2 Kings 22:1-13
We began this series last Sunday with a little introduction to reform and revival, and we said that every 500 years the church has a rummage sale when it puts everything out into the driveway and decides what to keep and what to get rid of in terms of theology, practice, and church life. Reformation is a way of going back to the basics, and, given that we are the midst of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it’s time for a new reformation that can impact the world in a new way. I’d encourage you to catch up on last week’s sermon online if you missed it.
As our model for reformation, however, we decided to go back a lot further than 500 years to look at one of the major times of reform in the Bible, which took place under King Josiah.
As we learned last week, Josiah came to the throne when he was eight years old, in the year 639 BC. That’s a very young and impressionable age, and we would certainly have expected Josiah to continue Israel’s downward spiral into paganism and rejection of God. The culture was broken and godless—the word of God and the nation’s practice of God’s Law had been missing ever since the last reform of Hezekiah, some 57 years before.
In 2 Chronicles 34, however, (1 & 2 Chronicles are another account of 1 & 2 Kings) we learn an important detail about Josiah. “In the eighth year of his rule, while he was just a boy, he began to seek the God of his ancestor David, and in the twelfth year he began purifying Jerusalem and Judah…(v. 30). That means that Josiah was 16 years old when he became awakened to the decay in his culture and decided to buck the trend.
We often think of teenagers as those who have a paradoxical view of themselves—on the one hand, they want to fit in and be like everyone else while, on the other hand, they want to be unique individuals. If you’ve ever had or worked with teenagers you see this all the time. I remember when I was a youth pastor I was once watching a special on MTV (which is a very old thing to say) where a whole group of high school girls were dressed like Madonna in her late 80s phase—they all looked virtually the same with all the lace and makeup and funky hats that characterized their idol. When the interviewer asked them, “Why do you dress this way?” one of the girls said, “To, like, express my individuality.” It was clear that the irony was lost on her!
But there are some teens who are more thoughtful—who are willing to buck the trend. In a culture like mid-seventh century Israel (and early 21st century America), where sexual license, violence, and idolatry are the norm, the most radical, individual rebellious thing a young person can do is to actually do what God says.
How Josiah comes to take this stand is a fascinating story, and it’s a story that repeats itself in just about every movement of reform we’ve witnessed throughout history. Generally speaking, reform among God’s people usually takes place when someone, usually an unlikely someone, starts to sense that something is wrong. We might call it a form of “holy discontent.” Rather than go along to get along, these people sense that God is up to something quite different and they are willing to be the ones to go against the flow. Martin Luther had holy discontent over the Roman Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences; John Wesley had holy discontent over the deadness of Christianity in England and the plight of the poor and disenfranchised; Jonathan Edwards had holy discontent over the spiritual brokenness of 18th century America; William Wilberforce had a holy discontent over the institution of slavery in England. Those are just a few examples, but the point is this: reform begins when someone is pricked by the Holy Spirit to stand up against the prevailing culture and do what is right in God’s eyes.
Josiah’s awakening began, interestingly, with a financial audit. Who would think that a reformation would begin with the finance committee? The young king sends his secretary Shaphan to make sure that the money intended for the repairs of God’s temple was appropriately counted and the invoices paid to the workers on the project.
But when Shaphan shows up at the temple, the high priest, Hilkiah, takes him to a back room and says to him, “Hey, while the contractors were tearing out some dry wall, they found this scroll—it looks like a copy of the book of the law.” We don’t know which books of the Old Testament law it contained, but it at least included what we now know as Deuteronomy. The fact this scroll, the most important book in Israel, was lost somewhere in a nook in the temple indicates just how bad things had become. As Sandra Richter puts it, “Leave it to the people of God to lose the book of God in the temple of God!”
Blowing the dust off the scroll, Shaphan the secretary read it and realized it was something the king needed to see. He returns to the palace and gives the king the finance committee report, but then he says, quite matter-of-factly, “The priest Hilkiah has given me a book” and he read it aloud to the young king. Rather than offer a review, or ask for clarification, what Josiah does next is powerful—look at verse 11. “When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes.” When was the last time you did that after reading a good book?
In the ancient world, tearing one’s clothes was an act of deep repentance. Josiah had sensed that there was something deeply wrong with his people and his nation, and hearing the Word of God—maybe for the very first time—confirmed it. But even more so, Josiah realized the problem was his as well—he was part of this people, their leader, and he had his own sin to deal with. His holy discontent wasn’t just for his nation, but for himself.
