Text: 2 Kings 22-23
What does the word ‘reformation’ conjure up in your mind? If you know anything about our Christian heritage, you will probably associate that word with the great period of spiritual renewal that took place in the 16th and early 17th centuries under the leadership of men like Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. It was a powerful movement of the Spirit of God, and we are still benefiting from its effects four centuries later.
But that Reformation was not the first or only one. A much earlier reformation took place in OT times. It is recorded in 2 Kings 22-23 and 2 Chron 34-35.
You will recall that the people of God, united as one nation under David and Solomon, had split into two – the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The kingdom of Israel had already disintegrated, morally and spiritually, and its people taken into exile. Judah, however, limped on for another hundred years. A succession of kings, some good, like Hezekiah, and some bad, like Manasseh, had presided over general spiral of decline.
Judah had pretty much reached the end of the line by the time that 8-year-old Josiah came to the throne. And yet, no king received a more glowing accolade than him. 2 Kings 22:2 – ‘Josiah did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and walked in all the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left.’
Josiah’s great achievement was oversee a great reformation of his nation. Our Bible reading has indicated that the land was riddled with idolatry and with the wicked practices associated with idolatry – including the horrific practice of sacrificing children by throwing them onto a fire. And Josiah set about putting all this right. I want us to look at how Josiah’s reforms began, continued, and ended. And as we do so, I think we can learn much about God’s dealings with his people then and now.
1. It began with a seeking heart
Let’s do a little bit of detective work. In 2 Kings 22:3ff we find Josiah in the 18th year of his reign occupied with repairing the Temple in Jerusalem. Now, the Temple hadn’t been properly repaired since the time of King Joash 250 years before. Clearly, something is going on here. What prompted Josiah to undertake a thorough renovation of the nation’s central place of worship?
Come with me for a moment to 2 Chron 34:3. There we see that in the 12th year of his reign, Josiah had begun his reforms by ‘purging Judah and Jerusalem of high places, Asherah poles, carved idols and cast images.’ Four years before that, in the 8th year of his reign (that is, at the tender age of 16), Josiah had begun ‘to seek the God of his father David.’ So that’s how it all began. Here is a boy king, the son of a wicked father, surrounded by idolatry and with few good examples to follow, who is seeking God. It all began with a seeking heart.
So many things in God’s kingdom begin with a seeking heart. There may be some here this morning who feel they have very little to bring to God. You can bring little knowledge, little faith. But you do have a seeking heart. You feel that there must be something – or someone – who can give meaning and purpose and lasting satisfaction in life. God can do business with people like you. You may be feeling like a blade of grass that thas been crushed underfoot, or like an ember that is almost snuffed out. Listen: ‘A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.’ Do not dream of being fit for God. ‘All the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of him.’ It all began with a seeking heart.
2. It continued with an obedient response
We return to the account in 2 King 22:3-8. A momentous discovery is made in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Book of the Law has been found. The Book of the Law is probably what we know as the book of Deuteronomy. It should have been in the most holy place in the Temple, beside the ark of the covenant. It had been lost – probably durig the dark days of Manasseh’s reign. But now Hilkiah the high priest tells Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the book of the Law.”
Shaphan brings the book to Josiah and reads from it. Josiah is appalled. From his reaction, it may well have been Deut 28 that so distressed him. For that chapter tells of all the blessings that would accrue to the people of God if they worshiped God and kept his commands, and all the curses that would come upon them if they did not. Deut 28:63f “The LORD will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other…Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot.” Josiah could see very clearly that his nation had terribly abused it’s God-given privileges and was very probably doomed.
Josiah consults a prophetess named Huldah. 22:12-20. Is it too late to avert God’s judgement? Is the nation past the point of no return? Or may God yet be merciful to an undeserving people? The prophetess confirms what unnamed prophets had already declared in 2 King 21:10ff, that the Lord would fulfil what he had so long ago threatened in Deut 28 and, yes, the nation was doomed.
If you were Josiah, do you think you would have been tempted to give up? Not him. He set about his reforms anyway. Scripture had said; and the prophecy of Huldah had confirmed, “Josiah, it’s not going to work – it’s too late.” But his response was, “Well, I’m going to do it anyway.”
Josiah’s response was obedient, rather pragmatic. He did it because it was right, rather than because he expected it to work. Sometimes, even our best deeds are affected by pragmatism. Will this method of prayer gain God’s ear? Will this style of worship inspire me? Will this programme of evangelism prove attractive to people? In other words: Will it work? But the most important questions are, It is true? Is it right? There is something profoundly liberating about doing something simply because it is right. What possible impact can I have on global warming if I walk rather than drive to work? What is the point of giving dignified care to a profoundly disabled person when they will not even know it let alone thank me for it? What possible difference can it make to the interests of God’s kingdom if I increase my giving by 10 or 20 percent? What effect can 30 minutes of prayer have in such a vast, troubled world? Well, it helps a whole lot to base my decisions more on what is right, and less on a pragmatic calculation of their likely outcome.
And what, exactly, was the outcome of Josiah’s reform?
3. It ended in heroic failure
Josiah’s reform was an heroic achievement. Look: the glowing accolade is repeated, 23:25 – ‘Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the LORD as he did–with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses.’
And then comes the bombshell of v26f. ‘Nevertheless, the LORD did not turn away from the heat of his fierce anger, which burned against Judah because of all that Manasseh had done to provoke him to anger.’
It is clear that despite his heroic efforts, Josiah did not succeed in changing people’s hearts. When we read of all the things he did to reform his nation, it all happened because he mde it happen. He was the one who trembled at the word of God. He was the one who sought the counsel of the prophetess Huldah. He was the one who called everyone together to renew the covenant. He was the one who personally supervised the destruction of all the paraphernalia of idolatry. He was the one who ordered the people to celebrate a Passover such as had not been seen since the days of the judges.
What he failed to do was change the heart of the nation. Jeremiah, the great prophet of that time, could see that. Jer 3:10, ‘Israel’s unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the LORD.’.
But far-sighted Jeremiah could see beyond the failure, the evil, and the impending exile to a time when God’s people would return, and a new covenant would be established, one far greater that the old one Josiah worked so hard to restore.
Jer 31:31ff. “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
It so happens that Josiah stands exactly at a mid-point between the old covenant and the new covenant; between Sinai and Calvary; between the deliverance wrought by the Exodus and the deliverance wrought by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Michael Wilcock puts it like this: ‘From the last mountain-top of the monarchy King Josiah looks back across six centuries to Moses, determined to revive in his own day the old covenant which had failed so often before, and would fail again. But that law was “but a shadow of the good things to come”, and could never “make perfect those who draw near.” But from the same point the prophet Jeremiah looks forward, also across six centuries, to Christ the “mediator of a new covenant” who “by a single offering…has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.”‘
So may our seeking hearts find their rest in Jesus, who has given us ‘a new and living way’. And may he renew us by his Spirit, and give us minds to know him, hearts to love him, and wills to obey him. For this he died and rose again. To this we are called. Thanks be to God.