Upon hearing the Law of Moses, King Josiah is confronted with the sober reality that he and his people failed to adhere to the expectations of the Law. After realizing the spectacular shortcomings, in 2 Chronicles 34:11, he cries out, “Great is the LORD’s wrath that is poured out on us because our ancestors have not kept the word of the LORD in order to do everything written in this book.” He realized his failures were partly due to the failures of those who came before him.
However, instead of skirting away from taking responsibility for the failures of his forerunners, he pressed in, to seek God’s heart for him and his people. He didn’t run from the flaws of those who came before him, but instead, he could be honest about their shortcomings and sins and all the ways they had failed to follow God and keep His Law.
He then gathered all the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, read aloud from the book of the covenant, and then he made a covenant to obey God’s Law.
There is a sequence here that is worth noting.
Based on his previous reforms, it is reasonable to assume that King Josiah and the people of Judah were doing all they could to live righteously. Even so, when the Law was discovered and read to him, he instantly saw how he and those who came before him fell short. However, instead of brushing things off or downplaying things, he acknowledged their failure and his and then moved toward radical obedience.
It’s worth noting that his posture wasn’t defensive around Judah’s legacy or reputation. His posture did not seek to minimize the gross failures of measuring up to God’s standards. He didn’t need the institution or the legacy of Judah to stand against scrutiny for his existence to matter. Instead, his disposition was one of honesty, humility, and repentance. His attitude was one of contrition, lament, and worship.
Presently, so many of the sins and failures of our heroes are being exposed. Institutions and governing bodies we believe to be righteous are being examined in ways that demonstrate how far they are from what Christians could consider righteous and just. And for many, this leads them to build walls of defense in anxious and angry pride instead of bridges of understanding towards humble repentance and faith.
While heroes may fail and nations may fall, what we learn from King Josiah is that the combination of humility, honesty, repentance, and renewal can lead us to see with clarity what is truly good, true, and beautiful—that is Yahweh. Josiah’s reckoning with the Law showed him how the legacy he inherited was so deeply flawed, but instead of withering away, he lamented and then resolved to live in step with God. What he shows us is that though we can’t escape our past, we do not have to be shackled by it as we live into the covenant God made with us—a covenant that led him to take the failures of humanity upon himself on the cross, which we anticipate during lent.