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Fall 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 2 · pp. 229–238 

No One like Josiah: Covenant Faithfulness and Leadership

Mark D. Wessner

“There was never a king like Josiah” (2 Kings 23:25). This is a bold statement. King Josiah did, in fact, have a powerful impact upon the nation of Israel in a way unlike any other king before him. But what can be learned from the Josiah narrative that is relevant in the confused world of the twenty-first century, often characterized by abuse of political power, leaders who betray trust, and distorted expressions of “spiritual” leadership?

A close look at the specific structural and grammatical elements of 2 Kings 23:25 reveals that not only did Josiah’s remarkable kingship influence the people of ancient Israel but the essence of his leadership ethos can also speak into the lives and actions of ministry leaders, marketplace leaders, and social leaders in the contemporary world.

Leaders can learn from Josiah’s example as they seek to follow God and Scripture as faithfully as possible.

As is true with all works of literature, ancient or modern, the writers of 1–2 Kings had certain expectations of their readers. 1 First and foremost, the narrators assume that the reader has both an intimate familiarity and deep appreciation of the Torah. The first five books of the Bible, especially Deuteronomy, are the measuring rod by which many of the recorded events and characters are judged, as evidenced not only in 2 Kings 23:25 but also throughout the book of Kings. 2 {230}

The narrators’ continual return to the many precepts of the Torah serves as a type of evaluative backbone to the book of Kings, as does its loose chronological structure (successive kingships) 3 and general theological structure (a cyclical pattern of reform and apostasy). The book of Kings is not intended to be a simple contextless record of events but, rather, a carefully interpreted history of the various characters contained therein, as seen through the evaluative lens of the Torah. 4

According to 2 Kings 23:25, King Josiah stands alone as the unequalled king in all of Israel. Neither King David, King Solomon, nor any other Old Testament king is identified this way. There was no king like Josiah, with regard to both religious (cultic) leadership and political leadership. The rationale for such a claim can be discovered through the asher-verb formula that structures the Hebrew text. This formula will be discussed in greater detail in the second part of this paper, but first we must look at the place of the Josiah narrative within the larger context of the book of Kings, and also its relationship to the Torah.


The Josiah narrative of 2 Kings 22–23 takes place immediately after the brief reign (only two years) of his father Amon. King Amon’s time as ruler was preceded by the long reign (fifty-five years) of his father Manasseh. Both kings were known for the evil nature of their kingships. 5 King Josiah’s reign started when he was only eight years old, and the first recorded event of his kingship is the discovery of the “Book of the Law” when he was twenty-six. 6 The story goes on to describe Josiah’s response to that newly recovered book and its teachings, and concludes with a clear evaluation of the young king’s uniqueness.

The Josiah narrative is a chiastic structure of three “sent/commanded” pairs, with the central role being the story of the introduction and conclusion of Josiah’s Judean kingship described in 2 Kings 23:1–15, and the asher-verb formula occurring in the A1 conclusion and evaluation section:


Introduction and evaluation (22:1–2)



Sent to repair the temple in Jerusalem (22:3–11; shalach)

Commanded to inquire of the Lord (22:12–20; tsavah)



Sent for all Jerusalem to return to the covenant (23:1–3; shalach)

Commanded that all Jerusalem be purged of idolatry (23:4–15; tsavah)



Sent to fulfill the word of the Lord (23:16–20; shalach)

Commanded to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem (23:21–24; tsavah)


Conclusion and evaluation (23:25) {231}

From a macrostructural perspective and assuming the chiastic structure above, the central point around which the narrative rotates is Josiah’s dramatic and relentless purge of his people’s idolatrous activities, coming out of his newly found desire to reassert the centrality of the Mosaic covenant. The evaluation of Josiah’s kingship, then, must also be rooted in his return to the covenant.

Although the book of Kings has been commonly understood as either an historical or theological narrative, it can also be understood as a prophetic narrative 7 in its entirety, as evidenced by five characteristics:

  1. it assesses the past based on God’s covenant with Israel;

  2. it predicts the future by noting how God has blessed or punished Israel in the past;

  3. it creates its plot to fulfill a prophetic view of the past and future;

  4. it assesses characters based on how they influence God’s blessings or judgments on Israel; and

  5. it instructs its audience to turn to the Lord.

The first and fourth characteristics are particularly relevant to Josiah’s evaluation. The focus in 23:25 on covenant fulfillment as the means of royal assessment is consistent with the call to (re)focus on the Torah that permeates the book of Kings.

The Josiah narrative begins and ends with typical formulaic expressions found throughout the book of Kings, with a slight distinction between the Israelite and Judean kings. The formalized introduction includes the king’s name, age at ascension, length of reign, name of mother, and evaluation of his kingship. 8 The corresponding conclusion of each royal narrative includes the king’s name, references to other sources of information about his reign, and the occasional mention of his death and/or burial. 9 The “Josiah Evaluation” of verse 25 comes just before the standard dismissal formula. 10


It is within this larger narrative context that we examine 2 Kings 23:25, where we are told that “there was no king like” Josiah. The statement is introduced by one of the three formal indicators associated with the asher-verb formula. 11 In verse 25, the evaluation starts with the royal indicator lo hayah (“there has not been”) and concludes with the cultic indicator lo qam (“there has not arisen”).

In the numerous instances where it appears in the Old Testament, 12 the asher-verb formula consists of the relative pronoun asher immediately followed by a verb (either singular or in series) and occurs in the context of a character’s explicit or implicit evaluation (i.e., the use of one of {232} the three formal indicators). It is the specific verb that identifies the uniqueness of each character.

Using the single asher and repeated uses of bekol as a framework gives us the following structural translation and presentation of the verse. (Note that shub is the verb in the perfect tense.)

Before him, there was no king like him (lo hayah) 13
(asher) who turned (shub) to the Lord
(bekol) with all of his heart,
(bekol) with all of his soul,
(bekol) and with all of his strength,
according to all the law of Moses. 14
And after him, there was no one (lo qam) like him.

Following the typical usage employed by the narrator, 15 the asher of verse 25 is: (1) preceded by a formal (royal) evaluative indicator, in this case lo hayah, and (2) immediately followed by a verb in the perfect tense, shub. 16 This instance of the asher-verb formula is the only one of twelve in which there is a single asher-verb clause—the eleven others have various combinations of multiple asher-verbs. Also unique to this instance is the presence of a second indicator: the lo qam at the end of the verse. 17

The repeated use of three subordinate phrases (each beginning with bekol) 18 directly following the asher-verb clause further refines the narrator’s understanding of what “turned to the Lord” (shub el Yhvh) specifically encompassed—King Josiah turned with all of his heart, all of his soul, and all of his strength. It is this combination of three prepositions that is the key to understanding what made Josiah’s leadership unique.

Both the relative pronoun asher and the verb shub (i.e., “who turned”) occur together in 2 Kings 18:5 as well, but the assessment is restricted to the kings of Judah. More significantly, the usage of asher in that verse is not grammatically connected to the specific characteristics attributed to Hezekiah in the pericope. 19

An important question to ask at this juncture is whether there are any other recorded instances that explore Josiah’s turning that could shed additional light on this text. While there are no other pericopes that directly indicate that King Josiah either did or would return to the Lord, 20 during the reign of King Josiah in Israel the Lord had specifically desired that Judah return (shub) to him. But in fact, the people did not (Jer 3:6–10).

Not only does 2 Kings 23:25 stand alone in terms of Josiah’s “turning to the Lord” but it is the only Old Testament record of an individual {233} fulfilling the triple command to love the Lord with all of one’s heart (lebab), soul (nephesh) and strength (meod) as required in Deuteronomy 6:5. 21 By identifying these specific characteristics within the asher-verb formula, the narrator sets Josiah apart as a unique king 22 specifically with respect to his extraordinary faithfulness in meeting the requirements of Torah. 23

Answering the question of why there was no other king like Josiah, either before him or after him, has resulted in a large volume of discussion about the extent of Josiah’s Passover celebration, his handling of the high places and altars, and his religious reform. 24 Most modern evaluations focus on the specific actions of King Josiah, rather than on his character in relation to faithfulness to the Torah. And therefore, most commentators miss the full extent of Josiah’s “turning.”

The Josiah narrative tells the story of a king who reoriented his kingdom around the principles found in the Book of the Law. As described through the story, the cultural and cultic reformations are the direct result of Josiah’s specific royal commands and initiatives. What set Josiah apart from every other king was that he played the additional role of the cultic leader for the nation with an unequalled level of Torah faithfulness.

It is not surprising, then, that Josiah is evaluated with both formal indicators. The order in which the two indicators are used is equally significant: before Josiah, there was no king like him (lo hayah, the royal indicator), and after Josiah, there was no one like him (lo qam, the cultic indicator). In between, it is the asher-verb formula that identifies and describes Josiah’s specific turning to the Lord according to the law of Moses. Using this formula, the narrator declares that Josiah’s turning to the Lord and his cultic reform expanded his role as a royal leader to include being a faithful spiritual leader as well.

The combination of the two characteristics is unparalleled among the kings and may be what was originally envisioned in texts such as Deuteronomy 17:18–20.

When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign long over his kingdom in Israel.

Highlighting the asher-verb formula in 2 Kings 23:25 sheds new light on the Josiah narrative. As the text itself indicates, unequalled kingship is based upon unequalled Torah faithfulness. {234}


What can be learned from the Josiah narrative that is relevant to a contemporary culture often characterized by abuse of political power, leaders who betray trust, and distorted expressions of “spiritual” leadership? Is Josiah’s unparalleled experience a naïve, nostalgic memory from the ancient past, or are the principles of faithful covenantal leadership still viable in the contemporary world? 25 In what ways, if any, is Josiah’s specific role as king similar to various leadership roles in North America? There are three contexts in which to explore this question: ministry leadership, marketplace leadership, and social leadership. Rather than a review of leadership literature, this section consists of selected discipleship and leadership observations and questions to facilitate the reader’s integration of biblical observations into practical life and leadership.

Ministry Leadership (leadership within an organization whose primary purpose is to fulfill both the Great Commission and the Greatest Commandment). As seen throughout the Old Testament, one distinguishing element of faithful leadership is the quality of the leader’s relationship with God. 26 Josiah’s example and evaluation are instructive in that before calling the people to repent and re-covenant, he first tore his own robes (2 Kings 22:11) and read the Book of the Law aloud (2 Kings 23:2). In this way, he not only desired to have the people (re)turn to God wholeheartedly, he did so himself first (hence, the narrator’s remarkable claim that Josiah was a king unlike any other).

For ministry leaders, there are self-assessment questions that need to be considered:

  1. In what way is the Bible the continual and explicit reference point for what you do and say as a leader? How does the Bible directly shape the ministry activities that you do and don’t do? In which ministry context does the Bible need to be “rediscovered”?

  2. How are you, as a ministry leader, personally following God in a way that models biblical expectations? To what extent are you willing to repent and return when appropriate?

  3. How are you as a ministry leader making the decisions and undertaking the actions necessary to invite and enable people to experience scriptural faithfulness in the midst of a culture that often has different values?

Marketplace Leadership (leadership within an organization whose primary purpose is to achieve specific business and/or social goals). {235} While the personal covenant faithfulness of the leader is also assumed in this context, the marketplace leader’s primary role is not to invite others to the same faithfulness. Christian marketplace leadership, therefore, has unique characteristics. In the public marketplace, the need for an explicitly biblical foundation is often less obvious than in ministry leadership settings. If covenant faithfulness is expressed differently in the marketplace and cannot be explicitly asked of others, what are the options for a leader who wants to exercise covenant influence?

For marketplace leaders, there are self-assessment questions that need to be considered:

  1. Despite pervasive and ever-present rituals and reminders, the kings of Israel and Judah often drifted away from faithfulness to God. What are you doing to ensure your own spiritual vitality and submission to God and his word? How effective are the rituals and reminders that are part of your life and/or leadership?

  2. In what ways can you model a “better way” for your employees? In your specific context, what would it look like to live and speak in ways that reveal that turning to the Lord with all one’s heart, soul, and strength is a better way of living? How can you model biblical values such as generosity, compassion, love, and holiness?

  3. As a marketplace leader, how can you create or modify the culture so that beliefs and behaviors out of sync with faithfulness to God’s design are reduced?

Social Leadership (informal leadership exercised in any kind of social setting in which “influence” is one’s only tool). Examples of such settings are sports teams, clubs, classrooms, and friendships. This context is furthest from Josiah’s in that a social leader has no direct or positional authority over others. The appropriateness and acceptance of a leader’s faith is most tenuous for these leaders since social relationships can be instantly broken for the most trivial of reasons. When there is a disconnect between one’s personal beliefs and the social beliefs within one’s culture, how does a leader navigate the difference?

For social leaders, there are self-assessment questions that need to be considered:

  1. How are you personally following God in a way that models biblical expectations (e.g., Great Commission, Greatest Commandment, or the fruit of the Spirit)? As with Josiah, to what extent are you willing to repent and return if your biblical faithfulness has been compromised? {236}

  2. Are your motives for cultural engagement consistent with the Bible? To what extent do you want to “change the world” for material or relational gain?

  3. How willing are you to lose social credibility or influence for the sake of faithfulness to God and his word?


“There was never a king like Josiah.” Josiah’s wholehearted return to faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant, combined with his willingness to use his leadership influence and authority to call others to return to God resulted in a remarkably positive assessment that is unique in Scripture. Josiah is the only character explicitly described as fulfilling the expectations of the Shema (Deut 6:4–5), of which the first part of Jesus’s Greatest Commandment (Mark 12:29–30) is a modified version.

Leaders can learn from Josiah’s example and his unique evaluation as they seek to follow God and Scripture as faithfully as possible in their leadership contexts. To be deeply and relentlessly loyal to God, at all times and in all situations, extends beyond the pages of Scripture and remains the call of leaders today.


