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. . . (2 Kings 22:3)
As preachers of the narrative lectionary are fully aware, even most active congregational members will not be able to contextualize the story of Josiah’s Reformation with the broader Old Testament story. This might even be true for some preachers. So, here is a little catching up in terms for the history of Israel and Judah and some significant events that took between “last week’s story” of Isaiah and this week’s story of Josiah1:
736 BCE — Isaiah is called as a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah, in the city of Jerusalem
722 BCE — Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom, falls to Assyria; the northern kingdom ceases to exist, its people go into exile and disappear as an identity group (thus is born the myth of the lost tribes of Israel)
715 BCE — The pious, reforming King Hezekiah begins to reign in Jerusalem.
701 BCE — Assyria besieges Jerusalem, but the city is not conquered. The prophet Isaiah was active until this time, but apparently died soon after this crisis.
687-642 BCE — Manasseh reigns as king in Judah for more years than any other king. He is remembered in 2 Kings 21 as one of the worst kings, who “made his son pass through the fire (verse 6; meaning he sacrificed his son) and “shed very much innocent blood” (verse 16).2 His policies are continued by his son Amon, who reigns only two years before he was murdered.
640-609 BCE — Josiah reigns as king of Judah. As is indicated by Josiah’s pious efforts to repair the Temple, he apparently was much more like his great-grandfather Hezekiah than he was like his grandfather Manasseh. As the Temple is being repaired, the royal secretary Shaphan presents to Hezekiah “the book of the law in the house of the Lord.” Most likely, the scroll that was found had been hidden away in the Temple during the reign of Manasseh, for fear of that king’s anti-Yahwistic leanings.
Many scholars have identified the scroll that was found in the Temple as being the core chapters of the book of Deuteronomy (chaps 12-26).3 On the basis of the “discovery” of this scroll, the king initiates a series of reforms.
An Ironic Story
When one bites into the story of Josiah’s Reformation, there is a certain delicious — yet bitterly ironic — taste to the whole affair. On the one hand, this is a story about how the people of God didn’t know their story, because the story remained locked up behind the Temple doors. The word was not read to the people. It was not taught to the people. The priests did not preach it. As a result, the people did not know their story.
On the other hand, ironically, almost none of the people of God today know this story, because the story remains locked up behind the doors of the church. I recently had the privilege of sharing coffee with two old Bible teachers: Roy Harrisville, now 89, who for many years taught New Testament at Luther Seminary; and Harry Wendt, now 80, the author and teacher to whom we are indebted for the popular Crossways Bible studies. I shared with the two wise, old teachers that even though I grew up as a pastor’s kid in worship every Sunday with a dad who preached often on the Old Testament, I could not recall either knowing this story as a child or ever hearing a sermon on it. Both men agreed. Neither of them — in their combined 169 years — could recall ever having heard this story preached. And Harry Wendt agreed that he did not know this story until he reached seminary.
Ironic. This story about the people rediscovering their story is not read to the people today. It is not taught to the people. The pastors do not preach it. As a result, the people do not know it.
When King Josiah heard the words of the scroll, he tore his clothes. But, of course, the point of the story is not that the discovery of the scroll of the torah of the Lord was an ancient pre-cursor to “What Not to Wear,” but that it led to a Reformation. Josiah’s rending of his clothing was a sign of his commitment to change — or rather to be changed, by the word of God. To be formed and re-formed by attending to the Word. As one reads the account of the reforms of Josiah (2 Kings 23), one is struck by the fact that they are centered on reforming the worship life of the people — of centering them in the first commandment: to worship the Lord only and to have no other gods. When one realizes that Josiah’s grandfather and others were engaging in idolatrous worship practices such as child sacrifice, one can understand Josiah’s strenuous efforts to centralize worship in Jerusalem and to control worship. In Josiah’s time, the Reformation that took place was that the word was let out of its prison and it proceeded to set the people free from their bondage to false gods.
A Later Reformation
Josiah’s Reformation was neither the first reformation that God’s people experienced (see for example, the reforms of Hezekiah, 2 Chronicles 29) or the last. In the 1500s, another reformation occurred — the Protestant Reformation. The problem in that era was slightly different. Whereas during Josiah’s time the word lay locked in the Temple, in the time of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, the word lay hidden behind prison bars of language and clericalism — the Bible was not available in the common language of the people. It was only available in Latin, and because of this, it was available only to and through the clergy. When St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, his entire purpose was so that the Scriptures could be available to the ordinary Christian and so that they would read it. “Ignorance of the scriptures,” he wrote, “is ignorance of Christ.”
Oh, how things change. By Luther’s time, only the educated understood Latin and in many dioceses, the very act of owning the Bible in a language a common person could read was a crime. About a century before Luther, John Wycliffe had been declared a heretic — chief among his crimes was the unauthorized translation of the Bible into English. Wycliffe escaped the hangman in life, but after he died, the stormtroopers located his bones, disinterred and burned them, and strew the ashes in a river.
Why all the fuss and alarm about the Bible? Because the Man — whether he goes by the title Pharaoh, Caesar, Sultan, the Great King, or the Commander in Chief — knows that the Bible is dangerous — it starts revolutions, it offers an alternative social imaginary that doesn’t take the status quo as either adequate or inevitable. It presents us with a God who wants something better for us. And — here is an even more destabilizing idea — this is a God who wants something better for our neighbor.
A Reformation Needed Today
Fast forward to today. What is our situation in 2011 — which is ironically the 400-year anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible into English? Now the Scriptures are not gathering dust in some hidden chamber of the Temple, but rather they’re gathering dust right out in the open on our coffee tables — fettered by chains of dust. But this much our situation has in common with Luther’s and with Josiah’s — the Scriptures remain imprisoned behind the bars of clericalism. The modern cult of the expert has placed Bibles in people’s hands and at the same time robbed them of the confidence that they are competent to read and understand them.
But this much our time also has in common with Luther’s and Josiah’s — the power is still powerful. Dangerously powerful. And when the word gets out and the Holy Spirit gets hold of the word and the people who read it, powerful things happen. Walls can come tumbling down. Stones can be rolled away. The heavens can be torn asunder. The powerful can be cast down from their thrones, the poor can be fed and the prisoner set free. Old wineskins can burst. Sinners can die to themselves and have Christ reborn in them. And churches — even old, dusty mainline churches, can have new life breathed into them.
1All dates are approximate. 2But see 2 Chronicles 33, where it is described how Mannasseh repented. 3When one compares the “reforms” that Josiah initiates in 2 Kings 23 and compares those reforms with Deuteronomy 12-26, one notes a significant degree of correspondence.