Sermon preached on 2 Kings 23:1-30 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/06/2020 in Novato, CA.
In Chapter 21, we saw that King Josiah’s father and grandfather, Manasseh and Amon, caused the people to forget the LORD. In contrast, here, Josiah causes the people to remember the LORD. Josiah causes the people to remember their covenant with God and how he had mightily redeemed them. Josiah causes them to remember the law that God had given them which was supposed to govern them. We see here such a wonderful record of repentance and reformation under the leadership of King Josiah.
This is especially wonderful when we remember the context from last chapter. Remember that they found the book of the Law in the temple and Josiah realized they had not been keeping it. It’s that recovered Scripture that spurs Josiah on to such repentance and reformation that we see in today’s chapter. And yet, Josiah last chapter also received that prophecy that while there would be peace in his day, there would be downfall and destruction for Judah after that. Yet, that future doesn’t keep Josiah from seeking massive reformation and renewal. If anything, it appears to spur him on. I can’t help but wonder if Josiah was thinking like his forefather David, that who knows that maybe the LORD will yet be gracious, despite the prophecy of judgment. And so we see a mighty turning back to the LORD in this chapter under this great reformer-king Josiah.
This repentance and reformation begins first with national covenant renewal. This is our first point, to see Josiah’s leadership to renew God’s covenant with the nation at Jerusalem. This is in verses 1-3. And so, we see King Josiah call for a massive assembly. He gathers all the people, small and great. I especially appreciate how he gathers the leaders. Not only does he bring the elders, but we see that this is an assembly that includes prophet, priest, and king. The whole nation is being renewed in the national covenant with the LORD.
I really get excited when I see the involvement of prophet, priest, and king here, in this covenant renewal ceremony. Something we’ve noted recently in our Wednesday night study is how perverted the offices of prophet, priest, and king had become. At the final downfall of Judah and Jerusalem to Babylon that was especially the case. But here, these leaders who really should be the advocates for the covenant among the nation, are being renewed themselves in that covenant. True reformation needs to include all the people, and it should especially include the leadership!
So then, we see that King Josiah is the one leading them in this covenant renewal. The setting for this assembly is not only in Jerusalem, but there in the temple as he himself stands by a pillar in the temple. As Moses and Joshua had in the past served as covenant mediators between God and the people, so here the Messiah King Josiah functions in that role. And notice how the Word of God features in this covenant renewal ceremony. Josiah reads the Book of the Covenant in the presence of this holy assembly. This is the same Scripture that had been found neglected in the temple. Here, we see him doing something that was supposed to be done every 7 years according to Deuteronomy 31 – a formal reading of the law. The covenant law was supposed to be regularly before them as a people in different ways. Posted to their doorposts, on their lips, taught to their children, etc, etc. Here, in formal covenant renewal ceremony King Josiah publicly reads these important Scripture texts that detail the law and the covenant.
We can note that that in verse 3 it says that Josiah then “made” a covenant before the LORD. The people joined with him in this covenant. On the one hand, we could say that the people that day made a new covenant with the LORD since they had repeatedly broken the old one. In fact, the text here puts it in such language of making a covenant. But we should point out that they aren’t actually forming some new covenant in the sense of drawing up new terms for the covenant. No, the reason they reread the Book of the Covenant is because that contains the terms for their covenant. So then, what they are ultimately doing is becoming reestablished in this existing covenant that was made at Sinai. They are recommitting themselves to keep all the laws and statutes and commandments required under that Mosaic Covenant. This chapter goes on to show them striving to do this. We see repeated references in this chapter that their reforms were done so they could be in alignment with what the covenant law required.
I remind you that each week we assemble together as a church it is also a form of a covenant renewal ceremony. That is especially the case when we partake of the Supper, but it is true in general. We are remembering the new covenant that we’ve been made partakers in by the shed blood of Jesus Christ and through our faith in him. We are being renewed in the call to faith and repentance and recommitting ourselves to looking by the grace of God to live according to his laws.
Let’s turn now to our second point and observe all the reformation and purification that King Josiah brought to the land. And let me start by making that point clear. While there are many people in the land who carry out these acts of reform, the text emphasizes Josiah’s leadership. Just look at the grammar. It’s Josiah who is throughout this chapter that is placed as the subject of the various verbs describing the reformation. This is true leadership for long-needed reformation.
So then, let’s walk through and observe the various national reforms. We can note that these are all of the first and second commandment sort. Per the first commandment, he is reestablishing monotheism in the land. Biblical monotheism says there is one and only one God, and he is the God of the Bible, the same one who redeemed Israel from Egypt and entered into a special covenant with them at Sinai. And so, we see Josiah’s actions here to stop the worship of false gods. This God, and only this God, is to be worshipped and served. And per the second commandment, the one true God has said how he does and doesn’t want to be worshipped. And so, we see here Josiah’s actions to put an end to unbiblical forms of worship.
