What was the book of the Law that Hilkiah brought, and on the strength of which king Josiah led Judah in one last blast of renewed faith? I remember reading and writing about that while doing my theology degree, and agreeing that it was probably pretty much the book of Deuteronomy. After all, it’s Deuteronomy that stresses the importance of there being one place of worship and sacrifice, ‘the place that the LORD shall choose’ and no other. This is one of the themes that’s run through the books of Kings – the kings of Israel have all been judged wanting because they worship outside Jerusalem, and even the best kings before Josiah have been criticised for allowing worship to continue at the high places. Perhaps that’s because they didn’t know that they weren’t meant to!
Whether the book that was found was ancient or recently compiled (perhaps from ancient sources, even going back to Moses), it certainly moved Josiah to action, and for a few years the Temple was again the focus of attention, the Passover was celebrated and the LORD worshipped in the place and in the way that he had chosen.
It didn’t last. The last few kings of Judah led the nation down the well-trodden wrong paths and before too long Judah, like Israel, was conquered, and the leaders of the nation carried off to Babylon. Unlike the Assyrians, the Babylonians only deported the leaders of their conquered nations, so most people remained in Judah under foreign rule, and the nation survived in a way that the northern tribes of Israel did not.
Josiah’s reform, though, brings us back to ‘the book of the Law’ against which all the kings have been judged, and as we come to the end of what’s called ‘the Deuteronomic history’ (stretching from either Deuteronomy itself or Joshua up to this point) it’s worth taking stock.
The big picture has been one of the rise and fall of a nation, with its height in around 1000BC with David. Few of its leaders have measured up to David, and we’ve seen God working through and despite a wide cast of flawed characters. We’ve seen that the nation was meant to be ruled by kings who themselves were ruled by the LORD, and who at their best sought and followed the counsel of prophets who spoke the LORD’s word to them.
We’ve seen, though, that most of them fell short at least in the crucial area of worship. Most of the kings sinned in other ways, but almost all compromised on proper worship of the LORD in the way that he had directed. It’s against this standard that the books of Kings, in particular, judge their performance.
This all seems very partial to me – in the book of Deuteronomy alone, even before we read the rest of the books of Moses, there are more commands and instructions about justice, social life, economics, the sabbath and so on than there are directly about formal worship. Yet we read hardly anything about which kings did the most and the least for the poor and vulnerable, or (after Solomon) which were the wisest in protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty. It’s as if God only really cares about one thing – that his worship is done properly.
I wish this wasn’t the case. It does seem to be a tendency of religious people to assume that God is more concerned about the religious and churchy bits of life than the rest, and through the first five books of the Bible this isn’t what I saw. I’m glad that we’ll get on to the prophets before too long, as I need to hear more of the rest of God’s priorities.
But taking these books on their own terms, it’s worth being reminded firmly that right worship matters. The way that we worship God shapes the way that we live for him, and Biblical faith doesn’t have much place for moral obedience without worship. The kings are judged against God’s standard for worship not just because it’s important in itself but because it’s a touchstone of how we approach the whole of life. We’re not to worship God in the way that we like, or that is most convenient to us. We’re to worship as he has chosen, in response to his loving care. After all, if we decide that even when we approach God most directly we’ll do so on our own terms, what chance is there that we’ll follow in his ways when we turn to how we relate to one another?
Faithful obedience in worship matters, not just because worship is important (it is) but because faithful obedience is important, and worship is a good starting place to practise it.