Josiah's Passover

The story of a great cleansing

It was in the eighteenth year of the reign of good King Josiah that the great Passover was kept—the most memorable Passover that Israel had known since the day of its entering into the land. "Surely there was not holden such a Passover" wrote the historian "from the days of the judges that judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel, nor of the kings of Judah" (2 Kings 23.22). It was a famous Passover, one to be remembered and preserved in tradition and exhortation throughout their generations. There would have been some seven hundred Passovers celebrated since the invading hosts had crossed Jordan and built the stones of Gilgal, but this one was the greatest. What was there about it that made it so noteworthy?

Perhaps it was the freshness and enthusiasm of the whole thing. The story in 2 Chron.35 reads like that of a revival in nineteenth century England. Faith in Israel had fallen to a very low ebb. The days of Hezekiah had long since passed—he had been dead for about seventy‑five years. Judah had suffered under the sway of two idolatrous kings, Manasseh the son of Hezekiah and Amon the son of Manasseh. Under those two men the knowledge and worship of God had languished and died. The idolatrous religion of the surrounding nations had been set up in its place and the people had, in the main, readily accepted the change. Manasseh had erected the symbols of Baal worship all over the land and images even in the Temple itself; he it was who first gave to the Valley of Hinnom its evil reputation, and caused his son to pass through the fire to Moloch. When Josiah came to the throne, as a young lad, the land and the people were steeped in wickedness and the word of the Lord was silent; there was no open vision.

Now it was when King Josiah was twenty‑six years of age that he became seized with the desire to rebuild and repair the Temple of the Lord, which had evidently suffered seriously from neglect and consequent decay. Exactly ninety years previously that Temple had been the scene of a mighty deliverance in Israel. Sennacherib the Assyrian had lain encamped with his army, outside the walls of Jerusalem, demanding unconditional surrender. Isaiah the statesman‑prophet had gone into the Temple and laid the insulting letter before the Lord, pledging the faith of King and people that God would deliver....and the angel of the Lord had gone forth that night, and slain in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred and eighty‑five thousand men: and Sennacherib returned with shame of face to his own land, there to meet death by the assassin's dagger. Thus was Jerusalem delivered. But all that was ninety years ago, and the people who had rejoiced in that great thing were now asleep in the grave, and their sons and their grandsons no longer believed that such things could be, and they bowed down before Baal and Ashtoreth and Moloch and delighted themselves in the abominations of the heathen—until Hilkiah found the Book of the Law among the Temple treasures.

It was finding that book of the Law that brought about the great reformation and the great Passover. Josiah had ordered the restoration of the Temple. It was whilst bringing out of the treasury the silver that was stored up therein, wherewith to meet the cost of the work, that Hilkiah the High Priest discovered a greater treasure still, the Book of the Law of Moses. He gave it to Shaphan the scribe to take it to the king.

Hilkiah was the High Priest but he had not known that this treasure was in his keeping. To what depths must the priesthood and the Temple service have sunk! Quite evidently the old injunction that the Law was to be recited in the ears of the people and taught to the children had not been honoured for a long while past. The consternation that was evoked when the contents of the Book were made known to Josiah a little later reveals that the Law of Moses was in general unknown to Judah at this time. It had been forgotten, and with it the ceremonies and ritual of the Day of Atonement, the Passover, and the feast days must have fallen into disuse. Probably Hilkiah knew that such a book had once existed; maybe he had heard his grandfather and predecessor in the priestly office speak of some such thing; and there may have been a vague tradition that a copy had once reposed somewhere in the Temple archives. But he had never seen it and was probably much more concerned with the "modern" religious thought of his own day. There seems to be something of awe in his tones as he says to Shaphan, surely in hushed words "I have found the Book of the Law in the House of the Lord". And Shaphan took it to the king.

