2 Kings 22 & 23
For the last several weeks we have been listening to the words of the prophets to the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The prophets give words of warning about the direction that society is headed and the inevitable results if things don’t change. This morning, we are going to hear from another prophet, this time one of only four named female prophets in the Bible. But we are going to hear from her in the context of a story about one of the last kings of the southern kingdom of Judah. In fact, he was the last good king. He was the grandson of a king named Mannasseh who did more evil than any king ever for 55 years. Mannasseh’s son Amon followed in his footsteps, in fact the text says that Amon abandoned the Lord. Amon was so bad that he was assassinated by his own servants, leaving his 8 year old son Josiah to take over as king of Judah. Josiah is the king at the center of our story today. All of us are this interesting mixture of being products of our families and being our own person. To understand what happens in Josiah’s story, we have to remember that he is the grandson of the worst, most violent, most evil king Judah ever had. And yet he somehow makes a different choice for himself. Maybe because he saw and learned from what happened to his father. Maybe he had a faithful mother. The text doesn’t tell us why Josiah was good. But he was. And yet, some tension remains between Josiah’s actions and God’s response. And that’s what we need to address today. A quick note: this story mentions “The Book of the Law,” which we believe is some version of the book of Deuteronomy.
“So let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture: 2 Kings 22:1-20; 23:1-3, 21-26
Narrator: Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem thirty-one years. His mother’s name was Jedidah. Josiah did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and followed completely the ways of his ancestor David, not turning aside to the right or to the left. When he was 26, King Josiah sent the palace secretary Shaphan to the temple of the Lord with these instructions:
King Josiah: “Go up to Hilkiah the high priest and have him get ready the money that has been brought into the temple of the Lord, which the doorkeepers have collected from the people. Have them entrust it to the men appointed to supervise the work on the temple. And have these men pay the workers who repair the temple of the Lord— the carpenters, the builders and the masons. Also have them purchase timber and stone to repair the temple. But they don’t need to account for the money entrusted to them, because they are honest in their dealings.”
Narrator: Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary,
Hilkiah: “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.”
Narrator: Hilkiah gave it to Shaphan, who read it. Then Shaphan went to the king and reported to him:
Shaphan: “Your officials have paid out the money that was in the temple of the Lord and have entrusted it to the workers and supervisors at the temple. And Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.”
Narrator: Then Shaphan read the book to King Josiah. When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes in grief. He then gave orders to Hilkiah the priest, Shaphan the secretary, and three other trusted servants:
King Josiah: “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because our ancestors have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.”
Narrator: So the men went to speak to the prophetess Huldah, who lived in the New Quarter of Jerusalem. She said to them,
Huldah: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by everything they have done, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.’ Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a desolation and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. Therefore I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.’”
Narrator: So they took her answer back to King Josiah. Then the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. He went up to the temple of the Lord with the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets—all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord—to follow the Lord and keep God’s commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant written in this book. And all the people pledged themselves to the covenant. Then the king gave this order to all the people:
King Josiah: “Celebrate the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in this Book of the Law.”
Narrator: Neither in the days of the judges who led Israel nor in the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah had any such Passover been observed. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was celebrated to the Lord in Jerusalem. Furthermore, Josiah got rid of the mediums and spiritists, the household gods, the idols and all the other detestable things seen in Judah and Jerusalem. This he did to fulfill the requirements of the law written in the book that Hilkiah the priest had discovered in the temple of the Lord. Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses. Nevertheless, the Lord did not turn away from the heat of his fierce anger, which burned against Judah because of all that Mannasseh had done to arouse God’s anger.
This is the word of God for all people.
Has anyone in this room ever tried to make a bargain with God? Or maybe you haven’t but you have a friend who has tried this. You know what I’m talking about? You say to God, “If you’ll just heal my loved one or get me this job, I’ll pray every day or I’ll give more money to my church” or something like that. It’s not an uncommon thing; people try this. When we are desperate, when things are not going well for us, we try to turn our relationship with God into some kind of transaction, some kind of quid pro quo.
