Who was Josiah?
In the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament, Josiah was one of the most eminent of the kings of Judah; came to the throne at 8 years of age and reigned circa 637-608 BC.
I. Sources for His Life and Times.
The earliest history (2 Kings 22:1 ) is dispassionate in tone, betraying its prophetic feeling, however, in its acknowledgment of Yahweh's wrath, still menacing in spite of Josiah's unique piety (2 Kings 23:26 , 2 Kings 23:27 ). For "the rest of his acts" (to which the rather bald account of his death is relegated as a kind of appendix), it refers to "the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah." In the later history (2 Ch 34; 35), written from the developed ecclesiastical point of view, he is considerably idealized: the festal and ceremonial aspects of his reform are more fully detailed, and the story of his campaign and death is more sympathetically told in the sense of it as a great national calamity.
For the spiritual atmosphere of his time and the prophetic consciousness of a day of wrath impending, the prophet Zephaniah is illuminating, especially for the first half of the reign. Jeremiah, born at about the same time as Josiah, began prophesying in the 13th year of the reign (Jeremiah 1:2 ). His intimate connection with state affairs, however, belongs to succeeding reigns; but some prophecies of his, notably those revealing his attitude toward the temple misuse (Jeremiah 7:1-15 ) and toward the Deuteronomic reform (Jeremiah 11:1-13 ), throw much light on the prevailing conditions. Nahum, writing near the end of the reign, and from an outlying village, is less concerned with home affairs than with the approaching end of Nineveh (fell 606 BC).
In Jesus Sirach's Praise of Famous Men there is a passage (Sirach 49:1-4 ), wholly eulogistic of Josiah, on the score that "in the days of wicked men he made godliness to prevail"; and along with David and Hezekiah he is one of the three who alone did not "commit trespass." Jeremiah's lamentation for. Josiah, mentioned in 2 Chronicles 35:25 , is not preserved to us; instead there is only an allusion (Jeremiah 22:10 ), naming his successor Shallum (Jehoahaz) as a fitter subject. The lamentations which became "an ordinance in Israel" (2 Chronicles 35:25 ) are not to be referred to the Scripture book of that name; which has no hint of Josiah, unless Lamentations 4:20 be so construed.
II. Traits of His Reign.
1. Situation at the Beginning:
Until his 18th year 2 Kings gives no events of Josiah's reign; 2 Chronicles, however, relates that in his 8th year (at 16 years of age) he "began to seek after the God of David his father," and that in the 12th year he began the purgation of Judah and Jerusalem. The Chronicler may be mistaken in putting the completion of this work before the finding of the law (2 Chronicles 34:8 ), but of his disposition and of his beginning without documentary warrant on a work which Hezekiah had attempted before him, there is no reason to doubt. And indeed various influences were working together to make his procedure natural.
The staunch loyalty to the Davidic house, as emphasized by the popular movement which seated him (see under AMON ), would in itself be an influence to turn his mind to the God of David his father. Manasseh's all-embracing idolatry had indeed reduced his aristocracy to a people "settled on their lees, that say in their heart, Yahweh will not do good, neither will he do evil" (Zephaniah 1:12 ); but these represented merely the inertia, not the intelligence, of the people. Over against them is to be reckoned the spiritually-minded "remnant" with which since Isaiah the prophets had been working; a remnant now seasoned by persecution, and already committed to the virtue of meekness (Zephaniah 2:3 ) and the willing acceptance of affliction as their appointed lot, as against the arrogance of the "proudly exulting ones" (Zephaniah 3:11-13 ).
To such courage and hope the redeeming element of Israel had grown in the midst of a blatant infidelity and worldliness. Nor were they so unconnected with the established order as formerly. The ministers of the temple-service, if not subjected to persecution, had been ranked on a level with devotees of other cults, and so had a common cause which would work to unite the sympathies of priests and prophets in one loyalty to Yahweh. All this is adduced as indicating how the better elements of the nation were ripening for a forward step in enlightened religious progress.
2. Finding of the Law:
The providential moment arrived when in the 18th year of his reign Josiah sent Shaphan the scribe to the temple to arrange with Hilkiah the high priest for the prescribed temple repairs. On giving his account of the funds for that purpose, Hilkiah also delivered to Shaphan a book which he had found in the "house of Yahweh," that is, in the temple proper; which book, when Shaphan read therefrom to the king, caused the latter to rend his robe in dismay and consternation. It was a book in which were commands of Yahweh that had long been unknown or disregarded, and along with these, fearful curses to follow the infraction of them.
Such a discovery could not be treated lightly, as one might spurn a prophet or priest; nay, it immediately called the authority of the prophet into requisition. The king sent a deputation to Huldah the prophetess for her verdict on the book; and she, whether aware of its contents or not, assured him that the curses were valid, and that for impieties against which the prophets continually warned, all the woes written in the book were impending. One of the most voluminous discussions of Biblical scholarship has centered round the question what this book was, what its origin, and how it came there in the temple.
The Chronicler says roundly it was "the book of the law of Yahweh by the hand of Moses." That it was from the nation's great first prophet and lawgiver was the implicit belief of the king and all his contemporaries. There can be little doubt, judging from the nature of the reforms it elicited and the fact that the curses it contained are still extant, that this "book of the law" was virtually identical with our Book of Deuteronomy. But is this the work of Moses, or the product of a later literary activity? In answer, it is fair to say that it is so true to the soundest interpretation of the spirit and power of Moses that there need be no hesitation in calling it genuinely Mosaic, whatever adaptations and supplementations its laws received after his time.
