Thoughts on Josiah, and when death is a blessing…

Taken, adapted and condensed from, “Josiah’s Reformation, Laid Open in Four Sermons”
Sermon IV, Published in 1637,
Written by Richard Sibbes.

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Behold, I will gather thee to your fathers, and thou shalt be gathered to your grave in peace, neither shall thine eyes see all the evil that I will bring upon this place, and upon the inhabitants of the same. So they brought the king word again.
—2 Chronicles 34:28.

IT is for the most part the privilege of a Christian…

…that his last days are his best; and ‘though weeping be in the evening, yet joy comes in the morning,’ Ps. 30:5; though he do begin in darkness, yet he ends in light. Whereas, on the contrary, the wicked begin in jollity and light, but end in darkness; yea, such a darkness as is ‘utter darkness,’ Mat. 8:12—by Peter called the ‘blackness of darkness,’ 2 Pet. 2:17—the preparations whereunto are, God’s outward judgments in this life inflicted upon the impenitent and rebellious, wherein God many times puts a sensible, visible difference betwixt the godly and the wicked; as betwixt Lot and the Sodom-mites, Noah and the adulterous world, Moses and the Israelites with him, from Korah, Dathan, and his company, the Egyptians and the Israelites at the Red Sea; and in this text, betwixt this good king and his people. He must not see all the evil that God was to bring upon his wicked and rebellious subjects. Oh the happiness of holiness, which is sure to speed well in all storms whatsoever; because on all the glory there is a defense, as Isaiah speaks, Isa. 4:5. Light is sown for the righteous, Ps. 97:11; and whatsoever his troubles be, yet his last end shall be blessed. ‘Let me die,’ saith Balaam, ‘the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his,’ Num. 23:10. Such honor have all his saints, such honor had this good king Josiah; being removed from hence that he might not see the evil to come. Though he were taken from earth, yet it was for his good, that he might be gathered into heaven, and make a royal exchange.

The words contain a promise of a reward, and great favor unto good king Josiah, that he should die, and be gathered unto his fathers; and that which is more, the manner considered, that he should ‘die in peace;’ the ground whereof is showed unto him: ‘Because thine eyes shall not see all the evil that I will bring upon this place, and upon the inhabitants of the same.’ God’s promises are of three sorts. First, Such as he made upon condition of legal obedience: ‘Do this and thou shall live.’ Secondly, When we are humbled upon sight of our sins, then he propounds another way, and promises that if we believe in Jesus Christ our surety, who hath made satisfaction for us, then we shall live. This is the grand promise of all, the promise of life everlasting, and pardon of sin. Thirdly, There are promises of encouragement unto us, when we are in the state of grace. As a father, who means to make his son an heir, does give him many promises of encouragement, so God deals with his children, when they are in the covenant of grace.

There are, I say, promises of particular rewards to encourage them, as they are sure of the main and great reward, namely, everlasting life. Therefore Josiah being an heir of heaven, God did propound a promise of encouragement unto him, by way of favor, to show that his good works were not unregarded.

In general here,

First, We may observe God’s gracious dealing with his children, that he takes notice of every good thing they do, and does reward them for it, yea, in this life. There is not a sigh but God hears it, not a tear but he hath a bottle for it. Most men spare God a labor in this kind. He promises ‘to wipe away all tears from our eyes,’ Rev. 21:4, but they will shed none. Yet the least tear shed, and word spoken in a good cause, goes not without a reward from God; not so much as a cup of cold water, but he rewards. Which must needs be so: Because God looks upon the good things we do, being his own works in us, as upon lovely objects, with a love unto them; for though Josiah had said nothing, yet his deep humiliation itself, was as it were a prayer, that cried strongly in the ears of God, that he could not but reward it. So that partly because God looks upon us as lovely objects, he loving the work of his own Spirit, and partly because they cry unto God, as it were, and pluck down a blessing from heaven, they cannot go unrewarded.

