I have been loving the book of Zephaniah lately, and it has led me to look at the story of King Josiah differently than ever before because Zephaniah prophesied during his rule. Josiah is one of the better known Old Testament kings of Judah, famous for taking the throne at the age of 8 and of being an exceptionally righteous king in a long line of bad apples. His story is found in 2 Kings 22-23 and 2 Chronicles 34-35, although those stories paint a very different portrait of the situation than the book of Zephaniah. Two and a half of the three chapters are warnings of judgment and condemnation for arrogance and sin. Judah is front and center in this critique, although the surrounding nations are also condemned. I was confused when I read this because we taught the story of Josiah at our church VBS last week, and he is known as the boy king who got rid of all the idols.
Here’s the thing about the story of Josiah – the reforms he’s so famous for took place beginning in the eighteenth year of his reign. It started as a project to revitalize the temple, during which the book of the Law was found, and everyone realized they had gone way off track in terms of obeying God. There were high places and idols all over the city, Asherah (idols) in the very temple, and male cult prostitutes operating out of the temple as well. For eighteen years, this nonsense went on unquestioned except for a few prophets freaking out here and there, and Josiah was king over it all. Yet, his legacy is that “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” (2 Kings 22:2) It is understandable that an 8 year old king did not challenge the status quo, and I’m not saying it’s bad that he took 18 years to get his country on track, but this story has taken on a new sense for me, not the Sunday school, feel-good version, but a more realistic portrait.
In Zephaniah, Josiah is called son of Amon, but in Kings his mother’s name is given (Jedidah, which means beloved) and her father’s name (Adaiah, which means witness of God). To me this emphasizes that legacy can change over time, that in this life we constantly make decisions that shape our legacy, and the final result can’t be known until our life is over. For Zephaniah, prophesying before Josiah’s reforms, the king was ruling no differently than his father. But in the book of Kings, Josiah’s repentance was so complete that nothing he did before finding the book of the Law was worth recording. His transformation, and the change of heart that swept his whole nation, was so complete that his story is listed separate from his sinful father’s story. In Kings, he is no longer “son of Amon” but a beloved witness of God.