The inability of the best intentions and the strongest will to convert a nation that is corrupt to the core.
Josiah's reformation was the most energetic and the most thorough-going that was ever carried out by any Jewish king. It far transcended, not only the efforts made by Jehoiada in the time of Joash ( 2 Kings 11:17-21 ; 2 Kings 12:1-16 ), and the feeble attempts of Manasseh on his return from Babylon ( 2 Chronicles 33:15-19 ), but even the earnest endeavors of Hezekiah at the beginning of his reign ( 2 Kings 17:3-6 ). "It extended not only to the kingdom of Judah, but also to the former kingdom of Israel; not only to the public, but also to the private, life of the people. The evil was everywhere to be torn out, roots and all. Nothing which could perpetuate the memory of heathen or of illegitimate Jehovah-worship remained standing. All the places of worship, all the images, all the utensils, were not only destroyed, but also defiled; even the ashes were thrown into the river (?) at an unclean place, that they might be borne away forever. The idol-priests themselves were slain, and the bones of those who were already dead were taken out of the graves and burnt. The priests of Jehovah, who had performed their functions upon the heights, were deposed from their office and dignity, and were not allowed to sacrifice any more at the altar of Jehovah" (Bahr). It may be added to this account that private superstitions, the use of teraphim and gillulim , together with the practice of witchcraft and magic arts, were put a stop to, and the rightful ordinances of the Mosaic religion restored and re-established with the utmost strictness and exactitude (verses 24, 25). Josiah did all that a godly king could do to check the downward course of his nation and recall it to piety and virtue. And for his efforts the sacred writers give him the highest praise ( 2 Kings 22:2 ; 2 Kings 23:25 ; 2 Chronicles 34:2 ; 2 Chronicles 35:26 ; Ecclesiasticus 49:1-3). It has been reserved for modern criticism to discover that he defeated his own ends by the violence of his methods, and injured the cause of true religion by making a book—"especially such an imperfect law-book and history as the Pentateuch"—the fundamental law of the nation (Ewald, Eisenlohr). It has not, however, been as yet shown that Josiah's methods were any more violent than the Law required ( Exodus 22:20 ; Deuteronomy 13:5 , Deuteronomy 13:9 , Deuteronomy 13:15 ), much less that injury is done to the cause of true religion by the adoption of a sacred book as the standard of religious truth and morality. The real reason for the failure of his reformation was "the irreformability of the people." When they professed to turn to God, they did not do it "with their whole heart, but feignediy" ( Jeremiah 3:10 )—at any rate, with but half their heart, moved by a gust of sentiment, not by any deep strong tide of religious feeling. And so they soon relapsed into their old ways. The severe religion, the stern morality, which Josiah sought to impose, had no attraction for them. They shrank from Mosaism as cold, hard, austere. They preferred the religions of the nations, with their lax morality, their gay rites, their consecration of voluptuousness. So they "slid back by a perpetual backsliding" ( Jeremiah 8:5 ); they reintroduced all the old abominations; they sinned in secret when they were unable to sin in public; they "proceeded from evil to evil" ( Jeremiah 9:4 ). It has been argued that if Josiah's life had not been cut short within thirteen years of his undertaking the great national reform, if he had been permitted to carry on for some years longer in the same spirit the work which he had initiated, there might have been a complete removal of all the ancient and deep-rooted evils, and a lasting impression might have been made upon the character of the whole people. But this seems too favorable a forecast. The nation was rotten to the core; the "whole head was sick, and the whole heart faint …. from the sole of the foot even unto the head there was no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores." When such is the case, no human efforts can avail anything—not the strongest will, not the wisest measures, not the purest and best intentions; the time for repentance and return to God is gone by, and nothing remains but "a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall destroy God's adversaries" ( Hebrews 10:27 ).
Good aims and bad methods.
"And the king sent," etc. Did the world ever contain a people more morally corrupt than that of the Jews? When we mark them journeying in the wilderness forty years, a more murmuring, disorderly, rebellious set of men where else could we discover? When settled in Palestine, a "land flowing with milk and honey" we find them committing every crime of which humanity is capable—adulteries, suicides, murders, ruthless wars, gross idolatries, their priests impostors, their kings bloody tyrants. Even David, who is praised the most, was guilty of debauchery, falsehood, and blood. They were a nation steeped in depravity. They were " stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears;" they did " always resist the Holy Ghost" (see Acts 7:51 ). No doubt there was always a true "Church of God" within the nation ( 1 Kings 19:18 ); but to call the whole nation "the Jewish Church" is a misnomer, and far from a harmless one. It has encouraged Christian nations to fashion their communities after the Jewish model instead of after the Christian one. The verses I have selected record and illustrate good aims and bad methods .
