Sunday School Lesson: Josiah – Rediscovering the Word

Sunday School Lesson: Josiah – Rediscovering the Word

Josiah: Sunday School Lesson Intro

In the story of King Josiah we discover a time period in which the nation of Judah has forgotten the Scriptures. Sadly, many nations in our world today live in similar shambles. To cite one example, according to a 2004 Barna Research Group study, only 4 percent of American adults have what can be considered a "biblical worldview," which simply refers to a way of seeing life according to the truths of Scripture. Such ignorance of God's Word is not without grave consequences, as seen in many corners of our culture. As believers, how are we to reignite a passion for the Word of God in the world around us?

In Chaim Potok's novel The Promise, a hardened Jewish scholar speaks with a rabbinical student about the potential dangers of in-depth study of Scripture. "How can we teach others to regard the tradition critically and with love?" he asks. "I grew up loving it, and then learned to look at it critically. That's everyone's problem today: How to love and respect what you are being taught to dissect."

This is also a danger for us as we seek a deeper knowledge of the Bible. Certainly it is important to understand issues of historical context and the verbal and literary features of the text. However, we do run the risk of getting so engrossed in these details that we miss the forest for the trees. Let us never forget that we are studying the Word of God! As John Wesley once wrote, "O give me that book! At any price give me the Book of God! I have it. Here is knowledge enough for me. Here I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: only God is here. In His presence I open, I read His Book."

How can we maintain the passion that John Wesley so famously expressed as we study the Bible? A simple first step is to allow ourselves to be captivated by persons in Scripture who exemplify the power of Scripture. No character is more important in this regard as Josiah. By studying his life we are reminded that the Bible is all we need for life and godliness.

I. Discover God's Word (2 Kings 22:1-13)

We reach the reign of Josiah when Judah has once again experienced a whirlwind of difficult and differing leaders. After the godly heroism of Hezekiah, his son Manasseh plunges the kingdom right back into the middle of idolatry. This sinful administration continues under Manasseh's son Amon, so that by the time we reach Josiah, Judah has endured approximately fifty-seven years of paganism. This pagan worship touched all aspects of national and personal life for the Judeans. With Yahweh having been completely neglected, the stage is set for a new young king to happen upon a startling discovery.

A. Repairing the temple

"Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty and one years in Jerusalem. And his mother's name was Jedidah, the daughter of Adaiah of Boscath. And he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of David his father, and turned not aside to the right hand or to the left. And it came to pass in the eighteenth year of king Josiah, that the king sent Shaphan the son of Azaliah, the son of Meshullam, the scribe, to the house of the Lord, saying, Go up to Hilkiah the high priest, that he may sum the silver which is brought into the house of the Lord, which the keepers of the door have gathered of the people" (2 Kings 22:1-4).

Typical of kings during this time period, Josiah starts his rule at an extremely young age. His father's rule had been extraordinarily short, ending in disaster. With the dishonor of assassination in his family, Josiah likely realizes that the way things have been done will not keep him on the throne for long. A severe change is necessary. Nonetheless, we are left to guess at the events and decisions that characterized the first years of Josiah's reign. Second Kings does not pick up the story until eighteen years into Josiah's reign. However, 2 Chronicles 34:3 lets us know that Josiah became familiar with Yahweh, the God of David, when he was sixteen years old, and when he was twenty he began to purge the nation of foreign gods.

Both 2 Chronicles 34:3 and 2 Kings 22:2 emphasize that Josiah walked in the ways of King David. Although we cannot be sure that this identification was intentional on the part of Josiah, it is easy to believe. With his father being disgraced, perhaps as an adolescent Josiah began to research the annals of Judah's former kings and became enamored with the glory of David. If so, he was obviously struck by David's dedication to Yahweh. Unfortunately, the nation in Josiah's day had forgotten David's God. This Josiah sets out to change, and to change decisively.

