It doesn’t make a lot of sense that the last great reformer of Judah would die without honor on the battle field. Josiah’s tragic death put a sudden end to thirty-one years of steady progress in restoring the worship of Jehovah, which raises many questions. Why did he go out of his way to confront Pharaoh Necho II at Megiddo, when Necho had bypassed Judah and was in route to Syria? Why did Josiah insist on engaging with the pharaoh, when the pharaoh made it clear that he didn’t want to fight him? Why did the king disguise himself as a common soldier, running undue risk? The answers may come from understanding what motivated him.
Josiah became king at the young age of eight years old, after the previous king Amon had been assassinated by his servants for his profligate lifestyle. Josiah was next in the royal line of David. Idolatry had been steadily growing for over 330 years, since David ceased to be king. Manasseh undid the reform of his father Hezekiah, being more zealous of pagan worship than the pagan nations around him. His actions were more abominable than any of the kings before him, which brought Judah to the brink of calamity. Amon did no better. When Josiah took the throne, he brought the fresh air of an innocent child who had been instructed to walk in the spiritual pureness of king David.
From the beginning, Josiah led Israel according to the traditions of David. When he turned sixteen, he dedicated himself to a personal relationship with God. At twenty, he began a casual campaign to make pagan altars illegal within Judah and have them removed. When he was twenty-six, he began a renovation of the temple, which led to finding the written law of Moses, which had been lost through neglect in the house of God. Reading the conditions of the covenant brought the king to his knees. He assembled all the people of the land, read the Covenant, and made a solemn commitment to comply with everything required by the Law. No other king was as dedicated to the Law as Josiah, but it did not erase the wrong that had been done. It only delayed the consequences.
Just getting all the idols and prostitutes out of the temple of Jehovah was a huge undertaking. Josiah then purged the entire land and celebrated a Passover like Jerusalem had never before seen. You would think that such a zealous undertaking would have remained in place longer, but it died with Josiah. He was the last. The country had too many supporters of the various religions, who had established roots too deeply for a permanent change to take place.
When Josiah was thirty-nine years old, Necho II brought an army up the coast on his way to Syria. What was Josiah thinking? Some might speculate that he was trying to sway the balance of power in favor of Assyria, believing that God would give him victory over Egypt. That’s hard to believe, since we don’t know of any peace agreements, and Josiah was not likely to make peace with idolatrous empires such as Assyria. The best explanation is just reckless zeal. All his life, he had fought against the enemies of Jehovah. Egypt was idolatrous, so that would have been enough justification for him to stand in Pharaoh’s way, even for a lost cause.
Some people see themselves as God’s last defense against evil in the world and will go out of their way to create a conflict where there is none. Choose your battles wisely. Not every evil needs to be addressed by me today. Only God’s battles are worth fighting. If Josiah had been walking in the footsteps of David, he would have asked God, “Do I go up or not?” I think the answer would have been, “No”. He would probably have lived longer and died in peace in Jerusalem.
II Kings 22:1-23:30; II Chronicles 34-35