JOSIAH – A GOOD KING, SO WHY THE BAD ENDING?
By R. Herbert
(This blog is written by a long-time minister and close friend who writes under the name R. Herbert. I love this contribution about lessons we can learn from one of my favorite kings – Josiah. We look forward to many more blogs from this contributor.)
Josiah (Hebrew “Yoshiyahu” meaning “supported by Yah”) was undoubtedly one of ancient Judah’s best rulers. This king took the throne of Judah at the early age of 8 and ruled for thirty-one years (c. 640-609 BC), accomplishing great good during his reign. Yet his death is puzzling and may present lessons to those of us who read the story.
Before we examine the events regarding the death of this great king, we should consider his deeds. The Bible gives few details regarding the early years of his reign, but – perhaps under the influence of Jeremiah - in his eighteenth year Josiah began a great reformation of the faith of Judah. He first repaired the Temple of God and it was during this work that “the book of the law” (perhaps Deuteronomy, if not the whole Pentateuch) was found. Moved by the warnings in the book, for the non-observance of God’s law, Josiah tore his clothes in repentance and called an assembly of the elders and people of Jerusalem and Judah at which the ancient covenant with Yahweh was renewed (2 Kings 23). The king then began to cleanse Judah of idolatry. After the Temple of God was purged of the various paraphernalia and emblems of the pagan god Baal and “the host of heaven,” local cult “high places” were destroyed throughout Judah and even beyond. As a high point of this reformation, a great Passover celebration was kept in Jerusalem, greater than any that had been held since the days of the Judges.
Josiah’s reformation and good deeds are all the more remarkable considering that his father, Amon, and grandfather, Manasseh, were among Judah’s worst kings, committing great evil before God. Josiah clearly returned to the one God and humbly led his people to return also. He was praised for this by the prophetess Huldah, a relative of Jeremiah, who also prophesied that Josiah would be buried in peace (2 Kings 22:20). But something went amiss. Josiah did not die in peace, but as a casualty of war.
To understand Josiah’s death we need to understand the basics of international relations in his day. When Josiah ascended the throne the ancient Near East was in political flux. That world’s “superpower”, the Assyrian Empire (to Israel’s North east), was disintegrating in Josiah’s lifetime, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire (to Israel’s east) was rising to replace it. By 612 BC the Babylonians captured the great Assyrian city, Nineveh, and began to take over Assyrian territories and cities such as Carchemish in Syria. Egypt, another key power player under the strong pharaoh Necho II, perhaps saw Babylon’s attacks as an opportunity to reconquer areas of Syria for itself, and Necho thus led an army north to fight the Babylonians (who would ultimately attack Judah) at the city of Carchemish.
What’s all this have to do with you, me and Josiah and how he ended up? Read the rest of this blog to find out what might have happened to righteous king Josiah – and to glean vital lessons for our own lives.
This is where Josiah enters the picture. Necho requested permission to pass through Judah on the main road to Syria in order to fight the Babylonians, but, ironically – considering Judah’s soon-coming downfall at the hands of the Babylonians – Josiah refused. According to II Chronicles 35:20-21 Necho then sent messengers to Josiah saying, “What have we to do with each other, O King of Judah? I am not coming against you today but against the house with which I am at war, and God has ordered me to hurry. Stop for your own sake from interfering with God who is with me, so that He will not destroy you.” This message is amazing not only in that Necho pleaded with the relatively minor king Josiah not to interfere, but also claimed that God Himself instructed him to do what he was doing. Was this just a detail of cleverly contrived psychological warfare, or was Necho really marching under the influence of God who raises kingdoms and diminishes them (Daniel 2:21)? The biblical account appears to indicate the latter as Chronicles tells us that “Josiah, however, would not turn away from him, but disguised himself to engage him in battle. He would not listen to what Necho had said at God’s command but went to fight him on the plain of Megiddo.” (2 Chron. 35:22, emphasis added). The results of this battle in the summer of 609 BC were disastrous for the Judean king. “Archers shot King Josiah, and he told his officers, “Take me away; I am badly wounded.” So they took him ... to Jerusalem, where he died. “(vs. 23).