This is matter of comfort, that God will not only reward us with heaven, but will also recompense good thing we do, even in this world; yea, such is his bounty, he rewards hypocrites. Because he will not be beholding to them for any good thing they do, nor have them die unrewarded, he recompenses them with some outward favors, which is all they desire. Ahab did but act counterfeit humiliation, and he was rewarded for it, 1 Kings 21:27–29. So the Scribes and Pharisees did many good things, and had that they looked for. They looked not for heaven, but for the praise of men. This they had, as Christ tells them, ‘Verily, I say unto you, you have your reward,’ Mat. 6:5. God will be beholding to none; but whosoever do anything that is good, they shall have some reward, whether they be good or bad. If the conscience of a man did judge well, he might come to God with boldness, not to brag of good works, but out of a humble heart saying, ‘Remember me, O Lord, as I have dealt with thee.’ So good Hezekiah did: ‘Remember, Lord, how I have walked before thee in truth,’ Isa. 38:3. When we labor in all our actions to please God, we may with boldness approach to the throne of grace, and say with Peter, Remember, Lord, ‘you knowest that I love thee,’ John 21:15. If there were no other reward but this, that we have a privilege to go to God with boldness, our conscience not accusing us, it were enough. What a shame is it, then, that we should be so barren in good works, seeing our labor shall not be unrewarded of the Lord! Oh then let us take counsel of the apostle: ‘Finally, my brethren, be ye stedfast and unmoveable, abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord,’ 1 Cor. 15:58. He hath a reward for every cup of cold water, for every tear. Every good deed we do hath the force of a prayer to beg a blessing; yea, our very tears speak loud to God, although we say nothing. But to come to particulars.

‘Behold, I will gather thee to your fathers,’ 

Here we see this word behold, a word serving to stir up attention, set before the promise, which was formerly set before a threatening, ‘Behold, I will bring evil upon this place,’ &c. Behold is as necessary before promises as threatenings. For the soul is ready to behold that which is evil, and by nature is prone to dejection, and to cast down itself. Therefore there need be a ‘behold’ put before the promise, to raise up the dejected soul of Josiah or others, and all little enough. Christians should have two eyes, one to look upon the ill, the other upon the good, and the grace of God that is in them, that so we may be thankful. But they for the most part look only upon the ill that is in them, and so God wants his glory and we our comfort.

‘Behold, I will gather thee to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace.’

Therefore it is that the Holy Ghost sweetens death with a phrase of ‘gathering.’ Instead of saying, you shall die, he saith, ‘you shall be gathered.’ How many phrases have we in Scripture that have comfort wrapped in them, as there is in this phrase, ‘you shall be gathered to your grave in peace.’ I will not speak how many ways peace is taken in Scripture. ‘You shall die in peace;’ that is, you shall die quietly, honorably, and peaceably. And you shall not see the misery that I will bring upon the state and kingdom. You shall be gathered to your fathers, which is meant to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to all the faithful patriarchs.

Only observe, it is a very sweet word, and imports unto us, that death is nothing but a gathering, and presupposes that God’s children are all scattered in this world amongst wicked men, in a forlorn place, where they are used untowardly, as pilgrims use to be in a strange land. Therefore we had need be gathered, and it is a comfort to be gathered. But from whence shall he be gathered? He shall be gathered from a wicked, confused world; and to whom shall he go? To his Father. His soul shall go to their souls, his body shall be laid in the grave with theirs. As if he had said, you shall leave some company, but go to better; you shall leave a kingly estate, but you shall go to a better kingdom.

The changes of God’s children are for the better. Death to them is but a gathering. This gathering does show the preciousness of the thing gathered; for God does not use to gather things of no value. Josiah was a pearl worth the gathering. He was one of high esteem, very precious. So every Christian is dearly bought, with the blood of Christ. Therefore God will not suffer him to perish, but will gather him before the evil days come. As men use to gather jewels before fire comes into their houses; or as husbandmen will be sure to gather their corn, before they will let the beasts come into the field; so saith God to him, I will be sure to gather thee before I bring destruction upon the land. We are all by nature lost in Adam, and scattered from God, therefore we must be gathered again in Christ. For all gathering that is good is in him; for he is the head of all union that is good. And this is to be wrought by the ordinances of God, by the means of the ministry, which is appointed unto that end, to gather us, as Mat. 23:37, Christ speaks to Jerusalem, ‘How often would I have gathered you together, as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, but you would not.’ Christ would have gathered them unto himself, by his word, but they refused.

All the gathering of a Christian in this life is a gathering to Christ by faith, and to the communion of saints by love, 1 Thes. 4:17; and the more he does grow in grace, the more near communion he hath with Christ. Then after this gathering by grace, there comes by death a gathering to Christ in glory. For the soul goes forever and ever to be with the Lord. After this comes a higher degree of gathering at the Day of Judgment, when there shall be a great meeting of all saints, and the soul and body shall be reunited together, to remain forever with the Lord. Let us then think of this, that whatsoever befalls us in the world, we shall be sure to be gathered, for death is but a gathering. For from whence goes Josiah? From a sinful world, a sinful estate, a wretched people, unto his fathers, who are all good, nay, to God his Father. We are all here as Daniel in the lion’s den, as sheep among wolves; but at death we shall be gathered to our fathers. It is a gathering to a better place, to heaven; and to better persons, to fathers, where we shall be forever praising the Lord, never offending him, loving and pleasing one another. Here Christians displease one another, and cannot be gathered together in love and affection, but there they shall be gathered in unity of love forever.

