JOSIAH AND NECO
II Chr 35:20-36:4
Josiah wasn’t fighting the wrong enemy
Expect your enemy to speak the Word of God to you
Why didn’t the prophets of God in Judah confirm the Word of God?
Unfortunately, although certain dates in Ancient History are well fixed, the interpretation of what went on and what was achieved tends to be different according to whichever historian you’re reading at the time! The following overview of II Chr 35:20-36:4 is one such interpretation but others do not significantly change the subsequent interpretation of the Biblical passage.
Pharaoh Neco came to power in Egypt around 610BC and by 609 had already captured both Gaza and Ashkelon in Canaan on the borders of the Kingdom of Judah over which King Josiah ruled. It was pretty obvious even at that time that, eventually, Neco would be trying to gain control of the entire land of Israel.
However, the main problem to the north of Israel was the rising kingdom of Babylon who, in 612BC, had already captured the great Assyrian empire’s capital at Nineveh and were marching progressively onwards to conquer as much territory as possible. It would be a little time yet before the Babylonians would attack and capture Jerusalem but, for now, their advance across the great Assyrian Empire was a cause of much concern to all the kingdoms that lay round about.
In 609BC, Neco marched northward through the land of Israel (this was the shortest route) to get to the city of Carchemish, an Egyptian fortification and stronghold. The Assyrian king, Assuruballit II, had retreated westwards under the advance of the Babylonian king and was shut up within Haran (he had probably asked for military aid) and so Neco was aiming to establish some sort of major Egyptian dominance in that area by helping Assuruballit that would hopefully withstand the Babylonian advance.
The outcome was that Neco singularly failed to give aid to that final Assyrian king even though he managed to assert some sort of continued influence at Carchemish for the next few years until 605BC when the Egyptians lost the city to the Babylonians in a surprise attack by Nebuchadnezzar II. With Carchemish’s defeat, the northern land was ‘sealed’ in the new kingdom’s hand and subsequent kings turned their attention southwards to the lands of Syria and Israel, attempting to conquer Egypt in 601BC - though this was a campaign which ended in a temporary withdrawal of the Babylonian army.
It appears that it was only after this failed conquest of Egypt that Babylon turned its attention to conquer Egypt’s vassal states which culminated in the subjugation of the kingdom of Judah and the fall of Jerusalem.
It was while Neco marched northwards in 609BC to lend support to the Assyrian king against the Babylonian army, that King Josiah took it upon himself to go out against him to battle at Megiddo and suffered a heavy defeat along with his own life. Historical sources may indicate that Neco was resting over at an Egyptian garrison at Megiddo before pushing northwards when Josiah drew up for battle.
It’s important to note that it’s likely that the delay imposed by Josiah upon Neco at the battle, delayed him enough to prevent him from helping the Assyrian king to withstand Nebuchadnezzar.
Upon the army’s return to Jerusalem, the people crowned Josiah’s son Jehoahaz as king but he survived only three months, by which time the returning Egyptian army took a small diversion to Jerusalem and deposed him, bringing Israel under their control and laying upon the land a yearly tribute to Pharaoh. It was probably partly the fact that Pharaoh recognised the army that had opposed his advance and that had hindered what spoil he eventually won for himself, but also partly that, to get reinforcements to his stronghold in Carchemish, he would necessarily have to send them through the western edge of Judah’s land and he had to make that way secure for their immediate advance should circumstances dictate.
Judah never recovered. Being a vassal state of Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar came against the Egyptian’s installed king and defeated the city, crowning his own choice of king - first Jehoiachin, then Zedekiah - as servants of the Babylonian empire - they were little more than governors.
But the sudden demise of Judah as an independent state in 609BC can be traced back to that decision of Josiah to march out against the ‘peaceful’ army of Egypt and draw up for battle in the plains of Megiddo. Certainly, the final demise of the kingdom was a direct result of the nation’s sin but, while the country had a righteous king, God withheld his hand of judgment (see II Chr 34:19-28). This made the death of Josiah all the more tragic for the people of God for not one righteous king subsequently ruled from the throne.
Josiah wasn’t fighting the wrong enemy
It wasn’t that Neco was wrongly identified as the enemy. There’s little doubt that the Pharaoh had designs on taking Canaan at some future time given opportunity. Neither was Egypt a ‘righteous’ nation that sought after the one and true God, Yahweh. In the Scriptures, Egypt is often used as a picture of the world and its ways and union with it is condemned.
But, even though Josiah identified Neco as an enemy, he failed to perceive that the battle he was now actively pursuing was not one he should be taking part in. He wasn’t fighting the wrong enemy but he was fighting in the wrong battle (see also the example of Jehoshaphat in II Chr 18:1-19:3 - especially the concluding three verses).