I. GOOD AIMS . Josiah's aims, as here presented, were confessedly high, noble, and good. I offer two remarks concerning his purposes as presented in these verses.
1. To reduce his people to a loyal obedience to Heaven . His aim was to sweep every vestige of religious error and moral crime from his dominion. Truly, what more laudable purpose could any man have than this, to crush all evil within his domain, to crush it not only in its form but in its essence? This was indeed the great end of Christ's mission to the world. He came "to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself."
2. Generated within him by the discovery of the Divine will . Somehow or other, as was seen in the last chapter, the book of the Law which was to regulate the lives of the Jewish people had been lost in the temple, lost probably for many years, but Hilkiah the high priest had just discovered it, and Josiah becomes acquainted with its contents. What is the result? He is seized with the burning conviction that the whole nation is gone wrong, and forthwith he seeks to flash the same conviction into the souls of his people. "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." Thus sprang his noble purpose. It was not a capricious whim or the outcome of a sudden and fitful impulse; it was rooted in an enlightened conviction. A noble purpose must be righteously founded.
II. BAD METHODS . Real good work requires not only a good purpose, but a good method also. Saul sought to honor the God of his fathers, and this was good; but his method, viz. that of persecuting the Christians , was bad. How did Josiah now seek to realize his purpose to sweep idolatry from the face of his country? Not by argument, suasion, and moral influence, but by brute force and violence ( 2 Kings 23:4-28 ). "All the vessels that were made for Baal, and for the grove" ( 2 Kings 23:4 ), that is, all the apparatus for idol-worship, these he ordered to be burnt outside Jerusalem, "in the fields of Kidron." He "stamped it small to powder, and cast the powder thereof upon the graves of the children of the people. And he brake down the houses of the sodomites" ( 2 Kings 23:6 , 2 Kings 23:7 ). He also "brake in pieces the images, and cut down the groves, and filled their places with the bones of men" ( 2 Kings 23:14 ). Moreover, "he slew all the priests of the high places that were there upon the altars, and burned men's bones upon them" ( 2 Kings 23:20 ). In this way, the way of force and violence, he essayed to work out his grand purpose. I offer two remarks concerning his method.
1. It was unphilosophic . Moral evils cannot be put down by force; coercion cannot travel to a man's soul. The fiercest wind, the most vivid lightnings, cannot reach the moral Elijah in his cave. The "still small voice" alone can touch him, and bring him out to light and truth. After all this, were the people less idolatrous? Before Josiah was cold in his grave idolatry was as rife as ever. You may destroy to-day all heathen temples and priests on the face of the earth, but in doing this you have done nothing towards quenching the spirit of idolatry—that will remain as rampant as ever; phoenix-like, it will rise with new vitality and vigor from the ashes into which material fires have consumed its temples, its books, and its feasts. Ay, and you might destroy all the monastic orders and theological tomes of the Roman Catholic Church, and leave the spirit of popery as strong, nay, stronger than ever. Truth alone can conquer error, love alone can conquer wrath, right alone can conquer wrong.
2. It was mischievous . The evil was not extinguished; it burnt with fiercer flame. Persecution has always propagated the opinions it has sought to crush. The crucified Malefactor became the moral Conqueror and Commander of the people. Violence begets violence, anger begets anger, war begets war. "He that taketh the sword shall perish by the sword."—D.T.
Josiah's great reformation.
The narrative of Josiah's reforms contained in this chapter incorporates several particulars which, if the Book of Chronicles is to be regarded as giving the true chronology, belong to an earlier period. It is next to incredible that, after Jehovah's worship had been regularly established, such scandals as the prostitution alluded to in 2 Kings 23:7 , and the horses and chariots of the sun in 2 Kings 23:11 , should have Been allowed to continue. The narrative in Kings seems specially designed to bring all Josiah's reforms into one view. We have—
I. SOLEMN COVENANTING . After the example of Jehoiada in the reign of Joash ( 2 Chronicles 23:16 ), and the still more ancient example of Moses ( Deuteronomy 29:1-29 .), Josiah convened the people together to renew the covenant made with them by God at Sinai ( Exodus 24:1-8 ). The covenanting took place appropriately in the house of the Lord—another evidence that the worst abominations had by this time been removed from the temple. All classes were assembled, high and low, priests, prophets, and people. In proposing to them to enter on this solemn engagement, in which he set them the example:
1. The king asked them to do a right thing . It was Israel's distinction among the peoples of the earth that they stood in covenant with God. God had chosen them as a people for himself, that they should serve him alone in the land he had given them. If they had failed to do this, and, now relented of their disobedience, it was meet that they should acknowledge their transgressions, and anew pledge themselves to be the Lord's. This was what Josiah desired Judah and Jerusalem—"the remnant of God's inheritance"—to do. Standing on a raised platform, he set them the example of covenant. It is a good thing when nations have leaders who are themselves conspicuous examples of godliness, and who point the way in what is right to their people. The propriety of national covenants is a question to be settled by the circumstances of each particular age. The individual Christian, at least, is called to frequent renewal of his vows to God, and such an exercise is peculiarly suitable after seasons of backsliding.
