AFTER King Manasseh had repented, he started leading Judah back to the worship of God. But he died before he completed the gigantic task of reforming the nation. His son and successor, Amon, did not follow the good example of Manasseh's later years, but followed, instead, the bad example of his earlier years.
Idolatry Breeds Violence
Historians have pointed out, with good reason, that most of the successors of idolatrous Israelite kings had very short periods of rulership. So it was with Amon, whose servants plotted against him and murdered him by the time he had ruled only two years. The people of Judah, however, were so angry because of their leader's assassination that they succeeded in finding all those connected with the act and put them to death. (II Kings 21:19-26; II Chronicles 33:21-25.) By this time, Amon had been buried close to his father in the family burial place near the royal palace.
Josiah's Crusade Against Idolatry
Although only eight years old, Amon's son Josiah was the next ruler of Judah. Even though he was first guided by his advisors with various beliefs and ambitions, by the time he was about sixteen he had a growing desire to really follow the ways of his ancestor David, whose accomplishments greatly interested him. By the time he was twenty years old, Josiah began to rid his kingdom of idols by outlawing the presence of pagan altars and images. At the same time he sent out crews of men to tear down and destroy any objects connected with idolatry. They went throughout Judah and even into the land from which most of Israel had been removed. The last use of heathen altars, just before they were wrecked, was for burning the bones of the profane priests. Their bones were found buried near the altars at which they had officiated when sacrifices had been made to idols. (II Kings 22:1-2; II Chronicles 34:1-7.) During the years those changes were being made, proper activities were restored at the temple, which again required repairing because of rough usage while careless and rowdy idol worshippers held their profane ceremonies there. Worshippers of God came from far and near, even from the tribes of Israel; and they brought offerings. At last there was a considerable collection of silver at the temple given as offerings by God's worshippers. When Josiah was about twenty-six, he ordered officials to use the silver to buy new timber and stone and to pay the wages of carpenters, builders and masons for mending the worn and broken parts of the temple. (II Kings 22:3-7; II Chronicles 34:8-13.) Meanwhile, Hilkiah the high priest excitedly reported to his friend Shaphan, the king's secretary, that he had found the Book of the Law in the temple. (II Kings 22:8; II Chronicles 34:14-15.) This Law on the original scroll of sheepskin, comprising the first five books of the Old Testament, had for a long time been at the side of the ark. (Deuteronomy 31:2426.) And Jehoshaphat in his time had copies made for the teaching of the Law all over the nation. (II Chronicles 17:7-9.) Later, during some time when the temple was overrun by idol-worshippers, most copies of the Law were destroyed. This official temple master copy was missed by the destroyers, probably because some astute and faithful priest concealed it rather than have it destroyed by those who wanted to do away with God's laws. When Shaphan, Hilkiah and others presented the ancient but well-preserved sheepskin scroll to the king, his excitement was no less than that of Hilkiah. Josiah was so interested that he immediately asked that Shaphan read some original scriptures aloud, so that they might know what God requires of men and nations. (II Kings 22:9-10; II Chronicles 34:16-18.)
The Laws of Peace
Shaphan read aloud certain chapters from the book of Deuteronomy — that part having to do with God's promises of blessings for obedience and the curses that would follow disobedience. (Deuteronomy 28.) Josiah became so perturbed that he violently tore his robe. In those times that was an action that indicated great distress. (II Kings 22:11; II Chronicles 34:19.) "According to what you just read, as Moses wrote it," Josiah exclaimed, "this nation is overdue for a terrible time of God's wrath! I want you to go at once and inquire of God if anything special can be done to cause God to be merciful to us!" "There is a true prophetess here in the city by the name of Huldah," Hilkiah said in a desperate tone. "Seek her out," Josiah ordered. "Ask her what will happen and what we should do." Hilkiah, Shaphan and three other men of rank left right away to find the prophetess Huldah, to whom God had given special ability to understand some of His intentions. (II Kings 22:12-14; II Chronicles 34:20-22.) God must have previously given Huldah understanding for Josiah's benefit, because she had an immediate answer for her visitors. "Tell the man who sent you that God will indeed bring deep misery to the people of Judah because of their turning to false gods," Huldah said. "God's warnings, like His promises, never fail. There is nothing that can be done now to alter God's plans. But He wants the king of Judah to know that he, Josiah, won't go through the soon-coming time of curses and desolation for his nation. Because Josiah has repented and has faithfully worked to turn his people back to the right way, he will be mercifully taken to his grave and will be spared the evil to come." (II Kings 22:15-20; II Chronicles 34:23-28.) When Josiah learned what Huldah had to say, he was disappointed that his people would not COMPLETELY repent. As a result there wasn't much he could do to prevent God's wrath from eventually falling on Judah. Nevertheless, the king determined to make the most of the time he had left. He called for the people — especially the leaders — to meet with him at the temple to hear a reading from the Book of the Law. He hoped that all who heard would be sobered and anxious to seek God. After the reading, probably by Hilkiah the high priest, Josiah stood up before the crowd.
The People Follow Josiah
"God of Israel, we have heard your laws read just as you gave them to your servant Moses," the king called out in prayer. "We know that your laws are just and good, and that only by living by them can we be happy, healthy, prosperous and safe. We realize now, more than ever, that disobedience toward you will surely result in misery, sickness, poverty and trouble. We would like to declare to you that it is our desire and intention, with your help, to put aside ways that aren't good for us or pleasing to you, and wholeheartedly live by your rules only!" A loud murmur of approval came from the people and their leaders. (II Kings 23:1-3.) "We can get off to a good start by seeking out and destroying all idolatrous things that still remain in Judah," Josiah told the people. "I daresay there yet remain even in the temple articles that have to do with idolatry. I request the high priest and those under him to look closely again for such things. If any are found, let them be removed at once from the temple!" Obviously someone had been careless in this matter. Many pots, bowls and other equipment used in pagan ceremonies in the temple were hastily rounded up and carried out. Later they were tossed into a huge fire outside the city. The ashes of wooden objects and the fragments of metal things were taken to be dumped at the site of the city of Bethel. This place had been an important seat of activities for God's servants, but later became defiled by pagan priests who claimed they represented God. Josiah doggedly set out to remove every vestige of idolatry from Judah and even part of the land of Israel north to Samaria. Hiding pagan priests were found and punished. The dwellings of those who had been pagan temple prostitutes, both male and female, were burned or torn down. (II Kings 23:4-20; II Chronicles 34:29-33.) At Bethel, Josiah's men even dug up the remains of heathen priests and burned them on the altar there, thus carrying out the prophecy made three hundred and fifty years before, when God inspired one of his servants to declare that one day a man named Josiah would burn the bones of the pagan priests on that altar. (I Kings 13:1-3, 26-32.) However, the bones of the true prophet who had spoken this weren't touched. (II Kings 23:17-18.)
God's Purpose Stands
After these things had been accomplished, the time came for the Passover, which many observed with special fervor because of Josiah's success against idolatry. Josiah had worked diligently to wipe out idolatry and sorcery from his nation and from territory of the Israelite tribes to the north. He fervently hoped God would spare his country from the curses the people bring on themselves when they forsake the God of Israel for pagan gods and demons. (II Chronicles 34:1-7.) Josiah also knew that God would be pleased because the Book of the Law had been found and much of it read to the people. To add to all this, the king saw to it that the Passover that year was observed with unusual solemnity and great ceremony. Many thousands of animals were sacrificed, thirty-three thousand of which Josiah contributed from his flocks and herds. (II Kings 23:1-28; II Chronicles 34:8-33; 35:1-19.) But the king's good works didn't alter God's intention to punish the nation because of their turning from Him. (II Kings 23:21-27.) Sometime later Josiah was one morning informed by an excited officer: "Thousands of Egyptian troops are pouring into our land!"
Josiah's Political Dilemma
The king's hopes for continued protection for Judah were dependent on his being careful not to endanger his life. But Josiah, and the nation, got smug and careless. Josiah's hopes were almost wiped out when he learned that an Egyptian army with thousands of troops and cavalry and hundreds of chariots was moving along the coastal area of western Judah. (II Chronicles 35:20.) This, Josiah reasoned, was the beginning of God's punishment of Judah, come in the form of a mighty fighting force that could devastate the whole nation in less than a week. However, the next report to reach the king gave him some comfort. "The Egyptians are continuing northward on the plains by the sea. No troops or chariots have turned inland." Though relieved at the news, Josiah remained perturbed because a foreign army was on his soil. He wanted an explanation, as soon as possible, for its being there. Even before he could send emissaries to the Egyptians, representatives came from none less than Necho, the Egyptian king, who was with his army. The spokesmen told Josiah: "Our King Necho wants to assure you and your people that there is no reason for concern, because we have no intention of war or any harm to your people or their possessions. We wish only to pass harmlessly through your land on the way to Carchemish on the Euphrates river. Our king intends to free that city from the king of Babylon, who has no right to it. "Our king trusts that you will have no desire to interfere with his plans. Otherwise, Judah shall surely suffer heavily, inasmuch as God has told him that we should go against the Chaldeans at Carchemish. Any who interfere with God's will shall surely be dealt with in a terribly harsh manner!" (II Chronicles 35:21.) "So be it," Josiah said after the Egyptians had departed. "Let them kill each other off. I don't intend to become embroiled in a war, though not because of being threatened by some pagan who claims to speak for God. If the Egyptians win, we'll no longer be vassals to the Chaldeans. Their victory over the Assyrians didn't rightfully mean that we should switch allegiance to the king of Babylon." "If the Egyptians don't win, we'll suffer for it" an officer reminded the king. "As long as we are vassals to the Chaldeans, we will be expected to serve as a buffer between Babylonia and Egypt. If we fail to confront the Egyptians, we'll probably pay a higher price in lives if the Chaldeans demand an accounting from us."
Josiah Picks a Fight
"But the latest report is that the Egyptians have already passed through Judah and are moving along the plain of Sharon," Josiah pointed out. "How could we possibly overtake them?" "There's still time," the officer explained. "Probably they'll be turning eastward at the valley of Jezreel to take the highway to Damascus for the benefit of their chariots. We could rush an army northward past Samaria and intercept them after they've changed directions!" Josiah acted at once, though with mixed feelings. (II Chronicles 35:22.) He didn't want to start a battle, but neither did he want reprisals from Babylon for standing idly by. The two armies came within sight of each other in the valley of Megiddo, near where the most terrible battle in the history of man will take place in the lifetime of many now reading these words (Revelation 11:14-19; 16:15-17.) "I went to the trouble of warning that stubborn king of Judah," Necho muttered angrily to his officers when he saw the approaching army. "Perhaps we can save time and effort by first removing him from the scene. Instruct the archers to close in at a reasonable distance from these Jews' chariots. Tell them to watch carefully for the royal chariot and make certain that their arrows reach both passenger and driver." The Egyptians supposed that the king of Judah would be easily distinguishable in a special chariot, but Josiah had considered that, and came into battle in an ordinary cavalry chariot. During the first careful pass the two forces made at each other, the Egyptian archers couldn't find what they were looking for. They finally discharged clouds of arrows at all the chariots of Judah. One of those arrows landed, as if by chance, deep in Josiah's body. "Put me in another chariot and get me out of here before the Egyptians discover they have wounded me," Josiah muttered weakly. (II Chronicles 35:23.) The king was quickly transferred to another chariot and carried back to Jerusalem, where he soon died. (II Kings 23:29.) Perhaps the king of Egypt was a long time learning that one of his archers had fatally wounded the king of Judah. There was a sudden retreat of the army of Judah, and that was what mainly mattered to the Egyptians, whatever the cause. Having shoved the army of Judah aside, Necho moved on unhindered toward the northeast. Because Josiah was so greatly respected and because his death foreshadowed the death of the nation, there was great mourning upon his death, even by many who didn't care for his staunch stand against idolatry. Asked to speak at the king's funeral was the young prophet Jeremiah. He was a friend of Ahikam, an intimate of Josiah and son of Josiah's confidential secretary Shaphan. (Jeremiah 26:24; II Kings 22:812; II Chronicles 34:20-21.) Jeremiah delivered a most unusual eulogy because of Josiah's accomplishments for God. His observations were later set to music and sung and played for centuries to come on special occasions. (II Chronicles 35:24-25; Lamentations.) Josiah was buried in one of the sepulchers of the kings of Judah. He was the last king of that nation who followed God, and God promised he would die without having to go through the misery that was to come to Judah. Although Josiah died of a battle wound, the nation was at peace, and he died in a peaceful state of mind far from the battlefield. (II Kings 23:30; II Chronicles 35:26-27.)