Walking through the reforms, we see major work done to purify the temple. In verses 4 and 6, we see that Josiah had the priests remove Baal and Asherah worship from the temple. We also see in verses 4 and 11 that Josiah had removed different elements of astrology, where the people had been worshipping there at the temple the stars and planets, and especially the sun. How very saddening that the temple to the LORD had become a polytheistic house of worship! How very gladdening to see Josiah purifying the temple from such pagan false gods.
In addition to reforming and purifying the temple, Josiah also addressed all the high place worship in Judah. Remember, the high places were the alternative altars outside of the temple in Jerusalem. God had commanded a central altar among the people and had chosen that to be in Jerusalem. These alternate locations known as high places were of two sorts. Some were simply alternate altars to the LORD God of Judah, in which case they were a violation of the second commandment.
These kind were likely the ones in mind in verses 5, 8, and 9 when it also speaks of Josiah deposing the priests associated with those high places. Based on verse 9, these priests were likely Levitical priests who were facilitating the worship of the one true God at these high places. That seems the right understanding since verse 9 says that after Josiah deposed them from serving at these high places that afterwards they didn’t serve at the altar in Jerusalem but did eat unleavened bread with their brothers. That seems to mean that these deposed priests were able to return in part to service at the temple in Jerusalem, but not to full service that would include serving at the altar. By the way, notice that dealing with the high place altars even included the unauthorized altars in Josiah’s own palace complex. Verse 12 records him removing these ones too. We can note that verse 12 does speak of them being authorized by the kings of Judah, such as Manasseh. But God’s law did not authorize the king to have his own personal altars. God’s law did authorize the king to have his own personal Bible (Deut 17:18). There is a lesson there, I’m sure!
The other sort of high places is of the kind we see in verse 13, which were even far worse. These were altars to other pagan gods, to the false gods of the nations – a first commandment violation. Sadly, some of these dated back to the days of King Solomon who had erected them for his foreign wives who had led his heart astray. Verse 14 also references other high places for the worship of Asherah. And then you have the especially egregious worship site mentioned in verse 10 where child sacrifice was being conducted as an offering to Molech. Josiah gets rid of all of these, cleansing the land from all this polytheistic worship of false gods.
Verse 24 adds an additional list of false worship that Josiah purged from the land. He got rid of all the various forms of witchcraft and sorcery. He also got rid of all the household gods and idols that people had. It doesn’t tell us exactly how he accomplished all this. It wouldn’t have been as easy as just going to some well-known public location of a high place to clean house. But this would have required more individual contact with the people, especially when it came to their household gods. It seems hard to imagine this succeeded unless Josiah had been able to truly begin to reach the people’s hearts. But we have every reason to think he did. Some commentators want to suggest otherwise since the generation after Josiah returns back to great wickedness. Some have suggested this quick reversion is because the people had just been following Josiah and hadn’t really had changed hearts. But the text doesn’t cast any doubts on the people having a real change here. In fact, we had already noted that the people themselves joined with Josiah in reestablishing the covenant with God. So, we are thankful to see that Josiah’s reforms were able to root out witchcraft and sorcery and other household gods that the people individually would have previously participated in.
So much reformation and purification by Josiah in the land of Judah. But his reforms also continued beyond into the area previously known as the northern kingdom of Israel. We see his reforms there when it speaks of what he did both in Bethel, verses 15-16, and in the territory of Samaria, verses 19-20. Remember, this is the area that had been previously conquered by Assyria who then exiled most of the Israelites away to foreign lands. Assyria had then resettled people from all over their empire into this region of Samaria. Remember how after lions started attacking those resettled peoples that Assyria brought an Israelite priest to teach the new population how to worship the LORD God of Israel. The result was the Samaritan peoples who were sort of religious half breeds. They intermingled, having some Israelite blood and a lot of foreign blood. The religion was also part worship of the LORD God of Israel and part pagan idolatry. And so, here, Josiah goes into this northern kingdom of Israel and begins to bring religious reform even there. We should note that at this time, Assyria’s power and reach had been greatly diminished. They were nearing their demise and fall to the Babylonians. So, we can appreciate that the climate was ripe for Josiah to go back into these historically Israelite lands and begin to reclaim them for the LORD.
Josiah’s reforms in Samaria included that infamous location of Bethel. Remember, this was the main worship site for the northern kingdom of Israel. Jeroboam had set up a golden calf there by which Israel was to worship the LORD God of Israel who brought them out of the land of Egypt. Not only does Josiah go and desecrate this idolatrous altar at Bethel, but he is fulfilling prophecy from centuries prior. Recall that an unnamed prophet from Judah came to King Jeroboam back somewhere a little after 900 AD and prophesied by name that a Josiah from the line of David would come and do the purging and reforming that we see recorded in today’s passage. You can see that prophet even referenced in verse 16. Do you see how momentous all this reformation was?