Josiah’s folly in taking a huge chance with his life at Megiddo not only led to his own demise, but to the loss of Judean independence, because his defeat in battle meant that Pharaoh Necho now controlled Judah and thus instituted his own puppet ruler.
What brought about this very bad choice by Josiah? The Jewish Talmud (Taanis 22b) states that Josiah acted on the basis of the scripture which says that “no sword shall pass through your land” (Leviticus 26.6) but this attempt to justify the king’s action is only speculation and is offset by the Bible’s own account that Josiah was warned by God through Necho. The Talmud itself also asserts that Josiah was warned by Jeremiah.
So what happened to this good king of Judah? Did Josiah somehow misunderstand the situation and simply die as a result of his fatal mistake, or had something happened in the king’s life that he no longer enjoyed God’s guidance and protection? There seem to be two logical answers.
Scenario/Lesson One: Good people sometimes make very bad mistakes. It is possible that Josiah continued his close relationship with God down to the end of his life, but that he simply made a wrong choice – a fatal mistake – by getting involved in a power struggle that did not concern him. Proverbs 26:17 gives the principle of not meddling in a matter that does not concern us, and Josiah may have paid the price for not knowing or heeding that principle. There is no doubt that God sometimes mercifully protects those who love Him from the results of foolish decisions and actions, but He does not guarantee He will do this in any or every circumstance. The principle of not “tempting” God (Deuteronomy 6:16) certainly applies here. Lesson: We can jeopardize our success, our happiness, and even our lives through taking foolish chances - despite our relationship with God. Don’t run the stop lights of life – physical or spiritual.
Scenario/Lesson Two: Sometimes we stop seeking God’s will – with very bad results. Because the Bible is silent regarding a spiritual assessment of Josiah at the end of his reign, it is also possible that this king, despite the wonderful attitude and dedication to God’s way he displayed earlier in life, spiritually “died on the vine” in the sense of losing his dedication and desire to continue seeking God’s way with the same former fervency. While he had earlier sought God’s will through His Word and His prophets, the Bible does not give any evidence that he sought God’s counsel as to whether or not to intervene in Necho’s campaign. Since Josiah had repaired the temple and begun the worship of the one true God according to biblical commands, he could have sought guidance from the High priest, perhaps specifically through consulting the Urim and Thummim intended to give guidance from God (Exodus 28:30), or he could have sought God’s guidance through one of His prophets living at that time – such as Jeremiah. Lesson: The life of Solomon and perhaps the life of Josiah show that even the wisest and most dedicated followers of God can lose their original love and die in a lesser relationship with Him. And, of course, it’s not just a problem of kings – Jesus’ words in John 15: 1-5 and the book of Revelation’s message to the Church of Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22) show that we are all capable of such a sad ending.
Perhaps there are other possible reasons why Josiah acted foolishly and paid the ultimate price for his error, yet the two scenarios discussed here would seem to cover the logical possibilities – either Josiah died a good man who made a very bad mistake, or he died a man who had fallen back from the close relationship he once had with God and was no longer seeking God’s guidance to the same degree as before. We do not have to judge him by trying to decide this, but because God’s word says that such events in scripture are recorded for our instruction (1 Corinthians 10:11), we should carefully consider the possible lessons involved.
In either case, Josiah’s good deeds were remembered. He was lamented by the Prophet Jeremiah (2 Chronicles 35:25), and Matthews’ Gospel lists this king in the genealogy of Jesus. Perhaps these facts suggest that the first scenario is the more likely of the two, but the Bible does not make it clear which scenario actually applies to Josiah’s death – and, as a result, which lesson we should draw from it. Perhaps the lack of clarity in regard to Josiah’s unfortunate ending should be a prompt to us to remember both lessons:
- Good people sometimes make very bad mistakes, and God lets us – due to free moral agency.
- Secondly: Sometimes we stop seeking or heeding God’s revealed will—with very bad results.
Thank you for an honest evaluation of the end of king Josiah. It’s so hard to read of Josiah’s great reform and then have it appear that God left him in battle.