2. He did it on a right basis . The covenant was based on the declarations of "the book of the covenant," the words of which were first read in the hearing of all the people. Then the people, following the example of their monarch, pledged themselves to walk after the Lord, to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all their heart and soul, and to perform the words that were written in the book. Their covenant thus rested on the right foundation, viz. God's Word. It is God who, in his Word, draws near to us, declares to us his will, holds out his promises, invites us to engagement with himself, and lays down the rule of our obedience. A covenant means nothing save as it springs from faith in, acceptance of, and submission to the revealed Word of God. Our covenanting is to be
3. Yet the engagement was not sincere . It was so in the case of Josiah, but not in the case of the people generally, though it is written, "All the people stood to the covenant." In lip they honored God, but in heart they were far from him ( Isaiah 29:13 ). This is evident from the descriptions in the prophets. The movement was not a spontaneous one originating in the hearts of the people themselves, but came down to them from above through the king's command. The formal ceremonies of covenanting were gone through, and some temporary, and perhaps genuine, enthusiasm was awakened. But there was no real heart-change of the people. Their goodness was like the morning cloud and the early dew ( Hosea 6:4 ). This is too often the fats of movements originating with kings, princes, and those in high positions, and not springing from the people's own initiative. They are popular and fashionable, and draw many after them who have no real sympathy with their aims. But the effects do not endure. Rank, fashion, royalty, the adhesion of the great and mighty and noble of this world ( 1 Corinthians 1:26 ), do not of themselves make a movement religious, though they may secure for it eclat . The Lord looketh on the heart ( 1 Samuel 16:7 ), and if the essence of religion is wanting, imposing external forms count for little.
II. THE TEMPLE CLEANSED . In the covenant they had just made, the people bound themselves in the most solemn manner to rid the land of all visible traces of idolatry ( Exodus 23:24 ; Deuteronomy 12:1-3 ). Josiah took this work in hand more systematically than any king who had gone before' him ( 2 Kings 23:25 ). He began with the temple, the thorough purification of which had probably been left over till the repairs above referred to ( 2 Kings 22:1-20 .) could be overtaken. Similar zeal for the destruction of idols was manifested at the conclusion of the previous covenant under Joash ( 2 Chronicles 23:17 ).
1. A cleansing away of the traces of Baal-worship . In the first place, a careful clearing out was made of all the vessels and utensils that had been used in the service of Baal, or of the Asherah, or of the host of heaven. These were burned in the valley of Kidron, and the ashes of them carried to Bethel, as the appropriate source of this idolatry. The sacred tree itself—the Asherah—was then cut down, burned in the same valley, and its ashes sprinkled on the graves of the people, many of whom had shared in the guilt of its worship. Afterwards the altars erected to Baal in the temple courts were broken down, and the dust of them cast also into the valley of Kidron ( 2 Kings 23:12 ). Possibly the Asherah and these altars had been removed, and treated as described, at an earlier date.
2. A cleansing away of the traces of Venus-worship . The Asherah was devoted to the licentious Astarte, and rites the most shameless and abominable had been conducted in the temple courts in honor of this goddess. Houses, even, had been reared close to the sacred enclosure for the bands of depraved men and women who took part in these orgies. Doubtless the worship ere this had been stopped, and the filthy actors driven out, but the houses which remained as a reminder of its existence were now broken down.
3. A cleansing away of the traces of sun-worship . To the worship of the sun and of the host of heaven belonged the sacred horses and chariots ( 2 Kings 23:11 ), probably ere this removed, and the chariots burned; and the altars on the top of the upper chamber of Ahaz, which successive kings had set up. These, like the altars of Manasseh, were broken down, and their dust scattered in the adjoining valley. Every vestige of idolatry was thus cleansed out of the house of which the Lord had said, "In Jerusalem will I put my Name" ( 2 Kings 21:4 ).
III. IDOLATRY PUT AWAY . Judgment began at the house of God ( 1 Peter 4:17 ), but it spread thence throughout the whole land.
1. Degradation of the priests . The land apparently had been already "purged" of the idols, Asherahs, and sun-images, which were worshipped at the high places ( 2 Chronicles 34:3 , 2 Chronicles 34:4 ). Measures were now taken to degrade the priests who had ministered at these forbidden altars, and through whom, perhaps, the worship was still in many places carried on. These priests were of different kinds.
2. Defilement of the high places . The next part of Josiah's policy was to destroy and defile the high places themselves. One way in which this was done was by covering them with dead men's bones, or burning dead bones upon them. The high places were thus rendered unclean, and became hateful to the people. Two special acts of defilement are mentioned in addition to that of "the mount of corruption" next referred to, viz.
3. The defilement of "the mount of corruption." Such was the appropriate name given to the hill on which Solomon, long before, had reared altars to the heathen gods worshipped by his wives—Ashtoreth, Chemosh, Moloch, etc. The high places of that mount, which directly overlooked Jerusalem, did Josiah now defile. Idolatry is none the less pernicious that it has the sanction of a great name, and flaunts itself under the guise of a spurious toleration. Any spot where God is not worshipped, but idols are set up in his place, soon becomes a mount of corruption. Heathenism is a mount of corruption. Godless civilization will become a mount of corruption. Our very hearts will turn to mounts of corruption if we allow God to be dethroned in them.
IV. LESSONS OF THE REFORMATION .
1. From what it did accomplish . Josiah's was a true " zeal for the Lord." He was actuated by a right motive, guided himself strictly by God's Word, and directed his efforts unswervingly to execute God's will. He wrought earnestly to purify his state from the evils that afflicted it, and to restore the influence of pure and undefiled religion. He deserves our highest admiration for the
Externally, his work was a success. He cleansed the land from idolatry, we, too, have a call to labor for the purification of society, the dethronement of idols, and the spread of true religion. The age of idolatry is not past. Church, state, literature, science, art, have all their idols. There is self-idolatry, nature-idolatry, wealth-idolatry, art-idolatry, the idolatry of genius, and many more worships besides. Our own hearts are abodes of idols. We do well to imitate Josiah in the energy and thoroughness with which he labored to uproot these false gods. We should be unsparing in our judgment Of whatever vice, error, evil lusts, or passions, or inclinations, or tendencies, we discover in ourselves. Let high thoughts be mercilessly brought low, and proud imaginations abased ( 2 Corinthians 10:5 ). Wherever sin is detected, let it be yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge!"
2. From what it did not accomplish . This reformation of Josiah wrought, after all, only on the exterior of the nation's life. It lacked power to reach the heart. Therefore it failed to regenerate or save the nation. We are thus pointed to the need of a better covenant, that which Jeremiah predicts in 2 Kings 31:31-34 of his prophecies, "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah I will put my Law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts," etc.—J.O.
JOSIAH 'S RENEWAL OF THE COVENANT . HIS REFORMS AND DEATH . REIGN OF JEHOAHAZ . ACCESSION OF JEHOIAKIM .
Josiah ' s reformation of religion . The reformation of religion by Josiah next engages the writer's attention, and is treated, not chronologically, but rather gee-graphically, under the three heads of
The celebration of the Passover is then briefly noticed ( 2 Kings 23:21-25 ); and the section concludes with a eulogy of Josiah ( 2 Kings 23:24 , 2 Kings 23:25 ), who, however, it is noticed could not, with all his piety, obtain a revocation of the sentence passed on Judah in consequence of the sins of Manasseh. The fate of Judah was fixed (verses 26, 27).
And the altars that were on the top of the upper chamber of Ahaz. It would seem that "the upper chamber of Ahaz" was within the temple precincts, since the pollutions spoken of, both before and after, are pollutions belonging to the temple. It may have been erected on the flat roof of one of the gates, or on the top of a store-chamber. Altars upon roofs were a new form of idolatry, apparently connected with the worship of the "host of heaven" (see Jeremiah 19:13 ; Zephaniah 1:5 ). Which the kings of Judah— i.e. Manasseh and Amen, perhaps also Ahaz— had made, and the altars which Manasseh had made in the two courts of the house of the Lord (see above, 2 Kings 21:4 , 2 Kings 21:5 ). As Manasseh, on his repentance, merely "cast these altars out of the city" ( 2 Chronicles 33:15 ), it was easy for Amen to replace them. They belonged to the worship of the "host of heaven." Did the king beat down, and brake them down from thence, and east the dust of them into the brook Kidron (comp. verse 6, and the comment ad loc .).