We have here an account of such a reformation as we have not met with in all the history of the kings of Judah, such thorough riddance made of all the abominable things and such foundations laid of a glorious good work; and here I cannot but wonder at two things:—1. That so many wicked things should have got in, and kept standing so long, as we find here removed. 2. That notwithstanding the removal of these wicked things, and the hopeful prospects here given of a happy settlement, yet within a few years Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, and even this did not save it; for the generality of the people, after all, hated to be reformed. The founder melteth in vain, and therefore reprobate silver shall men call them, Jer. 6:29, 30. Let us here observe,
I. What abundance of wickedness there was, and had been, in Judah and Jerusalem. One would not have believed it possible that in Judah, where God was known—in Israel, where his name was great—in Salem, in Sion, where his dwelling place was, such abominations should be found as here we have an account of. Josiah had now reigned eighteen years, and had himself set the people a good example, and kept up religion according to law; and yet, when he came to make inquisition for idolatry, the depth and extent of the dunghill he had to carry away appeared almost incredible. 1. Even in the house of the Lord, that sacred temple which Solomon built, and dedicated to the honour and for the worship of the God of Israel, there were found vessels, all manner of utensils, for the worship of Baal, and of the grove (or Ashtaroth), and of all the host of heaven, 2 Kgs. 23:4. Though Josiah had suppressed the worship of idols, yet the utensils made for that worship were all carefully preserved, even in the temple itself, to be used again whenever the present restraint should be taken off; nay, even the grove itself, the image of it, was yet standing in the temple (2 Kgs. 23:6); some make it the image of Venus, the same with Ashtaroth. 2. Just at the entering in of the house of the Lord was a stable for horses kept (would you think it?) for a religious use; they were holy horses, given to the sun (2 Kgs. 23:11), as if he needed them who rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race (Ps. 19:5), or rather they would thus represent to themselves the swiftness of his motion, which they much admired, making their religion to conform to the poetical fictions of the chariot of the sun, the follies of which even a little philosophy, without any divinity, would have exposed and made them ashamed of. Some say that those horses were to be led forth in pomp every morning to meet the rising sun, others that the worshippers of the sun rode out upon them to adore the rising sun; it should seem that they drew the chariots of the sun, which the people worshipped. Strange that ever men who had the written word of God among them should be thus vain in their imaginations! 3. Hard by the house of the Lord there were houses of the Sodomites, where all manner of lewdness and filthiness, even that which was most unnatural, was practised, and under pretence of religion too, in honour of their impure deities. Corporal and spiritual whoredom went together, and the vile affections to which the people were given up were the punishment of their vain imaginations. Those that dishonoured their God were justly left thus to dishonour themselves, Rom. 1:24-32 There were women that wove hangings for the grove (2 Kgs. 23:7), tents which encompassed the image of Venus, where the worshippers committed all manner of lewdness, and this in the house of the Lord. Those did ill that made our Father’s house a house of merchandise; those did worse that made it a den of thieves; but those did worst of all that made it (Horrendum dictu!--Horrible to relate!) a brothel, in an impudent defiance of the holiness of God and of his temple. Well might the apostle call them abominable idolatries. 4. There were many idolatrous altars found (2 Kgs. 23:12), some in the palace, on the top of the upper chamber of Ahaz. The roofs of their houses being flat, they made them their high places, and set up altars upon them (Jer. 19:13; Zeph. 1:5), domestic altars. The kings of Judah did so: and, though Josiah never used them, yet to this time they remained there. Manasseh had built altars for his idols in the house of the Lord. When he repented he removed them, and cast them out of the city (2 Chron. 