Josiah had, on a previous occasion, asked the Lord directly for advice (II Chr 34:19-28) but here it’s as if he’d already made up his mind and it appears to never have occurred to him to ask for confirmation. This was most unlike David who, when you and I would have seen red and marched against the Amalekites for stealing all your life’s possessions, still sought guidance to make sure that it was the Lord’s will (I Sam 30:[1-6]7-10).
Slightly away from this point, Isaiah condemns the children of Israel for so relying on physical strength for protection that they make a union with Egypt (the unrighteous nation) instead of turning to the Lord for both guidance and protection (Is 30:1-3, 31:1-3). The real sin here is not the turning to Egypt (for there were a number of nations they could have turned to) but their neglect of turning to God to ask Him what to do.
Josiah’s wrong decision to enter in to a battle that he should have never entered, destroyed not only himself but the kingdom of Judah. Judah never again had a righteous king, nor one who ruled independently of other nations round about. From Josiah’s death onwards, the nation spiralled towards final destruction and the judgment from God of the sin of Manasseh (II Kings 21:10-15, 24:3-4, II Chr 34:23-28, 36:15-16). When the righteous king was removed, God’s hand of judgment was no longer delayed (see II Chr 34:19-28 quoted previously for a passage regarding judgment delayed because of Josiah’s righteousness).
Being concerned to actively participate only in the battles that God would have us be engaged in was a principle that we see in operation in the life of Christ.
Amazing things were happening in the town where Simon’s mother-in-law lived (Mark 1:32-39). Demons were expelled, the sick were being healed and, even more importantly, ‘the whole city’ came to listen to the Gospel Jesus spoke to them.
But, that evening, Jesus went out to pray - and that changed things very drastically by morning. Although everyone was looking for Him, the time had come to move on to the other towns in order that the message of the Gospel might be brought to them.
There was a great need, though, in that previous town. There were still battles to be fought there and victories to be won, but Jesus had heard from the Father that, at this time, it wasn’t going to be Him who was to fight them. The time had come to find the new wars that needed to be fought and which God was in.
He wasn’t to try and win a battle that was of His own making.
The church down through history, and to a very great extent even today, has been very good at busying itself with fighting battles against enemies when the actual battle has not been the one that the Lord would have us get involved in. We think that we’re friends of God by waging war against areas and people who are standing opposed to the will of God in certain areas of this world, not realising that we should have first asked God where the battle is that He wants us to get involved in.
Social action, today, is the biggest cause of the church’s failure to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom. Though many have come to know Jesus as a direct result of such action, in many areas of the church and in different denominations it has taken the place of speaking out the truth of the Gospel and calling all men and women to make a life-changing decision to submit their entire lives over to the will of God in Christ.
In John 5:1-9, we read that there was a multitude of invalids in Bethzatha, so the question which seems to raise its head is why did Jesus only heal one of them? And the lame man who sat daily at the Beautiful gate of the Temple in Acts 3:1-2 would have been passed by Jesus frequently, so why hadn’t He healed him?
The answer is surely because Jesus was only concerned to win the battles and secure the victories in the lives of those people that the Father revealed to Him.
Too often we turn our attention to situations where God doesn’t want us to be - situations where there’s great need but we see very little or no success because these are not the areas in which God wants us involved.
And, if we use Josiah as our example, we pose a great risk not only to ourselves but to the welfare of the children of God and the advance of the kingdom of God.
Notice also that Jesus was more content on calling the nation of Israel to repentance so that they might be changed from within, than with opposing and trying to physically change the oppressive ruling authorities that had been set over the people at that time. Certainly, he did have things to say about the Pharisees and Sadducees - and about the Roman government - but normally it was in the context of opposition that had been directed at Him. He was always burdened that they might turn to Him to be healed and changed.
Social action has pulled us away from seeing that it isn’t the situation that needs changing for the man or woman to achieve their destiny in Christ, but their internal spiritual parts that need radical transformation by the cross of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit so that they no longer live for themselves but for the One who died for them. To change society for the better will mean many individuals having their hearts changed - not in altering the ‘furniture’ in a world that will exploit any structure that’s implemented.
Way back in the aeons of time (that is, when I was younger than I am now!), I had a great opportunity to work for Teen Challenge in Pen Y Groes, Wales, being part of the team who were ministering and actively helping young men and kids who’d got involved in very evil situations but who had become christians and now needed to get away from the world for a time and be taught what it meant to be christians.
I took that opportunity eagerly - I even had one lady in the church prophesy that it was the Lord’s will for me to go (though I afterwards found out that she already knew what I was planning to do before she prophesied) - and went down shortly after the turn of the New Year.
