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Josiah's Reform

The account of the religious reforms of King Josiah of the Southern Kingdom comes almost at the tail end of the story of the tragic decline of Israel under the monarchy. After Josiah, Egypt and Babylon will swoop in, installing Jerusalem’s last puppet kings and finally imposing the humiliation of exile. The weight of these centuries of failure, and the tension of these “last times,” together with the sudden spotlight of triumph that is turned on Josiah’s years of rule, bring to this narrative “a swing to extremes, with strange mixtures of fidelity and cynicism.”1 The resulting story has attracted many Bible students looking to Josiah’s bold public initiative to find implications for Christian leadership. Perhaps the most interesting comments relate the tale of this energetic ruler to the problem of personal and professional burn-out.

The story is told both in 2 Kings 22-23 and in 2 Chronicles 34-35. The author of Kings describes the accession of Josiah to the throne at 8 years, and then a busy year of reform in the 18th year of his reign. It begins with the decision to renovate the Temple, which leads to the discovery of the Book of the Law. This in turn prompts the reforms: renewal of the covenant of Yahweh with the whole nation; the destruction of idolatrous worship in both the Southern and the Northern Kingdoms; and a climactic restoration of the celebration of Passover. Finally Josiah’s death in battle is recorded.

The Chronicler tells what is probably strikes us as a better story. Josiah’s reforms begin in the 8th year of the reign, when he was 16 years old, with a personal religious awakening, and a purification of all the land from idolatry. Then the 18th year of his reign (when he is 26) sees the renovation of the Temple, the discovery of the Book of the Law, the renewal of covenant, and the climactic Passover restoration. Thus the reform itself occurs over a decade, rather than in a single year. The Chronicler omits the arduous and bloody details of false priests killed and high places intentionally defiled with human bones, but he does portray rich details of the Passover, giving heft to the claim that “there had not been a Passover celebrated like it since the days of Samuel” (which Kings also affirms but does not illustrate; 2 Kings 23:22; 2 Chron. 35:18). The Chronicles account of Josiah’s death also proves more “satisfying” in that a theological justification emerges: Pharoah Neco warns Josiah that if Josiah interferes with his passage through the plain of Megiddo he will be interfering with the plans of “God who is with me.” Josiah refuses to “heed the words of Neco from the mouth of God” (2 Chron. 35:20-24), and so finds death.

Whereas scholarship generally holds that Kings represents the basis for what we find in the Chronicles, and that the better storytelling and the theological explanations are likely the result of redaction, there is reason to see some authenticity in some of the Chronicler’s variations. The 8th and 18th years of Josiah, dating the beginning and climax of the reform, do correspond to dates when the power of Assyria faltered successively, suggesting that its weakness allowed Josiah to act in stages. And the details of Neco’s campaign in Chronicles more accurately convey the history.2 While the Chronicler clearly wishes to soften the harshness of the Kings account, and provide more positive liturgical and theological notes, it is best to read them as parallel accounts, rather than preferring one narrative to the other.

How does this episode speak to the dynamics of leadership in our very different world? We may well begin with the figure of Josiah himself.

Both books bookend the story of Josiah with the highest possible praise for this king. Unlike so many of the kings of Judah, Josiah “walked in the way of his father David, turning aside neither to the right or the left.” But he was even greater than David: “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 22:2; 23:25; cf. 2 Chron. 34:2; 35:18). It is not only his public policy that wins appreciation; we glimpse the intensely personal dimension of his leadership when as a youth “he began to seek the God of his ancestor David” (2 Chron. 34:3), and in Huldah’s assurance that God would grant him peace “because your heart was penitent and you humbled yourself before the Lord” (2 Kings 22:19; 2 Chron. 34:27). But the public dimension too finds its outworking in the restitution of the authority of the Law in the national and religious life of Judah. Walter Brueggemann observes that “the personal penitence of leadership, the specific ‘turning’ of persons of influence, is basic… But personal turning is irrelevant unless there is public action.”3 Josiah models both.

But Josiah’s faultlessness runs up against two spectacular counter-examples. The first is his unadvised attack on Neco resulting in his death. Kings reports the fiasco but does not comment on it, though it would be difficult to read it neutrally in a book that contains so much about the Lord’s concern with the outcomes of battle (e.g., Hezekiah’s recent deliverance, 2 Kings 19:35-36). Chronicles roots it explicitly in Josiah’s a refusal to heed the word of God (2 Chron. 35:22). We probably must read both accounts as imbued with a “deuteronomist” perspective, so that since Josiah did not sin against the Law, his crown from that standpoint remains essentially untarnished.4 

A more specific issue is whether his death in battle cancelled Huldah’s promise that “you will be gathered to your grave in peace” (2 Kings 22:20; 2 Chron. 34:28). Some, hearing “peace” as a personal blessing, find that disobedience has abrogated the prophecy. The irony can run very deep; “The linkage of virtue and blessing is broken in this very narrative that means to assert it.”5 Others, noting that the authors themselves are not troubled by the problem, read “peace” as referring to the public peace of the nation, contrasted in the previous verse with impending national “desolation and curse” (2 Kings 22:19; 2 Chron. 34:27). The promise “really means that the exile would not take place during Josiah’s lifetime.”6 In that regard Josiah had a full 31 years of peaceful reigning—much of which is left to our imagination, since we only hear of the events of a very few years—at the end of which he was in face literally “gathered to his grave” as his body was brought back from Megiddo to Jerusalem for burial in the family tomb (the last of the kings for whom this would be true).

The story as we have it in fact asserts the connection of personal and public obedience, while clearly affirming a disjunction between them as well. It is Huldah’s message that spells this out, with both absolute clarity and absolute authority. In response to Josiah’s panicked inquiry she affirms that God’s wrath burns unabated toward disobedient Judah, and the plan for the Exile remains in place. On the other hand Josiah’s personal and public obedience means that there will be peace in the land (and peace for the ruler of the land) for the period of his reign. But then comes the end.

Again, for some commentators this seems all too stark, flirting with the absurd. Here the dark shadow od professional burnout seems to loom large. “The sins of Manasseh trump the righteousness of Josiah and have consequences for all his people… What an infuriating conclusion that is! Is there a redeeming, liberating word of God in this story?”7 Choon-Leong Seow goes on from this question to suggest three lessons to be drawn: that any deliverance requires “one’s own response of faith;” that we obey God neither to gain rewards nor to avert judgment; and that “human acts of righteousness, even those as sincere as Josiah’s are no guarantee of salvation.”8
But the text points to a deeper reality, namely, that entrenched sins of idolatry remained among the people, and that God’s recourse to exile had to do with a deeper problem than simply the obedience or disobedience of the leadership. We might assume it from the drastic measures that were necessary to purge the land of idolatry (2 Kings 23:4-20). But we can read it plain it in Huldah’s censure of the idolatry of “this place and all its inhabitants” (2 Kings 22:16; 2 Chron. 34:24), as well as in the prophets’ return to this theme in the next decade (e.g., Jer. 44:15-19). Patrick Miller notes, “However successful Josiah’s reforms may have been, resistance to the reform is evident from the book of Jeremiah;” both its narrative and its prophecies “suggest that there was a fairly widespread continuing devotion to other cults than the worship of Yahweh or that the single devotion to Yahweh in the one sanctuary was fairly short-lived.”9 This being the case, then, no matter how incongruously one’s circumstances may clash seem to with the divine assurances of providence, this narrative does not offer an example of that incongruity. Israel as a whole had slipped into desperate straights, and even the best leadership could only delay the inevitable.

Rather, the narrative affirms a frank and realistic distinction between the experience and fate of the leader and the experience and fate of the people. While the leader can influence the people’s direction in deep and lasting ways, the identification is not complete. An application can surely be made to Christian leadership, in a necessary differentiation between the ego or identity of the leader, and the identity of the community that is led. An era that has extolled the benefit of corporate commitment to the Body of Christ is beginning to call for the leader, if she wishes to survive as a leader, to find ways to stand apart for the sake of spirituality and wholeness.10 

The application can probably be extended to other members of the Church. Identification as a member of the community, and participation in its wholesome and perhaps less wholesome activities and ethos, affects a member’s spiritual experience, but can never wholly determine it. We ought not be surprised if persons or families within a congregation are not experiencing what we would consider to be typical for that congregation. The Josiah story prompts us to resist reductionistic assumptions about the experience of particular members. We do not disparage what is shared in corporate experience when we anticipate that members’ lives have more to offer, or less to show, than what membership itself has bestowed. To flirt with an idealism of corporate life is to invite disillusionment, incongruity, and absurdity. The story of Josiah points to a more complex dynamic in the realities of congregational leadership and life.

—Theopulos




1 Walter Brueggemann, 2 Kings (Knox Preaching Guides. Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), p, 92.

2 E.g., Martin Selman, 2 Chronicles: A Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994), pp. 527-528, 542; Leslie Allen, “The First and Second Books of the Chronicles,” in L. Keck, et al., eds, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), pp. 643, 649; and Andrew Hill, 1 & 2 Chronicles (NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), p. 646.

3 Brueggemann, p. 93.

4 E.g., Allen, p. 694.

5 Brueggemann, p. 97, finds the only message in the very incongruity of the tale; “Life does not make sense at a simple moral level.” He implies that the only relief to the “absurdity” is the prospect of “being reborn.”

6 Selman, 534. Cf. Choon-Leong Seow, “The First and Second Books of Kings,” in L. Keck, et al., eds, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), p. 282.

7 Choon-Leong Seow, p. 286,

8 Choon-Leong Seow, pp. 286-287.

9 Patrick D. Miller, “The Book of Jeremiah,” in L. Keck, et al., eds, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), pp.556, 559.

10 See, for example, William Deresiewicz, “Solitude and Leadership” (The American Scholar, Spring 2010), http://www.theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership, December 30, 2010.