The word of the LORD that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah:
– Zephaniah 1:1 (NKJV)
Last week we established that Zephaniah (and the rest of the Bible) cannot be fully understood when divorced from the historical timeline. Today we take another slice from the interpretive pie and savor it: politics. Specifically, the kings that informed and influenced the writing of the book.
Again I’m tempted to try and teach the entire Old Testament.
I’ll do my best to narrow my focus.
Following their release from slavery, the Hebrew people were to function in a theocracy, “government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided” (1). This word doesn’t appear in the Biblical texts; it is instead:
A word first used by Josephus to denote that the Jews were under the direct government of God himself. The nation was in all things subject to the will of their invisible King. All the people were the servants of Jehovah, who ruled over their public and private affairs, communicating to them his will through the medium of the prophets. They were the subjects of a heavenly, not of an earthly, king. They were Jehovah’s own subjects, ruled directly by him. (2)
This does not mean that God was opposed to government. He used Moses, Aaron and Miriam to lead His people out of Egypt and in the wilderness. He wasn’t mad when Moses took his father-in-law Jethro’s advice and appointed judges to hear and deal with disputes (Exodus 18). The entire book of Judges (a narrative that ends with the passing of the prophet Samuel [1 Samuel 25:1]) records God raising up men and women to lead His people. The Lord has always seen fit to include humans in the working out of His plans and purposes.
He even makes provision for a king:
When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you a king the LORD your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite. The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.
When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.
– Deuteronomy 17:14-20 (NKJV)
The point of this theocracy, then, was not anarchy but an organized system whose members continually looked to the Lord and obeyed His leadership.
None of Them
The short of it is that every one of the kings of both the united and divided kingdoms basically ignored the commands of Deuteronomy 17. Even David, the man after God’s own heart, had multiple wives and amassed a great deal of wealth. Those who followed him fall along various points of the “good, bad, worse” spectrum, but even the ones who could be called “good” kings turned a blind eye in one way or another to at least some of the things they were to do and be.
This is perhaps best illustrated in the nation’s continual relationship with false gods and goddesses, for what the king allowed, the people would embrace (save for the “righteous remnant” addressed here and in the other books of the prophets). We touched on this in our discussion of the setting of Zephaniah and will explore it more fully next time, when we look at the culture of ancient Judah.
We Three Kings
Zephaniah wrote during the reign of Josiah, but we can’t understand who Josiah was and why he did what he did without looking at his father and grandfather:
Grandfather Manasseh (“Forgetting, Forgetfulness”): reigned 696-642 B.C.
2 Kings 21 –
- 12 years old when he began to rule (vs. 1)
- Reigned 55 years (vs. 1)
- Mother’s name Hephzibah (vs. 1)
- Did evil in the sight of the Lord (vs. 2)
- Rebuilt the high places that his father had torn down (vs. 3)
- Made altars for Baal, made a wooden image as Ahab had done, worshipped all the host of heaven (stars, planets, etc.; astrology) and served them (vs. 3)
- Built altars to other gods in the Temple (vs. 4)
- Sacrificed his son to Moloch (vs. 6) It is unclear whether the “passing through the fire” in the worship of this false god meant the child was murdered or if this was some sort of initiation into a pagan priesthood (3). Given the record of Manasseh’s life, I am inclined to believe that the child was murdered.
- Practiced soothsaying and witchcraft (vs. 6)
- Consulted evil spirits and mediums (vs. 6)
- Provoked the Lord to anger (vs. 6)
- Set up an image of Asherah in the Temple (vs. 7)
- The people paid no attention to God, and allowed Manasseh to seduce them to do more evil that any of the nations the Lord had destroyed when the Israelites conquered the land (vs. 9)
- God declares that great calamity is coming to the people because of Manasseh (vs. 10-15)
- The same judgment as befell the Northern Kingdom of Israel (vs. 13)
- Sheds a great deal of innocent blood (vs. 16)
2 Chronicles 33 –
- Vs. 1-9 mirror the 2 Kings account
- The Lord warns Manasseh and the people, but they don’t listen (vs. 10)
- The Assyrian army descends upon them (the judgment of Israel) and captures Manasseh, carrying him to Babylon (vs. 11)
- At this point, Manasseh repents
- Humbles himself greatly before God
- God hears and accepts his repentance
- Restores him to the throne
- Manasseh knows now that the LORD is God (vs. 12-13)
- Goes on to complete construction projects in Jerusalem (vs. 14)
- Puts military captains in all the fortified cities of Judah (vs. 14)
- Takes away all the foreign gods, throwing them out of the city (vs. 15) But he doesnot tear down the high places. This is key.