Almost as soon as I arrived I realised that this wasn’t what the Lord wanted me to do - but as I tried to muddle through for the next few days, the sense of oppression, condemnation and judgment fell on me ever more severely as the week progressed.
It culminated in a bedroom in a small Hereford farm where we’d gone that weekend to minister. I remember being woken up in bed by the most appalling sensation and knowing in my own spirit that the angel of the Lord was opposing me - I even felt that his sword was drawn and waiting to stop me in what I was doing unless I very quickly made the decision to return.
I rang the leader up at breakfast and explained to him the situation (though I left out the bit about ‘angels’ - I wasn’t quite sure just whether he’d buy that!) and returned home on Monday. The immense release and relief I felt was amazing and, for that one time in my life that I never want to re-experience, I had found myself fighting a battle that, even though it was the Lord’s, it certainly wasn’t mine to fight. He had His own plan of who to send there to do His work for Him - and that person certainly wasn’t me!
Remember that just to do something ‘for the Lord’ is not necessarily to do what the Lord wants you to do. It’s so important to actively seek his mind on issues and not get caught up with what everyone else does. That may not be what the Lord has planned for you.
Josiah, then, wasn’t fighting the wrong enemy, but he was fighting in the wrong war.
Expect your enemy to speak the Word of God to you
Controversial as this might sound, it is, nevertheless, what happened to Josiah (II Chr 35:21-22), the Bible stating unambiguously that
‘He did not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God’
Although such an occurrence may be a rare one, it does happen. See, for instance, the example that occurs at the end of II Chronicles (36:22-23) where Cyrus proclaims that:
a. God has given him all the kingdoms of the earth - prophesied in Is 45:1-3
b. God has commanded him to rebuild a temple at Jerusalem for His service - prophesied in Is 44:28.
If the prophetic word had not come to Isaiah beforehand, we may have felt some justification for declaring that God used Cyrus’ selfish ends to establish His will rather than directly moving upon him and charging him with a specific task to perform. Yet the Scriptures make it plain.
Notice also that Cyrus didn’t know YHWH (Is 45:5) - that is, He’s not in a right relationship with Him (if he’d lived this side of the cross, we would say that he wasn’t saved) - but he still performed the will of God as he perceived it concerning both conquest and restoration.
Cyrus, therefore, stands as another example of someone who, though God’s enemy, spoke the Word of God to the people of God and, similar to Neco, actually performed the will of God (Neco being commanded to ‘make haste’ to fight in the battle that was being drawn up to the north of Israel).
In addition to these two examples, God’s enemies can even be speaking the Word of God when they’re opposing the will of God. Though, in this way, they don’t really understand what they’re saying. When the gift of the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, the mockers said (Acts 2:13)
‘They are filled with new wine’
Of course, this is exactly what was taking place but on a spiritual level that they didn’t perceive (Mtw 9:14-17).
As a ‘balance’ to these two examples, we should also consider what happened to Hezekiah (Isaiah chapter 36) when the king of Assyria’s envoys came to Jerusalem and stated that it was the Lord (who the Israelites served) who’d told the Assyrian army to go up against the land and destroy it (see verse 10). We can be quite certain that this wasn’t the Word of God at all. Indeed, it was Isaiah who prophesied the real Word of God which was against the Assyrian king (Is 37:21-35).
Any ‘word’ needs to be tested and not merely accepted.
The example of Neco speaking the Word of God to Josiah brings us on to one final point, this time in the form of a question...
Why didn’t the prophets of God in Judah confirm the Word of God?
In the case of the Assyrian king and Hezekiah, the prophet of God opposed the message and spoke the truth concerning God’s purpose for His people. But, in the case of Josiah, no prophet appears to ever have been consulted, even though Josiah was familiar and experienced that prophets were able to hear from God and pass on His counsel (II Chr 34:19-28).
So where were the Lord’s prophets? Or did the prophets speak out but Josiah refused to listen? Or did the prophets get it wrong and proclaim a false word against Neco? Or was the fault with Josiah in not seeking after the Lord’s word as he did previously? Or did Josiah think that Neco was speaking false words?
Only one thing seems to be clear from this passage that remains silent on these other issues - God never intended Josiah to go up to Megiddo and get killed. In Josiah, He had a man who was actively concerned for His interests, not a man that had to be removed through his wickedness or great sin.
Whatever the reason for the wrong decision of Josiah to go out to battle against Neco, if a true word had been spoken out from the Lord into the situation and had been believed, the fall of the Kingdom of Judah which began with this incident would at least have been delayed for a number of years.
Perhaps, even, Neco’s rapid advance northwards to engage the Babylonian army (had it not been delayed) may have subdued both world powers through a loss of military strength to the place where they would have been unable to actively seek the control of Judah and its surrounding lands.