This serves, first of all, to comfort us in departure of friends, to render their souls up with comfort into the hands of God. We know they are not lost, but sent before us. We shall be gathered to them, they cannot come to us. Therefore why should we grieve? They are gathered in quietness and rest to their fathers. This should also make us render our souls to God, as into the hands of a faithful Creator and Redeemer. From whence go we? From a sinful world and place of tears, to a place of happiness above expression. Why should we be afraid of death? It is but a gathering to our fathers. What a comfort is it to us in this world, that we shall go to a place where all is good, where we shall be perfectly renewed, made in the image of God, and shall have nothing defaced? Let this raise up our dead and drowsy souls. Thus we shall be one day gathered. The wicked shall be gathered together, but a woeful gathering is it. They shall be gathered like a bundle of tares, to be thrown into hell, there forever to burn. They are dross and chaff, never gathered to Christ by faith, nor to the body of the church by love; and therefore they are as dross and chaff, which the wind scatters here, and shall forever be scattered hereafter, Ps. 1:4. They are, as Cain, vagabonds in regard of the life of grace here; and therefore shall be forever scattered from the life of glory hereafter. They shall be gathered to those whom they delighted in, and kept company with, whilst they were in this world. They loved to keep company with the wicked here, therefore they shall be gathered to them in hell hereafter. This is sure, you shall live in heaven or hell afterwards, with those whom you live with here. Do you live only delighted in evil company now? It is pity you should be severed from them hereafter. If you be gathered to them in love and affection here, you shall be gathered to them in hell and destruction hereafter. It is a comfortable evidence to those that delight in good company, that they shall be with them in heaven forever. ‘Hereby we know that we are translated from death to life, because we love the brethren,’ 1 John 3:14. And on the contrary, those that are brethren in evil here, may read in their own wicked courses and conversation what will become of them hereafter. They are all tares, and shall be gathered together in a bundle, and cast into hell fire forever.

‘And you shall be gathered to your grave in peace.’

Here is a reward, not only to die, but to die in peace. Josiah goes the way of all flesh; he must die though he be a king. This statute binds all. All are liable to death. ‘And you shall be gathered, or put in your grave in peace.’ This declares that he should be buried; the ground whereof is out of Gen. 3:19, ‘Dust you art, and to dust you shall return.’ From earth we came, and to earth we shall return. The earth we carry and the earth we tread on shall both meet together. In that God here promises it to Josiah as a blessing.

‘And you shall be gathered to your grave in peace.’

Obj. How is this? for we read, in the succeeding chapter of Josiah, that he died a violent death; he was slain by the hands of his enemies. Is this to die in peace?

Sol. I answer, the next words do expound it. He died in peace, ‘because his eyes should not see the evil that God would bring upon the land afterwards;’ as if he had said, you shall not see the ruin of the church and commonwealth. So, though Josiah were slain by idolaters, by Pharaoh and his chariots, yet he died in peace comparatively with a worse state of life. For though he died a bloody death by the hands of his enemies, yet he died in peace, because he was prevented by death from seeing that which was worse than death. For God may reserve a man in this life to worse miseries than death itself.

From hence we learn this instruction,

That death may be less miserable than the ill which a man may live to see in this life; or, that the miseries of this life may be such as that death may be much better than life, and far rather to be chosen. We may fall into such miseries whilst we do live, that we may desire death, they being greater than it. The reason hereof is, because that a sudden death, in some respects, is better than a lingering one. One death is better than many deaths, for how many deaths did Josiah escape by this one death! It would have been a death to him if he had lived to see the ruin of the commonwealth, the church of God, and his own sons carried into captivity, to have seen them slain, their eyes plucked out, the temple of God plucked down, and idolatry set up.

‘Behold, I will gather thee to your fathers, and you shall be put in your grave in peace.’ The Lord saith, he ‘will gather.’ So we see,

Our times are in God’s hand; as David saith, ‘My time is in your hand,’ Ps. 31:15. Our times of coming into the world, continuing in it, and going out of it, are in God’s hand. Therefore he saith, ‘you shall be put in your grave in peace.’ God hath power of death. Our going and coming is from God; he is the Lord of life and death.

This is a comfort unto us while we live in this world, that whilst we live we are not in our own hands, we shall not die in our own time; neither is it in our enemies’ hands, but in God’s hand. He hath appointed a certain time of our being here in this world. This should tie us to obedience, and to die in hope and faith; because when we die we are but gathered to our fathers, to better company and place than we leave behind us.

Again we see here that men may outlive their own happiness, that at last life may be a judgment unto them, because they may see that which is worse than death. How many parents live to see the ruin of their own families! the undoing of their children by their own miscarriage! We see God takes away Josiah, because he will not have him live, as it were, beyond his happiness. We see how tenderly affected God is for the good of his children. He pities them when they are in misery, knows what they are able to bear, and will lay no more upon them than he gives them strength to endure. God knew that Josiah was tender-hearted, and melted at the very threatenings, which if he could not endure to hear against his country, could he ever have endured to have seen the miseries upon his people and country? Surely no. Therefore God will rather gather him to his fathers.

Now this is a wonderful comfort, that many times God will not let us see too great matter of grief. Let us then imitate God, and deal so one with another as God deals with us—the husband with the wife, and the wife with the husband, and the like. Let us not acquaint them with such things as may make them more grieve than is fitting, or they are able to bear. God would not have Josiah to see the misery he brought upon his country, because he knew that he was tenderly disposed, that a little grief would soon overcome him. So let us beware of causing any to grieve, or to let them know things which they are not able to bear.

Again, Seeing this is a grief to a kind and loving father, yea, worse than death, to see the ruin of his child, this should teach all those that are young, to take care that they give no occasion of offence to those that are over them, for to grieve; which will be worse than death unto them. It would have been worse than a death unto Josiah to have seen the ruin of his children. So for those children which have been cherished by their parents in their young age, it will be worse than death to them in their age to see their children lewd and come to ruin, whereby they bring so much sooner the grey head of their father to the grave in sorrow. These offend against the sixth commandment, which saith, ‘you shall not kill.’ Let us then rather revive and comfort the heart of those that have been good unto us, and not kill them, or do that which is worse than death unto them.

‘Neither shall your eyes see the misery I will bring upon this people.’

Here we learn again that it is the sight of misery which works the deepest impression. It is not the hearing of a thing, but the sight of it, which affecteth most deeply; as in the sacrament, the seeing of the bread broken, and the wine poured out, works a deep impression; and because God knew Josiah’s heart would break at the sight of the misery, therefore he tells him, ‘Thine eyes shall not see the evil that I will bring upon this place.’ The sight is a most working sense, to make the deepest impression upon the soul. What shall be our great joy and happiness in heaven, but that we shall see God forevermore? Sight is a blessing upon earth, both the eyes of the body wherewith we see, and the eyes of the soul—that is, faith—which makes us see afar off, till in heaven we shall see him face to face. So that sight makes us both happy and miserable.

How wretched, then, is the estate of them that shall see themselves, with their own wicked eyes, sent to hell, with the creature they delighted in. That which the eyes see, the heart feels. There are many atheists, whose whole care is to preserve life. They would live, although they live the life of a dog. But the time will come, that you wilt more earnestly desire death than life. Thy eyes shall see, and your body feel, and your conscience too, that which is worse than a thousand deaths. You shall then die a living death. The worm of your conscience shall gnaw thee forever, and shall see and feel the tormenting fire which shall never be quenched. That which the wicked nourish now to follow their humor, never caring to please God, the day will be when they shall desire to avoid it; and that which they labor to avoid most now, the time will come when they shall most desire it. Death is the king of fears. It is terrible. But then look beyond death: what is behind that? You shall see at the heels of it hell and eternal damnation.

This should teach us also how to understand the promise of long life. It is a promise and a favor of God to be desired. It is a prayer with condition, if God see it good; else God may give us long life, to see and feel a world of misery. Therefore such promises are to be desired conditionally: if God see it good for us.

Again, The Holy Ghost saith here, ‘Thy eyes shall not see the evil I will bring upon this place.’ Hence we learn, that those which be dead in the Lord, are freed from seeing of any evil or misery. The godly shall see no misery after death. If this be so, then they do not go into purgatory after death, as the papists hold. The Holy Ghost saith, Josiah is taken away from seeing any evil to come. Then sure they do not fall into such misery after death, which is worse than death. True, say the papists, such excellent men as Josiah do go to heaven immediately. Ay, but the Holy Ghost saith by Isaiah, 57:1, that ‘the righteous are taken away from the evil to come.’ It is spoken of the whole generation of righteous men. Therefore it is a sottish thing for them to hold that any of them shall see purgatory, when God saith the righteous are taken away from seeing any evil to come.

‘You shall be put in your grave in peace, neither shall your eyes see all, the evil that I will bring upon this place.’

Let us learn here a mystery of divine providence in his death; for there is a mystery of providence, not only in great matters, as election and predestination, but in ordering of the common things of the world. How many excellent mysteries are here wrapped together in this death of Josiah! As, first, it is said that he died in peace, whereas he died a violent death, and was slain by the hands of his enemies. His death was both a mercy and a correction: a correction for his error in being so hasty in going to war with Pharaoh, king of Egypt; and yet it was a mercy, because it prevented him from seeing the evil to come, and so likewise brought him sooner to heaven. It is a strange thing to see how the wisdom of heaven can mingle crosses and favors, corrections and mercies together; that the same thing should be both a mercy to Josiah to be taken away, and yet a correction also for his error, in going to fight against Necho, king of Egypt, as we see 2 Chron. 35:23. We may have mercies and afflictions upon us at the same time, as God, by the same death, corrected Josiah’s folly, and rewarded his humility.

Mark here again another mystery, in the carriage of divine providence: how he brings his promises to pass strangely above the reach of man; as here, he having promised Josiah that he should die in peace, one would have thought that Josiah should have died in pomp and state. No. you shall die in peace, although you be slain by the hand of your enemies; you shall come to heaven, although it be by a strange way. Thus God brings his children to heaven by strange ways, yea, by contrary ways, [by] afflictions and persecutions. Paul knew he should come to Rome, although it were by a strange way; though he suffered shipwreck, and was in great danger, as we may see Acts 27:2, seq. God hath strange ways to bring his counsels to pass, which he does so strangely, as we may see his own hand in it.

Again, Here we may see another mystery in divine providence, concerning the death of Josiah, in that he was taken away being a young man, but thirty-nine years old, who was the flower of his kingdom, and one upon whom the flourishing estate of such a kingdom did depend. Now, for such a gracious prince to be taken away in such a time, and at such an age, when he might have done much good, a man would hardly believe this mystery in divine providence. But ‘our times are in God’s hand,’ Ps. 31:15. His time is better than ours. And therefore he, seeing the sins of the people to be so great, that he could not bear with them longer,—for it was the sins of the people that deprived them of Josiah. It was not the king of Egypt who was the cause of his death, but the sins of the land—those caused God to make this way, to take away their gracious king.

Here we may admire the wisdom of God, who does not give an account unto us of his doings, why he suffers some to live, and takes away others; why he suffers the wicked to live, and takes away his own. We can give little reason for it, because it is a mystery; but God best knows the time when to reap his own corn.

‘Neither shall your eyes see all the evil I will bring upon this place, and upon the inhabitants of the land.’

Here the Holy Ghost does insinuate unto us that whilst Josiah was alive, God would not bring this judgment upon the land, but after his death, then it should come upon them. So here we learn this comfortable point of instruction, that the lives of God’s children do keep back judgment and evil from the place where they live, and their death is a forerunner of judgment. Their life keeps back ill, and their death plucks down ill. While you art alive, I will bring no evil upon this place, but when you are gone, then I will bring it down, saith God. The reasons of this are,

Reason 1. Because gracious men do make the times and the places good where they live. It is a world of good that is done by their example and help. While they live the times are the better for them.

Reason 2. And again, they keep back ill, because gracious men do bind God by their prayers. They force, as it were, a necessity upon God, that he must let the world alone. They bind his hands, that he will do nothing while they are in it; as to Lot in Sodom, ‘I can do nothing while you are gone, saith the angel,’ Gen. 19:22. They stand in the gap, and keep God from pouring down the vials of his wrath. But when they are gone, there is nothing to hinder or stop the current of divine justice, but that it must needs have his course. As when men have gathered their corn into their barns, then let their beasts, or whatsoever else go into the field, they care not; and as when the jewels are taken out of a rotten house, though the fire then seize upon it, men regard not. So when God’s jewels are gathered to himself, then woe to the wicked world, for then God will break forth in wrath upon them. Woe to the old world when Noah goes into the ark, for then follows the flood. Woe to Sodom when Lot goes out of it, for then it is sure to be burned. Luther prayed that God would not bring war upon the people in Germany during his time, but when he died, the whole land was overspread with war. So, before the destruction of Jerusalem, God did gather the Christians to a little city called Pella, near Jerusalem, then came Titus and Vespasian and destroyed the city of Jerusalem. So there are many gracious parents that die, after whose death comes some miserable end to their wicked children, but not before. God takes away the parents out of the world, that they might not see the ruin of their children. So then we see that it is clear, that good men keep back judgment from the places where they live.