A while back, I wrote a research paper on King Josiah, and ever since then he has been one of my favorite biblical characters.
Josiah came to power in the Southern Kingdom of Judah around 640 BC. This is a long time after the time of David and Solomon: the kingdom had been divided for almost 300 years, the Northern Kingdom of Israel has already been conquered by Assyria, and the Southern kingdom isn’t too far behind—a long series of mostly unfaithful kings (including Josiah’s father, Amon) have led Judah away from God, and before long, Babylon will begin to conquer them.
This is the situation when Josiah comes to power at the age of 8. Even though he’s young, and even though he had a wicked father, the Bible tells us in 2 Kings 2.22 that Josiah was a good and faithful king:
“He did right in the sight of the LORD and walked in all the way of his father David, nor did he turn aside to the right or to the left.”
According to 2 Kings 22, in the 18th year of his reign, Josiah begins a project to repair and restore the Temple, and during the construction project, the book of the law is found. Scholars and commentators disagree on exactly what this means, but basically, the Law of Moses has been found—either the entire Torah (the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy), or at the very least, the Book of Deuteronomy on its own. Either way, what this means is that the Law of Moses—the record of the covenant that God made with His people and the laws He gave them to follow—has been found and is read to King Josiah for the first time. It shows just how bad things had gotten under Josiah’s wicked father that Josiah apparently hadn’t been exposed to the Torah before now!
A covenant is an agreement or a promise made between two parties. To put it simply, in God’s covenant with the Israelites, God promised to be their God and protect them, and in return, the people were to be faithful and obedient to His commands. When Josiah hears the words of the Law, he tears his clothes because he realizes just how unfaithful Judah has been—they haven’t followed the commands of the Law of Moses, and they’ve worshipped gods other than Yahweh. In short, they haven’t kept up their part of the bargain.
So Josiah sends to Huldah the prophetess to inquire of the LORD—what does God say about the situation? Huldah responds in 2 Kings 22.15-20, but it isn’t good news:
“‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the LORD, Behold, I will bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and have made offerings to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched.
But to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the LORD.
Therefore, behold, 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 disaster that I will bring upon this place.’’
And they brought back word to the king.”
So basically, God says that for all their wickedness, the people of Judah will be punished, but because Josiah humbled himself before God, he won’t have to witness the destruction of his country and will die before it happens.
Put yourself in the place of Josiah: what do you do next? No matter what you do, it’s too late for Judah and they’re going to be punished for their past sins after you die. It seems like whatever you do doesn’t matter, because the same negative consequence will happen either way. This is Josiah’s situation; what will he do next?
And this is why Josiah is one of my favorite Bible characters, and why he is such a good example for us: even when he knows that there’s no reward coming his way, he still does the right thing because of his devotion to God.
In 2 Kings 23, Josiah goes out and reads the Book of the Law in front of all the people and along with them, reestablishes the covenant with God. Then, he sets about in a systematic way to make things right. He goes throughout Judah and even into the northern territory of Israel and does away with unauthorized worship practices, destroying idols and pagan altars and getting rid of idolatrous priests. He removes the mediums and spiritists from the land as well, and also re-institutes the Passover feast:
“For no such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem.”
Josiah does all of this despite the knowledge that Judah is going to be punished no matter what, and sure enough, after Josiah is killed in a battle against Egypt, Judah is quickly overthrown.
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Josiah’s life underscores how important it is to serve God because we love Him, not because we’re hoping to get something for doing so. I think a lot of times people get the idea that as Christians, we spend our lives doing good things for God and that He then pays us back by granting us eternal life.
To be clear, the Bible does speak of eternal life as a reward and the hope of living eternally in God’s presence should help to motivate us to keep going, especially when times get rough. But if the only reason you’re serving God is so He’ll pay you back with eternal life, then you really have the wrong perspective on things. Serving God will seem like a chore and, before long, you’ll fool yourself into thinking that God owes you something, when nothing could be further from the truth.