Josiah is an ideal Davidic king in many ways. He not only “did right,” but he “walked in the ways of his father David” and “did not turn aside to the right or to the left” (2 Chronicles 34:2).
At the age of 16, he began to seek Yahweh, and four years later he initiated a purge of idolatry from the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem (34:3-7). In a quasi-sacrificial purge, he tears and cuts and pulverizes altars and Asherah poles and incense altars to Baal, sprinkles the dust on graves of idolaters, and burns the bones of the priests on the altars.
And he doesn’t stop with Judah and Jerusalem. He destroys altars, Asherah poles, and idols in Manasseh, Ephraim, Simeon, and Naphtali, areas of the northern kingdom. He is like a new Joshua, conquering the land and cleansing idolatry.
The purge is preparation for the reestablishment of the worship of Yahweh. At the age of 26, he revives Joash’s program for maintaining the house of the Lord. The Chronicler describes the collection and delivery of the money in elaborate detail. Money is collected and passed from hand to hand to hand until it gets into the hand of the workmen who will repair the house (34:8-13).
And the Lord rewards this act of homage. As the house is being repaired, Hilkiah the priest finds the book of the law inside. And that book is, like the money, passed from hand to hand to hand until Shaphan the scribe reads it in the presence of the king (34:14-21). Josiah gives tribute to the Lord, and the word of the Lord comes down from the temple mount to warn and instruct the king. Yahweh is no longer silent. He speaks again from His throne above the cherubim.
Because Josiah humbles himself when he hears the Lord’s word, the Lord relents from the calamity he planned for Jerusalem. Jerusalem will not be destroyed in Josiah’s day, and the Lord even promises to bring him to his grave in peace (34:28).
Equipped with the book of the law, Josiah launches a third phase of reform, calling the people to Jerusalem to renew the covenant between Yahweh, the king, and the people.
Once all this is completed, he presides at a Passover that is greater than any Passover celebrated during the monarchy. The Chronicler has to go back to the days of Samuel to find a precedent (2 Chronicles 35:18).
Throughout 2 Chronicles 34, Josiah is simply called “the king.” His specific personality disappears; his given name isn’t used. He becomes simply “the king,” a living archetype of sheer royalty. He does everything that one expects of a king.
A Passover should be followed by an exodus. And, right on cue, as soon as Josiah’s Passover has been celebrated, a king of Egypt comes into the picture.
But it’s not a sign of liberation. Judah doesn’t need to be liberated. She’s already an independent nation. Instead, the sudden appearance of Egypt strikes an ominous note.
Solomon was married to an Egyptian princess, but otherwise Egypt has been a threatening presence throughout 2 Chronicles.
Jeroboam came up from Egypt to challenge Rehoboam and to take away ten tribes. He comes out of Egypt in an exodus, and then, Moses-like, leads an exodus from the house of David. It’s an exodus, but the house of David under Rehoboam is the Egypt.
And then Rehoboam is threatened by an Egyptian army. We can imagine what’s in Pharaoh Shishak’s mind. Jeroboam lived in Egypt for a time, and is presumably on good terms with the Egyptians. He worships calves and satyrs, like the Egyptians do. If Shishak can conquer Judah, then he can extend Egyptian influence all the way from Egypt to the northern kingdom.
Rehoboam suffers a reverse Passover and exodus. Instead of being delivered from Egyptian slavery, he comes under the hegemony of Egypt. Instead of plundering Egypt, Egypt plunders Israel.
Between Rehoboam and Josiah, Egypt doesn’t intrude on Judah at all. Judah is able to exist in relative independence from their powerful neighbor to the south. But now, in the days of Josiah, after a great Passover, an Egyptian shows up. Is it going to be another reverse exodus?
Other details reinforce our sense of disquiet. Josiah leaves Jerusalem to meet Pharaoh. As William Johnstone has noted, it’s usually disastrous for kings of Judah to leave home. Rehoboam goes to Shechem and loses 10 tribes. Jehoshaphat visits Ahab and forms an alliance that nearly destroys Judah.
It’s usually disastrous because it puts the kings of Judah in the middle of other people’s wars. Jehoshaphat accompanies Ahab in war to recover Ramoth Gilead from the Arameans, and nearly gets killed. Josiah puts himself in the middle of a war between Egypt and Assyria – between Nimrod and Cush – and does get killed.
That’s not the worst of it. The problem isn’t simply political and military. The problem is theological. The king of Judah is Yahweh’s prince, the prince of the Creator of heaven and earth, who is enthroned in Jerusalem. Judah’s kings should approach the world from a position of strength. They aren’t called to be involved in the power struggles of other kings. They are called to be agents of Yahweh’s kingship.
Besides that, Pharaoh Neco claims to be on his way to Carchemish to fight the Assyrians, on a mission of God.
Neco sends messengers to Josiah to inform him: “God has ordered me to hurry. Stop for your own sake from interfering with God who is with me, that He may not destroy you” (35:21). The Chronicler confirms that these words come “from the mouth of God” (35:22). By trying to intervene, Josiah is setting himself in opposition to Yahweh’s own purpose and plan.
The irony is thick. It’s an Egyptian king, one of Israel’s traditional enemies. And he sends messengers. But these messengers bear the words of the Lord, and in resisting them Josiah is resisting the Lord as much as he would be if he refused to listen to a prophet. As Johnstone points out, Josiah becomes yet another king who “mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets” (36:16).
Josiah, the king who discovered the law of God, the king who tore his robe when the law was read in his presence, “does not listen” to the words that come from the mouth of God. He’s no longer “the king.” He is just “Josiah,” as flawed as other kings of Judah.
The conduct and outcome of the skirmish confirms our fears. Josiah decides to go into battle in disguise. It didn’t work for Ahab and it doesn’t work for Josiah. Though disguised, Ahab was killed an arrow that was shot “at random” (2 Chronicles 18). Josiah is shot by archers and is carted back to Jerusalem to die.
It’s a symmetrical conclusion to the history of kings. Chronicles begins its account of the monarchy with the death of Saul, shot by archers on Mount Gilboa. At the center of the history is the death of Ahab, shot with a random arrow as he fights against Ramoth Gilead. That history closes with another king killed by archers.
Judah’s history doesn’t end immediately, but her independence is all but over. Josiah is the last king to be buried in Jerusalem. His son Joahaz reigns for only three months, and then Neco puts his brother in his place. From then on the kings of Judah are puppets of one or another empire – either Egypt or Babylon.
Soon Judah will be conquered, the people deported, the temple and palace plundered and burned. The great Passover didn’t mark the beginning of a new deliverance for Judah. On the contrary, the great Passover was undermined by Josiah’s folly, his refusal to hear the word of Yahweh.
Jeremiah chants a lament for Josiah. It’s not only for Josiah. It’s for “the king,” the king who acted most fully like a king, the king who is really the last king of Judah.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.