Good and Evil in the Sight of the Lord (November 17, 2019)
2 Kings 22: 3-11, 13, 15-20; 23:1-3
Good and Evil in the Sight of the Lord
Josiah’s reform is one of the most interesting passages in Scripture for me, one of my favorite passages to really look at and meditate on. It has a lot of stuff that can be taken to our own lives, and show us the way in which we are to act, and interact with the Lord, and with our world. But in order to truly understand what is happening here, and truly understand what Josiah is doing, we need to take a look at what got him here. We need to know what got the nation here.
The story is actually told twice, and the timelines within the two depictions do not really add up. In the Book of Kings, everything is scrunched together into one giant epiphany of a moment for Josiah in his 18th year of life; the 10th year of his rule. I think it is because in the Book of Kings, the author is mainly worried about this last reform that he does after finding the book of the law. But that’s not everything that he does. In Chronicles, we see the story expanded out just a little bit. Josiah comes to power at the ripe old age of eight. And at the age of eight, he does what you’re supposed to do at the age of eight: he searches for the Lord, he inquired about the Lord. He’s curious. And at eight, that is what you’re supposed to be. There’s no real expectations upon you other than to search for the Lord, to try and find the Lord; as I mentioned in the children’s sermon today.
Then, at age 12, he begins to act. He does two things: he notices that his father and his grandfather have built shrines and high places for all the gods of the nations around them: the guards of Assyria, the gods of Egypt, things like that. They built them all around the city. And they are beautiful. And then Josiah notices that the God of Judah has a temple that is in massive disrepair, and is falling down all around the priests. So he gets into his own treasury, and he gets into the treasury of the country, and he sends that money to the priest to fix the Temple of the Lord. As he is searching for the God of his own country and trying to figure things out, he begins to take action that is meant to be in worship and in service of the Lord.
Again he is right where he should be. This is one of at least two stories of action to take place by 12-year-olds in the Scriptures. We see Josiah begin to act upon his seeking of the Lord at the age of 12. And then we see Jesus are the age of 12 leave his mother and father, and after searching for him for three days, they find him in the temple teaching the priests. Jesus is taking action at age 12, Josiah takes action at age 12. This is why I begin to put the age at which a confirmation can happen at age 12: because this is when you should be able to begin to really act upon what you have learned in your search for God.
And then the third thing happens. As they are repairing the temple, about six years into this project, when Josiah is 18; the priests find the book of the law. Some scholars think this is Deuteronomy, or a portion of the book of Deuteronomy. They bring this book to the king, and they read it to the king, and the king hears everything that it says. And it says that if you start to build high places to the gods of the nations around you, and you begin to worship them, really bad things are going to happen to you. And the nation of Judah has been doing those things! Really bad things are going to happen to us! That’s what this book says!
So what are we do? Josiah does again exactly what he’s supposed to do; just as he has done this whole time at 8, at 12; he was doing exactly what he was supposed to do. Now here, at age 18, when he’s confronted with all his sins, and all the sins of the nation, he does exactly what you’re supposed to do.
The first thing that he does is he tears his clothes and covers himself in sackcloth and ashes. That seems extreme, and please don’t do that now. But that was the way that you repented in the Old Testament times. So this is what he’s doing: he is repenting. And we talk about that word all the time. When you’re confronted with your sins, the first thing you should do is repent. Which is twofold here.
First it is a deep sense of wrongness, a deep sense of sorrow that what you have done was wrong whether you knew it or not, whether you intended it or not. Josiah has no idea that any of the stuff he’s done was wrong, and yet when he finds that out, he feels the immense sorrow within himself. And that drives him to change what he is doing. And that is the second part of repentance: changing what you were doing and going in a different direction now that you understand that what you did before was wrong. This is repentance. And this is exactly what Josiah does immediately. Also, he brings together all of Judah to the Temple and re-commits to the covenant as a nation, and they celebrates the first Passover in centuries. This is repentance modeled for us.
And the second thing he does is that he prays. Now again, it doesn’t look like it does now. He prays in Old Testament ways. In the Old Testament. before Christ brought the world and the heavens together in the way that Christ did, you had to go to God through an intermediary. So you either went to the temple to pray through the priests in a kind of one-way prayer; that was lifting up a prayer of forgiveness, or of repentance, or of thankfulness, or whatever you were bringing that particular day. Or you went to a prophet if you wanted an answer back. And so this is what Josiah does: he goes to the prophet.
And we don’t have to do that thanks to Christ bringing the heaven and the earth together. We can go to God directly through Christ in both of those ways. But Josiah couldn’t. And so what we see is he goes to the prophet to pray, “God, what is going to happen? Are these calamities that are listed in the book of the law, in this book that we read, going to happen?” To which God, of course, says, “Yes. Yes they’re going to happen. But…”
Through the prophet, God says that because of all that Josiah has done, and lead the country to do with him, the calamity that is described in the book can be delayed. And I read within the story the implication that they can be delayed indefinitely. As long as the nation seeks to follow the Lord, these calamities will be delayed. But God no longer believes the nation will follow forever, and says, “I won’t keep you from the consequences of your actions any longer. Eventually you’re going to slip up again. I know that. You know that. And when that happens, these things will happen to you. But as long as you remain faithful, as long as you remain in covenant, you will have good happen to you.”
And of course good here meant that these painful calamities would not come up on them. Josiah actually reigns for a relatively short amount of time. He’s cut down in battle at a pretty young age because he didn’t listen to God saying “don’t go to that battle.” But he also doesn’t go back to worshiping of these other gods, and so he does not see these horrible things that the book predicted.
