by Mike Ford (1955-2021)
From the beginning of man's existence, people have sought leadership. Men have looked to others to take charge, make decisions and run things—always reserving the right, however, to take potshots at these leaders, to critique and criticize them. Nonetheless, we have desired leadership.
Perusing the historical record, though, we find few exceptional leaders. Most were average, and unfortunately, some were downright terrible. Even those few we perhaps have admired usually end up falling from grace as details of their lives leak out. For the most part, the saying, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," is true. We have only to look at the current occupant of the White House to see an example of this.
But even when corrupt, these men have tried to hide it. We cannot be absolutely sure of the record passed down on anyone in secular history. "Spin doctors" are nothing new. It is not hard to imagine even Nimrod having a "damage control team." So how can we know who or what to believe? Is the difference between an average leader and a great one dependent on how much we truly know about them?
The Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But how can we learn those lessons of history if the record is incomplete or twisted? Only one source is truly safe, accurate and honest in its historical record: the Bible, of course. Since God has inspired its every word (II Timothy 3:16), we can trust it implicitly. We can read of various leaders—warts and all!—see their hearts and learn from their examples, which is why God inspired a written record left for us.
Within God's Word is the life story of possibly the greatest of the kings of Judah, Josiah. Though he is often a forgotten biblical character, his life speaks directly to us today. We find accounts of his life in both the books of II Kings and II Chronicles.
Setting the Stage
It will be helpful to set the stage for Josiah's appearance in 639 BC. The northern ten tribes, Israel, are in captivity, having been conquered by Assyria about 80 years earlier during the reign of Judah's king Hezekiah. A good king who tried to follow God, Hezekiah rules for 29 years. His son Manasseh, however, is a very evil man. During his 55 years on the throne, he leads the people away from God, even to the extent of sacrificing children. Coming as it does after the 29 years of obedient leadership under Hezekiah, Manasseh's reign provides a clear contrast to the people.
Though Manasseh exercises corrupt leadership, it appears the people willingly follow. In II Kings 21:9, God comments, "But they [the people] paid no attention [to God's laws], and Manasseh seduced them to do more evil than the nations whom the LORD had destroyed before the children of Israel." Because of this, God says in verses 12 and 15, "Behold, I am bringing such calamity upon Jerusalem and Judah, that whoever hears of it, both his ears will tingle . . .because they have done evil in My sight and have provoked Me to anger. . . ." God prophesies severe punishment for Judah because He sees it is plain that the people themselves are corrupt, not just their king.
After Manasseh's death, his son Amon rules for only two years, assassinated by his own servants. And so eight-year-old Josiah ascends to the throne of Judah. His story begins in II Kings 22:1, "Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem." Through the chronicler, God comments, "And he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in all the ways of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left."
Obviously, at age 8, he is not handling the day-to-day matters of the kingdom. He holds the title of king, but he is more than likely being schooled and groomed by a regent. Part of that schooling is to teach him the ways of God. We do not know for sure who was responsible for this part of his education (it may have been Hilkiah, the high priest), but Josiah is receptive to it:
For in the eighth year of his reign, while he was still young [only sixteen!], 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 wooden images, the carved images, and the molded images. They broke down the altars of the Baals in his presence, and the incense altars which were above them he cut down; and the wooden images, the carved images, and the molded images he broke in pieces, and made dust of them and scattered it on the graves of those who had sacrificed to them. He also burned the bones of the priests on their altars, and cleansed Judah and Jerusalem. (II Chronicles 34:3-5)
Quite a strong showing for a young man of twenty! But he is not finished! In his eighteenth year, at age 26, he begins to repair the Temple, now about 350 years old (II Kings 22:3-7). During these repairs, the Book of the Law is found (II Kings 22:8). Judah has drifted so far from God that they have forgotten His written Word existed! Between Manasseh and Josiah, sixty years have gone by without righteous leadership, and only a small number of God-fearing people are left, most of them elderly. A pitiful few remember a time when the true God was worshiped, much less what that worship involves. In His mercy, giving Judah one last chance to repent, God places some of the few remaining believers in mentoring positions around the young Josiah.
So Josiah has the book read to him, and he is so humbled by what he hears "that he [tears] his clothes" (II Kings 22:11). He takes the words he hears to heart, and he sends the priests to "inquire of the Lord for me, for the people and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is aroused against us" (II Kings 22:13). Josiah fears not only for himself, but for his subjects, his brethren.
God sends confirmation through a prophetess named Huldah:
Behold, I will bring calamity on this place, and on its inhabitants . . . because they have forsaken Me and burned incense to other gods, that they might provoke Me to anger with all the works of their hands. Therefore My wrath shall be aroused against this place and shall not be quenched. (II Kings 22:16-17)
At this point, six years into Josiah's reformation, God informs the young king that the people were only giving lip-service to his efforts. Their hearts had not changed; they had not truly repented and turned to God. He is, however, a merciful God, slow to anger, quick to forgive; the terrible price will not be paid just yet.
