Next we see Josiah’s reforms. In verses 3 through 7 we see for our second point from the text, Josiah’s Removal of Wickedness throughout the land.
“For in the eighth year of his reign, while he was still young, 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. 4 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. 5 He also burned the bones of the priests on their altars, and cleansed Judah and Jerusalem. 6 And so he did in the cities of Manasseh, Ephraim, and Simeon, as far as Naphtali and all around, with axes. 7 When he had broken down the altars and the wooden images, had beaten the carved images into powder, and cut down all the incense altars throughout all the land of Israel, he returned to Jerusalem.”
As a young king, Josiah worked to remove wickedness from the land. And here is what is interesting about this program of reform, Josiah understood that the idols had to be removed. This was more than telling the people not to worship the idols. The idols needed to be forcibly removed and destroyed. So he had men use axes to chop up the idols and chop down the places of false worship. Then they burned what was left and ground it into powder. This began in about 628 BC when Josiah was 16, he started this program of reformation to rid the nation of its idols. Guess when Zephaniah began his ministry and when he prophesied? Remember from our first message that Zephaniah’s ministry was from 635 to 625 BC.
In 635, when Zephaniah began ministering, Josiah had been king for 4 years. He was 12 years old. Zephaniah had access as his cousin, as part of the royal family. And as he began preaching about the coming Day of Judgment for sin, imagine the impression this made on a 12 year old with the responsibility of ruling over the people of God. Specifically God was going to judge Judah for what? For their idolatry. Josiah and his court heard the Word of God, the word of warning preached.
As Zephaniah began preaching in 635 BC by the time we get to 628 BC, as Josiah is now 16 years old, as he is now apparently old enough to do something about it, one of the first things that he did was to begin this reform by tearing down and destroying the idols in the land. Everything that Zephaniah proclaimed in the land as deserving of God’s wrath and judgment, Josiah sought to uproot it. Josiah, as a young king, was concerned about his people! He was concerned that the Lord was angry with them.
Turn with me now to 2 Kings 22. This is telling the same story but gives us a little more detail. Josiah has a right walk with the Lord, he is working to remove wickedness from the land, and now in 2 Kings 22:3-20 we see Josiah’s specific and particular Response to the Word of the Lord. This campaign of reform we learn will take 10 years to accomplish. This was not a short term mission. This was a national overhaul. Idolatry had become ingrained in their way of life, worshipping God and false gods side by side. And in 2 Kings 22 we skip the 10 years of tearing down places of idol worship and pick up the story at 622 BC, where we find Josiah at the age of 26. During this year, something incredibly significant happens. Let’s read the text:
“3 Now it came to pass, in the eighteenth year of King Josiah, that the king sent Shaphan the scribe, the son of Azaliah, the son of Meshullam, to the house of the Lord, saying: 4 “Go up to Hilkiah the high priest, that he may count the money which has been brought into the house of the Lord, which the doorkeepers have gathered from the people. 5 And let them deliver it into the hand of those doing the work, who are the overseers in the house of the Lord; let them give it to those who are in the house of the Lord doing the work, to repair the damages of the house— 6 to carpenters and builders and masons—and to buy timber and hewn stone to repair the house. 7 However there need be no accounting made with them of the money delivered into their hand, because they deal faithfully.”
The Temple was literally in ruins. It needed repair. The priests under the High Priest Hilkaih, collect funds from the people and start the work of rebuilding. The first steps of course involve cleaning up the mess. As that is happening, we go on in verse 8,
8 Then Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it. 9 So Shaphan the scribe went to the king, bringing the king word, saying, “Your servants have gathered the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of those who do the work, who oversee the house of the Lord.” 10 Then Shaphan the scribe showed the king, saying, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read it before the king.
If you can imagine, this is 3 years after the ministry of Zephaniah had ended. We don’t know why it ended, we don’t know if he died, or if he is there or not there, but we do know his ministry had come to an end. He had prophesied during the 10 years the high places were being torn down, but now he had stopped. But now, Josiah is 26 years old, and he commissions the rebuilding of the Temple. And as they begin, the High Priest finds the Book of the Law, the written Word of God. The High Priest gave it to the scribes who were responsible for keeping and copying the Scriptures, and a scribe took it to the King and read it to Josiah.
And do you know what Josiah heard in the Word of the Lord? He heard the same things Zephaniah had been preaching. And Jeremiah. And the other prophets. He heard that if you are obedient to the Lord you will be blessed, and if you are disobedient you will be cursed and judged. And as he hears this, he begins to respond to God’s Word. First we are told that he heard the Law. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” (Rom. 10:17). In verse 11 we continue,
11 Now it happened, when the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, that he tore his clothes.
What did that signify? As he heard the responsibilities for faithfulness and obedience and the dangers of disobedience and idolatry, he was so grieved because now I believe he sensed how deep the sin of Judah went. This was not sin from just his generation, or his parents’ generation, or his grandparents’ generation. It was more than tearing down the idols and destroying their places of worship. It was deeper than that. This way of life, this stronghold of sin was so ingrained in the way of life for the people of Judah for generation upon generation upon generation – and in his sorrow and grief, he tore his royal robes.