33:15), but, not destroying them, his son Amon, it seems, had brought them again into the courts of the temple; there Josiah found them, and thence he broke them down, 2 Kgs. 23:12. 5. There was Tophet, in the valley of the son of Hinnom, very near Jerusalem, where the image of Moloch (that god of unnatural cruelty, as others were of unnatural uncleanness) was kept, to which some sacrificed their children, burning them in the fire, others dedicated them, making them to pass through the fire (2 Kgs. 23:10), labouring in the very fire, Hab. 2:13. It is supposed to have been called Tophet from toph, a drum, because they beat drums at the burning of the children, that their shrieks might not be heard. 6. There were high places before Jerusalem, which Solomon had built, 2 Kgs. 23:13. The altars and images on those high places, we may suppose, had been taken away by some of the preceding godly kings, or perhaps Solomon himself had removed them when he became a penitent; but the buildings, or some parts of them, remained, with other high places, till Josiah’s time. Those that introduce corruptions into religion know not how far they will reach nor how long they will last. Antiquity is no certain proof of verity. There were also high places all the kingdom over, from Geba to Beer-sheba (2 Kgs. 23:8), and high places of the gates, in the entering in of the gate of the governor. In these high places (bishop Patrick thinks) they burnt incense to those tutelar gods to whom their idolatrous kings had committed the protection of their city; and probably the governor of the city had a private altar for his penates—his household-gods. 7. There were idolatrous priests, that officiated at all those idolatrous altars (2 Kgs. 23:5), chemarim, black men, or that wore black. See Zeph. 1:4. Those that sacrificed to Osiris, or that wept for Tammuz (Ezek. 8:14), or that worshipped the infernal deities, put on black garments as mourners. These idolatrous priests the kings of Judah had ordained to burn incense in the high places; they were, it should seem, priests of the house of Aaron, who thus profaned their dignity, and there were others also who had no right at all to the priesthood, who burnt incense to Baal. 8. There were conjurers and wizards, and such as dealt with familiar spirits, 2 Kgs. 23:24. When they worshipped the devil as their god no marvel that they consulted him as their oracle.
II. What a full destruction good Josiah made of all those relics of idolatry. Such is his zeal for the Lord of hosts, and his holy indignation against all that is displeasing to him, that nothing shall stand before him. The law was that the monuments of the Canaanites’ idolatry must be all destroyed (Deut. 7:5), much more those of the idolatry of the Israelites, in whom it was much more impious, profane, and perfidious. 1. He ordered Hilkiah, and the other priests, to clear the temple. This was their province, 2 Kgs. 23:4. Away with all the vessels that were made for Baal. They must never be employed in the service of God, no, nor reserved for any common use; they must all be burnt, and the ashes of them carried to Bethel. That place had been the common source of idolatry, for there was set up one of the calves, and, that lying next to Judah, the infection had thence spread into that kingdom, and therefore Josiah made it the lay-stall of idolatry, the dunghill to which he carried the filth and offscouring of all things, that, if possible, it might be made loathsome to those that had been fond of it. 2. The idolatrous priests were all put down. Those of them that were not of the house of Aaron, or had sacrificed to Baal or other false gods, he put to death, according to the law, 2 Kgs. 23:20. He slew them upon their own altars, the most acceptable sacrifice that ever had been offered upon them, a sacrifice to the justice of God. Those that were descendants from Aaron, and yet had burnt incense in the high places, but to the true God only, he forbade ever to approach the altar of the Lord; they had forfeited that honour (2 Kgs. 23:9): He brought them out of the cities of Judah (2 Kgs. 23:8), that they might not do mischief in the country by secretly keeping up their old idolatrous usages; but he allowed them to eat of the unleavened bread (the bread of the meat-offering, Lev. 2:4, 5) among their brethren, with whom they were to reside, that being under their eye they might be kept from doing hurt and taught to do well; that bread, that unleavened bread (heavy and unpleasant as it was), was better than they deserved, and that would serve to keep them alive. But whether they were permitted to eat of all the sacrifices, as blemished priests were (Lev. 21:22), which is called, in general, the bread of their God, may be justly questioned. 3. All the images were broken to pieces and burnt. The image of the grove (2 Kgs. 23:6), some goddess or other, was reduced to ashes, and the ashes cast upon the graves of the common people (2 Kgs. 23:6), the common burying-place of the city. By the law a ceremonial uncleanness was contracted by the touch of a grave, so that in casting them here he declared them most impure, and none could touch them without thereby making themselves unclean. He cast it into the graves (so the Chaldee), intimating that he would have all idolatry buried out of his sight, as a loathsome thing, and forgotten, as dead men are out of mind, 2 Kgs. 23:14. He filled the places of the groves with the bones of men; as he carried the ashes of the images to the graves, to mingle them with dead men’s bones, so he carried dead men’s bones to the places where the images had been, and put them in the room of them, that, both ways, idolatry might be rendered loathsome, and the people kept both from the dust of the images and from the ruins of the places where they had been worshipped. Dead men and dead gods were much alike and fittest to go together. 4. All the wicked houses were suppressed, those nests of impiety that harboured idolaters, the houses of the Sodomites, 2 Kgs. 23:7. “Down with them, down with them, rase them to the foundations.” The high places were in like manner broken down and levelled with the ground (2 Kgs. 23:8), even that which belonged to the governor of the city; for no man’s greatness or power may protect him in idolatry or profaneness. Let governors be obliged, in the first place, to reform, and then the governed will be the sooner influenced. He defiled the high places (2 Kgs. 23:8 and again 2 Kgs. 23:13), did all he could to render them abominable, and put the people out of conceit with them, as Jehu did when he made the house of Baal a draught-house, 2 Kgs. 10:27. Tophet, which, contrary to other places of idolatry, was in a valley, whereas they were on hills or high places, was likewise defiled (2 Kgs. 23:10), was made the burying-place of the city. Concerning this we have a whole sermon, Jer. 19:1-15, where it is said, They shall bury in Tophet, and the whole city is threatened to be made like Tophet. 5. The horses that had been given to the sun were taken away and put to common use, and so were delivered from the vanity to which they were made subject; and the chariots of the sun (what a pity was it that those horses and chariots should be kept as the chariots and horsemen of Israel!) he burnt with fire; and, if the sun be a flame, they never resembled him so much as they did when they were chariots of fire. 6. The workers with familiar spirits and the wizards were put away, 2 Kgs. 23:24. Those of them that were convicted of witchcraft, it is likely, he put to death, and so deterred others from those diabolical practices. In all this he had a sincere regard to the words of the law which were written in the book lately found, 2 Kgs. 23:24. He made that law his rule and kept that in his eye throughout this reformation.
III. How his zeal extended itself to the cities of Israel that were within his reach. The ten tribes were carried captive and the Assyrian colonies did not fully people the country, so that, it is likely, many cities had put themselves under the protection of the kings of Judah, 2 Chron. 30:1; 34:6. These he here visits, to carry on his reformation. As far as our influence goes our endeavours should go to do good and bring the wickedness of the wicked to an end.