- Repaired the altar of the Lord (vs. 16)
- Commands the people to worship God (vs. 16)
- The people still sacrificed on the high places, but only to God (vs. 17) Really? Can places of idol worship ever be turned into places of God worship?
- Vs. 18-19 mention a prayer
Prayer attributed to Manasseh –
The following is not found in the Bible. It is an apocryphal work (unknown authorship, doubtful authenticity). Whether Manasseh prayed it or not, it is a beautiful record of repentance:
O Lord, Almighty God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of their righteous seed; who hast made heaven and earth, with all the ornament thereof; who hast bound the sea by the word of thy commandment; who hast shut up the deep, and sealed it by thy terrible and glorious name; whom all men fear, and tremble before thy power; for the majesty of thy glory cannot be borne, and thine angry threatening toward sinners is importable: but thy merciful promise is unmeasurable and unsearchable; for thou art the most high Lord, of great compassion, longsuffering, very merciful, and repentest of the evils of men. Thou, O Lord, according to thy great goodness hast promised repentance and forgiveness to them that have sinned against thee: and of thine infinite mercies hast appointed repentance unto sinners, that they may be saved. Thou therefore, O Lord, that art the God of the just, hast not appointed repentance to the just, as to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, which have not sinned against thee; but thou hast appointed repentance unto me that am a sinner: for I have sinned above the number of the sands of the sea. My transgressions, O Lord, are multiplied: my transgressions are multiplied, and I am not worthy to behold and see the height of heaven for the multitude of mine iniquities. I am bowed down with many iron bands, that I cannot lift up mine head, neither have any release: for I have provoked thy wrath, and done evil before thee: I did not thy will, neither kept I thy commandments: I have set up abominations, and have multiplied offences. Now therefore I bow the knee of mine heart, beseeching thee of grace. I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, and I acknowledge mine iniquities: wherefore, I humbly beseech thee, forgive me, O Lord, forgive me, and destroy me not with mine iniquites. Be not angry with me for ever, by reserving evil for me; neither condemn me to the lower parts of the earth. For thou art the God, even the God of them that repent; and in me thou wilt shew all thy goodness: for thou wilt save me, that am unworthy, according to thy great mercy. Therefore I will praise thee for ever all the days of my life: for all the powers of the heavens do praise thee, and thine is the glory for ever and ever. Amen. (4)
In Matthew 1:10, Manasseh is listed in the genealogy of Jesus.
Daddy Amon (Egyptian, “Hidden One”): reigned 642-640 B.C.
2 Kings 21 –
- 22 when he came to the throne (vs. 19)
- Reigned two years (vs. 19)
- Mother’s name was Meshullmeth (vs. 19)
- He did evil, like his father (vs. 20)
- Walked in all the ways of his father, in idol worship (vs. 21) Manasseh’s example of repentance was too little, too late for his son.
- Forsook the Lord (vs. 22)
- Killed by his servants (vs. 23)
- The assassins killed by the people (vs. 24)
2 Chronicles 33 –
- Did not humble himself before the Lord, as Manasseh did (vs. 23)
- Did more and more evil (vs. 23) (“ever increasing nature of wickedness”)
In Matthew 1:10, Amon is listed in the genealogy of Jesus.
Josiah (“Yahweh Helps”): reigned 640-609 B.C.
1 Kings 13 –
- Josiah’s birth and his actions against idolatry prophesied (vs. 1-2)
2 Kings 22
- Came to the throne at 8 years old (vs. 1) Would be tutored and advised by the High Priest until he reached adulthood.
- Reigned 31 years (vs. 1)
- Mother’s name was Jedidah (vs. 1)
- Did what was right in God’s eyes (vs. 2)
- In the 18th year of Josiah’s reign, he sends the scribe Shaphan to the Temple to tell Hilkiah the High Priest to take the money given by the people and make repairs to the Temple (vs. 4-7)
- Hilkiah tells Shaphan that he has found the Book of the Law (vs. 8) This is definitely Leviticus and Deuteronomy, possibly the whole of the Torah.
