On the altars he slaughtered all the priests of the high places, and he burned human bones on them. Then he returned to Jerusalem.
I. AN ANCIENT PROPHECY FULFILLED.
1. Iconoclasm at Bethel. Bethel had been the chief scene of Israel's idolatry - the head and front of its offending (cf. Hosea 4:15; Hosea 10:4-9, etc.). On it Josiah's zeal first expended itself. Hosea had prophesied its desolation, the destruction of its high places, the carrying away of its calf, the cessation of its mirth and feasts, its abandonment to thorns and nettles (Hosea 2:11; Hosea 9:6; Hosea 10:8, etc.). But an older voice had foretold the end from the beginning. Scarcely had the schismatic altar, with its calf, been set up, when a prophet out of Judah denounced Jeroboam's sin to his face, and proclaimed that a future king would stain the altar-stones with the blood of the priests, and defile it by burning dead men's bones upon it. A sign had been given in confirmation of the truth of the prediction (1 Kings 13:1-10). That oracle stood at the head of the way of transgression, warning men away from it; but its voice had been unheeded. Now, centuries after, the prediction was fulfilled. Idolatry in some form still held its ground on the ancient spot, but Josiah put an end to it. The altar and high place he broke down, and burned the high place, and reduced it to powder, and burned the Asherah. The idolatry at Bethel had wrought out its effects in the ruin of the state. That evil was irremediable, but Josiah could show at least his detestation of the sin, and his determination that no more evil should be wrought, by totally demolishing the sanctuary. Special regard should be paid to the removal of centers of wickedness. It is useless to capture outworks, if strongholds are left standing. We should not rest content till the very name and memory of sin has perished in places that were conspicuous for it.
2. The sepulcher invaded. Josiah would have no half-measures. It was part of his settled policy, not simply to break down the high places, but to defile them, and unfit them for future use. In looking round him at Bethel for means to accomplish this end, he spied the sepulchers that were in the mount, and sent and took bones out of the sepulchers, and polluted the altar by burning them upon it. His immediate design was to defile the altar, but in taking the bones to burn, he dishonored also the ashes of the dead. In his consuming zeal against idolatry he felt that no respect was due to the bones of those who, by their sins, had brought death upon the nation. It is easy to blame the act, and to compare it with the ruthless violations of the sanctity of the grave of which persecutors have often been guilty. It seems a paltry and vindictive proceeding to wreak one's vengeance on the dead. To Josiah, however, no sanctity attached to these graves, but only a curse. His very object was to do deeds which would make men feel, as they had never felt before, the hateful nature of idolatry, and the certainty of a Nemesis attending it. In having their bones dragged out and burned upon the altar, the dead idolaters were, in a sense, making atonement to God's insulted majesty (cf. Jeremiah 8:1-3). The feeling, nevertheless, is one which might easily go too far, and be mixed up with mean and purely spiteful motives. However it might be under Jewish law, it can hardly be right now. None the less is it the case that a curse rests upon the very bones of the wicked dead. Death to them is the penal stroke of God's displeasure, and, when they rise, it is to the resurrection of damnation (John 5:29).
II. THE BONES OF THE PROPHET RESPECTED.
1. A monument in a wicked place to a good man. Among the tombs which Josiah beheld was one with a monument before it. He asked whose it was, and was told it was the monument of the man of God who prophesied of these things which had been done to the altar. That monument had, perhaps, been built by the hands of the very men whose sins 'the prophet had denounced, so great oftentimes is human inconsistency (cf. Matthew 23:28-30). In any case, it stood there for centuries a silent witness against the iniquities that were perpetrated in its presence. Monuments to prophets, martyrs, saints, still crowd our burial and public places; we pay external honor to their memories; but what God will ask of us is - Do we imitate their spirit? As great men recede into the distance, it becomes easy to pay them reverence. These idolatrous Israelites no doubt magnified their descent from Abraham, and boasted of their great lawgiver Moses, at the very time that they were breaking his commandments. When the prophets were among them, they sought to kill them; then they built monuments in their honor.
2. A solitary witness for truth justified by the event. This prophet in his day stood alone. Even among the dead he lay alone. The multitudes around him were not those who believed, but those who had disregarded his word. If ever man was in a minority, he was. Century after century rolled by, and still the word he had spoken remained unfulfilled. Did it not seem as if the oracle were about to fail? But Wisdom in the end is justified of her children (Matthew 11:19). The prophet's word came true at last, and it was seen and acknowledged of all that he was right. Thus is it with all God's true servants. We should not concern ourselves too much with man's gainsaying. We have but to bear our testimony and leave the issues with God. He will at length vindicate us.
3. Discrimination between good and bad. When Josiah learned whose the sepulcher was, he gave command that his bones should not be touched, nor yet the bones of the old prophet who was buried along with him (1 Kings 13:31). The righteous was discriminated from the sinners. So shall it be at the last day. No confusion will be made in the resurrection between good and bad. While the wicked come forth to the resurrection of judgment, the good shall come forth to the resurrection of life (John 5:29). A gracious Savior watches over their dust.
III. THE SLAUGHTER OF THE PRIESTS.
1. General demolition. The wave of destruction spread from Bethel over all the other high places in the cities of Samaria. Josiah's procession through the land was the signal for the overthrow of every species of idolatry. "So did he," we are told, "in the cities of Manasseh, and Ephraim, and Simeon, even unto Naphtali, in their ruins round about" (2 Chronicles 34:6).
