Finding the Book of the Law (2 Kings 22:3-20; 2 Chronicles 34:8-28) June 15
Around 622 B.C., six years after commencing his purge of paganism from the land, King Josiah began his restoration of the temple, putting the final seal on his plan to restore the true worship of the true God. The writer of Chronicles mentions two men who made up the king's commission who are not mentioned in Kings: Maaseiah, the city governor, and Joah, the son of Joahaz, the recorder. "Josiah's choice of Shaphan to head the royal commission was a wise one; for his godly influence was to be felt not only in his own time but in that of his sons Ahikam (Jer 26:24), Elasah (Jer 29:3), and Gemariah (Jer 36:10, 25), and his grandson Gedaliah (Jer 39:14)" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, footnote on 2 Kings 22:4).
The people were asked to contribute to the restoration and, as had happened under the rule of Joash (2 Kings 12:15), no audit was required. Josiah's appointments proved their loyalty in carrying out God's work.
In the process of restoring the temple, the high priest Hilkiah found the "Book of the Law." Various ideas have been put forward about what the "book" was and why it was lost. The Expositor's Bible Commentary notes: "It is later called the 'Book of the Covenant' (v. 30) which suggests Exodus 19-24 (cf. 24:7). Yet the curses that the book contained (v. 24) suggests Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28; and the ensuing stress on the central sanctuary (2 Kings 23:8-9) implies Deuteronomy 12, etc. 'The Book' thus was at least the Book of Deuteronomy [that is, according to this source]. It is called 'the covenant' in Deut 29:1, for example. It contains the curses (Deut 28) and it alone calls for a central sanctuary and was stored at the temple usually by the side of the ark (Deut 31:25-26)" (note on 2 Chronicles 34:14). Some, however, believe the Book of the Law to refer to the entire Law or Pentateuch—that is, the five books of Moses. Oddly enough, Joshua is said to have written about the Israelites' recommitment to God late in his life "in the Book of the Law of God" (Joshua 24:26), well after Moses had written the Pentateuch. So it is not entirely certain what all is meant.
Continuing in Expositor's: 'The Book,' however seems to have become misplaced during the apostate administrations of the previous kings, Manasseh and Amon, under whom the ark had been moved about (2 Chronicles 35:3)" (same note).
In his book Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, Eugene Merrill comments: "It is not possible to enter into the debate about the precise contents of the scroll found by Hilkiah. It clearly consisted of at least Deuteronomy and likely the entire Pentateuch, for some of the policies which Josiah proceeded to implement presuppose the teachings of Moses. A more baffling question is, How could the Torah have been lost for decades, not to be recovered until 622 and even then only by accident? Liberal scholarship argues that the document in question was the Book of Deuteronomy and that it had never been lost at all. It was, rather, a piece composed [recently] by a prophetic circle interested in bringing about reform. In order to give it canonical authority it was attributed to Moses. It may, in fact, have drawn upon authentic Mosaic tradition. In any case, it was not a product of the hand of Moses but of anonymous scribes of the seventh century. Perhaps, it is proposed, it was drafted by an underground movement in the days of Manasseh and placed in the temple in the hope that it might be found and might inspire Manasseh to seek after Yahweh. It was not discovered in his day, however, and only by chance finally surfaced in 622.
"This reconstruction disregards universal Jewish tradition about the authorship of Deuteronomy and also fails to explain how it is possible that no one in Josiah's time, including the priests and scribes, questioned the alleged Mosaic authorship of a document about which there was, supposedly, not one shred of tradition. Moreover, those aspects of Josiah's reformation which appear to be based uniquely on the teaching of Deuteronomy are attested to in Israel's religious life long before Josiah. The critic must concede that the major prescriptions of Deuteronomy were known long before the discovery of the scroll in the temple. This being so, is it really incredible that Deuteronomy had long existed and had simply been suppressed until its providential discovery by Hilkiah?
"In the era of the printing press and the dissemination of the printed page in multiplied millions of copies it is difficult to appreciate the scarcity of written texts in the ancient world. But even some of the most important works composed on durable clay tablets are known only in single copies despite the recovery of some of the great libraries of the ancient past. What, then, must be said of those Old Testament writings which were penned on fragile and perishable materials such as papyrus, leather, and parchment? Furthermore, it is most unlikely that the Scriptures at any time in Old Testament Israel existed in more than a few dozen copies at the very most. Unless scrupulous care were taken to preserve them, they would be subject to the ravages of war and natural disaster or simply disintegrate with time. There is no reason, then, why a diabolical, despotic ruler such as Manasseh could not have seized virtually all the copies of the Torah and destroyed them in order to advance his own apostate ends. Somehow in the providence of God a pious priest or scribe managed to safeguard a copy in a hiding place in the temple and prayed that it might not perish until it could once more take its position as the bedrock of Israel's life. This undoubtedly is what happened" (1987, pp. 444-445).
Realizing the newfound book was very likely of God—and that His instructions had been flouted by the nation—Josiah was grief-stricken. The tearing of clothes was an expression of extreme grief during biblical times (compare Genesis 37:29; 44:13; 1 Samuel 4:12; 2 Samuel 15:32; Matthew 26:65). But God requires more than just an outward show of grief. He wants the same tender heart that Josiah had (see Joel 2:12-14).
Josiah set up a delegation to seek God's will. The delegation, headed by Hilkiah, went to Huldah the prophetess, a common practice in the Old Testament (see 1 Kings 22:5-12; 1 Samuel 23:2). There have been a number of prophetesses in the Bible, including Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Isaiah's wife (Isaiah 8:1-4, 18), Deborah (Judges 4-5) and Anna (Luke 2:36-38). "There were also false women prophets, such as Noadiah in Nehemiah 6:14 and those prophetesses in Ezekiel 13:17, but they were rebuked not because they were women or because they prophesied; instead, they were rebuked because what they said was false and not a revelation from God. Women were not chattel to be ordered about and used as men pleased in the Old Testament, ranking slightly above a man's ox or donkey! They were fellow heirs of the image of God, charged with tasks that exhibited the originality, independence, and management ability of the 'woman of valor' in Proverbs 31 and were called to enter holistically into sharing all of the joys and labours of life" (Walter Kaiser Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics, 1983, p. 207). It should, though, be pointed out that the New Testament makes it clear that women are not to be ordained as elders or preach during worship services.
The Second Quarter of Jerusalem (2 Kings 22:14) most likely refers to one of two districts referred to in Nehemiah 3:9-12 and Zephaniah 1:10. Although the location isn't certain, it was most likely in the commercial area and indicates that Huldah and her husband lived in poor circumstances.
A puzzling question to some is why Josiah's delegation went to a prophetess rather than the more well-known prophets of the time, such as Jeremiah and Zephaniah. It could simply be that they weren't so well known at the time—or perhaps they were then preaching in another part of Judah. In any event, they were not needed for the task. Huldah was truly a prophetess of God. She sent two messages back, one to the man who sent them to her and the other to Josiah—a message of condemnation for Judah but of peace for the king.
Some have wondered why Josiah soon died in battle when God had promised him peace. We will take up this question when we read later of the king's death.