This morning we read, from the Second Book of Kings, of the young King Josiah of Judah and his reforms that made his reign such a spectacular example of what could be done to improve and secure the livelihood of the people, under a determined and well-directed leader. There is a strong element of recovering the national sense of being the people of Yahweh, and finding unity of purpose and confidence, in such a focused attention to their rootedness in the character of the holy people they were called to be. However, and this is where there is a decidedly contemporary feel to this exercise, it was also a response to the general atmosphere of insecurity and anxiety that existed at that time across the world of Josiah’s day (Josiah reigned from 640 to 609 BC).
Ancient civilisations were perceived as having run their course; there were premonitions of doom, and people felt uneasy. Judah, on the other hand, had a young king and was looking to reassert its independence from an Assyrian Empire that was losing its grip. The rallying point for Josiah was the finding of the Book of the Law in the Temple, which influenced him to call together his people, in an effort to be a godly and law-obeying people. Before the book was found, it was clear that reform was already underway, as its discovery was made during the clearing and cleansing of the Temple from the accretions of the rituals associated with other religious practices, imported under previous regimes in order to demonstrate their compliance with their Assyrian overlords.
The Book of the Law is thought to have been what we now know as Deuteronomy. It would have fed the young king’s desire for the very life of his people to return to what it had been and should be, as he saw them all living in some kind of fool’s paradise, relying on them being descendants of the great figures and successes of their past, but not living in obedience to their covenant with Yahweh. Similar nostalgic yearnings for past glories were being experienced in other neighbouring countries.
However, we should not dismiss Josiah’s yearning with simply patriotic fervour. He was cut to the quick by what he read in the Law. His consternation caused him to rend his clothes and face his own dismay. He appears as a godly young king whose heart was in the right place.
As we read this story this morning, I was thinking of a child’s book telling a simple version of this account that we still have from when our children were tiny. It is called Good Little King Josiah. It is in rhyming verse. It ends this way:
When Josiah the king had read it all,
His face was both happy and sad.
“I’m happy because you found a book
Nobody remembered we had.
“The book is the Law of the Lord our God
And promises us his grace.
But it also threatens punishment
If idols we embrace.
“No wonder we served Assyria,
That was our punishment.
But here in his Word God promises
To forgive us if we repent.”
Then good little King Josiah called
For everyone in the land
To join him in worshipping the Lord
Within the Temple grand.
And everyone knew - and still they say -
Turned to the Lord like no one else;
A good little king was he.”
Yes, well, it maybe a little simplification, and by he time the Book of the Law was discovered he was about 18, but he did come to the throne when he was 8, so the child king learnt on the job, and certainly brought real reform and happiness to his people as they re-found their faith in God and followed his ways.