2. Priests of the high places slain. In connection with this progress of Josiah through Israel is mentioned the fact that "he slew all the priests of the high places that were there upon the altars," If this stern policy had been confined to Israel, it would have been difficult to exculpate Josiah from partiality in his carrying out of the provisions of the Law; but the words in Chronicles imply that the like was, at least in some places, done in Judah also (2 Chronicles 34:5). In what he did he was no doubt strictly within the letter of the Law, which he and the people had sworn to obey, for that undeniably denounced death against idolaters (Deuteronomy 13., etc.). To equal his act, therefore, with Manasseh's shedding of innocent blood is to miss the essential fact of the situation. This was not innocent blood by the fundamental law of the constitution. It is probably with reference to this, as to ether parts of his conduct, that Josiah gets special praise for the fidelity of his obedience to the Law of Moses (ver. 25). It does not follow that his conduct is such as Christians, living under a milder and better dispensation, should now imitate. It does not even follow that every individual act which Josiah did was beyond blame. His human judgment may have erred at times on the side of severity. The holiest movements are not free from occasional excesses; but we should judge the movement by the soul which actuates it, and not by its superficial excrescences. - J.O.
And the King went up into the house of the Lord.
1. Because that duty had become an extraordinary one, through the long neglect of it.
2. And the other reason was, because they were desirous to hear the Word of the Lord. These were indeed two good reasons for this solemn assembly of all the people in the Lord's house. But what a terrible lesson does it read to us! We read of a wonderful deliverance of His people by Almighty God out of the hands of their enemies, when to the eye of man their situation was utterly hopeless. We should expect that this would have awakened them, especially as God had performed it on their turning back, under the pious Hezekiah, from their false gods to the true and living God; yet here, in the third generation from that time, we find the altars and temples of the false gods up again, and the Word of God lost, not only out of the hearts, but of the very sight and ears of the people. Once again, however, and, alas! for the last, time, both the temple and that Word were restored under the care of the pious Josiah; and the people of God once again, and for the last time, showed themselves as the people of God. Such is the example before us; the example of a people, too, in whose place we are standing, being grafted in as a wild olive, in place of the branches which had been broken off because of unbelief. And their example is our example, as we have been told by St. Paul. Let us review, then, some of the plainest applications of this example.(1) St. Paul warns us, saying, "Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them" (1 Corinthians 10:7). But it may he said that we are not in the least danger of being idolaters. We are thoroughly convinced of its besotted folly and desperate wickedness. But then, there are always two things to all our dealings with God, — there is the spirit, and there is the deed; and the deed depends upon the spirit for its quality, as the fruit depends upon the nature of the tree for its kind. Although, therefore, we bow not down before the work of our own hands, putting it in the place of God, we may bow down before the work of our own hearts, and put that in the place of God. And this idolatry may go on while the other is scorned and mocked at. For what is the worship of God? Is it not in lifting up the thoughts and affections of the heart unto God on His throne in heaven, and acknowledging Him as our maker and continual keeper? Thus God is the first and last object of the heart; but an idol is a thing of this world, put in the place of God. Oh how is the heart in its devotion to the things of this world full of images, which it worships, in the place of the Maker of this world and all therein, with the kiss of affection, with the bowing of the spirit, with the adoration of the soul! But of one image only will God allow in the heart for worship, and not reckon it idolatry; in one image will He allow Himself to be honoured, and in one only; and what is that? It is the image of Himself. But how shall we possibly have the image of God, whom no man hath seen, neither can see, in our hearts? He hath given us this image of Himself in our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom St. Paul says, "that He is the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15); "the brightness of His glory, the express image of His person" (Hebrews 1:3); and who says concerning Himself, "He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father" (John 14:9); if, therefore He shall be dwelling in our hearts by faith, then we have there the image of God, and we are worshipping Him in spirit and in truth. And this, therefore, is necessary to our worship, the keeping His image there, not letting the things of this world to take its place, but looking upon Him crucified by crucifying the flesh with its affections and lusts; looking upon Him dead, by our death urge sin; looking upon Him as risen again, by our new life unto righteousness; looking upon Him ascended into heaven, by setting the affections on things above; looking on Him as coming again, through the denial of all ungodliness and worldly lusts, and in the blessed hope of His glorious appearing. To this worship we have all been called, and to this all must turn from the vain idols of worldly desires.(2) That the Word of God should be lost out of the hands and hearts of idolaters, who can wonder? It expressly forbids idolatry of every kind, both within and without the heart: it says, "Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve"; and it is full from beginning to end of severe rebuke and awful threats against all that are holding the truth in unrighteousness, knowing that the Lord God is a jealous God, that will not share His honour with another, and yet preferring to his worship and service the devotion to the world, and the service of the flesh. And the first token of sincere repentance is now, as it was in the days of Josiah: men go up to the house of the Lord to hear the Word of God; they go to His house in the place of the public assembly of His people; they go to His house in the inner chamber of their hearts; for then being bent on amendment, they desire reproof, they wish to forsake the wrong way for the right, they long to understand the will of God that they may do it; to hear His sentence upon sin, that they may justly dread and abhor it; to listen to His promise of pardon, that they may lay fast hold of it; to hear the call to repentance, that they may instantly and sincerely obey it; thus the Word which was before full only of rebuke, now abounds to them wire consolation; that which smote their consciences now soothes them.
(R. W. Evans, B. D.)
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