Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The Limitations of Godly Leadership

Yesterday we looked at the unnecessary death of Josiah, Israel’s last great king. Today, I’d like to look briefly at four complementary passages concerned with the period of time during which Josiah reigned over Judah. I’m hoping these may help to refine our thoughts about the relationship between leaders and the led.

We often bemoan a lack of godly leadership in our day. That is not always our real problem.

Complementary Accounts in Full Agreement

The first two passages about Josiah occur right where we might expect them to, in Kings and Chronicles. I have pointed out in other posts that Kings dates from at least a century before Chronicles and that, despite covering much of the same historical material, the two sets of books serve different purposes. Kings is a history of both Israel and Judah; Chronicles concentrates primarily on Judah. In general, Kings shows the darker side of the period; Chronicles brings out more of the things about it that pleased God. Both books are primarily a record of history, but Chronicles contains more editorial commentary than Kings and makes explicit some of the spiritual lessons that lurk between its lines.

The story of Josiah’s 31-year reign, from 640-608 BC, is told in 2 Kings 22:1 through 23:30 and 2 Chronicles 34:1 through 35:27, two passages of similar length. Both books tell the story of Josiah’s reforms, his repairs to the temple, the finding of the book of the Law, his consultation of Huldah the prophetess, his defiling of the high places in both Israel and Judah, his restoration of the Passover and his death in battle with Pharaoh Neco of Egypt. They are complementary accounts in full agreement.

Differences and Similarities

As we have been led to expect, the emphasis of the two accounts is a little different. Kings has 17 verses of detail about Josiah’s reforms and the defiling of the high places, which Chronicles covers in a single sentence (34:33). Chronicles has 19 verses about the keeping of the Passover, including the number of sacrifices offered and the names of those who provided them, while Kings covers the same material with a three-verse summary. Kings has a few sentences devoted to resolving the issue of Josiah’s fulfilment of a prophecy made about him way back in the days of Jeroboam I of Israel, which Chronicles does not mention, but this makes total sense when you realize the original prophecy comes from 1 Kings 13 and is not mentioned in Chronicles either. The one set of editors is simply putting the finishing touches on a story they started.

While there are notable differences in emphasis in the two histories, the attentive reader will find it is the similarities between these two accounts that make the biggest impression. Both passages are relentlessly positive, portraying Josiah in the best possible light. His foolish death stands out in both accounts precisely because there are so many good things said about him.

If the remnant of Israel ever got on their knees and prayed for revival, as they surely did, then Josiah was God’s answer to their prayers. You really couldn’t ask for a better king.

The Other Side of the Story

Now let’s consider a couple of shorter passages in Jeremiah. From chapter 3:

“The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: ‘Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, “After she has done all this she will return to me,” but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense’, declares the Lord.”

And from a chapter 25 speech made by Jeremiah in Jerusalem approximately four years after Josiah’s death:

“For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, to this day, the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened. You have neither listened nor inclined your ears to hear, although the Lord persistently sent to you all his servants the prophets, saying, ‘Turn now, every one of you, from his evil way and evil deeds, and dwell upon the land that the Lord has given to you and your fathers from of old and forever. Do not go after other gods to serve and worship them, or provoke me to anger with the work of your hands. Then I will do you no harm.’ Yet you have not listened to me, declares the Lord, that you might provoke me to anger with the work of your hands to your own harm.”

Jeremiah and Josiah

The extent to which Jeremiah’s preaching may have inspired Josiah’s fervor for his God is unclear. After all, when Josiah sent men to inquire of the Lord, they went to Huldah, not Jeremiah. The book of the Law was found in the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign, but his reforms began earlier than that, so that by that eighteenth year he had already “cleansed the land and the house”. Jeremiah began addressing the people approximately five years before the book of the Law was found. So then, even during the earliest years of Jeremiah’s ministry, reforms in Judah were already underway.

Regardless, nineteen of those twenty-three years that Jeremiah was speaking persistently about repentance to God’s people took place during Josiah’s unparalleled reign. As Jeremiah preached about idolatry, Josiah was tearing down altars, burning Asherah at the brook Kidron and defiling the high places. As Jeremiah preached about injustice and dishonesty, Josiah was making a covenant with the people to keep the Lord’s commandments, testimonies and statutes. As Jeremiah preached about keeping the Sabbath holy, Josiah was reinstating the Passover.

And the people played along. They did not repair the altars of Baal while Josiah was alive. They entered into the covenants he made. They celebrated his Passover and ate holy offerings contributed by others. Outwardly, they embraced the changes imposed on them. Yet inwardly, they paid no attention at all. For them, nothing had changed. Godly leadership didn’t make them godly people. When Josiah died, four godless members of his household followed in quick succession, and the people “were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations. And they polluted the house of the Lord that he had made holy in Jerusalem”.

The Leaders and the Led

A repentant church and the revival of the Lord’s people has to begin with you and me. It has to begin with changed lives at the grassroots level. Ungodly leadership will surely make things worse, but even godly leadership can only take us as far as we are already committed to going. Godly shepherds and elders can give us the tools to turn our lives around; they cannot force us to wield them. Godly teachers can tell us all we need to know about God and the consequences of sin in our lives; they cannot make us love him or practice the truths we have learned in the privacy of our homes and workplaces. Godly leadership can change outward behavior. It cannot change hearts.

The same principle applies at the national level. Let’s not get too excited about last June’s US Supreme Court’s decision to strike down federally-enshrined abortion rights. Better leaders and better laws cannot change the thought processes of the depraved promoters of legalized baby murder, though they be in the minority, and they cannot make the much larger go-along-to-get-along crowd into men and women of character.

Only the Lord can do that.

No comments :

Post a Comment