Then Shaphan the scribe told the king, ‘Hilkiah the priest has given me a scroll.’ Shaphan read it out loud before the king. When the king heard the words of the law scroll, he tore his clothes.
2 Kings 22.10-11
The finding of the scroll in the time of Josiah is a famous episode. What was so important about it? What stands out about it? To understand, we must remember the setting. The bible wasn’t a single book at the time of Josiah. There was a separate scroll for every book. So Genesis was a book, Exodus was a different book, etc. Not only was everything separate, but they were all written on scrolls. This meant that the contents of the books were much less accessible. Imagine the text of a bible on your phone. How easy is it to get from one place to another? You simply choose a location within a book. Imagine though that you couldn’t choose the location besides the beginning (or end) of a book and you had to scroll up or down from there, and it would have been even slower than your phone to scroll up and down. There is no such thing as a quick search. This is on top of the fact that probably a small percentage of the population could even read. So, it was the scribes who helped read and write things. This is quite the laborious process! Reading the Bible took so much more effort!
What were the ancient Israelites to do about such a behemoth of a text? It is apparent in the text above that they didn’t read the books. The holy scriptures were old manuals that the Israelites neglected, and it is very possible they hadn’t been studied since the time of David or Solomon. However, the Bible expects the people of God to know the word of God. God had instructed the Israelites to do this in two different ways. The first is to have the book of the law read aloud. The king was expected to ‘read the book all the days of his life that he may learn to fear Yahweh his God by keeping the words of the law and the statutes and do them,’ (Deut. 17.19). This meant that the law would have been read aloud to the king and the king would have been an example for the people of God to follow. Secondly, not only should the law be read, but the Israelites ought to meditate on it. It wasn’t something that they just heard once at the covenant renewal ceremony, but it was something that they (ought to have) digested and meditated on. Consider Psalm 1, ‘On his law, I meditate day and night.’ This is the pattern of spirituality for the whole book of Psalms. They are a meditation on the rest of the scriptures.
Although this was the scriptural expectation, the kingdom of Judah had erred wildly. Instead of following scriptures what did they follow? I’m inclined to think it was their traditions and their gut instincts. So when Solomon followed other gods and set up altars to other gods on the Mount of Olives and elsewhere, he was going by his gut. He said, ‘How do I maintain order in my huge harem of women?’ The answer was apparently to let them worship their gods, which was opposed to the instruction of Yahweh. This was the pattern for most of Israelite history. However, when there was a good king what was the pattern? They tore down the altars to false gods and the Asherah poles and similar things. But did they ever go back to the words of Yahweh that had been written down? I would suggest that they probably only did this in a roundabout way. The good kings who wanted to worship Yahweh knew that the other altars were to false gods or at least gods opposed to Yahweh, so it was easy to tear them down. It was still more or less a gut instinct, but at least this time it was a better one. The other way they knew God’s desire was that there were always prophets of God. The good prophets like Elijah or Nathan knew God’s law, and God also revealed to them his will. So they would speak in accordance with the word of God and the kings could know what was good or bad. But the kings didn’t seem to ever go back to the source. They seem to be always one step removed, and the history in Kings shows it. There are varying degrees of reform up until Josiah. They followed tradition and not the word of the Lord that was written and unchanging.
You can imagine how this worked itself out especially in something like the priesthood. The duties of the job are pretty simple: slaughter animals and cook them up good. Eat and repeat. How did you learn about your profession? From your father who showed you how to slaughter a bull so that it died properly and he showed you how to spill out the blood and where the blood would go so there wasn’t a huge pool of blood from all the slaughtered animals in the temple courtyards. Did you need the Torah? Not necessarily. Slowly, the priests did not conform their practice to the Torah but to their traditions that they learned from their fathers. Slowly they added things and removed things from their practices according to their traditions (but not according to Torah). A king wants a better altar like the one way up to the north in Syria (cf. 2 Kings 16. Ok, we’ll build it and put the bronze altar to the side. It’s really old anyways.) This seems to have been the pattern of much of the Israelites’ apostasy. It wasn’t just the priests, but the prophets, the kings and the whole nation too.
So when we get to Josiah, there had been some hopeful reforms, but nothing stuck because the words of God were not central to the community. Instead the mutated traditions of the community held sway against the word of God. You can understand why Josiah would tear his robes. He thought he was reforming things well as he fixed up the temple, but he didn’t know God’s law. He was following the traditions of the good kings and his own gut, but he had no idea what God expected of the priests, the king, and the people.
In many ways this is the tendency of the church every generation. We are tempted to be moved by our traditions and our desires as opposed to the word of God. Are there things you are anxious or concerned about in the life of the church? Is this anxiety appropriate according to the weight scripture places on it? I think the answer to this question is revealing. All too often we are more concerned about our traditions (things that we grew up with and things that we reacted to in our growing-up-hood). All too often we are more concerned about the way the Church doesn’t match MY standards as opposed to what is explicitly revealed in scripture and properly weighted in scripture. Why was musical form such a divisive issue in the 90’s? Was it because of how the words formed our worship and the music taught us the majesty of our God? I don’t think so. It was because people wanted THEIR music and not that other boring stuff or loud stuff. What is divisive today? Each church is going to have to answer that for themselves, but I would suggest that what divides us today is our neglect of one another. We ought to be committed to one another but as a whole we are more committed to ourselves because this is our tradition and habit of living and our sinful desire. Does it accord with scripture? I don’t think so. Having a car, media, and cell phone can be both beneficial, but these three things have been the most divisive technologies in history. They separate us geographically; they control massive amounts of our time; they put most communication that we do have at a major distance. So perhaps we could define our modern tradition that makes us neglect the word of God this way: that we are simply distracted and distanced. May we fight against such a tradition as it degrades our pursuit of keeping God’s word, and may we as the church grow in our love for one another as God has loved us.