- The Book has been missing for 75-80 years (the years of Manasseh and Amon)
- The people are steeped in idolatry
- Shaphan reads the Book (vs. 8)
- Shaphan reports to the king that his task is completed and reads the Book to the king (vs. 9-10)
- Josiah’s reaction is one of mourning, he tears his clothes (vs. 11)
- Sends Kilkiah, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan and Asaiah to seek out the Lord in this matter; he knows that the Lord is angry with the people for failing to keep the Law (vs. 12-13)
- The men go to Huldah the prophetess to ask her about what they should do, what God feels (vs. 14)
- She tells them: calamity is coming because of the failure to keep the Law, God’s wrath is aroused at idol worship. He is tender toward Josiah because he wants to follow God, he has humbled himself. God has heard Josiah and Josiah is not going to see the calamity (vs. 15-2)
2 Kings 23 –
- Josiah gathers together all the elders of Judah and all the people of Jerusalem (vs. 1)
- He reads the Book in their hearing (vs. 2)
- Makes a public covenant before the Lord to keep His commandments (vs. 3)
- All the people declare they will do so as well (vs. 3)
- Commands the priests to bring out all the idolatrous articles from the Temple (vs. 4)
- He burns them (vs. 4)
- Removes the idolatrous priests (vs. 5)
- Brings out the image of Asherah and burns it (vs. 6)
- Tears down the booths of the religious prostitutes inside the Temple (vs. 7)
- Breaks down the high places (vs. 8-9)
- The priests of the high places remain unrepentant (vs. 9)
- Destroys the place where people sacrifice to Moloch (vs. 10)
- Removes the horses that the kings had dedicated to the sun (vs. 11)
- Destroys every vestige of idolatry and burns bones on the altars (vs. 12-20)
- Executes the idolatrous priests (vs. 20)
- Commands the people to keep the Passover (vs. 21-23)
- Arrests those who persist in idolatry (vs. 24)
- No king would arise after him who was so devoted to God (vs. 25)
- Nevertheless, calamity is still coming for Judah (vs. 26-27)
- Josiah dies in battle, at the hand of an Egyptian Pharaoh Necho IIwhen he goes to battle the Assyrians (vs. 29)
2 Chronicles 32 –
- In the 8th year of his reign (age 16) he began to seek the Lord (vs. 3)
- In the 12th years of his reign (age 20) he began to purge the land of idolatry (vs. 3)
- Goes throughout all the land and then returns to Jerusalem (vs. 4-7) The reforms began before the finding of the Law but were incomplete, hence the Lord prompting Zephaniah’s prophecies.
- Vs. 8-33 mirror 2 Kings 22
2 Chronicles 35 –
- Vs. 1-19 detail the keeping of the Passover, which had possibly not been celebrated in many years. Josiah’s words in vs. 3 have led to the belief that the Levites who remained loyal to God had removed the Ark from the Temple.
- Necho attempts to convince Josiah not to do battle (vs. 21)
- Josiah disguises himself to go into the fighting (vs. 22)
- The archers shot King Josiah (vs. 23)
- He dies (vs. 24)
- All of Judah and Jerusalem mourn (vs. 24)
- Jeremiah (the prophet) also mourns (vs. 25)
- It was made a custom to sing of Josiah (vs. 25)
Jeremiah 1 –
- Jeremiah begins prophesying in the 13th year (age 21) of Josiah’s reign (vs. 2)
In Matthew 1:11, Josiah is listed in the genealogy of Jesus.
In the lives of Manasseh, Amon and Josiah we see the back-and-forth nature of Judah’s relationship to and with God. Following the death of Josiah, the people slid down, down, down into the darkness of idolatry. A little over twenty years later, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II would lay waste to Jerusalem, destroying the Temple and carting off a large portion of the population into exile.
- What, if anything, surprised you about the lives of the three kings? Did you learn anything new?
- Whether Manasseh prayed the words in the prayer attributed to him or not, it is clear from the biblical account that when he made his confession, he held nothing back. He looked his sin straight-on in the light of God’s holiness. He knew that he had deeply offended the Lord. How do you view sin? Do you see it as something “safe” or “not a big deal?” How can you apply Manasseh’s example to your own life?
- Does it bother you to know that such evil people are included in Christ’s family line? Why or why not?
- What do you think it would have looked like to be righteous during the reigns of Manasseh and Amon? What does it look like to be righteous today?
- Read through Zephaniah again, this time with the three kings in mind. What stands out to you?
Until next time.
For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.