Shaphan was much more indifferent. He merely remarked to Josiah "Hilkiah the priest hath given me a book". It meant nothing to him; just an old book found in the recesses of the Temple, and probably hopelessly out‑of‑date. It was perhaps with a feeling of boredom that he began to read it before the king. But the effect upon Josiah was immediate and decisive. He realised at once that his ambitious plans for the rebuilding and rededication of the Temple counted for nothing in God's sight without a deeper and more important thing, the existence of which had not until now even occurred to him. The Temple was but the outer shell; without the worship and service of a consecrated people, conscious of its own weakness and shortcoming, but confident in the saving power of God, the beauty of the restored Temple would be as ashes and its sacrifices an abomination in the sight of God. In the midst of his schemes for the restoration of the Divine Sanctuary in the sight of all Israel, Josiah heard the terms of the Divine Law, and he rent his clothes.

Just so, it may be, do we, in the midst of all our planning and scheming, activity and service for our Master and our brethren, all our preaching and witness to the world, come up suddenly against the essence of the Divine Will for us, and realise that all these outward things are of no account in his pure sight unless we have first made our hearts right with him. The will of God for us is, first of all, our own sanctification, and it is after we have started on that consecrated walk that He leads us to opportunities of outward service for him. It is the consecration that hallows the service, and not the service that vitalises the consecration. "Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and, sacrifices" asked Samuel of Saul "as in obeying the voice of the Lord?" The question comes down the ages and rings in our ears, with its answer "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice". Happy are we if, like good king Josiah, we can realise the situation directly the word of the Lord falls on our ears, and act, swiftly and decisively.

Josiah did not content himself with rending his clothes. Repentance is a necessary preliminary to justification and no progress can be made until that first step has been taken, but it is not a condition in which to linger. "Godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation" says Paul in 2 Cor.7.10, and unless there is that tangible fruit of repentance, and a speedy fruit at that, the repentance is not very genuine. So Josiah called his ministers of state and his court attendants, and sent them speedily to enquire of the Lord's will for him at the hand of one who could rightfully claim to speak on his behalf. They seemed to know where to go: they made their way to Huldah the prophetess, who, for all that the information we have is very scanty, seems to have been of some repute and held in some respect. Her words leave us in no doubt as to the forthrightness of her own allegiance to the God of Israel. Her reply was framed in terms of the strongest condemnation. Albeit there was a word of approval for the king's own personal condition of heart before God, the old lady made it plain that Israel as a nation must suffer the inevitable consequence of its sinful way. Judgment must needs come upon them before times could be better. "Because they have forsaken me, and have burned incense unto other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the works of their hands; therefore my wrath shall be poured out upon this place, and shall not be quenched." (2 Chron.34.25).

Here is a principle that applies in our own day also. Again have men‑the whole world of so‑called "civilised men" this time‑forsaken God their Creator and Sustainer, and rendered homage to gods of their own creating, to works of their own hands. In the midst of the distress and trouble which that course of action has brought upon them we proclaim the coming of a new and better order, the Millennial Kingdom, in which evil and lawlessness will be put down with firm hand and all men walk in the light of the glory of God and in the peace of his laws. But before this roseate picture can become a reality there must first be judgment upon the world for its wrongdoing. The Lord Jesus is to be "revealed from heaven…, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thess.1.7‑8) before He comes with clouds, glorious in the retinue of his saints, and all the people of the earth join in that great mourning which is at once the evidence of their realisation of his Advent and the sign of their repentance. God waits to bind up the broken‑hearted and give liberty to the captives, but nothing now can avert that Divine judgment under which the last vestiges of the rulership of "this present evil world" will pass away, never to return. And in our witnessing and preaching we should remember that. Not only must we, as Paul on Mars Hill, declare that God commandeth all men everywhere to repent, and like Peter at Jerusalem, speak of the coming pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon all flesh, but we must also, like that faithful old prophetess in the dim long ago, pronounce the inevitability of Divine judgment on this world, to burn out its evil as by fire, to consume the defiling images and symbols and sweep clean the corruption off the land,. It is only when God has thus devoured all the earth with the fire of his jealousy that He will be able to turn to the people a pure language that they may all call upon his name to serve him with one consent (Zeph.3.8‑9).

