Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it before the king. And when the king heard the words of the Law, he tore his clothes.
( 2 Ch 34:18–19 ESV)
From a modern perspective, king Josiah’s response in 2 Chronicles seems difficult to understand. After all, the book of the law had been discovered as a result of a massive campaign to rebuild the temple, and move the nation away from its apostate worship of false gods. Wasn’t Josiah already doing the right thing? Wasn’t the nation already moving in the right direction? Hadn’t the government found a correct footing, and wasn’t the worship of the one true God already ascendant again?
In this context, Josiah learns the law of God, and how much the people of Israel had failed to obey God for generations. As we read the context, it seems clear that he is correct in thinking that God would rightly punish Israel for its disobedience and apostasy. Yet this seems puzzling at some level as I read.
I can think of a few reasons for this:
1) I misunderstand because I think I’m owed forgiveness. I find it difficult to understand why God would punish even after people seem to have admitted their wrongdoing and moved to make things right. Yet is this really so hard to understand? Does good work after a grievous sin change the grievous sin at all? I don’t think it does. Part of my issue here seems to be that I have so deeply ingrained the forgiving nature of God into my thinking that I have come to presume upon it. It is not so much that I think Gid is laudible because He is forgiving, but that I think he is NOT laudible if he refuses to forgive, it is as if forgiveness has become my right instead of God’s privilege.
2) My lack of understanding comes also from my failing to see a communal side to my life. Being a 21st century Canadian, I often tacitly assume the (rather insane) idea that I am an island unto myself, and that my own righteousness or lack thereof has no effect on others, and that the fialings of others in no way reflect on me. Of course, I have no right to compel righteousness in others, but how often is the lack of righteousness in those around me part of my own unwillingness to live righteously before others, and to speak of the glories of a life abandoned to God? How is the community I live in to hear of God unless I am willing to speak of Him?
Yet very little of my (admittedly pretty insular) life are without affect by the community I live in. I have food, electricity, heat, and security, all because of the ongoing work of others. The fortress of solitude is not so solitudinous that I lack television, internet, and radio, all produced by countless others. While they do it also for their own benefit, they are working on my behalf. I am also in a better position because, by in large, many of those around me assume at least a basic level of moral action. Few steal, and most respect the closed door on my apartment as a desire to be alone unless I let them in.
I have come to assume that too as my right instead of the grace of God working through the consciences of the community around me. How much more have I failed to see that I am responsible directly (not merely through the machinations of government) for the wellbeing of those around me.
3) I don’t want to understand, because it feels better to condemn than it does to repent. The very statement of this point is causing a bit of moral upset in me, because even now part of me is wanting to make this about other Christians and not me. The fact is that it is always far easier to point at others and say “you’re doing it wrong” than it does to look at myself squarely and do the hard work of thinking of how I need to change. It is far easier to stay the course and convince myself that at least I’m better than . It can even hide in my desire to criticise “Christians” or “the Church” or any other group I can abstract myself from, even as I abstractly realize I’m part of the group.
In the end, perhaps I should be reacting like Josiah and praying God will be gracious.
The author is often highly caffeinated. Keep him that way!