Here is a description of an Old Testament king: “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,” (2 Kings 23:25).[1] It is striking for a number of reasons.

First, the assessment is made of Josiah not, as we might expect, of David. At the beginning of the account of Josiah’s reign the writer tells us that “he walked in all the ways of David his father,” (2 Kings 22:2). Josiah is great David’s greater son.

The second striking thing is the elevated tone: “all his heart, all his soul, all his might, according to all the Law of Moses.” It seems almost unbelievable that this sort of language could be used of an OT king.

Yet as we examine the account of Josiah’s life we see that these claims are justified. In 2 Kings 22 we read of how Josiah orders repairs to the temple and how a “book of the Law” is discovered during those repairs. Josiah’s response to the words of that book is immediate repentance (22:11) leading to the greatest reform program the nation has ever seen.

Josiah starts with the most obvious place – the temple. The place which should have most clearly expressed the nation’s commitment to God was full of idols. So Josiah removes them. But that’s just the beginning. Other kings of Israel had led reforms but none quite as thoroughly as Josiah. The old refrain, “he removed all the idols – except the high places” (e.g. 1 Kings 15:14; 2 Kings 12:3) comes to end with Josiah. There are no exceptions: altar places, shrines – they all go. He even removes the household gods (23:24). Every level of society is affected by his reforms.

Reversing Time

Reversing Time

But Josiah isn’t just cleansing the land. In a way, he’s reversing time. He renews the covenant at the start of chapter 23, turning the clock back to the days of Joshua (see Joshua 24). He leads Judah in the greatest Passover since “the days of the judges who judged Israel” (23:22). In a move that harks back to the days of David and Solomon, Josiah goes into the devastated northern kingdom and desecrates the altar at Bethel that Jeroboam son of Nebat had constructed (23:15). He removes and defiles “all the shrines at the high places” in Samaria (23:19). Here Josiah isn’t just cleansing the nation, he’s spiritually reuniting the kingdom.

In light of all this the striking verdict of 2 Kings 23:25 seems justified. Finally, and just in time it would seem, Israel has found the king she needed – a king who is even greater than David. A king who can turn Israel back to God. A king who will restore the nation. A king who can bring back the glory days.

A Magnificent Failure

A Magnificent Failure

And this is why 2 Kings 22:26 comes as such a hammer blow. Immediately after telling us how great Josiah was, the writer delivers a tragic pronouncement: “Nevertheless, the LORD did not turn away from the heat of his fierce anger, which burned against Judah because of all that Manasseh had done to arouse his anger” (NIV).

This juxtaposition between verses 25 and 26 causes us to re-evaluate the whole account of Josiah’s life. It seems that the main thing our writer wants us to know about Josiah and his reforms is that they failed completely. Despite his apparent perfection, Josiah simply could not save his people from the wrath of God. Once God had settled on judgment he would execute that judgment, even in the face of the most far-reaching reform. The greatest king in Israel’s history could not turn aside the wrath of God.

Nor could his people save themselves. Certainly they had provoked God to anger, having “forsaken [him] and … made offerings to other gods,” (2 Kings 22:17). But it their biggest problem before God wasn’t what they had done (and could repent of) but the heritage of their kings. When the writer sums up the reason for God’s wrath falling it’s not their sin he mentions but that of former King Manasseh (2 Kings 24:3). The nation was unable to break free of its past.

Great Josiah’s Greater Son

Great Josiah’s Greater Son

And yet this sobering assessment of Josiah’s reign cannot but make us think of another king. A king about who fulfilled verse 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” – yet who also escaped the pronouncements of verse 26 – “Nevertheless, the LORD did not turn away from the heat of his fierce anger which burned against his people.” Jesus succeeds precisely where Josiah failed. By taking God’s wrath on himself, he delivers his own people from it. He is a king with no limit to his ability to save – no “nevertheless;” no sad post-script.

Josiah was great – the greatest OT king it seems, but even he could not save his people. He shows us just how serious God’s wrath is; how difficult it is to overcome. And so, most wonderfully, he shows us the greatness of the Lord Jesus – king who can and does finally and fully reconcile us to God forever.

[1] All quotations ESV except where noted

Photo: Deon Staffelbach, freeimages.com