Bible Commentary: 2 Kings 23:26-37 and Related

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2 Kings 23:26-37 and Related

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The Stunning Death of Judah's Most Righteous King

Despite the incredible reforms under Josiah, the changes for the people were only superficial and God knew it would not be long before they were openly rebelling against Him again. They had shown their true colors under the wicked reigns of Manasseh and Amon—and inside they were really no different. So God pronounces calamity on Judah. But remember that He had promised before that this calamity would not come until after Josiah's death (2 Kings 22:16-20). And eventually, his death came—13 years after his great Passover, and three years after the fall of Nineveh.

"Pharaoh Necho [II] (609-594 b.c.) was the recently crowned king of Egypt's twenty-sixth dynasty. During the long years of Josiah's reign (640-609 b.c.), Assyrian power had steadily crumbled until, as Nahum had predicted, Nineveh itself had fallen (612 b.c.) to a coalition of Chaldeans, Medes, and others. The surviving Assyrian forces had regrouped at Haran. Because Egypt was a long-standing ally of Assyria [since its integration into the empire several decades earlier], Necho journeyed northward to help the beleaguered Assyrians" (Nelson Study Bible,note on 2 Kings 23:29-30). The King James Version incorrectly has Necho marching against the Assyrians.

"Pharaoh Necho turned up in Judah at the head of a more impressive-looking Egyptian army than had been fielded in centuries. Taking advantage of Assyrian decline, Necho's father Psammetichus I [who had been appointed pharaoh by Assyrian emperor Ashurbanipal] had greatly revived his country's clout as a superpower" (Ian Wilson, The Bible Is History, 1999, p. 174). "Emboldened by his success... Psammetichus refused to continue payment of tribute to Assyria...though Egypt remained more or less an ally of Assyria until his death and even beyond" (Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, p. 439). Perhaps Necho at this later time was not so much interested in restoring Assyria as he was in keeping a balance among the Mesopotamian powers. If Assyria were utterly eliminated, Babylon would fill the void as an unchecked power, creating major problems for Egypt. In any event, Necho advanced up the coastal plain, through Philistine territory. But this area was now under the control of Judah's king, Josiah.

"A Hebrew letter written in his time has been found at 'Mesad Hashavyahu,' a fortress built on the coast between Jabneh and Ashdod. According to the letter, an Israelite governor resided at the fort; thus, Josiah ruled also over this area, expanding his kingdom at the expense of the Philistine cities" (Yohanan Aharoni and Michael Avi-Yonah, The Macmillan Bible Atlas, 1977, p. 102). Indeed, remember that, apparently with earlier help from the Scythians, Josiah's "purification of worship was carried out not only in Jerusalem and Judah, but also 'in the cities of Manasseh and Ephraim and Simeon, even unto Naphtali...throughout the land of Israel' (2 Chron. 34:6-7). Thus, we may assume that Josiah again ruled in all these areas and annexed the Assyrian provinces which had been founded in the territory of the kingdom of Israel: Samaria, Megiddo, and possibly also Gilead. This is confirmed by the fact that he fought at Megiddo" (p. 102).

"When Pharaoh Neco passed through Judah on his way to fight the Babylonians at Carchemish, Josiah marched out to meet him in battle. It is far from clear why he did so. Most likely is the suggestion that he wanted to assure Judah's independence among the nations. Had he permitted the Egyptians to pass through, he could have been considered to be a collaborator against Babylon" ("Josiah," Paul Gardner, editor, The Complete Who's Who in the Bible, 1995, p. 384). There is no doubt that Josiah would not have wanted anyone helping Assyria back into power. And it is possible that Judah still maintained a residual alliance with Babylon since the days of Hezekiah. Then again, perhaps Josiah simply did what any ruler would do when an uninvited foreign army comes marching through your land—put a stop to it to make sure your borders are respected.

"Neco was disturbed at Josiah's refusal [to back off]. He sent a message with a religious overtone. He argued that God had told him to move quickly, that Josiah's hostile acts were a threat to the accomplishment of God's will, and that God would punish him for it" (p. 384). Now God, it is true, did at times speak to pagan rulers about a course of action He wanted them to take (see Genesis 20:6; Genesis 41:25; Daniel 2:28). Yet ancient monarchs often made such claims falsely. And Josiah really had no reason to believe God had actually spoken to the Egyptian pharaoh. He assumed it was a lie—as most of us probably would were we in his shoes.