In verses 3 and 4, two key characters, Shaphan and Hilkiah, are introduced. Shaphan is Josiah's royal secretary, and his faithful service both to Josiah and to God allows his name to continue forward in the biblical record through his sons. In fact, his son Ahikam is later an important (and heroically lonely!) supporter of the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 26:24). In our lesson text, Shaphan receives Josiah's simple command to administrate the restoration of the Temple as guided by Hilkiah the high priest.

It is especially interesting that Josiah focuses on repairing the Temple before the discovery of the Book of the Law. The text indicates that the king has already experienced success in the endeavor, since the collection for the repairs is already completed by the time the narration of the story begins. What remains to be done is the actual work upon the house of God.

Josiah approaches this daunting task with a detailed prospectus. Skilled workers are to be diversified into their particular division of labor and reimbursed properly from the Temple treasury (v. 5). These divisions include carpenters to work with wood, builders for larger projects, and masons to cut and lay stone (v. 6). Josiah trusts these skilled laborers with the monies distributed from Hilkiah. He does not want them to get bogged down in accounting or worrying about funds (v. 7). He wants them to simply ply their craft. As a result, the work moves swiftly. It is not even affected when a discovery occurs which is more important even than the Temple's restoration.

B. The forgotten Torah

"And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord. And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it. And Shaphan the scribe came to the king, and brought the king word again, and said, Thy servants have gathered the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of them that do the work, that have the oversight of the house of the Lord. And Shaphan the scribe shewed the king, saying, Hilkiah the priest hath delivered me a book. And Shaphan read it before the king. And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the book of the law, that he rent his clothes. And the king commanded Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam the son of Shaphan, and Achbor the son of Michaiah, and Shaphan the scribe, and Asahiah a servant of the king's, saying, Go ye, enquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that is found: for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book, to do according unto all that which is written concerning us" (2 Kings 22:8-13).

At some point as the laborers work diligently on the many facets of restoring the Temple's former grandeur, Hilkiah approaches Josiah's secretary, Shaphan, with a sobering find (v. 8). Do not confuse the King James Version's rendering of Shaphan as a "scribe" with any notion of Bible scholar, although (more on this later) there could actually be some truth to this. A basic reading, however, does not indicate that Shaphan necessarily knows anything about the Old Testament. We are not given any insight into Shaphan's reaction to the book - only that he reads it in its entirety. In fact, he initially keeps quite silent about the discovery. Instead, he steadily supervises the task given him by Josiah until the physical restoration of the Temple is completed. Only then does he report back to King Josiah.

Verse 10 is the first indicator that what has been discovered is likely not the entire Torah. Several reasons lead Bible scholars to this consensus. First, Torah is simply the Hebrew word translated "law" into English, and it refers to the first five books of the Old Testament. A complete reading of the Torah out loud in the presence of the king would undoubtedly take days. This is unlikely. Second, it is unlikely that the complete Torah has disappeared from the life of the kingdom of Judah. Yes, fifty-seven years is a long time for the land to be ruled by kings with no priority for the worship of Yahweh. However, it is not long enough for the worship of Yahweh to disappear entirely. Indeed, there are certainly citizens still living who remember well the reign of Hezekiah in which idolatry was forbidden. Third, the forthcoming reaction and reforms of Josiah are themselves evidence that Hilkiah has discovered the Book of Deuteronomy. This is likely because Deuteronomy proceeds from the mouth of Moses and therefore possesses complete Mosaic authority, and because its thrust is especially passionate against idolatry among God's people. Indeed, this is in line with Josiah's initial response/interpretation to the hearing of the book.

Realizing God's anger toward His people, Josiah immediately calls in advisers and officers and commands them to inquire of God (v. 13). He interprets rightly Moses' words from Deuteronomy 31:16-17:

And the Lord said to Moses: "You are going to rest with your fathers, and these people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them. On that day I will become angry with them and forsake them; I will hide my face from them, and they will be destroyed. Many disasters and difficulties will come upon them, and on that day they will ask, ‘Have not these disasters come upon us because our God is not with us?'" (NIV).

This is, of course, exactly what has happened in Judah. Josiah is stricken to the heart by these words, tearing his robes as a sign of sorrow and repentance. The direction of his life now solidified, he seeks a fresh word from God to show him precisely how to proceed. He has found his divine purpose, and it will relentlessly drive him for the rest of his life.

II. Respond to God's Word (2 Kings 22:14-23:3)

For eighteen complete years, pagan worship has been at least tolerated under the reign of Josiah. For fifty-seven years before that, it was encouraged and propagated from the throne of Judah. Josiah knows the risk of drastically changing the worship scene of the kingdom. No doubt he deals with such fear and considers compromises that would seem sensible. After all, does he have to be so militant against idols that other Judeans had grown to love? Can't he act with more tolerance, and won't his subjects appreciate such "moderation"? Before reading Moses' Book of Deuteronomy, he had found a way to tolerate pagan worship, but no more.

A. A difficult word

15. And she said unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Tell the man that sent you to me,. Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, and upon the inhabitants thereof, even all the words of the book which the king of Judah hath read: Because they have forsaken me, and have burned incense unto other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the works of their hands; therefore my wrath shall be kindled against this place, and shall not be quenched. But to the king of Judah which sent you to enquire of the Lord, thus shall ye say to him, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, As touching the words which thou hast heard; Because thine heart was tender, and thou hast humbled thyself before the Lord, when thou heardest what I spake against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and hast rent thy clothes, and wept before me; I also have heard thee, saith the Lord" (2 Kings 22:15-19).

Josiah's cadre of lieutenants wastes no time in inquiring of God. We would typically interpret such a concept as having to do with prayer, but in ancient Judah prophets were woven into the fabric of national life. Therefore, the imperative to inquire of God became synonymous with inquiring of a prophet. Prophets were known as spiritual leaders with the power to receive words from God. Hilkiah and his band seek out a female prophet named Huldah (v. 14). In rabbinic tradition, Huldah was a relative of the prophet Jeremiah. They find her nearby, in the second district of their own city of Jerusalem, and they tell her of the events surrounding the discovery of the Book of the Law.

Huldah's response is straightforward, even brash. She does not pay any sort of obeisance to King Josiah. She simply refers to him as a man like any other (v. 15). Her word is nothing less than a confirmation of all that Josiah has already learned from the Book of Deuteronomy. Judah's dedication to idolatry has brought, and is bringing, destruction upon the land. However, mercy is in sight.

Finally, Huldah acknowledges Josiah directly (v. 18). Josiah's responsive and humble heart has touched the heart of God (v. 19). God has seen him tear his garments. God has been moved by his tears. God knows his honesty and righteousness. Therefore, Josiah will be spared the coming desolation. No doubt this is not the best news for Josiah and his advisers, but it is merciful news. Even so, Josiah will not sit back on his laurels resting in the fact that he will not see God's judgment. Instead, he does everything possible to save Judah. He loves his nation, and will not see them come under God's judgment if anything can be done about it.

B. A historic reading

"And the king sent, and they gathered unto him all the elders of Judah and of Jerusalem. And the king went up into the house of the Lord, and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the people, both small and great: and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the Lord. And the king stood by a pillar, and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord, and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all their heart and all their soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people stood to the covenant" (2 Kings 23:1-3).

Josiah wastes no time. The word from Huldah has given him no peace at all. He is more passionate than before to restore the kingdom to serve Yahweh alone. To this end, he calls together the elders of Judah at its capital. They meet with him at the newly restored temple of God along with all Judean citizens. There he repeats the reading of the discovered book that had torn his heart to pieces as the nation listens in silence. He expects the people to have the same reaction as he did. However, as their leader, he is committed to decisive action no matter what the public opinion polls might say.

