Commentary on 2 Kgs 22:8-13; 23:1-3
In today’s reading we have moved about 100 years on from yesterday. King Josiah is now on the throne of the southern kingdom of Judah.
Hilkiah, the high priest, tells Shaphan, an expert in the Scriptures, that he has found the “book of the law” in the Temple. “This ‘Book of the Law’,” comments the Jerusalem Bible, “is certainly Deuteronomy or, to be precise, its legislative portion, the main statutes of which form the guiding principles of the subsequent reform. It was the sacred law of the Temple of Jerusalem, hidden or lost or at least completely forgotten during the reign of the impious Manasseh.” However, other interpreters think it may refer to the entire Pentateuch (the books attributed to Moses which are also the first five books of the Old Testament).
Shaphan in turn brought the scroll to the king and read it out to him. When the king heard the contents, he tore his garments. He realised just how much the statutes of God’s law had been neglected and violated. He now understood how the misfortunes of the people were the signs of God’s anger “furiously set ablaze against us”. Perhaps the covenant curses of Leviticus 26 and/or Deuteronomy 28, climaxing with the threat of exile, were the statements that especially disturbed Josiah. We can contrast Josiah’s reaction with that of Jehoiakim to the words of the scroll written by Jeremiah (see Jer 36:24). On that occasion, Jehoiakim treated the text with contempt and burnt it passage by passage as it was read to him by the prophet Baruch. Needless to say, he paid a high price for his arrogance.
Josiah then gave instructions to a number of important people to consult the Lord on what was laid down in these writings on behalf of himself, the people and all of Judah. Among them were Hilkiah, the priest already mentioned, Ahikam and Acbor. Ahikam was the father of Gedaliah and later appointed governor of Judah by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. He was also the protector of Jeremiah when his life was threatened during the reign of Jehoiakam (see Jer 26:24). Acbor’s son, Elnathan, is mentioned in chapter 24.
These people, together with some others, went to consult a prophetess in Jerusalem called Huldah. She confirmed that the terrible threats on those who had broken the law and worshipped idols would be carried out as foretold. However, King Josiah would be spared this fate because, after hearing the contents of the document, he had expressed deep repentance and grief and rent his garments. He would go to his grave in peace and would not live to see the awful punishments that would be visited on Jerusalem. (These particular details are omitted in our reading.)
The whole population, including priests and prophets, is then gathered together to have the whole “book of the covenant” read to them. This was another name for the book of Deuteronomy which claimed to be the code of the covenant of the people with Yahweh (Deut 5:3; 28:69). Whatever else the scroll contained, it clearly included the covenant curses of Leviticus 26 and/or Deuteronomy 28.
The king then, as the Lord’s representative, renewed the covenant of God with his people, promising to observe “with their whole hearts and souls” all its requirements. As he did so, he stood “by the column”, that is, one of the two bronze pillars in the portico of the Temple. Josiah fulfilled the role of one mediating a covenant between God and his people just as Moses, Joshua, Samuel and King Jehoiada had done before him.
The people then pledged themselves to obey the covenant. It is likely that some sort of ratification rite was performed, in which the people participated and pledged by oath to be loyal to their covenant obligations. Whether this was done symbolically or verbally is not said.
It is good for us, too, regularly to go through the New Testament and especially the Gospel and renew the promises we made in our Baptism. We might ask ourselves, too, how much real attention we give to the Word of God proclaimed to us at every Eucharist in which we participate. And we might seriously consider spending some time each day reading and studying the Scripture. A careful reading of the Gospel will often reveal to us just how far we have strayed from the call of Jesus to be his disciples.