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How God’s law and gospel inspired a kingdom-wide revival.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
It goes without saying that Manasseh, heir-apparent to the great king Hezekiah, did his darnedest to usher Judah into the course which spelled their utter ruin. His rebellion was so appalling, in fact, that Yahweh says, in effect, “I’ve had enough” (2 Kings 21:14–15). That the God of God’s chosen people would decide to turn away from his own ought to make our hair stand at attention. But as is expressed by the historian, the people of Judah chose this disaster through their willing embrace of perversion and paganism. And as the corpse of Amon, Manasseh’s son, decomposes in a cloud of conspiracy and betrayal (2 Kings 21:23–24), disaster, by all accounts, was well on its way. Such is when the historian stuns us by telling us all about the Judean boy who would be king, Josiah. “Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Jedidah the daughter of Adaiah of Bozkath” (2 Kings 22:1).
The most surprising detail within that brief recounting of Josiah’s ascension isn’t the fact that he was crowned at a mere eight-years-of-age. Rather, it’s the fact that Josiah “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Kings 22:2). Even though he had a dad and grandad who were some of the most despicable men in Judah’s history, from a very young age Josiah chose to “walk in all the way of David his father” (2 Chron. 34:3). He renounced his immediate heritage in favor of embracing his “covenantal heritage.” Instead of being just another monarch in the mucky gutter of Judah’s history, Josiah was different, distinguishing himself by “turning to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might” (2 Kings 23:25).
Josiah’s “about-face” on the evils of his forbears ushers in a season of undeniable revival. His reign was a rejection of the status quo, which, for two whole generations, was nothing but an “appalling dump heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable,” Dr. Seuss might describe it. So, what happened? What brought on such a sudden turnaround throughout the kingdom?
In 2 Kings 22:3–7, with most of Josiah’s restoration efforts already well underway, a commission is given to the high priest Hilkiah to make a withdrawal from the temple offerings in order to hire workers to “repair the house” of God. The temple, by this time, had fallen into disarray and was in grave need of attention. As Hilkiah began cleaning out closet after closet, and cabinet after cabinet, he stumbled upon some old papers that had been collecting nothing but cobwebs for sixty-odd years. “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord,” the priest reports to Shaphan, Josiah’s secretary (2 Kings 22:8). This alone is a stinging indictment on the spiritual health, or lack thereof, in Judah. It’s say something when your priest has to discover the book around which his entire occupation revolves.
Nevertheless, as Hilkiah and company flip through the page after page, with clouds of dust filling the air, they become more and more moved by what they read. The priest, then, passes “the book” onto the secretary, who, then, brings it before the king (2 Kings 22:9–10). And as the words are read aloud for Josiah, his entire being becomes crushed under the weight of them. “When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes” (2 Kings 22:11). This is, perhaps, the first time he’s ever heard the words of Scripture read. Each syllable is seemingly accompanied by a gut-punch to his soul, so much so that he cannot do anything but rend his clothes in anguish. This, of course, was a familiar response in those days for anyone enduring immense grief. It was an expression of the deep agony Josiah felt, denoting the intensity and authenticity of his sorrow.
The sincerity of the king’s repentance is, furthermore, seen in the reformation which sprung from it. In 2 Kings 23:4–20, the historian painstakingly details the drastic measures Josiah took to rid Judah of its evil and idolatry. From burning idols to arresting priests to tearing down the high places, and defiling them, Josiah’s holy rampage makes Hezekiah’s revival sixty years prior almost feel like child’s play. Josiah even fulfills a 300-year-old prophecy by desecrating Bethel’s false altars by having human bones burned on them (2 Kings 23:15–16; 1 Kings 13:2).
Everywhere Josiah looked there was more evidence of rebellion. As smoke filled the Judean landscape, the flames represented a great renewal. This all might seem a little extreme, at first. Such extremes were certainly necessary, though, as Rev. Alexander Maclaren comments, “You cannot throttle snakes in a graceful attitude or without using some force to compress the sinuous neck” (3:1.260). The detaining of priests, defiling of temples, and burning of bones have the appearance of an overzealous revolutionary. But this catalog of Josiah’s “scorched earth revival” is, likewise, a prism through which we are made to see just how vile and revolting Judah had become. God’s people were infected with terminal cases of iniquity and idolatry, with the only available remedy being invasive surgery. And to think that this all began with the rediscovery of “a book” — or, to be more specific, “the book” (2 Kings 22:8, 10–11, 13, 16; 23:2–3, 24).
It might seem odd, at first, to say that such radical actions were the result of reading “a book.” But, of course, this was no ordinary book. This was the “Book of the Law” and the “Book of the Covenant.” Its pages aren’t lifeless, but are “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The words of this book may be ancient, but they are just as relevant as ever. And that’s because these are Yahweh’s words. He, the Giver of life, imparts life through his Word of life. Such is what his Word always does: it brings dying sinners to a knowledge of the One who offers eternal life.