Its highly developed style, however, and its imperfect conformity to the nomadic conditions of Moses' time, make so remote an origin of its present form very doubtful. It comes to us written with the matured skill of Israel's literary prime, in a time too when, as we know (see under HEZEKIAH ), men of letters were keenly interested in rescuing and putting to present use the literary treasures of their past. As to how it came to be left in the temple at a time so much before its discovery that none questioned its being what it purported to be, each scholar must answer for himself.
Some have conjectured that it may have been a product of Solomon's time, and deposited, according to immemorial custom in temple-building, in the foundation of Solomon's temple, where it was found when certain ruins made repairs necessary. To the present writer it seems likelier that it was one of the literary products of Hezekiah's time, compiled from scattered statutes, precedents, and customs long in the keeping - or neglect - of priests and judges, put into the attractive form of oratory, and left for its providential moment. See further, DEUTERONOMY ; WRITING .
3. The Great Reform:
Josiah's immediate procedure was to call to the temple a representative assemblage - elders, prophets, priests, populace - and to read to them this "book of the covenant" (2 Kings 23:2 ). Then he made a solemn covenant before Yahweh to obey it, and all the people stood to the covenant. So, perhaps for the first time, the people of Judah and Jerusalem had for their guidance not only the case decisions of judges and priests, nor only the emergency warnings and predictions of prophets, but a written and accessible document, covering in a large and liberal way the duties of their civic, social and religious life.
One of the most momentous productions of all history, the book became the constitution of the Jewish race; nor were its noble provisions superseded when, centuries later, the tethers of race were broken and a Christian civilization came into its heritage. But the book that was destined to have so large a significance in all coming history had its immediate significance too, and never had this been so pressing. Josiah's consternation arose from the sense of how much of the nation's obvious duty had been left undone and unregarded. First of all, they had through heedless years and ages drifted into a medley of religious ideas and customs which had accumulated until all this lumber of Manasseh's idolatry was upon them.
Hezekiah had tried to clear away some of its most crude and superstitious elements (see under HEZEKIAH ), but he was handicapped by the lack of its clear issue and objective, which now this book supplied. Zephaniah too was showing what Yahweh's will was (Zephaniah 1:2-6 ); there must be a clean sweep of the debasing and obscuring cults, and the purgation must be done to stay. So Josiah's first reforming step was to break up the high places, the numerous centers of the evil, to destroy the symbols and utensils of the idolatrous shrines and rites, and to defile them past resuscitation.
His zeal did not stop with Jerusalem and Judah; he went on to Bethel, which had been the chief sanctuary of the now defunct Northern Kingdom, and in his work here was recognized the fulfillment of an old prophecy dating from the time of its first king (2 Kings 23:17 ; compare 1 Kings 13:1 , 1 Kings 13:2 ). This necessitated the concentration of public worship in the temple at Jerusalem, and in Dt was found the warrant for this, in the prescript, natural to Moses' point of view, that the worship of Israel must have a single center as it had in the wilderness.
From this negative procedure he went on to the positive measure of reviving the festival services inseparable from a religion requiring pilgrimage, instituting a grand Passover on a scale unheard of since the time of the Judges (2 Kings 23:21 , 2 Kings 23:22 ), a feature of his reform on which the Chronicler dwells with peculiar zest (2 Chronicles 35:1-15 ). Thus both in the idolatries they must abolish and in the organized worship that they must maintain, the people were committed to a definite and documented issue; this it was which made Josiah's reform so momentous.
That the reform seemed after Josiah's untimely death to have been merely outward, is what might reasonably be expected from the inveteracy of the unspirituality that it must encounter. Jeremiah had small faith in its saving power against the stubborn perversity of the people (Jeremiah 11:1-14 ); and the historian of 2 Kings intimates that more than the piety of a zealous king was needed to turn away the stern decree of Yahweh's anger (2 Kings 23:26 , 2 Kings 23:27 ). In spite of all hardness and apostasy, however, the nation that had once "stood to the covenant" of Deuteronomy could never again be at heart the nation it was before.
4. Disaster at Megiddo:
Ardent and pious as he was, there seems to have been a lack of balance in Josiah's character. His extreme dismay and dread of the curse pronounced on the realm's neglect of the law seems to have been followed, after his great reform had seemed to set things right, by an excess of confidence in Yahweh's restored favor which went beyond sound wisdom, and amounted to presumption. The power of Assyria was weakening, and Pharaoh-necoh of Egypt, ambitious to secure control of Mesopotamia, started on the campaign in which he was eventually to suffer defeat at Carchemish.
Josiah, whose reforming zeal had already achieved success in Northern Israel, apparently cherished inordinate dreams of invincibility in Yahweh's name, and went forth with a little army to withstand the Egyptian monarch on his march through the northern provinces. At the first onset he was killed, and his expedition came to nothing. In his untimely death the fervid hopes of the pious received a set-back which was long lamented as one of the cardinal disasters of Israel. It was a sore calamity, but also a stern education. Israel must learn not only the enthusiasm but also the prudence and wisdom of its new-found faith.
(2) A contemporary of Zechariah (Zechariah 6:10 ), at whose house in Jerusalem the prophet met some returned Jews from Babylon.
IBSE, (in the public domain) with minor edits.