At the beginning of worship this morning, we talked about discoveries. About finding things during excavations. Things that have been hidden for a time. Have you ever put something in a “safe place” and then forgotten where that something was? How many of you have ever bought Christmas presents weeks or months ahead of time, put them somewhere in your home, and, then, when it comes time to wrap and give them, can no longer find them? Welcome to my world!
Our story today is a story of discovery. For the past few weeks, we’ve been reading in the prophets. Today, we are turning to second Kings, chapters 22 and 23. For the first several minutes today, we’re going to work our way through the text, section by section. Let’s begin our discovery by reading at verse 1.
Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign; he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jedidah daughter of Adaiah of Bozkath. He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left. --2 Kings 22:1-2 (NRSV)
Our story is set during the reign of King Josiah. We are about 100 years after the setting of last week’s reading in Isaiah, around 620 BC, in the southern kingdom. Josiah has just become king, at the ripe age of 8 years old. The northern kingdom has fallen. Although Assyria has already begun to encroach into Judah, Jerusalem still stands. Josiah’s reign happens about 35 years before the Assyrian empire will collapse and the Babylonians will come from the south and defeat and capture Jerusalem, and exile the Jewish people from their homeland. We are near the end, near the catastrophic failure of the line of King David. About 586 BC.
We’ve talked before about these historical texts in the Hebrew scripture, that they are theological histories. Each of these stories has elements from actual history, but they are not written for historical purposes, but for theological reasons. They present clear theologies, clear understandings of the way the world works or is supposed to work. There is a lot of what we might call confirmation bias - finding evidence of God in history. It’s often what we like to do in our own lives, when we look at something in our own histories and believe we can seek the hand of God at work.
These books from Joshua through Kings are called Deuteronomistic histories - histories that are read through the lens of Deuteronomy - the book in the Torah that gave Israel an understanding of what an ideal king should be, even before there were any kings. In these first verses, King Josiah begins his reign as an 8 year old. Verse 2 says that he did “what was right in the sight of the Lord.” That he did not “turn aside to the right or to the left.” This is direct language from Deuteronomy about what a good king should look like. There are only three kings in scripture described in this way: David, Hezekiah, and Josiah.
The book of Chronicles in two parts is a companion to the book of Kings. It expands in areas where Kings doesn’t. So, if we turn to 2nd Chronicles, chapter 34, we read what it looks like for a king to do what is right in the sight of God, to not turn aside to the right or to the left. Chronicles tells us that, in Josiah’s eighth year, he began to seek God. At 12, he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the “high places,” the shrines where people would go to worship the Baals, which, as I mentioned last week, were representative of all the gods that the people had begun to worship. All of the other gods except for the true God. Josiah not only purged the “high places,” but removed the incense altars, the sacred poles, the carved and cast images and the priests that had distracted the people from the true God. All of the cultural artifacts that had pulled them away from God.
This is what a good leader does. A good leader turns to God and then works to turn his or her people to God.
We read on.
In the eighteenth year of King Josiah, the king sent Shaphan son of Azaliah, son of Meshullam, the secretary, to the house of the Lord, saying, “Go up to the high priest Hilkiah, and have him count the entire sum of the money that has been brought into the house of the Lord, which the keepers of the threshold have collected from the people; let it be given into the hand of the workers who have the oversight of the house of the Lord; let them give it to the workers who are at the house of the Lord, repairing the house, that is, to the carpenters, to the builders, to the masons; and let them use it to buy timber and quarried stone to repair the house. But no accounting shall be asked from them for the money that is delivered into their hand, for they deal honestly.”
The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.” When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it. Then Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, “Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workers who have oversight of the house of the Lord.” Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “The priest Hilkiah has given me a book.” Shaphan then read it aloud to the king. --2 Kings 22:3-10 (NRSV)
Part of Josiah’s reform was to begin restoration of the temple in Jerusalem, which had fallen into disrepair. We get a true sense of Josiah’s leadership and of his people here. That Josiah trusted them to do the right things. To live in upright and honest ways because this was how he lived and how he led them. There was no need to double-check the work of the temple workers, because they could be trusted. Just as their leader could be trusted.
It is in the midst of the temple repair that a discovery is made. The book of the law. The Torah. Which included in it, the book of Deuteronomy - this guide book for how a king should lead. Josiah asks that this newly-discovered book be read aloud to him.
When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. Then the king commanded the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Achbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary, and the king’s servant Asaiah, saying, “Go, inquire of the Lord for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” --2 Kings 22:11-13 (NRSV)
When Josiah hears the words, he tears his clothes. In the Jewish tradition, this represents that something very bad has happened. So, he sends his advisors to go to God’s prophet to inquire of God. One must wonder if this is our first step when something bad has happened to us. Or the first place our leaders turn. Do we seek God’s guidance first?
So the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to the prophetess Huldah the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe; she resided in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter, where they consulted her. She declared to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the Lord, I will indeed bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants—all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, 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 because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the Lord. Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place.” They took the message back to the king. --2 Kings 22:14-20 (NRSV)
If Josiah thought he had heard bad news before, this news is so much worse. “You’ll be okay for right now, but the future for your country will be no more.” It is news that God will not change God’s plan even though the people have turned back and re-committed themselves to God. Or that they are now walking in God’s ways. The prophetess Huldah does not have hopeful words for the kingdom of Judah. Because choices have consequences.
Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. The king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant. --2 Kings 23:1-3 (NRSV)
So what does Josiah do with the information that Jerusalem will be doomed? He gathers everyone together. All Jerusalem. And he reads all of the discovered scroll - the Torah or the instruction - to them. Publicly. All of it. Following the command found in Deuteronomy 31, that the king will command everyone to assemble and read the words. To re-commit themselves to the covenant. And so, with Josiah knowing the eventual doom that will come to Jerusalem, he reads scripture to them. And then he, knowing their fate but not telling the people their fate, will, with them, re-commit. And by the end of chapter 23, we find a king and a people who are fully in. Who have shed the artifacts of culture that have pulled them away. And who have committed themselves to God once again. This is the highest point for God’s people since King David.
This is a hard text. What are we to do with this story? What sense of it are we to make for ourselves? We, who are on the other side of history from this text? Knowing the eventual destruction of Jerusalem, the exile of the people, the loss of the temple - their religious center?
Friends, our choices today have consequences. If not for us, then for future generations. There are any number of issues I might point out here: climate change; the growing gap between rich and poor; our selfish focus in the church on individual salvation rather than the shalom, the wholeness of the entire community; a government we have elected that, day after day, we learn is more and more corrupt, whether you watch Fox News or MSNBC. All of our choices have consequences. If not immediate, then in the future.
What are we to do in the midst of this, in this unknown times, wondering if our own future destruction is only years away? King Josiah helps us in this respect. Even when it seems there is no hope, we turn to the Word. It is here in reading scripture that we are pointed back to God. Where, in the Word made manifest in the form of a baby king, we find hope for the future. A promised future - God’s promised future - of peace. Where all are fed, where all are restored to community, where creation is made whole, where only justice and righteousness reign.
And so as we wait for that future of the reign of Christ, we live as people of God, shedding the artifacts and things that distract us from God. Following God’s command, first given in Deuteronomy, then expanded by our King and Savior Jesus Christ, through whom all of us have been freed. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And your neighbor as yourself.” Amen.
Preached November 24, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Christ the King Sunday
Readings: 2 Kings 22:1-20, 23:1-3; Luke 24:30-32, Psalm 105:1-6