Notice the order that occurs (v. 3). It is Josiah who first makes a covenant before God on behalf of himself and the nation. Perhaps he recites some of the blessings for obedience found in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 to ceremonially reinstitute a covenant between Judah and God.

Only after Josiah has declared the covenant himself do the people have the opportunity to respond. This picture portrays the communal nature of Scripture. Josiah's individual reading of Deuteronomy is not enough to get the job done. The book is either for the entire people of God, or it is for no one. As the great British preacher Charles Spurgeon once said in a sermon: "No promise is of private interpretation. Whatever God has said to any one saint, he has said to all. . . . Scripture is a never-failing treasury filled with boundless stores of grace. . . . Come in faith and you are welcome to all covenant blessings. There is not a promise in the Word which shall be withheld."

Because Josiah understands the power of a community committed to the covenant of God, it is not surprising that the people respond favorably. Cut to the heart, they physically stand up as one nation, family, and congregation to acknowledge their commitment to the covenant. Now begins the hard work of reshaping the kingdom. King Josiah's Judah will never be the same again.

III. Live according to God's Word (2 Kings 23:4-25)

We have seen this pattern throughout our study of Judah's kings, because it is the universal pattern for spiritual advancement. The first step is knowledge, or information. That is, kings like Josiah are faced with some information about God that they were previously unaware of. The second step is response. They have the opportunity to decide what to do with that knowledge. After responding appropriately, the third step is action, and this is where the hard work comes in. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the bulk of chapter 23 details all of the work involved in living according to the covenant pledged at the beginning of the chapter.

A. A spiritual purging

"And the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest, and the priests of the second order, and the keepers of the door, to bring forth out of the temple of the Lord all the vessels that were made for Baal, and for the grove, and for all the host of heaven: and he burned them without Jerusalem in the fields of Kidron, and carried the ashes of them unto Bethel. And he put down the idolatrous priests, whom the kings of Judah had ordained to burn incense in the high places in the cities of Judah, and in the places round about Jerusalem; them also that burned incense unto Baal, to the sun, and to the moon, and to the planets, and to all the host of heaven. And he brought all the priests out of the cities of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had burned incense, from Geba to Beersheba, and brake down the high places of the gates that were in the entering in of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on a man's left hand at the gate of the city. And he defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech" (2 Kings 23:4-5, 8, 10).

The good feelings of verse 3 wear off quickly as we work ourselves into the meat of this chapter. The covenant has been reestablished, and it always comes with a cost. Judah can no longer blur the lines between rival faiths. If Yahweh is God, He is the only God. Therefore, the work of purging the sin from the land begins in God's holy Temple (v. 4). Repugnant as it is, this building had been used theretofore for the worship of other gods, including Baal and Asherah ("the grove"). It must be completely purified now that it has been repaired.

Not only does Josiah burn every remnant of pagan worship found in Yahweh's temple, but he keeps some of the ashes to display in Bethel. After that, he goes after the pagan priests who, for far too long, have led the people of Judah astray (v. 5). Their crimes include employing male prostitutes in some of the grossest acts of pagan worship (v. 7). Josiah moved on to desecrate Topheth (v. 10), a place in the valley of Hinnom where drums were loudly beaten when children were forced to walk into fiery pits as an act of idolatry.

"High places" (v. 9), where idols were worshiped, stretched back to the reign of Solomon, which shows Josiah's boldness. No other king had been willing to touch the places of adulterous worship because of their attachment to Solomon. Josiah has no fear. He tears them down with all the others. He even ventures into the northern kingdom and goes to work in its capital city - Samaria - slaughtering priests of the high places of cultic ritualism (vv. 19-20). His quest thereby becomes international in scope, a strong sign of Yahweh's universal rule.

The priests of the Lord were called away "from Geba to Beersheba" where they had allowed the impure mixing of the worship of Yahweh with elements of paganism (v. 8). They were not allowed to serve at the Temple because of their unholy acts, but they were not cut off from daily provision (v. 9).

