Commentary on 2 Kings 22:1-10 [14-20]; 23:1-3
The story of King Josiah is a cautionary tale about what happens when a people stray too far from God’s commandments for too long.
Josiah is introduced to the reader by way of the stereotypical succession formulae for Judean kings, which announces when Josiah ascended the throne (age eight), the length of his reign (640 to 609 BCE), and the identification of the king’s mother: “and the name of his mother is Jedidah” (2 Kings 22:1b), which in Hebrew is “beloved.” The formula also includes the information that he is from the region of Bozkath, a city in the lowland hills of Judah. Only the kings with mothers from provinces of Jerusalem or Judah are evaluated positively, especially Josiah: “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left” (v. 2).
This brief regnal summary informs the reader to expect great things of Josiah. Surely a son raised by a mother whose name indicates that she was much loved passed that affection on to him. Moreover, he is depicted as greater than even King David. Commentaries frequently include the detail that no other king in Israel or Judah has ever been evaluated as not having turned aside (Hebrew root sur) to the right or left. In other words, he faithfully observed the book of the law to the fullest.
The house of God in disrepair
The positive evaluation of Josiah continues with the notice of his concern for the condition of the temple, which had fallen into disrepair due to neglect by other kings who had turned to the worship of foreign gods (1 Kings 16:30-31; 2 Kings 21:2-6). Josiah sent the scribe Shaphan to the high priest Hilkiah, who is at the temple or “house of the Lord,” with instructions for him to hire skilled workers to repair the “house” (Hebrew root bayit; 2 Kings 22:4). The phrase “house of the Lord” appears eight times in this week’s lesson (vv. 3, 4, 5 [2xs], 8, 9; 2 Kings 23:2 [2xs]). The idea that God would require a house to dwell was one that the ancient Israelites shared with their Mesopotamian neighbors. They viewed the temple as the residence of God and a sign of God’s presence (2 Samuel 7:1-2). The temple required personnel and provisions for its maintenance.
Discovery of the book of the torah
The writer uses an economy of words in 2 Kings 22:3-10 to get to the main focus: the discovery of the book of the law (Hebrew root torah; “instruction” or “teaching”). Josiah delivers his list of commands to Shaphan: Go to the high priest … have him count the money brought in … give it to the workers for repair of the temple … do not ask them for an accounting of the money (vv. 3-7; cf. 12:9-16). There is no direct relationship between the temple repairs and what happens next. In verse eight Hilkiah reports to Shaphan that he has found the book (literally scroll) of the torah in the house of the Lord and gives it to him. This discovery raises several questions. Was Hilkiah’s discovery a result of the renovations (whether the work has begun is ambiguous)? Was it hidden to keep it from being destroyed by the evil king Manasseh (2 Kings 21:2-9)? Or did he inadvertently find it forgotten on a shelf and took Shaphan’s visit as an opportunity to disclose its existence?
We finally hear from Shaphan, who returned and reported to Josiah that his servants, presumably the priests, had paid the workers. His action is most likely a literary device to build suspense. The reader is aware of the significance of the book while Shaphan appears to be clueless, given that he read the book when he received it and never responded as expected. He nonchalantly informs Josiah, as if it were an afterthought, “The priest Hilkiah has given me a book.” He proceeds to read the book aloud to Josiah (v. 10).
Scholars have long debated the contents of the book. While the general consensus is that it is some version of the book of Deuteronomy, scholars do not agree on what it consists of. For example, some scholars contend that it is Deuteronomy 31:9, 24-26. However, others believe that it is the list of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 12-26, 28. What is important is that the book is written from the theological perspective that God would bless Israel with progeny and land for them to dwell in if they kept the ordinances and commandments in the book of the law. God would curse them with destruction and loss of the land if they disobeyed.
Irreversible judgment on Judah and Jerusalem
Josiah suspected that the Israelites would incur God’s judgment for their covenant infidelity (2 Kings 22:13), and in another display of Josiah’s piety, he calls for the entire nation to commit to following the statutes and ordinances in the book of the law. However, it takes on the name the book of the “covenant” (Hebrew root berit) because he and all the people of Judah — the priests, the prophets, and the people, joined in the covenant to obey the commandments of the Lord (2 Kings 23:2). Yet, despite his efforts, the fateful words of the prophet Huldah, to whom the king sent his trusted officials to inquire of the authenticity of the book, would come to pass. She proclaimed that God would surely bring disaster upon Judah and Jerusalem and all its inhabitants (2 Kings 22:16-17). Perhaps the lesson here is that even when we make a concerted attempt to turn around and do what we should have done all along, sometimes the events have already been set in motion so that we still must suffer the consequences.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
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.
Surge illuminare, James Biery