There’s a couple of things that I want to point out that you may not have noticed, that I didn’t notice the first few times that I read the story. I think it is really important to remember how the nation got here. Why was reform even needed? We’re told that Josiah repairs the Temple; which means the temple was in need of repair. Now, every building needs maintenance. I mean our trustees are talking about the fact it’s been a while since we’ve fixed the roof. We should get someone out here to make sure that we don’t need to fix it again, to make sure that there hasn’t been any damage. Every building needs routine maintenance. That’s not what they were talking about here. They’re more talking about neglect; that the temple of the Lord has been neglected. And worse, it’s been neglected in favor of temples to other gods around the city.
And I worry that sometimes our temples get neglected. Not our buildings, not our churches, that’s not what I’m talking about. Sometimes the places within our very being, the places in our souls that are for the worship of God, get neglected in favor of the other things we have a tendency to worship: money, power, position, family, productivity, celebrity. These things get in the way. And I feel like sometimes we build those shrines up at the neglect of the shrine to the Lord within our heart. Part of why the nation was in need of reform is they had neglected their God to their detriment.
The second thing to notice is that as they’re repairing the temple they find the book of the law. Which is actually worse than it sounds. What it sounds like is they lost the Scriptures, which is pretty bad. Can you imagine walking in here into a church to discover that we had lost the Bible 50 years ago? The idea we took all of our Bibles and put them in the storage facility, and we had not been reading from the Bible for 50 years? And then we discover, “oh hey, there’s books back here that say it is the Holy Scriptures of our faith. Maybe we should take a look at that.” Can you imagine that? Can you imagine how far away from God we would have to go to get there?
Except that’s not the only thing about where we are. The fact that the book of the law was lost, as well as the fact that the book of the law even existed, was an indictment on Josiah’s grandfather Manassah. Manassah is listed as the most evil king in Judah’s history. After Manassash’s father tore down all of the shrines around Jerusalem, and he had built up the Temple treasury. He had left the kingdom in good working order. And then his son comes to power, and his son Manasseh rebuilds all of those shrines, and begins to pull funds from the Temple of the Lord to both pay for the shrines, as well as to pay tribute to the kings of Assyria and Egypt. Furthermore, he takes the objects that help the worship of these other gods and he actually build shrines to them within the temple complex in Jerusalem. He is quickly and systematically seemingly trying to replace the worship of the Judean God with worship of the gods of Assyria and Egypt.
There are many scholars who believe that it was at this point, during the reign of Manasseh, Amon, or Josiah, that the first scriptures that we have were actually written down. Up until this point they were kept in oral tradition, passed down from generation to generation. This is how the stories of the country, the Scriptures of the nation, were passed down from generation to generation. Until about this time. Perhaps some of the elders began to think that persecution was coming and they may not have the ability of passing on the oral tradition to their descendants, and they should write it down and hide it away in case it gets forgotten. So they write down the first of the Scriptures. And those scriptures indeed get lost during the reign of Manasseh, and rediscovered and brought to Josiah. Judah’s leaders have brought this kingdom to its knees spiritually, but the religious leaders did what they needed to do to ensure they would get out the other side. And indeed God does bring them there, but you can see here just how bad it had gotten.
I want to look at one final lesson from this time. When each new king or queen is introduced, the Scriptures will give a defining characteristic to the king as one who was righteous, or one who was evil, in the sight of the Lord. And that judgment of the King’s rule or the Queen’s rule doesn’t seem to be based upon things that we might look at such as length of rule, or wealth and prosperity of the kingdom, or safety of the kingdom. In terms of Scripture, this judgment of whether a king was righteous or evil in the sight of the Lord seems to be based solely and completely upon what they did with the shrines to the other gods outside Jerusalem. The shrines that were first built in the kingship of Solomon. Each new king or queen in Judah especially, but also even in Israel, is judged by what they do with these other gods of these other kingdoms. Do you allow that worship to continue? Do you participate in that worship yourself? Or do you rip the shrines down?
What we learned here is that the first commandment and the second commandment, love the Lord your God and place no other gods before him, are first and second for a reason. They are the most important. We see that when Jesus lists that one as one of the two “greatest commandments.” Do you put any gods before the God of Israel?
Now, we don’t worship Baal anymore. We don’t worship Asherah. We don’t worship these gods that they built shrines to around Jerusalem. But we still worship other gods. As I listed before, we often worship money, or productivity, or titles at work, or celebrity, or family or even ourselves and our own power or abilities. Sometimes we even worship the country. It is no less detrimental for us to worship at the altar of fame, and power, and celebrity, and money than it was for them to worship at the altar of Baal or Asherah.
And by far the worst offender in this country is money. This is why the church talks about giving first fruits. This is why we talk about giving your money first, putting that as a top line in your budget. Now the church often talks about a tithe, or 10% of your money. But that number isn’t what’s important to me. Yes we need the money to keep the heat on, and keep the missions working both in our congregation and with the larger denomination. Yeah we need that money. But that’s more like physical reality.
What we’re talking about when we talk about first fruits is not really about the 10%, it’s about the first. So if you give your first 5%, if you give your first one percent, if you give your first effort and time; whatever it is for you, understand that you truly are placing God first above anything else. Maybe you have to give 15%, 20%, 25% in order to really feel like that. I don’t know what it is for you. But I’m asking for you to think about making sure you give your first amount of whatever it is that you think you would value the most. What’s really important here is to make sure that God is still first, that you’re not neglecting that temple, that you’re not losing the book of the law within your soul. I know no one likes to hear it. And I struggle with it, and I’m sure many of you struggle with it. But what we see here is it that this is what defined whether someone followed God or not in the Old Testament, that’s what was for Jesus the most important thing, and what I think remains the most important thing today. What is first for you? Think on that. Amen.