There is more to the prophetess' message. She has words for the king from God:
"[B]ecause your heart was tender, and you humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard what I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they would become a desolation and a curse, and you tore your clothes and wept before Me, I also have heard you," says the LORD. "Surely, therefore, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; and your eyes shall not see all the calamity which I will bring on this place." (II Kings 22:19-20)
A normal leader at this point, his life secure, might well have walked away from trying to help any further, yet Josiah is far from typical. God's warning only motivates him to redouble his efforts. In II Kings 23:1-2, he gathers the elders and the people together and reads God's Word to them. In verse 3 he publicly makes a covenant with God to "follow the LORD and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book." He commits to living a righteous life and continues to show good fruit.
The Bible says, "And all the people took their stand for the covenant" (II Kings 23:3), but again, their hearts are probably not in it. This becomes clear in the parallel passage in II Chronicles 34:32-33. After reading the Book of the Law to the people and making his covenant, Josiah
made all who were present in Jerusalem and Benjamin take their stand for it. So the inhabitants of Jerusalem did according to the covenant of God, the God of their fathers. Thus Josiah removed all the abominations from all the country that belonged to the children of Israel, and made all who were present in Israel diligently serve the LORD their God. All his days they did not depart from following the LORD the God of their fathers.
By the sheer force of Josiah's personality and example, the people stay in line, but they do not truly live righteously like Josiah. Josiah clears everything connected with pagan practices from the land, and provides the people with godly leadership. However, only twelve short years after his death—after attempts by two sons and a grandson to rule—Judah falls captive to Babylon. Even Josiah's family, both immediate and extended, fail to follow his sterling example.
Lessons of History
What lessons can we learn from the life of Josiah? Why did God record such detail? Is it relevant for us today? The lessons are many and may vary from person to person. The following are the most pertinent to us at this time:
First, history tends to repeat itself. Solomon writes, "That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
After Solomon's death, God caused Israel and Judah to split (I Kings 12:24). The majority of the Israelites followed Jeroboam into sin, as he changed the holy days, demoted the Levites and worshiped idols. A prophet from Judah told Jeroboam of Josiah's birth, and how these false gods of his would be destroyed (I Kings 13:1-3). God allowed 325 years to pass before He acted.
In His infinite wisdom and mercy, God allows us time to repent and follow His laws. Even though He is patient and merciful, He will still mete out the promised punishment. We cannot assume we have more time! Have a sense of urgency! Pay careful attention to the historical record. What has happened before will happen again.
Second, the righteousness of our leaders will not save us. An unrighteous leader, however, could well destroy us! Josiah's righteousness saved only himself from the enslavement that followed. God gave him a quick death in a battle he should never have fought rather than allow him to experience the coming slavery and humiliation.
In our time, we have followed Herbert W. Armstrong, but despite a lifetime of achievement, he was responsible only for his own salvation. This should teach us that we cannot ride anyone's coattails into the Kingdom of God. Paul writes, "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad" (II Corinthians 5:10).
Though men lead us, we follow Christ, the perfect standard. Men can disappoint, but God gives us the sinless life of Christ to imitate. A righteous leader can show us the way, but we must still walk it ourselves.
Conversely, we have to follow a bad leader to come to any real harm. If this occurs to us, we can be sure we have been following the man alone and not Christ. Again, Paul gives us the proper perspective, "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ." We must follow what is of God in the man, not the man in whatever he does.
Many have said over these last few years, "I'll never follow another man." Hurt by following poor leadership, they think to rectify the situation by going it alone. This is not a good solution. God has always worked through men, and continues to do so because it is the best way. Even though His human instruments are not perfect, this does not absolve us of responsibility. Godly character must be our own, despite the imperfect spiritual condition of God's ministers.
Third, humility is as necessary for the leader as it is for those being led. When Josiah became aware of the full extent of God's law—and how far from Him they had drifted—he humbled himself and repented. This happened when he was still a young man, at a time of life when one that age normally knows everything! To top it off, he was even a king!
Josiah, not letting pride get in his way, strove for righteousness. He swam against the current of a nation plunging toward spiritual catastrophe. God, by working through this humble man, gave Judah one last chance. Who can say that, if the hearts of the people had been truly repentant, God would not have relented? At some point, the nation's sins had to be punished, but God is quick to forgive, and Josiah's character provided a proper example for his people. It is a shame that the people of Judah could not match their king's humility.
In God's church we are in leadership training right now. Revelation 5:10 promises us positions in the Kingdom as kings and priests. Like Josiah, we will have opportunities to rule, to teach, to correct mistakes, to build on successes and establish godly societies. We can learn a great deal from him.
Thrust into rulership as an inexperienced, untrained child, God groomed Josiah for his position over many years. God worked with and supported him as he pushed against the grain of Judean society. Is it not so with us as well? God promises us, "I will never leave you nor forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5). Jesus tells His disciples, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). He will work with and support us throughout our time of training, and He will be pleased to grant us permission to sit with Him on His throne (Revelation 3:21).
History is replete with leaders who failed, or whose failings were covered up. God, however, has given us a true historical record, and for a reason. The story of Josiah is for us to consider and learn from today, right now. "He that has an ear, let him hear. . ." (Revelation 3:22).