Josiah's Reform

The expression, “Like father, like son” certainly doesn’t apply to the string of Judean kings Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon, and Josiah.

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

November 24, 2019

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Commentary on 2 Kings 22:1-10 [14-20]; 23:1-3

The expression, “Like father, like son” certainly doesn’t apply to the string of Judean kings Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon, and Josiah.

Whereas Hezekiah and Josiah are among Judah’s very best kings, Manasseh is clearly the worst, since his sin was responsible for God’s punishment of Judah, at least in the eyes of the Deuteronomistic editors (2 Kings 21:9, 17; 24:3). True, Amon, was like his evil father, Manasseh, but he only ruled for two years, before he was assassinated leaving the throne to his godly son Josiah.

There are many unanswered questions in the story of Josiah’s reform as well as the reign of Manasseh. For example, how is it possible, in the Deuteronomistic telling of the tale with their insistence upon blessing for the pious and curse for the impious, that a very bad king, like Manasseh, should have the longest reign of any Davidic monarch, some fifty-five years? Or that a very good king like Josiah, should be cut down in the prime of life, especially if one fails to see that Huldah’s prophecy should be interpreted in terms of when he would die rather than how (2 Kings 22:20)? Or why was the otherwise unknown prophetess Huldah consulted instead of Jeremiah?

Manasseh seems to have chosen the route of expediency with regard to the political powerhouse of the day, Assyria. Despite the Deuteronomistic editors characterization of his efforts as “sin,” the political aspects of his actions, such as the payment of tribute, could be seen as the response of a realist to an impossible political situation. More troubling, however, and probably all that the Deuteronomistic editors were concerned about, were the religious ramifications of his actions. Astral worship, magic, witchcraft, and fortune-telling were just the beginning. By the end of his reign the “high places,” that is, the local country shrines that Hezekiah had broken down, were back in business; altars to the “heavenly host,” the stars that Assyria deified, were erected within the Temple; and even the king, himself, had immolated his own son.

Such was the situation when Josiah ascended the throne at the tender age of eight-years old. It is helpful to utilize both versions of the reform, found in 2 Kings 22–23, and 2 Chronicles 34–35 since both provide useful, if at times, apparently conflicting, information. The main differences include:

  1. Kings limits Josiah’s reforms to his 18th year (2 Kings 22:3) while Chronicles presents a staged reform effort:
  • Seeking God in his 8th year (34:3a)
  • Purging the land in his 12th year (34:3b-7)
  • Following the discovery of the “book of the law” (34:8b-28), the reform concludes with the renewal of the covenant (34:29-33), and the great Passover (35:1-19) in his 18th
  1. Kings assigns 17 verses to the description of the reforms (2 Kings 23:4-20) and only 3 verses to the Passover that concludes them (23:21-23). The Chronicler reverses the Deuteronomistic emphasis on the reforms by assigning 6 verses to the reforms (2 Chron 34:3b-7, 33) and 19 verses to the great Passover (35:1-19).

It is probably safe to say that Kings has collapsed the reforms into one year and that the Chronicler correctly maintains the tradition of the three-stage reform beginning before 622 BCE, Josiah’s 18th year. Otherwise, among other things, it would be difficult to explain how pious Josiah could have instituted the covenant renewal ceremony “before the LORD” (2 Kings 23:1-3) while the icons and places dedicated to sacred prostitution were still in the Temple (23:7).

Reading between the lines of both accounts, it seems probable that Assyria’s rapidly diminishing power was a major factor in the reforms. Since political domination in the ancient Near East usually involved participation in the conqueror’s religious practices, Josiah’s religious reforms not only witnessed to his piety, they were also a strong reassertion of Judah’s political independence from Assyrian domination. Both histories are utilizing the material to further their own theological agendas. For the Deuteronomists, Josiah is the “hero,” the ideal Davidic king (2 Kings 22:2). In Chronicles, Hezekiah has already fulfilled that Davidic/Solomonic ideal and, as a result, Josiah’s reign, while important, is of much less significance than his celebration of the Great Passover that dominates his presentation of the reforms.

As for the account in Kings, there can be little doubt that such geopolitical concerns were of little consequence. The most significant event in the narrative is the recounting of the “discovery” of the “book (better: “scroll”) of the law” during the renovation of the Temple, the covenant renewal of promised obedience, and the ensuing reforms. There is widespread agreement that this document is some form of the book we know as Deuteronomy (probably Deuteronomy 12–26) since the reforms correspond to requirements found only in Deuteronomy:

  • Worship centralized in Jerusalem (23:8 as in Deuteronomy 12:13-14)
  • Foreign cults, idols and superstition (23:4, 5, 6 as in Deuteronomy 17:1-5)
  • Child sacrifice, mediums, and wizards (23:10, 24 as in Deuteronomy 18:10-11)
  • Cult prostitution (23:7 as in Deuteronomy 23:17)

The violent verbs employed with Josiah as the subject “broke down, pulled down, burned, beat to dust, broke to pieces, cut down” coupled with the defilement of the cultic sites depicts Josiah as using the same ruthless approach to foster the true worship of the LORD that Manasseh had used to prevent it.

Of great significance is the fact that this is one of the first instances of a community following the prescriptions of a “Bible” as a source of faith and life.


God of faithfulness, your servant Josiah restored your holy words to a people longing for your guidance. Help us learn your Scriptures so that we might carry your words in our hearts, in our words and in our actions. Amen.


Awake, awake, and greet the new dawn   ELW 242, GG107, NCH 107
Come now, O Prince of Peace   ELW 247, GG 103


Surge illuminare, James Biery