II Chronicles 34 is about the reign of King Josiah of Judah. The Chronicler considers Josiah to be a righteous king, as does II Kings 22. II Chronicles 34 and II Kings 22-23 tell Josiah’s story differently, however.
In II Chronicles 34, Josiah seeks the LORD at an early age, and that leads him to eradicate idolatry and false worship in Judah and Northern Israel. (According to Raymond Dillard in the Word Biblical Commentary, Josiah could exercise control over Northern Israel because the Assyrian empire was on the decline.) Josiah decides to repair the neglected Temple, and, in the process of this repair, the Torah is found there. The Torah condemns Israel for disobedience and idolatry, and Josiah tears his clothes in dismay. The prophetess Huldah says that God will bring evil against “this place” but will delay the punishment because Josiah humbled himself. Josiah then leads Judah and Jerusalem to make a covenant of obedience to God, and forces Northern Israel to serve the LORD. II Chronicles 35 is about Josiah’s Passover celebration.
In II Chronicles 34, Josiah is conducting a religious reform before the Torah is discovered. II Kings 22-23, however, seems to depict Josiah’s anti-idolatry reform as occurring after the discovery of the Torah. That is followed by Josiah’s Passover celebration.
Here are some thoughts:
1. Why did the Chronicler depict an order of events that differed from the order in II Kings? Dillard refers to M. Cogan’s view that the Chronicler wants to present Josiah’s piety as early and “self-motivated” (Dillard’s word), and Cogan mentions an Assyrian inscription about King Esarhaddon of Assyria’s piety as a youth. That could be, and yet the commentator in the Jewish Study Bible raises a question: What exactly changed after Josiah discovered the Torah? Josiah was already doing what the Torah commanded before the Torah was discovered. The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary mentions the view that the outcome of the discovery of the Torah in II Chronicles was the Passover celebration. There may be some truth to that, as far as the Chronicler’s presentation is concerned, and yet what disturbs Josiah in II Chronicles 34 after the discovery of the Torah is the Torah’s statement that God will punish Israel for idolatry.
One can ask another question. How would Josiah know what pleases God before the Torah is even discovered? Perhaps Josiah was tutored by the people of the land, those who killed the assassins of his father and elevated Josiah to the throne (II Chronicles 33:25). According to the Artscroll, Halevi maintained that Josiah started his reform at age 16 rather than prior to that age because he was under the influence of the people of the land, whom Halevi says supported the wicked policies of Kings Manasseh and Amon. But perhaps the people of the land were righteous, according to the standards of the Chronicler, and they taught Josiah to uphold exclusive Yahwism and to oppose idolatry. Or maybe Josiah was familiar with the policies of his grandfather Manasseh after Manasseh had repented—-Manasseh’s policies of trying to overturn idolatry—-as well as the anti-idolatry policies of his great-grandfather, Hezekiah. Or could Josiah, in seeking the LORD, have learned directly from the LORD what is pleasing to him?
In II Chronicles 34, after the Torah is discovered, Josiah fears for his nation, even though Josiah had already eradicated (or begun to eradicate) the idolatry that the Torah condemned. Why? Is this plausible? Maybe Josiah questioned whether God truly forgave past sins. I remember a Jewish theology professor saying that, in the Torah, the idea is that Israel has to pay her penalty for sin, then she can receive a new beginning. There may be something to that, as far as the Torah goes (see Deuteronomy 30:1-10). There is atonement for sin in the Torah, yet God takes a tough stance against high-handed sins (Numbers 15:22-21). Even in II Chronicles 34, we see the idea that Judah must still be punished, and yet God postpones Judah’s punishment on account of Josiah’s humility. Maybe Josiah did not feel entirely clean, his reforms notwithstanding, or he thought that he and the people needed to get serious and make a deeper commitment to God and God’s law, which he would lead. Josiah had a relationship with God, but he still felt a need to be under the authority of the Torah after its discovery. Even if Josiah was already on the right path in II Chronicles 34, the Torah still shook him.
2. Josiah led Judah and Jerusalem to make a covenant with God, but he actually sought to force the Northern Israelites to serve the LORD. Keil-Delitzsch say that this repentance was not heart-felt and did not last. Was Josiah right to try to force Northern Israelites to serve God? Serving God is right, so was not Josiah right to compel the Northern Israelites at least to go through the outward motions of desisting from idolatry and performing rituals of worship for God? Josiah’s great-grandfather Hezekiah, in II Chronicles 30-31, likewise took forceful action against idolatry and commanded people of Jerusalem to give the priests and Levites what the Torah said was their due. Yet, Hezekiah did not try to compel the Northern Israelites to attend the Passover but resorted to persuasion and appeal, saying that God will restore the Northern Israelites’ exiled relatives if the Northern Israelites turned to God (II Chronicles 30:9). Some Northern Israelites mocked, but some humbled themselves and accepted Hezekiah’s invitation. Maybe Hezekiah would have been more heavy-handed, like Josiah, if Hezekiah had more power. Interestingly, according to II Chronicles 30:12, God gave the people of Judah the heart to cooperate with Hezekiah’s religious reform. The fact that so many Judahites were on board was an indication to the narrator that God was behind Hezekiah’s endeavor; yet, strangely, God did not move every Northern Israelite to cooperate.
I cannot judge whether or not Josiah was right or wrong in his context to enforce the worship of God. I do not believe that such a policy should exist in the United States, for I respect religious freedom—-the right of people to follow their conscience (albeit not when it hurts someone else). There is something authentic about following one’s conscience—-about doing what is right because one loves what is right, not because one is forced to do what one does not believe. That, which may be inspired by God in certain seasons (or always), is more likely to effect lasting change than compelled outward obedience—-and we see in the story of Josiah that compelled outward obedience did not result in lasting righteousness. While I believe in religious freedom, though, I, as a Christian, have to admit that when Jesus Christ comes to rule the earth, everyone will worship God. Many will want to do so; some may not. Some believe that those who choose not to do so will be in hell; some universalists, however, think that God even then will try to persuade them and woo them to follow him, as Hezekiah did with the Northern Israelites. Hard-core Calvinists can simply say that some people are not chosen and that is why they do not follow God, as the Northern Israelites who mocked Hezekiah’s invitation were not given that heart for obedience that God gave to the Judahites. Maybe the time of Hezekiah was just not the right time, though, for the Northern Israelites to repent; they were not ready yet, and they did not have the heritage of godliness that Judah had.
3. II Chronicles 34:12 states that the musician Levites were supervising the repair of the Temple. Why does the Chronicler mention the detail that they were musicians? Dillard says that the “use of music during a construction project is well attested from the ancient Near East”, but he seems to prefer the idea that the Levites’ musical ability is mentioned to highlight that the Levites were the ones supervising: music was a mark of a number of Levites. Matthew Henry says that the Levites’ musical ability meant that they had aptitude in mathematics, and that qualified them to supervise the repair of the Temple.