Going Through the Motions

21 And the king commanded all the people, “Keep the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.” 22 For no such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah. 23 But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the Lord in Jerusalem.

24 Moreover, Josiah put away the mediums and the necromancers and the household gods and the idols and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, that he might establish the words of the law that were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the Lord. 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, nor did any like him arise after him.

26 Still the Lord did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. 27 And the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.” – 2 Kings 23:21-27 ESV

Josiah’s efforts to restore the worship of Yahweh in Judah were unprecedented. He did more than any of the other kings of Judah to reestablish and reaffirm the nation’s commitment to the covenant they had made with God. But he faced a formidable and seemingly endless task. His own father had bequeathed to him a kingdom that was in a state of spiritual disarray and moral decline. It seems that everywhere Josiah looked, he found more idols, altars, and shrines to the many false gods his predecessors had erected in Judah. Their pervasive presence provided tangible evidence of the nation’s steep spiritual decline. Like cancer cells in the human body, idolatry had invaded the nation of Judah, spreading its deadly influence to the far corners of the kingdom. And Josiah spent a lifetime attempting to seek and destroy every last vestige of idolatry from the land.

But Josiah knew that even if he was successful in removing every idol, shrine, and altar,  there would still be a problem. The eradication of idolatry would not necessarily result in faithfulness to Yahweh. To restore the peoples’ faith in God, Josiah knew they would need to be reminded of the greatness of God. That is why he spent so much time and money restoring the temple, the symbol of God’s presence and power. It also explains his determination to reinstitute the celebration of Passover.

This annual feast had been divinely ordained by God and was intended to serve as a perpetual reminder of God’s miraculous and gracious deliverance of the nation of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. On the night that God had sent the death angel to enact the tenth and final plague against the Egyptians, He had given the Israelites instructions that would guarantee their safety. Each family was to sacrifice a lamb and sprinkle its blood on the doorposts and lentil of their home. Then they were to gather inside their homes and “eat the meat the same night; they will eat it roasted over the fire with bread made without yeast and with bitter herbs” (Exodus 12:8 NLT).

The people of Israel were expected to faithfully observe this rather strange ritual in order to escape the judgment that was about to fall on the land of Egypt. And God assured them that if they would obey His instructions, they would be spared.

“I will pass through the land of Egypt in the same night, and I will attack all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both of humans and of animals, and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, so that when I see the blood I will pass over you, and this plague will not fall on you to destroy you when I attack the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 12:12-13 NLT

And even before the lambs were slaughtered and the death angel appeared, God commanded His people to make this an annual celebration.

This day will become a memorial for you, and you will celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—you will celebrate it perpetually as a lasting ordinance. – Exodus 12:14 NLT

They were to observe it every year as a reminder of God’s power and provision. And Moses even told them what to say when the future generations of Israelites asked about the nature of this strange celebration.

“It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, when he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck Egypt and delivered our households.” – Exodus 12:27 NLT

But by the time Josiah became king, the celebration of Passover had become a distant and fading memory. Generations of Israelites had grown up having never celebrated this annual feast or having heard the story of God’s deliverance. As a result, they were ignorant of His goodness and greatness. In their minds, Yahweh was just one more God in the pantheon of gods worshiped in Judah. And when Josiah systematically removed all the other options, they found themselves left with a God they didn’t know and could not fully appreciate. And because they had not been taught the Book of the Covenant, they failed to understand the danger of their ignorance of and indifference to God. Centuries earlier, before the Israelites entered the land of promise, Moses had warned them:

“Then when the Lord your God brings you to the land he promised your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give you—a land with large, fine cities you did not build, houses filled with choice things you did not accumulate, hewn-out cisterns you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—and you eat your fill, be careful not to forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, that place of slavery. You must revere the Lord your God, serve him, and take oaths using only his name. You must not go after other gods, those of the surrounding peoples, for the Lord your God, who is present among you, is a jealous God—his anger will erupt against you and remove you from the land.” – Deuteronomy 6:10-15 NLT

Everything Moses had warned them about had happened. They had forgotten God. They had failed to revere and serve Him. And Josiah was desperately trying to remedy the situation by calling the people to recommit themselves to Yahweh. He used all his authority and power as king to reestablish the primacy of the one true God. He poured every ounce of his passion into the process and spared no expense to see that Yahweh was honored in a manner worthy of His greatness and goodness. Josiah went out of his way to ensure that this Passover was a spectacular occasion that would reaffirm God’s incomparable value and reignite the peoples’ faithfulness to Him.

Never since the time of the prophet Samuel had there been such a Passover. None of the kings of Israel had ever kept a Passover as Josiah did, involving all the priests and Levites, all the people of Jerusalem, and people from all over Judah and Israel. – 2 Chronicles 35:18 NLT

Josiah’s tireless efforts to restore the worship of Yahweh in Judah would not go unnoticed. He would go down in history as one of the greatest kings of Judah.

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, nor did any like him arise after him. – 2 Kings 23:25 ESV

He was a man of great faith who used his divinely ordained role as king to lead the people back to God. Like his ancestor David, Josiah was a man after God’s own heart who shepherded the flock of God “with a true heart and led them with skillful hands” (Psalm 78:72 NLT). He did all he could do to reestablish the holiness of God’s name and reinvigorate the hearts of the people to serve Him alone. But his efforts, while sincere, would prove unsuccessful. God was not going to relent concerning His judgment of Judah.

Even so, the Lord was very angry with Judah because of all the wicked things Manasseh had done to provoke him. For the Lord said, “I will also banish Judah from my presence just as I have banished Israel. And I will reject my chosen city of Jerusalem and the Temple where my name was to be honored.” – 2 Kings 23:26-27 NLT

God knew their hearts, and He was fully aware that their outward displays of repentance were insincere and insufficient. The idols had been removed, but their hardened hearts remained. And this sad state of affairs would lead God to declare through the prophet Isaiah:

“These people say they are loyal to me;
they say wonderful things about me,
but they are not really loyal to me.
Their worship consists of
nothing but man-made ritual.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

Josiah had torn down all the idols, shrines, and altars, but he could do nothing to heal the hearts of the people. Despite all his efforts, the people remained just as unfaithful and unresponsive to God. The prophet Isaiah would accuse them of having a diminished view of God.

Those who try to hide their plans from the Lord are as good as dead,
who do their work in secret and boast,
“Who sees us? Who knows what we’re doing?”
Your thinking is perverse!
Should the potter be regarded as clay?
Should the thing made say about its maker, “He didn’t make me”?
Or should the pottery say about the potter, “He doesn’t understand”? – Isaiah 29:15-16 NLT

Josiah had purged the land of idols, restored the temple, reinstituted the Passover, and refamiliarized the people with the Book of the Covenant. But he could do nothing to legislate heart change. While he had successfully transformed the environment in which they lived, the people of Judah remained just as unfaithful as ever. God would later warn the prophet Ezekiel to be wary of the hypocritical hearts of the people of Judah.

“So my people come pretending to be sincere and sit before you. They listen to your words, but they have no intention of doing what you say. Their mouths are full of lustful words, and their hearts seek only after money.” – Ezekiel 33:31 NLT

Judah would experience the same fate as their neighbor to the north. Their disobedience and unfaithfulness to God would result in their destruction. Josiah had done his best, but the fall of Judah was inevitable and unavoidable because the hearts of the people remained unresponsive and unrepentant.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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