In this chapter, Josiah celebrates the Passover and later dies in battle against the Egyptians.
This chapter has two main sections. The first, from verses 1-19, describe the Passover service under Josiah, and the second, from verses 20-27, describe Josiah’s battle against Neco and his death.
The Passover service under Josiah is reminiscent of the Passover under Hezekiah. The biggest difference between these two is that Josiah celebrates the Passover “correctly”, i.e. in the right month and with the people ceremonially purified (as far as we know). Under Hezekiah, many things were done wrong but God blessed the people because they pursued him with the right heart. As far as we know, the Passover under Josiah was observed in accordance with the commandments and also with the right heart.
There are several places that emphasize adherence to the Law of Moses. For instance, v. 6 says “slaughter the Passover animals… according to the word of the LORD by Moses”. Verse 12 also says “as it is written in the book of Moses”. Verse 13: “They roasted the Passover animals on the fire according to the ordinance”. There are several other verses that show the priests and Levites were also following the organization set forth by David. This has two effects. As contrasted with the Passover under Hezekiah, we can see that Josiah is meticulous in following every detail of the Law. Strict adherence to even the smallest details of the Law is one of the cultural values in the OT, and Josiah demonstrates his righteousness through it.
A second, more subtle implication is that the adherence to the “Law of Moses” only shortly follows the discovery of that same book of the Law in the previous chapter. I think there is definitely a connection between discovering the book of the Law in the previous chapter and Josiah’s obedience to all the statutes and ordinances of the LORD in this chapter.
Although I don’t accept it personally, some scholars suggest that Josiah himself may have ordered the creation of the book of the Law as a way to legitimize his religious reforms. I interpret it the opposite way. I think Josiah’s discovery of the book of the Law is what motivates and drives his religious reforms. Josiah is trying to reclaim the lost religious heritage of his people. During the time of Moses, Joshua and David, the people would regularly observe the Passover. At some point, this tradition was lost to the forces of idolatry and religious syncretism, perhaps even during the lifetime of Samuel (v. 18). After discovering the book of the Law, Josiah wants to return to the religion of his forefathers.
By no coincidence, this is very similar to the Judeans of the post-exilic period when Chronicles was written. If my readers remember, I stated that one of the central purposes of the book of Chronicles was to help the post-exilic residents of Jerusalem to rediscover their pre-exilic culture and connection to the promised land. A huge part of that is reconnecting the people to their religious heritage in the temple worship system, the Davidic kingdom, and the Passover. What is Josiah doing in the revival? He is repairing the temple, restoring priestly ministry, and celebrating the Passover. Notice any similarities between that and the activity in the post-exilic period? I think Chronicles is offering Josiah as a model for the post-exilic Jews to follow in their own restoration of the temple worship system.
The second section begins immediately after the Passover and Josiah “setting the temple in order”. It’s as if the very moment that Josiah has finished with his religious reforms, the Egyptians coming marching up to attack, but not against the Judeans. Instead, the Egyptians are marching to attack the Babylonians in the historical battle of Carchemish. Although this battle is not described anywhere in the bible, it is broadly attested in non-biblical historical sources and is an important battles in world history. In this battle, the Egyptians (who allied with the crumbling Assyrian empire) are defeated by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar and essentially driven out of the Mideast. This battle is a hallmark in the ascension of the Babylonian empire.
Verses 21-22 make it clear that Chronicler regarded the Egyptians as directed by God, while Josiah is acting on his own initiative and not listening to “the words… of God” (v. 22). Even though the Egyptians were still defeated at the battle of Carchemish, they are portrayed here as obeying the command of God while Josiah is not. Although the language in this chapter is not very critical of Josiah, it does imply that Josiah is making a mistake here, and it costs him his life. The parallel passage in 2 Kings 23:29-30 mentions Josiah’s death by Neco but does not relay the conversation between them or God’s involvement in driving Neco to fight at Carchemish.
I think this chapter shows that Josiah did well for most of his life, but had a big mistake or sin towards the end of his life. This is similar to many other kings, like Asa, Joash, Uzziah and Hezekiah.
Even though Josiah dies, his sin is relatively small compared to some of these other kings, so Josiah is still mourned and highly regarded by his people after his death. As the architect of a major religious revival, Josiah is regarded along with Hezekiah as one of the two best kings of Judah after the death of Solomon.
It says in verse 25 that Jeremiah sung a lament for Josiah and wrote it down in a book. While my readers may suspect that this is the same as the biblical book of Lamentations, I personally think it’s unlikely because the book of Lamentations does not mention Josiah anywhere and is instead focused entirely on the destruction of Jerusalem in the Babylonian exile. Instead, I think the most likely story is that Jeremiah wrote a lament for Josiah using a literary form similar to the book of Lamentations, but that the laments for Josiah have been lost to history and no longer exist.
With the death of Josiah, we are past the final, brief hope for the kingdom of Judah. In the next chapter, we will conclude the book of Chronicles with the destruction of Jerusalem in the Babylonian exile.