Notice what he says when he gathers together the high priest and rest of the administrative board—“Go and ask the Lord on my behalf, and on behalf of the people, and on behalf of all Judah, concerning the contents of this scroll that has been found. The Lord must be furious with us because our ancestors failed to obey the words of this scroll and do everything written in it about us” (v. 13). The king includes himself in “us.”
It’s easy for people in any age to look at the world around them and think it’s going to hell in a hand basket. We are prone to want to fix problems that others have caused. We offer critique, criticism, sarcasm, and complaint—railing against the prevailing culture. We want reform but we forget that real reform begins when we are honest enough to recognize our own brokenness and complicity in the world around us. As the old Pogo cartoon said so prophetically: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Great reformations throughout church history began with men and women who recognized their own spiritual condition as needing repaired before they ever set out to change the world.
After nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door, Martin Luther was a marked man and spent more than a year hiding out in Wartburg Castle, where he was working on translating the New Testament into German. While there, he faced constant attacks of guilt and shame over his own sin, which he viewed as attacks from Satan himself. But Luther was able to stand firm, recognizing that his sin had been forgiven. Here’s the story as one historian recounts it:
“The devil sought to discourage Luther by making him feel guilty, through rehearsing a list of his sins. When the devil had finished, Luther purportedly said, ‘Think harder, you must have forgotten some.’ And the devil did think, and he listed some more sins. When he was done enumerating the sins, Luther said, ‘Now, with a red pen, write over that list, the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.’ The devil had nothing to say.”
I’ve been unable to confirm that story with another source, but the truth it contains is no less powerful. Luther was, indeed, able to wrestle with his own sin and fight the devil with ink—the ink of the Scriptures, which told the truth about what God had done for him.
Interestingly, it was ink from the pen of Martin Luther that also helped unleash the power of the Methodist movement as well. On May 24, 1738, John Wesley was sitting in a Bible study on Aldersgate Street in London (a study he didn’t want to go to) when he heard the words of Martin Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans read aloud—it was at that moment that Wesley himself knew that the blood of Christ had written over his own sins and doubts and he was able to launch a movement that changed 18th century England and America.
King Josiah threw ink at the devil as well—it was the ink of that scroll found in the temple that set him on a journey to get right himself and set his people right in obedience to God.
The king sends a committee to go and inquire of a prophet and, interestingly, the one they find is a woman—Hulda the prophetess, who is the keeper of the temple wardrobe (because they wouldn’t ordain her). Hulda gives the king some bad news and some good news—the bad news is that things have become so bad in Israel that God is going to punish his people with exile. The good news, however, is that God is going to grant a period of revival, and that Josiah won’t see that day of exile. It is time to take your stand and renew the covenant so that future generations will not forget again.
Josiah now knows that his reform will not save the nation—but he does it anyway. His reforms will light a spark that continued to burn through the exile and sustain a people who had to go through a period of repentance themselves. The preaching of the prophet Jeremiah, which emerged during this revival, would help them endure.
But it all began when a powerful king realized that something was wrong—not just with his people, but with himself.
If revival is going to come in our time, it’s going to require God’s people to have a similar kind of holy discontent. Like Josiah, Luther, Wesley, and so many others throughout history, real revival and reform begins with some serious self examination.
The devil attacked Luther by cataloging his sins but, in truth, I think an even more effective strategy that the devil employs is to get us to focus on the sins of others so that we never deal with our own. Reform isn’t the product of a person acting as though they have it together and need to bring the rest of these idiots into line. It’s always the product of a person who is realistic about his or her own sin and sees his or herself as part of the problem. Reform never begins with “them,” only with “us.”
Where are you experiencing a “holy discontent” in your life? What are the “besetting sins” (as Wesley called them)—those things that you would like to change but can’t seem to address? What are the sins you’ve pointed out in others but haven’t dealt with yourself?
Revival begins with repentance and confession. We may not tear our clothes, but as the prophet Joel says we do need to tear open our hearts and “return to the Lord, for he is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive” (Joel 2:13). That’s the kind of ink we need to throw at the devil, remembering that our sins have been written over in red.
That’s the kind of ink that starts a revival!
Richter, Sandra. “Josiah’s Awakening.” Lecture at the Newroom Conference, 2017.