Why isn’t Josiah the greatest of all the kings of Israel?
Sure, David is the gold standard by which all future kings are judged. They either walk in the ways of David their father or (much more commonly) they do not. He writes the psalms, the prayer-book of the people of Israel, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He brings the ark to Jerusalem and attempts to build God a temple, which leads to God making him a covenant mediator on par with Abraham and Moses. None of this even touches upon the countless stories of his great personal faith in God.
But then again he has epic failures. No other king has so much ink devoted to them, and quite a bit of that ink draws an unflattering portrait. He multiplies wives. He massacres the blind and lame of Jerusalem in response to a taunt. He rapes a woman and murders her husband, one of his own trusted warriors, to make her his own. And that’s not even the worst one! He brings down a curse of death upon the people of Israel through the taking of the census against God’s command. So at a minimum Josiah compares quite favorably to David by what he doesn’t do; there are no epic failures counter-balancing his greatest accomplishments.
But even beyond that, his greatest accomplishments are very much on the same level as David’s. As a child Josiah inherits a kingdom of the brink of total political and supernatural collapse, devastated by the wicked rule of his grandfather Manasseh. If degree of difficulty means anything, Josiah is already a leg up on most kings.
Upon discovering the lost and neglected book of Deuteronomy, Josiah immediately embarks on a sweeping religious reform of Israel. He reads the entire book to the people and rededicates them to the covenant their fathers swore in the wilderness generations long gone. He holds the first official, public Passover in the land since the time of the judges (there’s another failure for David, I guess!). He purges the rampant idolatry from Israel even more thoroughly than Jehu once did in Samaria, even going so far as to destroy the golden calf erected along his northern border in Bethel. The most heinous of Manasseh’s crimes, the Asherah placed in the temple itself, is also destroyed. Josiah eradicates the idolatry that has led Israel to this sad state.
Josiah doesn’t merely walk in the ways of David his father…check out this quotation from II Kings 23:25:
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.
That’s the perfect Deuteronomic king! The narrator even says so! Within the context of the books of Kings, not getting deep into historical-critical issues and comparisons to the books of Chronicles and things like that, is there any reason to think that Josiah is not the greatest of all the kings?
Well you could undermine that beautiful quotation from II Kings 23:25 by flipping over to II Kings 18:5 and seeing the same formula applied to Hezekiah, another of the four great kings. If it’s just formulaic praise, the hebraic hyperbole of a fawning chronicler, then perhaps we don’t need to place such stock in it. You could try to make something out of Josiah’s ignominious death at the hands of Pharaoh, some kind of implicit punishment from God. Or you could also just refuse to compare any of the later kings to David because none of them have more than a few chapters devoted to their lives, and so there is no time to uncover all their grim failures that may or may not have led to repentance and redemption.
However there is a theme to these four books, Samuel and Kings, which makes a sneaky appearance in Josiah’s story. It’s a bit of an interpretive stretch but it hangs a heavy failure on Josiah that does indeed make David the greatest of all the kings of Israel–pretty indisputably, actually. To see it, we should first go back to the final story of Hezekiah.
After Hezekiah leads Judah in repentance in the face of national disaster, after God sends the angel of death to rescue Judah from that disaster, and after God later saves Hezekiah from death through the intercession of the prophet Isaiah, Hezekiah has his great failure. He showed flashes of it earlier in his reign, when he lost his nerve after initially defying the Assyrians. At the end of his reign the prophesied one invites Babylon as an ally to secure Judah’s future against any other military exploits. In the process he shows the Babylonian envoys all that he possesses and all that the house of the Lord contains. When Isaiah finds out, he immediately castigates Hezekiah for his foolishness–the same kind of foolishness that has always plagued Israel, trusting in princes rather than in God. The prophet foretells a future doom of Babylon coming back not as friend but as foe, to work the total devastation of the kingdom.
Hezekiah’s response in II Kings 20:19 is by far his greatest failure. Having been told that he has just brought future disaster upon his people, the chosen one responds:
Then said Hezekiah to Isaiah, “The word of the LORD which you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?”
Complete indifference! Happiness that it will be his children who suffer in his place! Quite a shepherd, there! The narrator doesn’t bother recounting Isaiah’s response or giving a lesson to the tale; the chapter simply concludes with the death of unrepentant Hezekiah.
David has a very similar moment at the end of his reign–the census and its attendant punishment, about which I have written previously. David also brings disaster on his people through his reckless action, but the end of his story, while just as abrupt as Hezekiah’s, is very different. David repents and, fulfilling the primary theme of the books of Samuel, takes the punishment of death upon himself in place of the people. It is David’s self-sacrifice here, his unwillingness to make the people suffer in his place, that makes for his greatest and unmatched moment. As great as Hezekiah is, he is the anti-David when it comes to this test.
Does Josiah have anything like this in his reign? It’s not completely obvious, even more understated than what happens with Hezekiah, but I think it’s there. It’s actually the next two verses after the beautiful narrator’s praise of Josiah as the greatest of kings:
25 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. 26 Still the LORD did not turn from the fierceness of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. 27 And the LORD said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city which I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.”
Following this declaration that Josiah’s reforms have not been enough? Silence. Josiah rides off into battle against Pharaoh and dies.
We don’t have to read this short account as pure fatalism or assume that nothing was going to save Israel at this point. Where is the intercession? Where is the dying for his people?
Josiah is great, sure–see verse 25–but he never takes the last step necessary to be truly great. Not like David, his father. It turns out Josiah walked in most of the ways of David his father, but not the one that could actually save the people. In all her history Israel only ever knew one such king–the first and the greatest–and that critical act of dying to save the people, of the shepherd laying down his life for his sheep, would lie dormant for another, oh, six hundred years or so until the very Ideal of that self-sacrificial intercession brought about the redemption of the human race.