We have come upon a most happy moment. My very favorite passage of the Bible (at least for today) has been apportioned in the assigned lections for the fifth Sunday of Epiphany. It is one of the most relevant, indeed the most important texts for Christians to ponder. If you wanted to be one of those people who literally put yourself into the Bible—like David killing your Goliath with your five smooth stones of self-actualization—this would be the one text with which you might do it. Who will you be in the story? Will you be Shaphan the secretary? Or Hilkiah the priest? Or Josiah the king? Or Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe?
The text, if you’ve clicked the link, jumps into the middle of the action in verse 8 with the word “And.” “And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary…” so we must stop and note that the king at the time was Josiah who ascended the throne at the tender age of eight, going neither to right nor to the left, but doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord.
One of the good things Josiah did was to undertake to repair the Temple of the Lord. You know how it goes, life gets busy and money is tight. The center of Israel’s spiritual life has been a pretty imposing structure, but nobody over the past few centuries has felt particularly inclined to do much more than worry about the drains. The poor thing has a crumbly look. Not only does there need to be furniture and linen repair, the very stonework needs attention. So Josiah orders the collection of money, and then he also makes sure that the tradesmen who can do the repairs are actually called to come and do them.
That sort of thing is so disruptive, though. You start by mending your stone steps and then discover some rot under the floorboards and before you know it you have a whole new kitchen and a roof. As everyone knows who has undertaken an unavoidable house project, it is so daunting to begin, but once it’s started, it’s hard to stop.
So that is probably why Hilkiah, the High Priest, finds himself rummaging around in the various rooms around the periphery of the temple. Years of not mending anything, but of just junking broken odds and ends into various back rooms means there’s a lot of cleaning out to do. There he is, covered in dust, tired, wanting to go home for dinner, when he lays his hand on a scroll—“the Book,” notes the writer, “of the Law.”
I am sure we are meant to stop here and have a bit of a chuckle. It’s like walking into a church and casting about for someone to tell you what is going on…oh well, I guess it’s not that funny. For indeed, I would imagine that in Christian places of worship all across the West, if the Bible came up and nipped the unsuspecting on the nose, he would not know what had bit him. It is just the sort of book that does get plunked in a corner and gestured to occasionally, and of course reverentially, but because it can’t be understood, it doesn’t get read except for the odd verse here and there.
I think Hilkiah, too, is just the sort of person one might meet in so many denominations today. He means well. The problem, though, is that his seminary days were a muddle. If he could have remembered what he learned—for it was decades ago—at the time a smattering of his classes were taught by professed unbelievers. “New Testament” came with a side of deconstructionism. The tools to hand were skepticism and a denial of the Resurrection. When he got into “the ministry” he was overwhelmed by the push and pull of parish politics. He let go his disciplines of prayer and study, the little he’d had, and started reading the paper in a coffee shop after his round of hospital visits. By the time he bellied up to the sermon prep time mid-Saturday afternoons, he had to scroll the internet for a while before he even knew where to begin. Behind him is a long line of similarly well-meaning clerics who never tried to be bad, they just forgot why they were there.
Hilkiah plunks himself down and starts to read and—because the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword—he finds he has got a real problem. He can’t just chunk the book back into the cupboard. No, he is going to have to let the king read it. So he gives it to Shaphan, the secretary, and Shaphan takes it to Josiah, and, by means of a weak and pathetic explanation, murmurs that because of all the new work being done, the spiritual leader of the community has happened to come across a book that no one remembered even existing, and then he unrolls it and starts to read.
The writer writes in verse 11: “When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes.” Some commentators believe that at least some portion read to the king—for who knows how many chapters they got through on that strange day—came from the end of Deuteronomy, the bit where Israel calls out the blessings and curses of the Covenant as she enters into the land. You might remember them. If you keep the Law of God, the rains will come on time and no one will miscarry their babies and no enemies will threaten you. If you don’t keep the Law, eventually you will go into exile, spewed out of the Land the Lord your God is giving you. Actions, in other words, have consequences. If you obey God, you will be ok. And if you don’t, you will not be ok.
The trouble, of course, as Moses points out to the people before they even have a chance to take their oath, is that they won’t keep the Law. They won’t be able to mainly because they won’t want to. They’ll start out with the best of intentions, but after a while, they will get busy trying to sort out their lives—growing their crops, raising their families—not remembering that God is the one who gives all those things. The habits of going up to the house of the Lord remain long after the inclination to crack open the book. But even that fades as work and life press in.
No one today is any different than anyone in ancient Judah except that we have a lot more of the book. Indeed, we have the strange revelation of God in Jesus Christ, who takes all the curses on himself and fulfills the Law on our behalf. Still, it’s hard to remember who he is and what he is going on about when life is so busy.
So anyway, Josiah, his ears ringing from this new information about a God he has always known was there, sends Hilkiah and Ahikam and Achbor and Shaphan and Asaiah to find someone to tell him what to do. Why doesn’t Hilkiah know? He should. But he doesn’t. In the fading lights of dying Christian denominations, it is often thus. The people in charge just do not know what to do. They go to big meetings, but they can’t figure out where to find help, not from the hills, certainly not from the book. They have lost their salt. They can’t remember that there even was light at any point. Wending their way through the streets of Jerusalem, to “the Second Quarter,” Judah’s spiritual elite dig up Huldah who has always been living there, apparently, for her husband or father-in-law or someone in her family is the keeper of the wardrobe. “And they talked with her,” because she, though the Book of the Law hadn’t been read out in services, nor expounded, for ever so long because no one had it, was able to hear the word of the Lord and give a message about what will happen next. Josiah will live out his days in peace, but the curses of the Covenant will fall on Judah because they did not obey, they followed other gods, and “provoked” the Lord to anger.
Did she give them a cup of tea, before she sent them on their way? Probably she sat down and prayed for them all, and shook her head, and then got back to whatever it was she’d been doing. The lectionary people would have us turn to St. Paul, for a comforting word:
But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
However far off the beaten path you have to go to find the Word of God, no matter how many cupboards you have to turn over, or churches you have to wander through, God has decreed before the ages that when he speaks, he will be heard. You can disobey all day long, you can shut him out and plug your ears and turn off the light but in the final reckoning, everyone will hear his voice and see his face. Why not rather seek him today? Crack open the book. See what he has to say. It might surprise you.