Josiah was one of the greatest and most influential kings of Judah. Josiah and the people associated with his court had a powerful impact in the political and religious life of Israel for many years. Josiah was the sixteenth king of the Southern Kingdom. He was the son of Amon and the grandson of Manasseh, who was considered to be the most evil king of Judah.
After the death of Hezekiah in 687 B. C., Manasseh became king of Judah at the age of twelve (2 Kings 21:1). Manasseh abandoned the religious reforms that his father Hezekiah had established and became a loyal vassal of Assyria. During Manasseh’s reign, Assyria controlled the economic, religious, and political life of Judah with a strong hand.
Manasseh had a profound impact in the religious life of Judah. He promoted the Assyrian worship of the “host of heavens” (2 Kings 21:3). The worship of the host of heavens included the worship of the god Asshur, the goddesses Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven, and the worship of the sun.
Manasseh also promoted Canaanite religious practices in Judah. According to 2 Kings 23:3, Manasseh rebuilt the high places which Hezekiah his father had destroyed; erected altars for Baal, made an Asherah, worshiped all the host of heaven, and served them. In addition, he also promoted other pagan practices such as child sacrifice, fertility religion, magic, and divination (2 Kings 21:6) and persecuted the followers of Yahweh, driving them underground (2 Kings 21:16).
After the death of Manasseh in 642 B.C., his son Amon became king of Judah. Amon followed the syncretistic religious policies of his father. After a brief reign of only two years, Amon was assassinated by his royal officials in 640 B.C. In an effort to preserve the dynasty of David, the “people of the land,” the assembly of the landed leaders of Judah, executed those who conspired against Amon and placed his son Josiah on the throne (2 Kings 21:24).
There is a general consensus among scholars that “the people of the land” were a powerful group in Judah. These people strongly favored the preservation of the house of David. Thus, with their economic, social, and military influence, they made sure that a son of David would retain the throne Judah.
Josiah came to the throne in 640 B.C. at the age of eight and reigned for thirty-two years. In his eighth year (632 B.C.), Josiah “began to seek the God of David” (2 Chron. 34:3). This meant an overt repudiation of the gods of Assyria.
In his twelfth year (628 B.C.), Josiah began a radical eradication of the idolatrous practices present in the religion of Israel. This purge began in Judah and was extended even to what remained of the Northern Kingdom. Josiah extended an invitation to the northern tribes to join the religious movement (2 Chron. 34:9). His invitation to the northern tribes was intended to promote the political reunification of the northern and southern tribes.
In 622 B.C., the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign, the book of the law of Moses was discovered in the temple (2 Kings 22:8; 2 Chron. 34:15). The book, probably a version of the book of Deuteronomy, was taken to Hilkiah, the high priest in charge of the renovation of the house of the Lord.
The book was then given to Shaphan, a secretary in Josiah court. Shaphan was the head of a prominent family who served the kingdom in the days of Josiah and in the days of the prophet Jeremiah. Shaphan’s three sons were also very influential in political and religious life of Judah. His son Ahikam was an officer in the court and he was one of the persons Josiah commissioned to visit the prophetess Huldah to inquire about the book found in the temple. Shaphan’s two other sons, Elasah and Gemariah, later served in the court of king Jehoiakim.
After he received the book from Hilkiah, Shaphan brought it to the palace and read it to the king (2 Kings 22:10). After Josiah heard the words of the book, he tore his garments, grieved over the nation’s disobedience. Josiah was also disturbed about the judgment that would come upon the nation for failing to keep the demands of the covenant.
Josiah sent a delegation of five important palace officials, including Hilkiah and Shaphan (2 Kings 22:14) to take the book to the Huldah, the prophetess, who was requested to give an interpretation of its content.
Huldah responded with an oracle emphasizing the importance of the book. She predicted that the curses written in the book would come to pass because the nation had broken its covenant with God. As for Josiah, Huldah said that he would not witness Judah’s tragic end but would die in peace before God’s judgment came over the nation (2 Kings 22:13-20).
Josiah assembled the leaders of the people in the temple and together they made a covenant in which they promised to obey the words of the covenant as expressed in the book of the law (2 Kings 23:1-3).
Studies on the Religious Reforms of Josiah
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary