In today’s reading from the Old Testament (2 Kings 22:1-13), we read that during the reign of King Josiah—a godly man who “walked in the ways of David his father and did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left”—the book of the law was found as the temple was being renovated. To me, that sounds like a pretty exciting discovery—ancient archeology at its best. To the king, however, the discovery wasn’t something to celebrate.
As the lessons describes, “When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he rent his clothes.” I wonder whether that was the reaction that those who had found the book anticipated. This “book of the law” was likely a text which looked a lot like Deuteronomy. In it, there are many commandments and descriptions of the ways that God relates to his people. This rediscovery was a chance to look back into the past and read what had been going on centuries before.
I can imagine that hearing those words for the first time in a long time would be a little startling, but was it necessary for the king to tear his clothes? One of the beauties of Deuteronomy is the simplicity with which it describes how God and Israel are supposed to get along. Basically, if God’s people remember to do everything they are supposed to do, God will bless them. If not, God will curse them. That might sound a little harsh, but I think it’s more nuanced than that.
Part of what it meant to be a child of God was to remember that fact. Parents and grandparents were to teach the younger generations about the distinctive features of Israelite culture. “What makes us special, Father?” a child might ask. Deuteronomy is a lot of what might form an answer to that important question. And as long as God’s people were able to remember and recall and maintain those cultural roots, Israel lived on as God’s chosen people. That’s what it meant to be blessed by God. If they forgot who they were and whence they came, the curse of not belonging to God awaited them.
I don’t know whether the book of the law was actually found during a temple renovation. Maybe. Or maybe Josiah and the other leaders of the day suddenly realized that they had forgotten what it meant to be God’s people. And the only way to get back into God’s graces was to start over. Tear your clothes. Appoint a fast. Get back to the basics. Remember who you are. I think there’s a message there for the modern Christian.