Upon the reading of these verses we must say, Lord, though thy righteousness be as the great mountains—evident, conspicuous, and past dispute, yet thy judgments are a great deep, unfathomable and past finding out, Ps. 36:6. What shall we say to this?
I. It is here owned that Josiah was one of the best kings that ever sat upon the throne of David, 2 Kgs. 23:25. As Hezekiah was a non-such for faith and dependence upon God in straits (2 Kgs. 18:5), so Josiah was a non-such for sincerity and zeal in carrying on a work of reformation. For this there was none like him, 1. That he turned to the Lord from whom his fathers had revolted. It is true religion to turn to God as one we have chosen and love. He did what he could to turn his kingdom also to the Lord. 2. That he did this with his heart and soul; his affections and aims were right in what he did. Those make nothing of their religion that do not make heart-work of it. 3. That he did it with all his heart, and all his soul, and all his might—with vigour, and courage, and resolution: he could not otherwise have broken through the difficulties he had to grapple with. What great things may we bring to pass in the service of God if we be but lively and hearty in it! 4. That he did this according to all the law of Moses, in an exact observance of that law and with an actual regard to it. His zeal did not transport him into any irregularities, but, in all he did, he walked by rule.
II. Notwithstanding this he was cut off by a violent death in the midst of his days, and his kingdom was ruined within a few years after. Consequent upon such a reformation as this, one would have expected nothing but the prosperity and glory both of king and kingdom; but, quite contrary, we find both under a cloud. 1. Even the reformed kingdom continues marked for ruin. For all this (2 Kgs. 23:26) the Lord turned not from the fierceness of his great wrath. That is certainly true, which God spoke by the prophet (Jer. 18:7, 8), that if a nation, doomed to destruction, turn from the evil of sin, God will repent of the evil of punishment; and therefore we must conclude that Josiah’s people, though they submitted to Josiah’s power, did not heartily imbibe Josiah’s principles. They were turned by force, and did not voluntarily turn from their evil way, but still continued their affection for their idols; and therefore he that knows men’s hearts would not recall the sentence, which was, That Judah should be removed, as Israel had been, and Jerusalem itself cast off, 2 Kgs. 23:27. Yet even this destruction was intended to be their effectual reformation; so that we must say, not only that the criminals had filled their measure and were ripe for ruin, but also that the disease had come to a crisis, and was ready for a cure; and this shall be all the fruit, even the taking away of sin. 2. As an evidence of this, even the reforming king is cut off in the midst of his usefulness—in mercy to him, that he might not see the evil which was coming upon his kingdom, but in wrath to his people, for his death was an inlet to their desolations. The king of Egypt waged war, it seems, with the king of Assyria: so the king of Babylon is now called. Josiah’s kingdom lay between them. He therefore thought himself concerned to oppose the king of Egypt, and check the growing, threatening, greatness of his power; for though, at this time, he protested that he had no design against Josiah, yet, if he should prevail to unite the river of Egypt and the river Euphrates, the land of Judah would soon be overflowed between them. Therefore Josiah went against him, and was killed in the first engagement, 2 Kgs. 23:29, 30. Here, (1.) We cannot justify Josiah’s conduct. He had no clear call to engage in this war, nor do we find that he asked counsel of God by urim or prophets concerning it. What had he to do to appear and act as a friend and ally to the king of Assyria? Should he help the ungodly and love those that hate the Lord? If the kings of Egypt and Assyria quarrelled, he had reason to think God would bring good out of it to him and his people, by making them instrumental to weaken one another. Some understand the promise made to him that he should come to his grave in peace in a sense in which it was not performed because, by his miscarriage in this matter, he forfeited the benefit of it. God has promised to keep us in all our ways; but, if we go out of our way, we throw ourselves out of his protection. I understand the promise so as that I believe it was fulfilled, for he died in peace with God and his own conscience, and saw not, nor had any immediate prospect of, the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by the Chaldeans; yet I understand the providence to be a rebuke to him for his rashness. (2.) We must adore God’s righteousness in taking away such a jewel from an unthankful people that knew not how to value it. They greatly lamented his death (2 Chron. 35:25), urged to it by Jeremiah, who told them the meaning of it, and what a threatening omen it was; but they had not made a due improvement of the mercies they enjoyed by his life, of which God taught them the worth by the want.