Phenomenon of Amazing Detail

King Josiah and God’s intention for the Babylonian Exile

Josiah (or Yoshiyahu) was the 16th King of Judah (c. 640–609 BC). He instituted major religious reforms and removing all idolatrous worship. Unlike his predecessor King Jehoash, who followed God because of a mentor (2Kgs. 12:2), Josiah follows God out of his own heart. Most scholars believe that Josiah existed historically, and the general absence of documents is due to few documents of any sort survived from that period, and to Jerusalem having been occupied, conquered, and rebuilt over thousands of years.

He is one of the kings mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in the Matthew Gospel (Matt. 1:10-11). It is interesting to note that the genealogy was grouped as persons before and after the exile to Babylon, making the exile an important chronological landmark.

The Bible mentions King Josiah a number of times, reflecting his importance in the eyes of God. 1Kings 13.1-2 mentions that a day will come when a Davidic king will rise up and restore Israel: “And behold, a man of God came out of Judah by the word of the Lord to Bethel. Jeroboam was standing by the altar to make offerings. And the man cried against the altar by the word of the Lord and 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.’”

Josiah is credited as being one of only five good kings of the Southern Kingdom of Judah during its 350-year history, in the Book of Kings and Chronicles. His reforms are seen as the last genuine attempt to bring the nation back to God before His wrath came upon the people. As a righteous King, perhaps his early death calls for regret and pity at God’s judgement. Some considers that the reforms may have been only superficial, even when the prophet Jeremiah was buttressing what Josiah have attempted to accomplish.

Careful study of the details shows that his early death could be that of God working out His plan, ultimately leading Judah into the Babylonian exile.

Josiah became King of Judah as an eight years old boy after the assassination of his father Amon. He was placed in power by the people (2 Kings 21:24) and advisers and officials probably ran the country until Josiah was old enough to take the reign himself. Josiah emerged as ruler in his own right in his 12th year as king and began a series of reforms that would lead Judah to a short period of returning to and worshipping God.

Part of the cause of the lost and depraved religious situation flourishing under Manasseh and Amon was the pro-Assyrian policy these kings had followed, reminiscent of the evil Ahaz. The constant apprehension from Assyria had weakened national identity, and had also weakened loyalty and obedience to Yahweh, still regarded by many in Israel as the true God almighty. Religious reforms would mean outward animosity to Assyrian control.

Assyria, nevertheless, was progressively in trouble, and the empire had already started to crumble. The Assyrians were too occupied elsewhere to pay much attention to Israel. Josiah managed to regain control of portions of northern Israel that had been in Assyrian hands since the invasion that had destroyed the land around Samaria some 100 years prior. Relationships are sour and hostile.

In Judah, having gradually expanded his influence and moved by God, Josiah launched sweeping religious reforms. These are the most well know of the religious reforms in biblical history, and so much attention is given to them (2 Kings 22:3-23:25, 2 Chron 34:1-35:19). The most well know from the Bible narratives was the discovery of the "the book of the Law" (2 Kings 22:11-13). During the course of extensive repairs to the Temple, a book was found and brought to Josiah. The book of the law, probably comprising in the main the book of Deuteronomy, had been neglected for so long that people either did not know of the book or had forgotten about it. After consulting the prophetess Huldah, who confirmed the content, Josiah used the book as a basis for his pronouncement and the continuing reform process.

King Josiah pronouncing the contents of the “Book of Law”

Josiah systematically destroyed the pagan shrines, temples, and objects used in the rituals. He eliminated the practices instituted by Manasseh, and deposed priests of Baal and other gods (2 Kings 23:5). He abolished the outlying shrines at Bethel and Samaria and actively promoted centralized worship in Jerusalem. Josiah charted a new course for the nation from the words of Moses.

Nevertheless, this must have created an atmosphere in Judah in which the people thought that their future will be greatly blessed because they followed the rules of the book. This led to a false sense of security based on the towering presence of the Temple and the practice of the rituals. Such might have come without genuine transformation, and when Josiah’s untimely death ensued, the nation became ‘disappointed’ in God.

The history of conflict with the Egypt-Assyrian and the Babylon-Medes alliance went something like this:

Assyria slowly disintegrated over the 100 years after the fall of King Sennacherib (time of King Hezekiah (2Kings 18:13-19:37)). The new Assyrian ruler, Sin-Shar-ishkun, in the midst of civil wars, was seriously weakened, and losing control over his empire. The Babylonians under Nabopolassar and aided by the Medes (Media), gained independence separated from Assyria (626 BC), with no opposition from the weakened Assyria. The Babylonians were growing stronger and stronger and soon became a big threat to conquer Assyria.

The Egyptian Pharaoh, fearing the rapidly rising Babylonians more than his long time adversary Assyria which was now seen to become weakened, decided to lend them support, possibly out of malicious intentions. By 618 BC the Babylonians were pressing into Assyrian territory from the south, and the Egyptians sent troops to help defend Assyria. However, the Babylonian force was in alliance with the Medes, and the Egyptian-Assyrian alliance was no match. In about 4 years the Assyrian old capital of Asshur fell, and 2 years later Sin-Shar-ish-kun was killed.

Remnants of the Assyrian army fled and attempted to reestablish the nation at Haran. But in another year the Babylonian alliance captured Haran and drove the survivors further west across the Euphrates. By this time the Egyptians, under Pharaoh Neco, were sending more troops to rescue the embattled Assyrians.

This is where Judah came in: In order to reach the Assyrians, Neco had to march through Israel along the major north-south corridor known as the Via Maris ("way of the sea") that passed the Israelite fortress of Megiddo and then through the Valley of Jezreel.

Israel was caught between two warring giants, Babylon and Egypt. For all practical purposes, both Assyria as well as Judah were under the eyes of Egypt. Egypt was in the ‘precarious’ position of being the major hindrance to the Babylonian expansion to the west and needs to be out of the way. Even though Israel was then sour to Assyria and a looser to Egypt, the events left Israel sadly on the wrong side of balances of power.

The “way of the sea” (blue line)

When word reached Josiah that Neco was marching north to relieve the Assyrians, Josiah for some unknown reasons (one possibility is to deter all help to the Assyrians), decided to intervene and try to stop Neco at Megiddo. Neco, as recorded in the Bible has warned Joshia not to interfere and that his intervention was not the wish of God. Indeed, the intervention proved to be disastrous, and Josiah was killed by an archer in the battle and the army was defeated.

The death of King Josiah in battle against Egypt

Neco continued northward and joined the struggling Assyrians to reestablish control of Haran. The effort failed and the last remnants of the Assyrian army were wiped out!

One can look at it this way: Josiah’s actions might have provided aid to the Babylonians by engaging the Egyptian army. If Josiah had not been dead amidst the battle with the Egyptians and came out victorious, it could be possible the Babylonians might not have taken Israel into exile.

The tragic death of Josiah, the reforming King, at the young age of forty should have consequences for Israel, both in the short and long term. The immediate result may well be a theological crisis that can undermine the faith in the people. Deuteronomy taught that obedience to God brings blessings and long life. And yet the best king Israel had not seen in a long time, who had faithfully obeyed God in removing idolatry and restoring proper worship (2 Kings 23:4-14), was tragically killed as a relatively young man. That may well have raised questions about the validity of the Deuteronomic teaching and Yahweh worship (Jer 44:15-19). The reforms soon lost steam. In the long-term, the Nation fell away again, not having a genuine faithfulness and obedience. The exile brought upon by the Babylonians soon eventuate.

Josiah died that God’s words is fulfilled. All was the apparent act of God.

Let us look at the Bible verses in 2Chronicles (ESV):

2Chronicle 34 - the prophet Huldah Prophesies Disaster

22 So Hilkiah and those whom the king had sent[c] went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tokhath, son of Hasrah, keeper of the wardrobe (now she lived in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter) and spoke to her to that effect. 23 And she said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘Tell the man who sent you to me, 24 Thus says the LORD, Behold, I will bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the curses that are written in the book that was read before the king of Judah. 25 Because they have forsaken me and have made offerings to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the works of their hands, therefore my wrath will be poured out on this place and will not be quenched.

26 But to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, 27 because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before God when you heard his words against this place and its inhabitants, and you have humbled yourself before me and have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the LORD. 28 Behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place and its inhabitants.’” And they brought back word to the king.

2 Chronicles 35 - Josiah Killed in Battle

20 After all this, when Josiah had prepared the temple, Neco king of Egypt went up to fight at Carchemish on the Euphrates, and Josiah went out to meet him. 21 But he sent envoys to him, saying, “What have we to do with each other, king of Judah? I am not coming against you this day, but against the house with which I am at war. And God has commanded me to hurry. Cease opposing God, who is with me, lest he destroy you.” 22 Nevertheless, Josiah did not turn away from him, but disguised himself in order to fight with him. He did not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God, but came to fight in the plain of Megiddo. 23 And the archers shot King Josiah. And the king said to his servants, “Take me away, for I am badly wounded.” 24 So his servants took him out of the chariot and carried him in his second chariot and brought him to Jerusalem. And he died and was buried in the tombs of his fathers. All Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah.

Should we not look at it again in another way? God had promised Josiah prophetically that “your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place and its inhabitants”. (2Chronicles 34:28) God’s promises in one breath were “the disaster that I will bring upon this place and its inhabitants” and most importantly, “your eyes shall not see all the disaster…”. It is therefore God’s mercy and blessing for Josiah that he will not need to have the agony of seeing (and experiencing) all these happenings including the exile, knowing beforehand the people will not be responding genuinely. The righteous was taken away from the evil to come.

What is indeed amazing was the response of Neco the Egyptian Pharoah: “Cease opposing God, who is with me, lest he destroy you.” Nevertheless, Josiah did not turn away from him, but disguised himself in order to fight with him. He did not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God, but came to fight in the plain of Megiddo. 23 And the archers shot King Josiah”. For whatever reasons that is not really known, despite Neco was mentioning that … Cease opposing God, who is with me, lest he destroy you… He did not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God, but came to fight in the plain of Megiddo (2Chronicles 35:22-23)!

It was perhaps not an act of faith and nobility, otherwise why should Josiah disguise himself? There is also no record of any prayer before the battle, as in many cases of his godly ancestors. This rash act of Josiah seems unaccountable (as mentioned above, perhaps to deter all help to the Assyrians and to kill Neco, without letting him know he was the commander?) But as the king of Egypt strongly disclaimed any ulterior intention on his kingdom, Josiah’s unprovoked attack on him appeared unjustified.

In any case, God’s will was there, and Judah is ‘doomed” for destruction.

God’s apparent last ditch of mercifulness through Josiah was not fruitful In 2Chronicles 36:15,16 God has repeatedly warned Judah of the destruction, but they had not responded. Josiah’s reform is God’s way of letting them see how they could and should follow God. Apparently the mass of the people was not genuinely repenting. Genuine repentance is not brought about by a king’s command, nevertheless God moved Josiah to do all that was in his power, to permit not a single visible vestige of idolatry to remain in his reign.

If Josiah had won the battle with Egypt, and had not been killed, the reform would have carried on, and the the Babylon king, with the Egyptian threat gone, could have held Israel and Josiah (a Godly man) in esteem and the exile might not have happened.

But for all we know, this is not the Lord’s intention for the unrepented. Was it not His will working through Josiah, and His plans from the very beginning? Yet again, the prophecy is in the amazing details!