The Jeremiah Essays: Josiah's Reforms
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Jeremiah opens with a list of kings under whose reigns Jeremiah lived:
The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the exile of Jerusalem in the fifth month. (Jeremiah 1:1-3, NASB 95)
In this essay, I want to discuss Josiah and his reforms as it relates to Jeremiah’s ministry. In one of the few really definitive time markers, Jeremiah tells us that the "word of the Lord came to him" in the 13th year of Josiah’s reign. Let’s connect this with this historical reference from Chronicles:
Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. He did right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the ways of his father David and did not turn aside to the right or to the left.
For in the eighth year of his reign while he was still a youth, he began to seek the God of his father David; and in the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the Asherim, the carved images and the molten images. They tore down the altars of the Baals in his presence, and the incense altars that were high above them he chopped down; also the Asherim, the carved images and the molten images he broke in pieces and ground to powder and scattered it on the graves of those who had sacrificed to them.
Then he burned the bones of the priests on their altars and purged Judah and Jerusalem. In the cities of Manasseh, Ephraim, Simeon, even as far as Naphtali, in their surrounding ruins, he also tore down the altars and beat the Asherim and the carved images into powder, and chopped down all the incense altars throughout the land of Israel. Then he returned to Jerusalem. (2 Chronicles 34:1-7)
So Jeremiah’s ministry began just after Josiah began his religious reforms and continue past Josiah's death some 15 years later. These reforms were quite extensive as this reference from 2 Kings shows:
Moreover, Josiah removed the mediums and the spiritists and the teraphim and the idols and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, that he might confirm the words of the law which were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the Lord. Before him there was no king like him who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him. (2 Kings 23:24-25)
That there was a relationship between Jeremiah and Josiah is certain from the eulogy that Jeremiah gave at Josiah’s funeral:
Then Jeremiah chanted a lament for Josiah. And all the male and female singers speak about Josiah in their lamentations to this day. And they made them an ordinance in Israel; behold, they are also written in the Lamentations. (2 Chronicles 35:25)
So from all this we know, that Josiah was known historically as one who implemented the most broad sweeping religious reforms and we know that Jeremiah knew Josiah well enough to have a strong public presence at Josiah’s funeral. So I find it odd that in all of Jeremiah’s 52 chapters there is not a single reference to Josiah’s reforms. This begs me to ask the simple question, "Why was this so?" The reason for this essay is to present my answer to this question. The answer is important, because it provides a convenient means to draw attention to the backdrop against which Jeremiah can be understood.
It could be that much of what has been preserved of Jeremiah's writings was material written past Josiah's time. But I suggest that there is a more fundamental reason: Josiah's reforms failed! To be sure, he succeeded in removing the external trappings of idolatry in the nation. He succeeded in recovering the Torah and making it part of his government. I am confident in saying that in-so-far as it depended on him, Josiah's reforms should have been the turning point for Judah. But his reforms nonetheless failed. Indeed the right way to see the situation is that very soon after his soldiers "tore down the altars and beat the Asherim and the carved images into powder…" they were quickly rebuilt. Josiah’s reforms failed to reach the hearts of the people.
There were a few, at the time of Josiah's birth, who knew the Lord alone as God and passed on the knowledge and traditions. They reached the likes of Josiah, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others. But these were just small points of light in a great darkness that overshadowed the land and its people. Simply put the knowledge of God was quickly slipping away. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say they these were to few healthy cells remaining in a cancerous mass that required drastic surgical removal.
Consider this. When Josiah found the lost Torah in the temple and tore his clothes, he sent messengers to Huldah, a prophetess, to ask about this significance. Here is her response:
She said to them, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, 'Tell the man who sent you to Me, thus says the Lord, "Behold, I am bringing evil on this place and on its inhabitants, even all the curses written in the book which they have read in the presence of the king of Judah. Because they have forsaken Me and have burned incense 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 it shall not be quenched."
'But to the king of Judah who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus you will say to him, "Thus says the Lord God of Israel regarding the words which you have heard, Because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before God when you heard His words against this place and against its inhabitants, and because you humbled yourself before Me, tore your clothes and wept before Me, I truly have heard you," declares the Lord. "Behold, I will gather you to your fathers and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, so your eyes will not see all the evil which I will bring on this place and on its inhabitants."'" And they brought back word to the king. (2 Chronicles 34:23-28)
And consider the day, probably after Josiah's death, when the Lord sent Jeremiah to locate a Godly person in the city:
Roam to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, and look now and take note. And seek in her open squares, if you can find a man, if there is one who does justice, who seeks truth, then I will pardon her. And although they say, 'As the Lord lives,' Surely they swear falsely. (Jeremiah 5:1-2)
And consider this declaration from those who were left after the Babylonian invasion:
"As for the message that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we are not going to listen to you! But rather we will certainly carry out every word that has proceeded from our mouths, by burning sacrifices to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, just as we ourselves, our forefathers, our kings and our princes did in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then we had plenty of food and were well off and saw no misfortune. But since we stopped burning sacrifices to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have met our end by the sword and by famine. And," said the women, "when we were burning sacrifices to the queen of heaven and were pouring out drink offerings to her, was it without our husbands that we made for her sacrificial cakes in her image and poured out drink offerings to her?" (Jeremiah 44:16-19)
Josiah's reforms have no place in the writings of Jeremiah, because they were irrelevant to his message. The generations during which the Lord exhibited His patience was over. He has raised up Nebuchadnezzar to execute the Covenant curses (see Deuteronomy 28:15 ff.). History and God's plan are in motion and Josiah meets an early death to fulfill the words of Huldah that he "would not see all the evil which I will bring."
As I see it, in Jeremiah's day, Judah was a generation away from losing the knowledge of God. Josiah had found a lost copy of the Torah—where were the scriptures? On a certain day, Jeremiah could not find a godly person in the city. The Lord God was bringing to pass events that would correct these circumstances. Jeremiah is about those things. On this topic, I will have much to say. Jeremiah is about the outpouring of God's wrath, but is also about the outpouring of His mercy. It is a journey that I hope you will follow. I am fully convinced of this: God’s wrath always shows a face of mercy. As I work through Jeremiah Essays, I will bring this to light.