The king's decisiveness did not fail him. Unwelcome as the news of the coming desolations of Israel must have been to his ears, he nevertheless took the only course that could be right with God. He summoned the elders and the people, gathered them together, with the priests, in the Temple, and there, in the presence of the God of Israel, he caused it to be "read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant that was found in the house of the Lord". There was to be no further excuse for ignorance. All Israel was to hear the Law read, and the authority of no less a person than the king himself lay behind the injunction to heed the words. And then the king drove home to all the seriousness with which he regarded the position. He "stood in his place, and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD, and to keep his commandments, and his testimonies, and his statutes, with all his heart, and with all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant which are written in this book" (2 Chron.34.31). That was a mighty thing to do! Josiah stood before his subjects, openly confessing himself to be a breaker of the Mosaic Covenant and worthy only of its curses because of his shortcoming, and then solemnly and formally made a covenant between his God and himself that he would in future keep the words of the Law as a true son of Israel. He publicly repudiated his own past sin, his nation's sin, and espoused afresh the holy calling of the chosen nation. It was a great thing to do, and it was the only thing. Thus was he able to call all Israel to pledge themselves to follow his example; so he "caused all Israel to stand to it" and the people entered once more into the covenant made with their fathers.

It was in that strength that Josiah proceeded to the logical end of his reform. He went straight from the making of the covenant to a great sweeping away of the idols and the images from the land. The thoroughness and speed with which he conducted that campaign of destruction is shown more clearly in the parallel account in 2 Kings 23. Up and down the land he went, breaking down images, grinding them to pieces and scattering their dust to the winds, defiling the sacred places of the idolatrous religions, turning out their priests, demolishing their buildings, desecrating their sacred symbols and smashing their works of art, until nothing was left of paganism in all the land from Bethel to Beer‑Sheba, and the land was cleansed.

And it was only after all that, after the king had shown the sincerity of his repentance by his determination to be clean in God's sight, that he came to the Passover!

The greatest of all Israel's Passovers was that held by King Josiah after his reformation work was done, and it was the greatest, not because it was organised and directed by a king, but because it was inspired by a man who had become clean in the sight of God. Just as the ancient Hebrew women used to take their lamps and sweep out every corner and cranny of their houses, the night before the Passover, that not the slightest trace of leaven might remain in their homes, so did King Josiah with resolution and ruthlessness seek to sweep out every trace of personal and national uncleanliness in the sight of God, that his Passover might be truly acceptable to the Most High.

There is a challenge for us! We approach another Memorial season, another day of coming together in a ceremony which goes to the very roots of all that we hold most dear. "Till He come!"—we repeat the words and cling to our faith that the time will not be much longer delayed and the angel of deliverance come to us and to all the world. It is thus that we gain much of the strength to sustain us for another year of pilgrimage. "So let a now examine himself!" comes the solemn words of Paul to us, "and so let him eat of the bread, and drink of that cup". As did Josiah, so let us, approaching this season, stand to our covenant with our God, and renew it in the sight of our brethren, go forth to cleanse out of our hearts all that stands between us and God, all that divides us from our brethren, with ruthlessness and determination rooting out everything that savours of the world, the flesh and the devil. And being thus cleansed, thus zealous for the righteousness of God, thus filled with the Spirit, we can come with our brethren to partake of the feast and feel its life‑giving influence entering into and permeating every fibre of our being. This wine is life, said our Lord to his disciples‑My life, given to you. This bread is My flesh, given for you. Can these things do aught but revivify us to greater works than ever before and a closer following than ever before, if we are clean? One there was at the Last Supper who was not clean, and he had no part or lot at the fellowship of that table. But to those who did share in the broken bread and poured out wine, because they were clean, there came a union in fellowship which lasted as long as life itself, and inspired them to go forth as one family to turn the world upside down for Christ and his Kingdom. And they did turn the world upside down!

May we, then, at this season, remember King Josiah and his Passover, and how he prepared himself for that Passover by first becoming clean in the sight of God and removing out of his kingdom those things that did offend and cause iniquity. Let us prepare in like manner, cleansing ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord.