In this chapter, Josiah becomes king and initiates the last great revival before the Babylonian exile.
This chapter, and the life of Josiah in general, shares many similarities with Hezekiah's revival from 2 Chronicles 29-31. My readers may wish to review the life of Hezekiah as a precursor to studying Josiah.
If we compare their lives in detail, we can certainly identify many differences between Hezekiah and Josiah, but I think my readers would be well-served by looking at the material broadly and trying to understand the progression of the two revivals. The similarities between them may suggest what parts of their religious system were considered the most important.
In the case of Hezekiah, the revival had three distinct components. First, he cleansed the temple, bringing it back into a state of ceremonial purity. Second, he reestablished the sacrificial system. Third, he revives the Passover festival. The priests and Levites are involved in the entire process, and Hezekiah restores the tithe to finance them.
In the case of Josiah, he first destroys all the altars and idols dedicated to other gods. Next he repairs the temple, which possibly involved ceremonial cleansing as well. Lastly, after the interlude about the book of the Law, Josiah also revives the Passover festival (the subject of the next chapter).
Cleansing the temple by Hezekiah closely mirrors Josiah repairing the temple, the Passover ceremonies are nearly identical between the two kings, and 2 Chronicles 31:1 tells us that the people went out and destroyed the altars and idols throughout all of Israel after the Passover, which is very similar to how Josiah himself goes out and destroys all the altars and idols in the early years of his reign (v. 3-7). Taken in broad terms, we can see this as the removal of the idolatrous worship system, restoration of the temple-centered worship system, and institution of the Passover festival as a symbol of their dedication to the LORD.
So that should set most of the context for this chapter. In the midst of this revival, there are a couple things I want to focus on.
First, we see a general pattern in this chapter that, if I may put it bluntly, the northern kingdom Israel has totally collapsed. I remember earlier in the book we were reading about Israel fielding massive armies in battle against Judah or against the Arameans. For a long time, Israel was one of Judah's most dangerous enemies. In this chapter, we see Josiah simply walking into Israel and tearing down their altars and high places and stuff like that (v. 6-7). He really just walked into their territory and started smashing stuff and they couldn't do anything to resist him. Verse 9 is even more remarkable: the Levites are collecting money for the temple repairs from the northern territories.
What could have happened to the northern kingdom that it can no longer stop the Judeans from walking in and doing whatever they want? The answer is simple: the Assyrians came in and destroyed the northern kingdom during the reign of Hoshea (2 Kings 17). Ever since that time, Israel was no longer an independent kingdom and is now governed as a province of the Assyrian empire. Even though the Judeans do not hold any political authority in the northern kingdom, it appears that the Assyrians are not doing anything to keep the Judeans out.
Because Chronicles is singularly devoted to the history of Judah, the collapse of Israel is not described at all in this book, but the results of that collapse are still visible even in the history of Judah.
The second thing I want to talk about is this "lost book" found by Hilkiah and the subsequent prophecy by Huldah. From context, the "book of the Law... by Moses" is obviously a reference to the Pentateuch (i.e. the bible from Genesis through Deuteronomy). The text does not say how LONG the book is lost, only that this is the first time Josiah is hearing about it, and that it was largely unknown to the priests as well. It has been lost for at least one generation, possibly due to Manasseh's long, idolatrous reign. Depending on how long the book was lost, it suggests that knowledge about the Passover or other elements of the the covenant may have been passed down in Judean society independently from knowledge of the written Law, though we don’t know for sure. It’s possible that stories about Moses and the LORD may have been passed down as oral tradition, since we know that much of the Pentateuch was derived from oral tradition. That said, Josiah demonstrates through his response (v. 19) that the Law of the LORD was not well-known during his lifetime, so whatever traditions may have persisted independently of the written Law probably did not include the religious code of behavior that we find in Exodus and Deuteronomy.
On a related note, I wonder if this implies that there is only one copy of the written Law during the lifetime of Josiah. I mean, if the priest went into the temple and found a copy of this book that apparently nobody else has read or knows about, then does that suggest it is the only copy of the book in existence at the time? What would have happened if Manasseh (for example) had gone in and destroyed the book? Would we not have the Pentateuch? I think this is a striking example of how the faithlessness of one generation nearly destroyed Judah’s religious tradition.
Anyway, after learning about the threatened destruction that is hanging over his kingdom, he immediately sends to a prophetess to find out, in essence, if things are as bad as they appear. The prophetess responds and says yes, that God is going to destroy Judah and there is nothing the king can do to stop it, except that he can delay the wrath from falling on his own generation.
I find Josiah’s response interesting. Even though the prophetess told him that Judah would definitely be destroyed (v. 24), Josiah immediately gathers together the people and elders to call them back to enter the covenant of the LORD. I guess what’s striking to me about this is that Josiah’s actions seem largely futile, yet he is striving with so much force to change his nation’s fate. What I see in Josiah is such an earnestness, such passion and urgency in his response, and I wonder what is motivating him. He cannot avert the coming disaster, and yet that is what he seems to be attempting. It reminds me of when David fasted and prayed before the death of his son, even after Nathan prophesied that the boy would surely die as a result of David’s sin (2 Samuel 12:14-23). I wonder where this attitude comes from, that they think they can turn aside God’s judgment.
In the case of Josiah, he is fighting against hundreds of years of Israel’s history. The people have resisted and fought against God since all the way back to Exodus and Numbers, wandering through the wilderness complaining and rebelling against his leadership. The story of Kings and Chronicles is a long, progressive decline with Israel and Judah becoming weaker and weaker, with the people going deeper and deeper into idolatry. Josiah is fighting against this history, trying to turn around Judah’s path, and while I don’t think he has any chance at succeeding, I can’t help but admire him for trying. Josiah aligned his heart with God’s desire for his people. Even though success was not possible, Josiah shows us that we can and should pursue righteousness even in the midst of a sinful generation.
One last brief note. Huldah is another prophetess in the Old Testament, alongside other prophetesses such as Deborah (Judges 4:4) and Miriam (Exodus 15:20). The OT has a clear tradition of female prophets that are also highly respected leaders in the nation.
In the next chapter, Josiah calls for a second major Passover festival in Jerusalem and dies in battle afterwards.