1. He defiled and demolished Jeroboam’s altar at Bethel, with the high place and the grove that belonged to it, 2 Kgs. 23:15, 16. The golden calf, it should seem, was gone (thy calf, O Samaria! has cast thee off), but the altar was there, which those that were wedded to their old idolatries made use of still. This was, (1.) Defiled, 2 Kgs. 23:16. Josiah, in his pious zeal, was ransacking the old seats of idolatry, and spied the sepulchres in the mount, in which probably the idolatrous priests were buried, not far from the altar at which they had officiated, and which they were so fond of that they were desirous to lay their bones by it; these he opened, took out the bones, and burnt them upon the altar, to show that thus he would have done by the priests themselves if they had been alive, as he did by those whom he found alive, 2 Kgs. 23:20. Thus he polluted the altar, desecrated it, and made it odious. It is threatened against idolaters (Jer. 8:1, 2) that their bones shall be spread before the sun; that which is there threatened and this which is here executed (bespeaking their iniq 57f9 uity to be upon their bones, Ezek. 32:27) are an intimation of a punishment after death, reserved for those that live and die impenitent in that or any other sin; the burning of the bones, if that were all, is a small matter, but, if it signify the torment of the soul in a worse flame (Luke 16:24), it is very dreadful. This, as it was Josiah’s act, seems to have been the result of a very sudden resolve; he would not have done it but that he happened to turn himself, and spy the sepulchres; and yet it was foretold above 350 years before, when this altar was first built by Jeroboam, 1 Kgs. 13:2. God always foresees, and has sometimes foretold as certain, that which yet to us seems most contingent. The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; king Josiah’s was so, and he turned it (or ever he himself was aware, Song 6:12) to do this. No word of God shall fall to the ground. (2.) It was demolished. He broke down the altar and all its appurtenances (2 Kgs. 23:15), burnt what was combustible, and, since an idol is nothing in the world, he went as far towards the annihilating of it as he could; for he stamped it small to powder and made it as dust before the wind.
2. He destroyed all the houses of the high places, all those synagogues of Satan that were in the cities of Samaria, 2 Kgs. 23:19. These the kings of Israel built, and God raised up this king of Judah to pull them down, for the honour of the ancient house of David, from which the ten tribes had revolted; the priests he justly made sacrifices upon their own altars, 2 Kgs. 23:20.
3. He carefully preserved the sepulchre of that man of God who came from Judah to foretel this, which now a king who came from Judah executed. This was that good prophet who proclaimed these things against the altar of Bethel, and yet was himself slain by a lion for disobeying the word of the Lord; but to show that God’s displeasure against him went no further than his death, but ended there, God so ordered it that when all the graves about his were disturbed his was safe (2 Kgs. 23:17, 18) and no man moved his bones. He had entered into peace, and therefore should rest in his bed, Isa. 57:2. The old lying prophet, who desired to be buried as near him as might be, it should seem, knew what he did; for his dust also, being mingled with that of the good prophet, was preserved for his sake; see Num. 23:10.
IV. We are here told what a solemn passover Josiah and his people kept after all this. When they had cleared the country of the old leaven they then applied themselves to the keeping of the feast. When Jehu had destroyed the worship of Baal, yet he took no heed to walk in the commandments and ordinances of God; but Josiah considered that we must learn to do well, and no only cease to do evil, and that the way to keep out all abominable customs is to keep up all instituted ordinances (see Lev. 18:30), and therefore he commanded all the people to keep the passover, which was not only a memorial of their deliverance out of Egypt, but a token of their dedication to him that brought them out and their communion with him. This he found written in the book of the law, here called the book of the covenant; for, though the divine authority may deal with us in a way of absolute command, divine grace condescends to federal transactions, and therefore he observed it. We have not such a particular account of this passover as of that in Hezekiah’s time, 2 Chron. 30:1-27 But, in general, we are told that there was not holden such a passover in any of the foregoing reigns, no, not from the days of the judges (2 Kgs. 23:22), which, by the way, intimates that, though the account which the book of Judges gives of the state of Israel under that dynasty looks but melancholy, yet there were then some golden days. This passover, it seems, was extraordinary for the number and devotion of the communicants, their sacrifices and offerings, and their exact observance of the laws of the feast; and it was not now as in Hezekiah’s passover, when many communicated that were not cleansed according to the purification of the sanctuary, and the Levites were permitted to do the priests’ work. We have reason to think that during all the remainder of Josiah’s reign religion flourished and the feasts of the Lord were very carefully observed; but in this passover the satisfaction they took in the covenant lately renewed, the reformation in pursuance of it, and the revival of an ordinance of which they had lately found the divine original in the book of the law, and which had long been neglected or carelessly kept, put them into great transports of holy joy; and God was pleased to recompense their zeal in destroying idolatry with uncommon tokens of his presence and favour. All this concurred to make it a distinguished passover.