So what did Josiah do wrong? He is often accused of "meddling in someone else's affairs." But it's not really someone else's affair when a foreign army is marching through your country and you're the king. Perhaps, then, the only obvious thing Josiah can be faulted for is a failure to ask God what to do. It would seem that he could have asked the priests to consult the Urim and Thummim. Or he could have sought out a prophet. However, it may be that this would have taken time Josiah did not think he could afford in the situation—though this would be improper reasoning since God's will is paramount. Perhaps Josiah assumed that it was always God's will for the king to defend the nation's borders. We just don't know. In any case, God had communicated a message to Necho or in some way impressed on his mind the need to act as he did (see 2 Chronicles 35:22). And Josiah was mortally wounded.

But Josiah did not die on the battlefield. He died in Jerusalem and was buried there with full honors. Perhaps this was because God had promised, "Surely...I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace..." (2 Kings 22:20). And indeed, he died in peace though he had been wounded in battle.

With Josiah's resistance, Pharaoh Necho was sufficiently delayed so that Haran was lost to the Assyrians. This is rather interesting to contemplate. God had directed Necho to make haste. And if he had made it to Haran in time, the Assyrians would presumably have held out against the Babylonians. Yet was this truly God's will? More poignantly, did Josiah actually cause God's will to be thwarted? Certainly not! It makes far more sense to realize that it was actually God's intent that Necho not make it on time. Why then did He tell Necho to make haste? Perhaps it was to create the very situation that brought about the death of Josiah—and consequently placed Judah under Egyptian rule (for Necho now ruled all the territory up to the Euphrates).

Consider what a righteous ruler Josiah was. And yet God allowed Him to be killed at the age of 39. In Isaiah 57:1, God said: "The righteous perishes, and no man takes it to heart; merciful men are taken away, while no one considers that the righteous is taken away from evil. He shall enter into peace; they shall rest in their beds, each one walking in his uprightness." Perhaps this, more than anything, is why Josiah died when he did. It was time for Judah to be punished—and Josiah had to be taken out of the way first. Rather than our being overly critical of a final mistake on his part, especially lacking information to properly judge exactly what happened, we would do better to focus on the tremendous, positive example of this great ruler, as Jeremiah did (Jeremiah 22:15-16). Indeed, Jeremiah led the nation in a lament—the words of which have not been preserved—over losing the most righteous king Judah ever had (2 Chronicles 35:25; see 2 Kings 23:25).

"The Wind Shall Eat Up All Your Rulers"

In the wake of Josiah's death, Josiah's son Jehoahaz was made king by "the people of the land" (2 Chronicles 36:1). This "was a technical term that referred to a body of leaders such as a council of elders or a kind of informal parliament (see 2 Chronicles 33:25). This group acted in a time of crisis, such as the death of Josiah in battle [actually, from battle]. His loss was made worse by the fact that he had at least four sons who could succeed him. Josiah [probably not expecting to die for many years] may not have made his choice of successor clear" (Nelson Study Bible, note on 36:1).

"Jehoahaz (called Shallum in Jeremiah 22:11) was Josiah's third son (see [2 Kings] 24:18; 1 Chronicles 3:15). The name Jehoahaz means 'The Lord Has Grasped.' This is the same name as the king of Israel, the son of Jehu (10:35). Johanan, Josiah's first son, apparently had died and Eliakim (or Jehoiakim), the second son, was bypassed. A fourth son, Mattaniah (or Zedekiah), would eventually ascend to the throne and rule as Judah's last king (598-586 b.c.)" (note on 2 Kings 23:31). Sadly, the reforms of Josiah's magnificent reign didn't last. Jehoahaz turned out to be evil like Josiah's predecessors. But he only reigned three months.

"Jehoahaz's reign of three months came to an end with the return of Pharaoh Necho from Haran. Jehoahaz was summoned to Riblah, Necho's headquarters in Syria. Then he was led away to die in Egypt. His brother Eliakim was installed on the throne with his name changed to Jehoiakim. Judah thus became no more than a vassal of Egypt. The curse for Judah's disobedience was about to fall (see Deuteronomy 28:64-68)" (note on 2 Kings 23:31). Necho, it appears, did not accept Judah's appointment of its own king. He wanted it made clear that no one would now reign in Judah except by his appointment. The change of Eliakim's name to Jehoiakim also demonstrated the pharaoh's overlordship. Regrettably, Jehoiakim, like his brother, did not follow in Josiah's ways but continued in the evil ways of most of Judah's rulers.

