In this chapter, Josiah starts to repair the temple and discovers the book of the law.
Depending on how you count, this is perhaps the third big revival in Judah in the book of Kings. The previous revivals (by my reckoning) would be the kingship of Joash and more recently, Hezekiah. Josiah leads the last and possibly greatest revival in Judah before the Babylonian exile.
As with so many other biblical figures, I am fascinated by Josiah's personal history and development. In the previous chapter, I went on at length talking about the malign impact of having an evil king who reigns for more one generation (which was true of Manasseh, Josiah's grandfather) and how it can set up a cultural trend towards idolatry. This makes Josiah's righteousness all the more striking. Josiah is not alone, however.
Abraham was raised in an idolatrous family; in fact, during Abraham's life he was very likely the only follower of the LORD in the whole earth. Somehow, Abraham emerged from that culture and from his family and became a hero of faith. Similarly, Moses was raised in Egypt by Pharaoh's daughter. Egypt had a complex polytheistic religion and Moses would certainly have been raised in the Egyptian faith to worship their gods. Yet somehow, Moses was able to get past his upbringing and become another hero of the faith, perhaps through the teaching of his mother (Ex 2:9) and perhaps through his time in the wilderness (Ex 2:15).
But how did Josiah become a righteous man? How did he develop such a strong faith in the LORD in spite of the idolatry all around him? Even the temple of the LORD is populated with the idols and altars of Manasseh, yet somehow Josiah sincerely repents when confronted with the threatened judgment. Unfortunately I don't really have the answer here.
Anyway, for whatever reason Josiah takes an interest in the affairs of the temple: he sees the temple is not being maintained, and he sends one of his officials to ensure that some of the temple revenue (probably some kind of tax) is directed to repairing the structure. By chance, the high priest finds a copy of the law of Moses and he sends it to be read to the king. In the text it is referred to as the "book of the law", but this is just another name for the book of Moses, i.e. the Pentateuch, which is the first five books in the Old Testament. We have already read this (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). I can imagine all sorts of things about the book of the law that would make the king rend his garments when it is read to him, perhaps most dramatically the curses that are threatened over Israel in Deuteronomy 28.
Something that surprises me about this story is how few copies of the Law there are. In retrospect, it makes sense because in this time period books are very expensive and most people are illiterate. There are a handful of professional scribes (such as the scribe in this chapter) who would spend their entire lives recording and copying books. Ancient Israel and Judah would maintain their history and culture through oral traditions passed down from one generation to another. In light of this, there may have been only a handful copies of the Law in existence across the entire nation at this time frame. Especially given that most people are worshiping other gods, knowledge of the Law would have been limited to a handful of scribes and priests in the temple complex.
I guess this surprised me because through so much of the history of Judah we have these prophets running around proclaiming the LORD and rebuking the people, and yet now it seems like the Law itself is scarcely known. Perhaps this again shows a distinction between the stories of Israel's history (like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and the details of religious observance commanded in the Law. It's hard for me to say for sure.
What we do know is that Josiah was equally surprised and shocked when he learned of the destruction the LORD was threatening for his nation. Josiah seems legitimately distressed, in a way that I would not expect if he had known about the Law before. His first reaction is to try to figure out, can we fix this? Can our nation repent enough and turn that this evil might be averted? Unfortunately, at this point it appears the answer is no, but Josiah himself is spared because of his own tenderness before the LORD.
I want to contrast Josiah's response here with Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20. When Isaiah told Hezekiah that he would die, Hezekiah cried out to the LORD and the LORD showed him mercy and healed him. When the Isaiah told Hezekiah that his nation would be destroyed by the Babylonians, he was okay with it. Now Josiah is learning that his nation will be destroyed, and he repents; but it's too late. It is too late for Josiah or any other man to change the course of events.
Josiah learns that the disaster coming is now unavoidable; in the next chapter, we will discover how Josiah's responds.