Part of the reason we assume this might work is because our sacred text sometimes makes it sound like God blesses people who do the right thing. Deuteronomy sounds like this a lot: obey God and you get to stay in the land God gave you; disobey God and you get kicked out of the land. Proverbs sounds like this sometimes: do the right thing, work hard, keep your nose clean, and things are going to go well for you. Transaction. You give something and get something comparably valuable in return.
But what about all the places in the Bible where this isn’t the case? Job doesn’t get what he supposedly “deserves.” Ecclesiastes basically says that life isn’t fair. And Psalms is full of complaints about how the evil people are getting rich. I think it’s brilliant that the Bible contains both of these conflicting testimonies, because that’s real life isn’t it? Sometimes we work hard and get ahead and sometimes we do the right thing and we don’t seem to get anything in return. Our wise and loving God knows this and gave us a sacred text where we find both experiences represented. Brilliant.
The story we have heard this morning is a story that challenges us to do the right thing even when we know we’re going to come up short in the transaction. Josiah finds the book of Deuteronomy and reads all the Laws, many of which had apparently fallen out of general usage in Judah. He realizes that his people are in trouble because they have not been following God. They have not been caring for widows and orphans and foreigners. They have been charging high interest rates and not forgiving debts. They have not been upholding a system that allows the poor to work at jobs that will actually provide for their needs. Their leaders have been corrupt. They have been taking bribes. This is all stuff that is explicitly talked about in Deuteronomy. This is also the stuff you would expect to find happening when the people are worshipping idols instead of God. They are not following God and you can tell because they are not following the values God laid out for them. And Josiah knows they are in for it.
But just to be sure, he asks the prophetess Huldah to confirm it. And she says, “Yep, we’re screwed. It’s too late to turn this tide. Destruction is coming. The only good news for King Josiah is that he won’t live long enough to see the destruction of the kingdom.” Which really isn’t all that great news for Josiah, and definitely not for everyone else!
So what does Josiah do? It would be tempting for him at this point to just give up, wouldn’t it? To just let the people keep living how they want to live, worshipping how they want to worship. Apparently it’s too late anyway, so why bother to make the effort to change anything? Why bother to do the right thing?
The reason we do the right thing is because our relationship with God and our existence in God’s world is not about transaction. We don’t do the right thing because we might get something out of it. We do the right thing simply because it is right. Not because it’s easy, because it’s usually not. And not because we are going to be healthier and wealthier on the other side of it, because we might not. We do the right thing simply because we have aligned ourselves with Jesus. He did the right thing regardless of what it cost him and as his followers, we are called to do the same. We do the right thing because we want to be people of integrity, people who reflect the true image of God in a world where God is so frequently misrepresented.
God does not owe us anything. Not simply because God is great and we are not, although I think that’s true. God doesn’t owe us anything because this was never about transaction. Not in the Old Testament, and not with Jesus either. This has always only ever been about love, and love is not a transaction. The story of our faith is grounded in the idea that God creates us simply out of enjoyment and gives us the opportunity to live good lives. When we screw that up, God looks for another way to get through to us. God blesses us not because we are good but so that we can be a blessing to others. And when we ultimately screw that up, which we all will as individuals and we all have already as a species, God ultimately takes the consequences into Godself through Jesus. God absorbs all our innocent mistakes and also all the harm we intentionally do to ourselves and each other. And even when it’s too late to change the tide of consequences we’ve set in motion, God finds a way to redeem and restore. That’s also a promise that Josiah found in Deuteronomy.
At the end of Deuteronomy, God promises that even if the people are exiled to the ends of the earth, God will gather them and bring them back. Another reason we do the right thing is because we know that the story God is writing is much bigger than our one plot line. Our individual lives do matter, but they exist in a larger context. It’s not just about us. And so even when things don’t go the way we want them to, we can trust that God is up to something beautiful in the world. We won’t all get to see how it all comes about, but we can trust that we are part of it. It’s not about transaction. It’s about love. Amen.