Jeremiah addresses these events and prophesies the outcome in most of Jeremiah 22. In 2 Chronicles 35:25, the prophet leads the nation in a lament. Jewish custom, which derives from biblical times, is a week of intense grief as the first part of a month of official mourning (for close family members a lesser form of mourning might continue for a year). Jeremiah 22:10 shows that more than three months have passed since Josiah's death. Jeremiah says to no longer weep for him—but to instead weep for his successor Shallum (Jehoahaz), who has been taken away to Egypt, never to return (verses 10-12).

Jeremiah then launches into a scathing prophecy against Jehoiakim, addressing him first in the third person (verses 13-14), then as "you" (verses 15-17) and finally by name (verse 18). Jeremiah's description speaks for itself. Like so many people in power, Jehoiakim looked after his own interests at the expense of his subjects, building a great palace while extorting from his subjects to pay tribute to Egypt. This was in direct violation of God's law (Leviticus 19:13).

Jeremiah uses Jehoiakim's father Josiah as an example of true godly leadership—doing what is right and just, defending the cause of the poor and needy. He explains that this is what it means to really "know God" (see verse 16). Indeed, Josiah did this and lived well—without having to oppress people (verse 15). Having a huge mansion might look impressive, but it doesn't equate with godliness and true leadership. Jehoiakim suffered from a malady experienced by many people in power—covetousness (verse 17). And, as Jethro advised Moses more than 800 years earlier, covetous people make for poor leaders (Exodus 18:21). Indeed, this led to still worse sins.

The first part of Jeremiah 22 appears to also relate to the reign of Jehoiakim, as there is no break between verses 9 and 10. It further illustrates the decline in justice and righteousness that followed Josiah's reign. God says to the king, "You are Gilead to Me, the head of Lebanon..." (verse 6). These places "were sources for timber for the royal palaces. These luxurious residences would be reduced to deserted wilderness and set ablaze if the kings disobeyed the covenant" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 6-7). And sadly Jehoiakim and the other kings following Josiah did just that. Verses 8-9 foretell the right conclusion other nations will eventually reach about Jerusalem's destruction, just as Moses had warned in Deuteronomy 29:24-28.

Jeremiah also pronounces judgment on Jehoiakim personally. Some of this may have been added later, following Jehoiakim's attempt to destroy Jeremiah's recorded prophecies (see Jeremiah 36:27-32, especially verse 32). There will be no national lament or proper burial for Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 22:18-19; compare 36:30). The people of Judah will instead lament their worsening circumstances. God tells them to go cry in Lebanon to the north, in Bashan to the northeast and in Abarim in the southeast (Jeremiah 22:20)—perhaps indicating the length over which Josiah had extended his rule. The nation's "lovers" or allies will themselves be carried away when destruction comes and will thus provide no help (verses 20-22). That destruction, unstated here, will come from Babylon. (Babylon is mentioned in verse 25, but that part of chapter 22 is beyond our current reading, as it was evidently given later, during the reign of Jehoiakim's son Jeconiah.) In verse 23, the "inhabitants of Lebanon, making your nest in the cedars," apparently refers not to Lebanon of the north but, as verses 6-7 indicate, to Jerusalem, "(Isaiah 37:24; Jeremiah 22:23; Ezekiel 17:3, 12; for Lebanon's cedars were used in building the temple and houses of Jerusalem; and its beauty made it a fit type of the metropolis)" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, note on Habakkuk 2:17). The national armory from Solomon's time was actually called "the House of the Forest of Lebanon" (see 1 Kings 7:2; 1 Kings 10:16-17; Isaiah 22:8). And the wealthy of Judah built cedar mansions aloof from the common people to ensure protection (compare Habakkuk 2:9). Yet no reliance on the temple, palace, armory or rich neighborhoods would save the people of Judah from what was coming. The winds of adversity and invasion would eat up their rulers and bring them to shame for their wickedness (Jeremiah 22:22).

Historian Walter Kaiser Jr. sums up this period of Judah's history: "The drama of the final years of Judah and the Davidic line of kings involved the three major international powers of the day: Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt. Of course, there were minor roles given to the Cimmerians, the Scythians, Medes, and other people groups who longed to fill the vacuum as Assyria began to show signs of weakening. Three of the final four decades of the seventh century (640-609 B.C.) provided a glimmer of hope and the prospect of revival of a restored and even a reunited nation as a result of Josiah's reform in 621 B.C. Alas, however, the maelstrom of international unrest proved too much for the last five Davidic kings of Judah in the last decade of the seventh century and the first decade and a half of the sixth century (600-587 B.C.). Two of the last five Davidic kings met their deaths as a direct result of involvement in these international struggles, while the other three died in exile" (A History of Israel, 1998, p. 386).