4. Josiah’s Reformation

4. Josiah’s Reformation

This post is the first of several that will compare the Reformation of 1517 to other reformations, especially those found in the Bible. The reformation brought about by King Josiah is instructional. But there are several aspects to keep in mind when comparing reformations from different times. There will be similarities and there will be differences. The social, religious, political and technological context will not be the same from one reformation to another. However, it will be important to discover and focus on the similarities of those historic reformations. It is the similarities that reveal that the Reformation of 1517 shares a long and significant heritage with those found in the Bible.

‘King Josiah’ by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Josiah’s reformation is one of the best known reformations recorded in the Bible. Upon mentioning that this series of posts would include re-examining the Biblical reformations, many of the pastors I spoke with immediately brought up Josiah’s reformation. The account of that reformation is recorded in the Bible in 2 Kings chapters 22 and 23. The parallel account is recorded in 2 Chronicles chapters 34 and 35. All reformations have brought about changes that contrast greatly against their prior religious and social background. So we need to start with the background context of Josiah’s reformation.

Bonus:  A significant event in Josiah’s reformation had been predicted more than 300 years earlier!

Background: Why Reformation Was Needed in Josiah’s Time

Josiah’s grandfather was king Manasseh, the longest reigning king of the Southern Jewish kingdom of Judah. [Read all about King Manasseh in 2 Kings 21.] His 55 years of leadership, influence and actions would have affected roughly three generations within his kingdom. Manasseh reformed the religious practice of his day to worship a plethora of gods throughout his country. He installed a variety of worship centers across his kingdom to worship many different gods. The Jews were encouraged to pick any religion that appealed to them, and they did.

Changes to the temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem were especially key to King Manasseh’s strategy. The temple was in a prominent location in the city. A large area was enclosed by its wall. The temple building was tall and located on a hill top making it highly visible.

Additionally, all Jews were to supposed to celebrate there three times a year. King Manasseh set up worship stations to several other gods inside Solomon’s temple. He also re-introduced and practiced human sacrifice such as burning his son (or sons) as an offering to the god Molek. King Manasseh did not know that God had not only denounced that specific practice in Leviticus 20: 30, but also spelled out dire consequences for those who sacrificed their sons to Molek. Traditional Jewish worship had been effectively hijacked and most people had abandoned the God of the Bible and the religious practice that went with it.

Background: Preparation of Josiah as the Reformation Instigator

Josiah’s father, Amon, was 22 years old when he took over from Manasseh as king of Judah. He was assassinated two years later. Amon’s son, Josiah was only eight years old when he was made king in his father’s place. The Bible says nothing about his education, his advisers, or anything until he was 16. In 2 Chronicles 34: 3 it states that when Josiah was 16, he began to seek the God of his forefather, King David.

Based on what ever religious foundation he had received, he started making changes at age 20. Josiah began by removing some of the places of worship King Manasseh had erected around the country. But the nation had a history of changing back and forth between the monotheistic practice of King David and polytheism like that instituted by King Manasseh. Josiah’s early changes may have seemed like the pendulum swinging back the other way again. It may have been viewed as a trend of the times without a compelling foundation for change. But the substantial foundation needed to sustain real change was found and brought to the people by King Josiah.

The Key Event that Triggered Josiah’s Reformation

It started out as just the next thing on Josiah’s to do list: restore Solomon’s temple. At age 26, Josiah dispatched a delegation of his cabinet ministers to begin repairing the temple that King Solomon had built in Jerusalem. The money for the repairs was to come from the offerings that had been collected at the temple gate. With repairs underway, the Jewish High Priest found the scrolls he identified as the ‘Law of Moses’ which we know today as the Pentateuch. The high priest gave the scrolls to Josiah’s secretary who read them and took them to King Josiah and read them to him. It is not recorded exactly what parts were read, but from the effect it had, it could have been something like the blessings and curses in Deuteronomy chapter 28.

Josiah immediately realized the magnitude of the contrast between God’s expectation of his people’s religious practice and the common religious practice of Josiah’s day. He also realized what God said would be done to his nation when the people took up worshiping other gods. That was Josiah’s awakening to the full magnitude of his role in reforming the worship of his people in his nation and hopefully turning around an impending disaster.

King Josiah had been profoundly effected by the reading of God’s word from the Bible. He wanted to share that experience and the knowledge he had gained from it with all the people of his nation. As king, Josiah had the power to fulfill that desire and took positive steps toward replicating his awakening in each person in his kingdom.

The Spread and Effect of Josiah’s Reformation

Josiah called all the leaders and all the people to a big gathering in Jerusalem. Then the King read the word of God to all who were there. Based on the results, Josiah probably read the same sections that had been read to him. The effect on the people was the same as it had been on the king when he had first heard God’s word.

Josiah then showed his leadership by making a pledge to worship only the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, David, and Hezekiah. That was not ancestor worship. But it was worshiping the same God that their ancestors had worshiped. They were worshiping the God who had given them His words on who He was and how to live in relation to Him. Josiah then made all those present take the same pledge.

2 Chronicles 34: 33 gives the rest of the story. “And all his (Josiah’s) days they (the people] did not turn away from following the LORD, the God of their fathers.” Josiah’s reformation was thorough, deep, based on the word of God in the Bible and lasted as long as he lived.

Comparing Josiah’s Reformation to the 1517 Reformation

  • The need for reformation
    • Outward reason – Temple was a dilapidated Central feature of the Capital City on high ground and there were still priests there.
    • Spiritual reason – People were back to no gods, gods of surrounding people, many gods.
  • In the times of both Josiah and Martin Luther, religious practice was not in full accord with God’s word, the Bible.
  • Both Josiah and Martin Luther had some religious instruction prior to their work as reformers and had made a decision to worship the God of the Bible.
  • The word of God was key in awakening both Josiah and Martin Luther to the need for reformation, placing them in a position to do something about it and giving them the impetus to get it done.
  • For both Josiah and Martin Luther, getting the word of God out to the people was a key factor in spreading their reformation. Josiah did it orally in his time. Martin Luther took full advantage of the new print media of his time to make the Bible itself widely available to all.
  • The word of God formed the foundation upon which both reformations were based. It was the word of God upon which changes were based across the population. The leader was secondary to their respective reformations.
  • The Bible does not record any resistance or opposition to Josiah’s reformation. However, Martin Luther faced enormous opposition to reforming the religious practice of his day.
  • Josiah’s reformation lasted until he died and the next king took over. Effects of the Reformation of 1517 are still occurring today.

Bonus: What was this significant event that had been prophesied 300 years earlier?

In 1 Kings 13: 2 a prophet delivered the words of God to King Jeroboam, the first king of the Northern Jewish Kingdom of Israel. King Jeroboam had made statues of two calves covered in gold and told the people ‘Behold your gods, O Israel’ 1 (Kings 12:28; see also Exodus 32:4). Additionally, he made an altar in the city of Bethel upon which to offer sacrifices to the golden calf he had placed there. As King Jeroboam dedicated the altar, the prophet of God said “O altar, altar, thus says the LORD: ‘Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.’” (1 Kings 13:2) About 309 years later, King Josiah fulfilled that prophecy exactly as predicted! (2 Kings 23: 15-16)
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