Josiah was undoubtedly one of ancient Judah’s best rulers. This king ruled for thirty-one years (c. 640-609 BC), accomplishing great good during his reign. Yet his death is puzzling and provides a sobering lesson to anyone who reads the story.
Perhaps under the influence of Jeremiah, in his eighteenth year Josiah began a great reformation of the faith of Judah. He first repaired the Temple of Solomon and renewed the ancient covenant with God (2 Kings 23). The king then began to cleanse Judah of idolatry. The temple was purged and idolatrous “high places” were destroyed throughout Judah and even beyond. Josiah clearly returned to the one God and humbly led his people to return also. But something went horribly amiss. Josiah did not die in peace, as we might expect, but as a result of a foolish gamble.
To understand Josiah’s sad demise we need to understand the basics of international relations in his day. When Josiah ascended the throne the ancient Near East was in political flux. That world’s established “superpower,” the Assyrian Empire, was disintegrating and the Neo-Babylonian Empire was rising to replace it. Egypt, another key power player under the strong pharaoh Necho II, led an army north to fight the Babylonians.
This is where Josiah enters the picture. Necho requested permission to pass through Judah on the main road to Syria in order to fight the Babylonians, but, ironically – considering Judah’s soon-coming downfall at the hands of the Babylonians – Josiah refused. According to II Chronicles 35:20-21 Necho then sent messengers to Josiah saying, “ … I am not coming against you today but against the house with which I am at war, and God has ordered me to hurry. Stop for your own sake from interfering with God who is with me, so that He will not destroy you.” This message is amazing not only in that Necho pleaded with the relatively minor king Josiah not to interfere, but also claimed that God Himself instructed him to do what he was doing.
Was this just a detail of cleverly contrived psychological warfare, or was Necho really marching under the influence of God who raises kingdoms and diminishes them (Daniel 2:21)? The biblical account appears to indicate the latter as Chronicles tells us that “Josiah … would not listen to what Necho had said at God’s command but went to fight him on the plain of Megiddo” (2 Chronicles 35:22, emphasis added). The results of this battle were disastrous for the Judean king. Archers shot Josiah, and he was taken back to Jerusalem, where he died (vs. 23).
Josiah’s taking a huge chance with his life at Megiddo not only led to his own death, but also to the loss of Judean independence. So what happened to this good king of Judah? Proverbs 26:17 gives the principle of not meddling in a matter that does not concern us, and Josiah may have paid the price for not knowing or heeding that principle. Josiah certainly took a huge chance with his own life – and lost. There is no doubt that God sometimes mercifully protects those who love Him from the results of foolish decisions and actions, but He does not guarantee that He will do this in any or every circumstance, and the principle of not “tempting” God by taking unnecessary risks (Deuteronomy 6:16) certainly applies here. We can jeopardize our success, our happiness, and even our lives through taking foolish chances – despite our relationship with God.
The great lesson we can all learn from Josiah’s demise is don’t run the stop lights of life – physical or spiritual.