B. A Holy Passover

"And the king commanded all the people, saying, Keep the passover unto the Lord your God, as it is written in the book of this covenant. Surely there was not holden such a passover from the days of the judges that judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel, nor of the kings of Judah; Moreover the workers with familiar spirits, and the wizards, and the images, and the idols, and all the abominations that were spied in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, did Josiah put away, that he might perform the words of the law which were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the Lord" (2 Kings 23:21-22, 24). 

In the aftermath of major segments of Judah being torn to rubble, amid the smoke and the carnage of the shattered altars and idols strewn throughout the land, Josiah begins to replace idolatry with the national worship of God. Just as Hezekiah had done decades before, he calls for a national celebration of the festival of the Passover. In so doing, Judah remembers that they were once slaves in Egypt and God has not called them to return to slavery. They are free! They have now been released from enslavement to idols. Let them not return to such bondage! The same year he begins his campaign against pagan cults, God's holy Passover is wonderfully celebrated by all Judean families.

At the close of the story, the text shows us an even greater scope of Josiah's accomplishments. The purge of sin does not stop at public monuments and high places visible for miles around (v. 24). Local witch doctors and the trade for tiny household idols are also demolished so that the wares of local cultism could no longer be found in Judah. Through this entire campaign, Josiah never lets go of his roots. He never forgets where this passion came from. He never forgets what it was always all about. He rules in this fashion because of the book that Hilkiah found, and the people of God benefitted greatly. This is but a single portrait of the power of God's Word.

The life of Josiah is summarized in verse 25: "Before him there was no king like him who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him" (NASB).

Josiah: Sunday School Lesson Conclusion

"For the word of God is living and active" (Hebrews 4:12 NIV) is not a concept we only find in the New Testament. In fact, texts like these drew their inspiration from stories in the Old Testament such as Josiah. In his righteous reign we see the simple power of the direct Word of God. Armed with the Book of Deuteronomy, he leads an entire nation back to responsible faithfulness to Yahweh, proving the ability of the Bible to direct all courses of life.

Golden Text Challenge

"The King ... made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord, and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all their heart and all their soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book" (2 Kings 23:3).

The first element of Josiah's call to covenant was to "walk after the Lord." This was meant to vividly express the manner in which the nation was to be wholly obedient to the Lord. The direction of the nation would not be determined by self-centered human perception but by the Lord. It was a general introduction to the nature of the other elements of the covenant.

The covenant called the people to keep the Lord's commandments, testimonies, and statutes. Keep comes from a Hebrew word which emphasizes "observing" and "preserving." The nation was covenanting to integrate and to perpetuate the will of the Lord.

Commandments, testimonies, and statutes indicated different ways in which God had communicated the Law. Commandments were those principles God had set up and appointed to be obeyed by His people. Testimonies were those accounts and parts of the Law which reminded the people of the works of God. Statutes were the decrees the Lord had established for their guidance. Each of these had a different emphasis. Commandments emphasized God as the source, testimonies stressed the work of God, and statutes highlighted God's guidance.

The next part of Josiah's covenant was that they were to follow the things of the Lord "with all their heart and all their soul." This emphasized the need for heartfelt sincerity and personal motivation. Heart stressed the emotional motivation of the people. Soul in this context emphasized that devotion to God was to be at the center of their lives. Even though God had provided the covenant, it would only be applied to the people of the nation as they kept the covenant with all their heart and soul.

The final part of the covenant highlighted the importance of action. They were to "perform the words of this covenant." In other words, they were to live in such a way that the principles of the Word would be reflected in their conduct. The term perform in this context means "to cause to stand." Only by doing the commandments would the principles stand and be effective in the lives of the people. A sincere heart is foundational for faithfulness. However, that faithfulness must be completed through actions that reflect the Word of the Lord.

Photo credit: Unsplash/Aaron Burden