiah knew going in that he would not avert his nation’s destruction. But he chose to do what was right anyway.

Regardless of what the future holds, this moment is the one in which we must act, the one in which we can hear God’s instruction to us and decide whether or not to follow. This moment is the one in which we can choose to do what is right.

And maybe doing what is right in this moment is enough.

[1] Hezekiah’s story is told in 2 Kings 18—20.

[2] Manasseh and Amon are the subjects of 2 Kings 21.

[3] Josiah’s death is only relatively peaceful; he will escape Babylon’s attack and the horrors of siege and exile; instead, he will die in what was probably an ill-conceived battle against Pharaoh Neco, at the age of 39.  See 2 Kings 23:28-30.

[4] Matthew 3:8

[5] James 2:17