  1. It is assumed that 1 and 2 Kings functioned as a single book (i.e., “the book of Kings”), and that there was more than one author or compiler. A full discussion about authorship is beyond the scope of this essay. When referring to 2 Kings 23:25, single authorship of the pericope is assumed.
  2. Some examples include 1 Kings 2:2–4; 9:6–9; and 11:1–11 (also note the numerous references to commandments, laws, decrees, covenant, and Egypt throughout the books of Kings). See Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2000), 2–4, and Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1987), 6–7 for two good summaries of 1 and 2 Kings’ reliance upon the Torah, especially Deuteronomy. In his commentary, Terence E. Fretheim provides an excellent description of the meaning and significance of the book of Kings as a part of the larger Deuteronomistic History, in First and Second Kings, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1999), 6–10.
  3. The precise nature of the chronology of the book of Kings has been written about extensively. For a good comparison and summary, refer to Iain W. Provan, 1 and 2 Kings, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA:, Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster, 1995), 6–10; Paul R. House, 1, 2 Kings, vol. 8 of The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman {237} & Holman, 1995), 39–41, and Nelson, First and Second Kings, 8–10.
  4. Of course, no description of history can be completely objective, as any time that history is relayed from one source to another source, interpretation inevitably takes place.
  5. See 2 Kings 21:1–2 (Manasseh) and 21:19–20 (Amon).
  6. See 2 Kings 22:3–10. Josiah sends his scribe Shaphan to the temple, and it is Shaphan who seems to play a central role in first recognizing the significance of the discovery.
  7. “Prophetic” here does not necessarily refer to prophetic authorship or message, but rather to prophetic characteristics (see House, 1, 2 Kings, 57–58). This idea is also explored briefly in Fretheim, First and Second Kings, 8–10.
  8. For example, see 1 Kings 14:21; 15:1; 22:41; 2 Kings 8:16–17.
  9. For example, see 1 Kings 14:19–20; 15:7–8; 22:45–50; 2 Kings 8:23–24.
  10. The insertion of verses 26–27 suggests that Manasseh’s behavior was so wicked that even the “returning” of Josiah was not enough to hold back God’s judgment.
  11. A more complete analysis is found in M. D. Wessner, “Character Evaluation in Biblical Hebrew Narrative: Toward a Literary and Theological Understanding of the ’ăsher-Verb Formula” (PhD diss., University of Pretoria, 2005), 22–23.
  12. Gen 24:7; Exod 32:35; Num 12:11; 27:16–17; Deut 1:36; 34:10–12; 2 Sam 7:23; 1 Kings 14:8; 14:16; 21:25; 2 Kings 23:25; 2 Chron 1:11–12; Jer 8:2.
  13. Compare 1 Kings 3:12 where both lo hayah and lo qam are also used to distinguish a king (Solomon) from his peers, with regard to his wise and discerning mind.
  14. At the beginning of the phrase kekol torah Mosheh some manuscripts read bekol. At first glance, these alternative readings appear to fit nicely with the verse’s repeated use of bekol, however, neither variant seems grammatically plausible, and neither of the two key manuscripts (Leningrad and Aleppo) reflect bekol (see 2 Kings 23:32). In addition, the Septuagint reflects kata panta (which varies from the threefold use of en olē earlier in the verse). Therefore, it seems that kekol is the better reading.
  15. For the purposes of this study, throughout the Deuteronomistic History, the narrator(s) can be assumed to be the Deuteronomist(s), and vice versa.
  16. In general, the twelve instances of the asher-verb formula reflect the common practice of using a perfective verb when the viewpoint of the narrator is looking back (i.e., generalized as “past tense”) and an imperfective verb when the viewpoint is looking forward (i.e., generalized as “future tense”). However, given the sometimes “all-encompassing” nature of the asher-verb formula, verb-form usage is not always consistent.
  17. The King Josiah pericope is the only instance of the asher-verb formula in which the subject character is evaluated with both the cultic indicator and the royal indicator.
  18. Other examples of more than one bekol used as a listing technique are Deut 6:5; Neh 9:10; Esther 8:17; Isa 7:19 and Jer 15:13.
  19. It is for these reasons that the royal evaluation in 2 Kings 23:25 does not {238} conflict with the similar observation of King Hezekiah, as some have suggested (see T. R. Hobbs, 2 Kings, vol. 13 of Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1985), 338, and Robert L. Cohn et al., 2 Kings, Berit Olam (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 161).
  20. 1 Kings 13:2; 2 Kings 23:19, 23f, 28f; Jer 3:6; 22:11; 25:3; 26:1; 35:1; 36:1f, 9; 45:1.
  21. Joshua issued a similar challenge to the people (Josh 22:5).
  22. In addition to his unique character and actions, Josiah was also the only king to be prophesied about by name (1 Kings 13:2).
  23. Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, 559, refers to King Josiah as the “quintessential Torah keeper” and also recognizes the link between 2 Kings 23:25 (Josiah) and Deuteronomy 34:10–12 (Moses), both of which are evaluated by means of the asher-verb formula. (See also Mordechai Cogan and Hayim Tadmor, II Kings: A New Translation, 1st ed. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1988), 291, and Volkmar Fritz, 1 & 2 Kings: A Continental Commentary, 1st English language ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003), 409.) In The Theology of Deuteronomy: Collected Essays of Georg Braulik (N. Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL Press, 1994), Georg Braulik suggests that Josiah “made the Torah in its contemporary literary form the constitution of his kingdom” (99).
  24. For example, see Cohn et al., 2 Kings, 158–62; Cogan and Tadmor, II Kings, 293–99; Fretheim, First and Second Kings, 216–300, and Provan, 1 and 2 Kings, 272–74.
  25. “One might conclude that it is exceedingly naive that political rule can proceed on the basis of a demanding social code, a judgment that is likely to be made by the ‘critical realists’ among us. Nonetheless the attempt of the Deuteronomist to mediate such a claim coheres with our own agenda of ‘political theology,’ which pursues theology that is socially responsible and public in scope. The proposition may be reversed, so that ‘theological’ becomes a modifier for politics, a politics that has a compelling ethical component that functions to curb autonomous arrogance that takes seemingly limitless power as absolute power,” in Walter Brueggemann, “Ancient Israel on Political Leadership: Between the Book Ends,” Political Theology 8, no. 4 (2007): 455–69.
  26. This is especially heightened in church and ministry settings in which people often suppose that the spiritual life of leaders ought to surpass what is expected for “everyone else.” Assuming that there is a lower standard for some people and a higher one for others is dysfunctional, but pervasive nonetheless.
Mark Wessner is the president of MB Seminary (Langley, BC, and Winnipeg, MB), where he also serves as Associate Professor of Biblical Studies for Leadership.

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