Assyria served as one of the chief antagonists of God’s people during the era of the divided kingdom. So threatening was the Assyrian Empire to Israel and Judah that the northern kingdom of Israel even fell to Assyria in 722 BC (2 Kings 17:7–23). However, the kingdoms of this world rise and fall, and Assyria did not remain a threat forever. We have already noted that Assyria was declining rapidly at the time of King Josiah of Judah, and this decline forms the background of today’s passage.
While Assyria declined, Babylon was on the rise as the new dominant player in ancient Near Eastern geopolitics. In 610 BC, Babylon forced the last Assyrian king, Ashu-uballit, to flee and set up a government in exile in Carchemish, located north of the promised land and on the border of modern-day Turkey and Syria. Egypt had allied itself with Assyria, so Pharaoh Neco set out with his army to bring reinforcements to Assyria. To get to Carchemish, Neco passed through the promised land in 609 BC.
When this occurred, Josiah went out to fight Egypt even though Neco was not on the move against Judah. Neco even warned Josiah not to oppose him, for in doing so he would be opposing the Lord, who was with the Egyptian king (2 Chron. 35:20–21). This seems like an audacious claim to us, but the Chronicler informs us that the words of Neco were indeed the words of God and that Josiah should have heeded them (v. 22). The text does not tell us how Josiah would have recognized the Lord to be speaking through Neco, but he evidently did and disobeyed anyway. Thus, we get one black mark on Josiah’s otherwise pristine record of obedience to God. It was a significant failure, to be sure, for it resulted in his death (vv. 23–24). Nevertheless, Scripture still labels Josiah a righteous king, for in the main he was devoted to the Lord, and the overall direction of his life was one of conformity to God’s law (34:2). The church father Jerome notes that in Scripture, people are often “called righteous, not because they are faultless but because their faults are eclipsed by their virtues.”
Jeremiah the prophet and all of Judah and Jerusalem lamented the death of Josiah (35:25–27). He would be the last good king of Judah before the exile, and yet even he was not the perfectly faithful Son of David who could bring lasting renewal to God’s people. Only a greater King, Jesus Christ, would accomplish that.