After Josiah’s contemporaries discover “the book,” they can’t help but read it and digest it and share it (2 Kings 22:8–10). Hilkiah, then Shaphan, then Josiah, until, eventually, “all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” are brought into communion with this Word (2 Kings 23:1–3). And their reaction to it evinces the way in which the Word satisfies the soul. By this time, God’s people had been spiritually starved for decades. They were haggard and malnourished after years of Yahweh’s Word going unopened. But now, through the proclamation of it, they are feasting, consuming every word of the Lord like famished beggars. And what were they feasting on?
And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord” . . . When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes. (2 Kings 22:8, 11)
The word which inspired this wholesale revival was nothing but God’s word of law (Deut. 30:9–10). Such is how every great revival begins. Every incendiary move of God’s Spirit is accompanied by a group of penitent people rediscovering the power and preeminence of God’s Word. That Word — rightly understood and faithfully proclaimed — always brings sinners to their knees. “If a man will give God’s Word a fair hearing,” Alexander Maclaren comments, “and be honest with himself, it will bring him to his knees” (3:1.266). As the words of Yahweh echoed in Josiah’s ears, he is brought to a stunning realization of how holy God is and how utterly unholy he and all of Judah was, as well. This is what God’s word of law always does: it reveals sin.
God’s law will always leave you exposed. Its endgame is bringing all the sins to which you were blind into the light of day. This law is like a mirror which shows us the way things are, not the way we pretend them to be (James 1:22–25). And, to be sure, the law is no “funhouse mirror” from the state fair. Those might provide some laughter for an instant, but they would be terribly ineffective at actually assisting anyone in getting ready for the day. Yahweh’s Word does not distort the image of us and our sin. It makes every unholy blight and blemish painfully obvious, and that’s the point. The point of the law is not to make sin manageable. The point of the law is to bring you and I to a startling realization of the impossibility of ever managing our sin. Such is when we are left with no other recourse other than to cry out to the Maker of the law for help. Like the apostle, our only option is to exclaim, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).
In the din of such devastating cries, the whispers of deliverance can be heard, because such is when God, in his sovereignty, chases his word of law with a word of grace. Those who see themselves as nothing but wretches deserving death are given the good news that One has taken their death for them (Rom. 7:25). Such is the “better hope” contained in the gospel (Heb. 7:19). Josiah and company were aware of this good news, too, if only faintly. After the “Book of the Law” was read, the people of God proceed to revel in the “Book of the Covenant,” which tells them all about how their sins are covered and “passed over.”
And the king commanded all the people, “Keep the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.” For no such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the Lord in Jerusalem. (2 Kings 23:21–23)
This was a Passover “for the ages,” being the first observance of this blessed institution in quite some time. And what was the point of Passover? Namely, to showcase the way in which Yahweh’s wrath might graciously “pass over” those who rightly deserve it (Exod. 12:1–13). The lamb’s blood plastered on the door frames of the Israelite houses is an enduring picture of the hearts of sinners being washed and covered in the blood of the true and better Lamb “who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The effect of the Word of God is always to bring to bear this announcement of good news. “The Law prepares for the Gospel,” notes Maclaren, “and is incomplete without it” (3:1.267).
What’s so fascinating, though, about Josiah’s revival is that it still did not stave off God’s “great wrath.” “Still the Lord did not turn from the burning of his great wrath,” the historian solemnly announces, “by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. And the Lord said, ‘I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there’” (2 Kings 23:26–27). After reading example after example of Josiah’s enterprise to revive the hearts of the people of Judah, it’s still not enough. Even for all his effort, Judah’s king couldn’t save his kingdom from certain disaster. These distressing words surely cut to the quick all who heard them. But the king knew that such was the fate for his people all along.
After hearing the law proclaimed, Josiah is desperate for some clarification. Therefore, he dispatches a posse of five men to get some prophetic insight (2 Kings 22:12–13). They encounter a prophetess named Huldah, who proceeds to give them both good and bad news. The bad news was judgment was certain (2 Kings 22:17). It was a foregone conclusion that disaster would descend upon God’s people. But the good news was judgment was delayed. “Because your heart was penitent,” Huldah says, “and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place” (2 Kings 22:19–20). Because of Josiah’s repentance, the calamity awaiting the people of Judah was not canceled, only deferred to the next generation.
When the officers returned to court and gave the king the prophet’s news, I have to imagine that Josiah was overcome with a flurry of mixed and troubling emotions. On the one hand, he was grateful that he wasn’t going to be privy to all the disaster that was to come. But, on the other hand, he was grieved that he couldn’t change Judah’s destiny. Even Josiah’s faith couldn’t render that divine judgment unnecessary. For that, he was in need of Someone better. Josiah might’ve been a long-awaited-king (1 Kings 13:2), but there was a truer and better King still to come. This King will perfectly fulfill the work of purging the house of the Lord of all its sin and strife by “becoming sin” himself. This King will take up residence in a world full of disasters and bears the brunt of that disaster “in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). When this King arrives on the scene, he carries with him the power and authority to change the destiny of every sin-stricken person by burying all the world’s sin and misery in the depths of his death.
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944).