There is a particularly striking verse near the end of 2 Kings that reads as follows:
Shaphan the secretary told the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” (22:10 ESV)
If you don’t know the context of the story, this verse probably doesn’t stand out all that much. So let’s explore the story up to this point.
God Establishes Israel
God established a nation known as Israel. He saved this group of people out of slavery to Egypt to bring them to the beautiful land of Canaan, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod 3:8). On the way to Canaan, God gave them a book called the Torah. The Torah told Israel the story of who they were, who God was, and what God required of them. He recorded for them in this book their heritage from a man named Abraham, to whose ancestors God had promised to give this land. He recorded the very rescue out of captivity—and the promise of such, given over 400 years previously—they had experienced. Lastly, he gave them laws and commands to follow in this land.
Did Israel follow these commands and preserve their story? This generation did not. Despite the fact that they had witnessed and experienced God’s salvation from Egypt, they grumbled against him constantly and forgot his promises entirely. It got so bad that they refused to enter Canaan in the face of intimidating foes, despite God’s promise to give them this land. This faithlessness resulted in God decreeing that their generation would not enter Canaan.
Forty years later, after they died off in the wilderness, their children entered under the leadership of Joshua. This generation was more faithful than their fathers. The author of the book of Judges records that this generation “served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the LORD had done for Israel” (2:7).
Sounds good, right? But they neglected one little thing: they apparently completely forgot to tell their children about any of this. “And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work he had done for Israel” (2:10). What was the result? The whole book of Judges.
Judges records Israel turning away from God repeatedly to serve other gods. God then gives them into captivity, at which point they turn to him and plead for him to rescue them. In his infinite mercy, he does so with a new leader. They then serve God in the days of this leader, until he or she dies, at which point they immediately turn back to the other gods and away from the true God. Lather, rinse, repeat, as they say. It gets so bad that the author tells a story to show that Israel had become just as evil, if not moreso, than one of the wickedest cities in the Torah: Sodom (Judg 19; cf. Gen 18–19).
They Reject Their King
After this, Israel so thoroughly rejects God as their king that they demand a human king. Despite God’s warnings that a human king will oppress them, they continue to make their demand. So, God gives them one: Saul. Saul seems great at first, but he turns out to be faithless like the nation he has been chosen to lead. So, God removes him and mercifully gives Israel a good king: David. David was far from perfect, but his kingship was the best that Israel would ever have. Under him, the nation followed the LORD.
David’s son Solomon goes and ruins everything by enslaving his fellow Israelites, marrying 700 foreign women, and turning from God to idols at their behest. David’s grandson Rehoboam makes Israel’s slavery even worse, resulting in all the tribes of Israel except for David’s splitting away to form their own kingdom. From this point on, we have the rebellious northern kingdom of Israel, and the slightly less rebellious (for a time) southern kingdom of Judah.
How do things fare for the northern kingdom? Very badly. After a long line of godless kings and rampant evil, the northern kingdom is destroyed, having forgotten the God who brought them there in the first place.
What about the southern kingdom? They fare somewhat better for a time. They have kings who actually followed God to an extent, but not wholeheartedly like David. They also have several evil, idolatrous kings like Israel. After the 55-year reign of the evil Manasseh, and the two-year reign of the evil Amon, we come to King Josiah.
King Josiah and a Book
18 years into Josiah’s reign (and so 75 years since Judah has had a good king), Judah has neglected God so much that, when Josiah orders that God’s temple be repaired, Hilkiah the high priest finds the Book of the Law in the temple (2 Kings 22:8). The book had actually been lost to time. Even the high priest—the chief religious officer of the kingdom—hadn’t been reading it. He hands this book to Shaphan, the royal secretary, who brings it to King Josiah and says, “Hilkiah the high priest has given me a book.” The book that God himself had given to Israel—the very book that defined them and revealed God to them—was so forgotten that it had become “a book,” just like any other. Josiah repents immediately and brings about great religious reform, but this was not to last; 13 years later, he dies in battle, and his evil sons Jehoahaz and Jehoiakim rule in his place. 20 years later, Babylon destroys Judah.
Church, I ask you this: if you aren’t reading the Bible, if you aren’t reading it to your kids, if you aren’t preaching it to your congregations, if you aren’t sharing it with fellow Christians and even unbelievers, how can we expect anyone to remember where we have been, and to whom we belong? How will we not become disconnected from our great heritage like Israel did?
May we never, ever get to the point where the Bible—the very word of God himself—becomes merely “a book.”