The last thing to note about his reformation is that it included the mighty Passover celebration described in verses 21-23. We can note a few things about it. First, in line with what we just discussed, it included even people of the remnant of the northern kingdom of Israel – we don’t read about that here, but its in the 2 Chronicles account (35:18). Second, it was a commemoration that was biblical in nature according to verse 21. In other words, they were seeking to obey God’s Word in not only keeping the Passover feast but they were very meticulous in how they kept it – to make sure they were following God’s Word. Third, this celebration is said to have excelled all previous generations’ keeping of it, all the way back even to the time of the judges. We know that at times they weren’t really keeping it at all. But here it seems to especially have in mind that the manner in how they kept it, it was qualitatively superior. We aren’t given details but we could imagine that meant it was most faithful to how the Bible required its keeping. Fourth, we can note here that it was at the leadership of King Josiah that such a grand and glorious Passover was kept. As we’ve seen today, King Josiah was a grand and glorious reformer-king. Oh, how the people long needed a king like this!
This leads us to our last point, to consider how yet God’s wrath remained on Judah and Jerusalem. Stop for a moment and think of what we’ve seen here of King Josiah and what he brought to the country. As a person, the text begins and ends emphasizing that he turned to God with all his heart and soul, verses 3 and 25. This is what the law required. Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” The New Testament says this is the greatest commandment of all. This is what is recorded of King Josiah. He turned to do this. That’s repentance language. He repented on behalf of his nation who had long not been doing this. And he turned and began to live for God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength.
And he showed this repentance with much fruit. Remember in the New Testament, when some religious leaders came to John the Baptist to receive a baptism of repentance, he warned them to show their repentance with fruit of repentance. Well, Josiah’s repentance here is not just lip service. His leading a nation in repentance involved so much fruit. He led the people in a bold renewed keeping of the law the likes of which had not been seen, really ever. The work of this reformer-king had even been prophesied for centuries that he would come and lead the people in such reformation and righteousness!
Yet, we come to verses 26 and 27. God’s wrath still remained. God’s purpose to cast off Judah and Jerusalem hadn’t changed. The word to start this in verse 26 is “still” in our pew Bibles. It’s an emphatic word that draws out the dramatic contrast. After all the repentance by Josiah and Judah, still God did not turn away from his great anger. Manasseh had been the most wicked King in Judah’s history, but now arguably the most righteous king, the most law-keeping King in Judah’s history had arrived. But it was not enough to turn away God’s anger.
We might ask, “Why not?” We might wonder, isn’t this the repeated message of the Scriptures that God is a gracious and merciful God to those who repent in humility and turn and look to walk in obedience? But notice what is missing in this. Our text tells us in verse 21. God’s wrath has not been turned away. What is missing here is propitiation. That’s literally what the word propitiation means. It means to turn away God’s wrath through an offering or sacrifice. To say it another way, no amount of keeping of the law can put off your guilt after you have broken it. The law says, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all the things written in the Book of the Law” (Gal 3:10). That is that state of Judah under King Josiah. No amount of their new obedience can atone for all the sin they’ve already committed. Repentance without satisfactory propitiation won’t save you.
It is interesting to note that with all the reforms mentioned, it only implies the sacrificial system. Unlike for example, when David brought in the Ark into Jerusalem or when Solomon dedicated the temple. On those occasions of covenant renewal there was so many sacrifices offered. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying they didn’t offer sacrifices to atone for their sins. That’s why they purified the temple altar – so such could be offered. That’s a big part of keeping Passover, is the sacrifice of the Passover lambs. But the text doesn’t explicitly tell us about it. And in the context of verse 26, that God’s anger remained, it really is unnecessary to draw further attention to such. Because verse 26 tells us what Hebrews 10:4 would later tell us: “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Yes, that’s what the sacrificial system pictured and typified – the turning away of God’s wrath through a sacrifice to atone for sin. But at the end of the day, they were only pictures of the need. They, on their own, couldn’t accomplish the job of true propitiation. And neither could the amazing reformer-king Josiah turn away God’s wrath by any amount of heartfelt repentance and new obedience. Just to really drive home this point of Josiah’s insufficiency – after being responsible for the greatest Passover commemoration to date – the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt — he the firstborn Josiah is easily killed by the Egyptian Pharaoh. Just let that sink in for a moment.
If you are looking for a candidate for the Messiah from the line of David, what an amazing candidate in Josiah. He brought new repentance and obedience from the heart to Judah. He began to reunite the lost tribes of Israel into one people. He brought great reform of worship to the land. But he couldn’t not atone for our sin. As chief of a candidate he was for the job of the Davidic Messiah, he was not successful in turning away the wrath of God on the people due to their sin.
That came in the person of Jesus Christ. As John the Baptist declared at his sight, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”. Jesus is declared to be the propitiation for our sins in 1 John 2:2, 4:4, and Romans 3:25. And Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us,” speaking of the cross as he hung there bearing the wrath of God for us and in our place. That we saw as he cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”
And so, we affirm again today the doctrine of the atonement. The greatest amount of repentance and law keeping, won’t save you from your sins. No matter how sorry for your sins you are and even if you spend your whole life trying to atone for them by good deeds – it won’t save you. God’s wrath against your guilt and sin is too great. But there is one thing, and only one thing, that can turn God’s wrath away from you. It’s the cross of Jesus Christ.
And so, I herald Christ-crucified again to you today. Yes, may we repent of our sins and look to live a new life. But let us not rest in such for the forgiveness of our sins. Rest instead in the grace which is found only in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Amen.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.