The longer the people worshipped idols, the farther they drifted away from God. The kings of Israel were pretty continually unfaithful to God. Eventually, God allowed the northern kingdom to be conquered by Assyria. But in addition to conquering Israel, the Assyrians took virtually all of the people captive and removed them to other lands.
The nation of Judah followed much the same direction as their brethren to the north. But along the way they did have some good kings, the last of which was Josiah, who began to reign when he was only eight years old. When Josiah was sixteen, he began to seek God. When he was twenty years old, he began to lead the nation in something of a spiritual reform movement, purging Jerusalem and Judah of much of the images, altars and places of worship that had been used in the worship of idols.
As Josiah reached the age of twenty six, an amazing thing happened. The temple had fallen into disrepair, probably indicating the people’s lack of focus on serving God. While the temple was being repaired, Hilkiah the high priest found the “Book of the Law of the Lord given by Moses” ( 2 Chron. 34:8-15 ). This was probably the first five books of the Old Testament and contained the law given by God to Moses, including the Ten Commandments . It was not that it had simply been misplaced. The sense of the text is that the nation of Judah had become so unfaithful to God that the people, the king, even the high priest had forgotten that the Book of the Law of the Lord even existed! This would be basically equivalent to forgetting that there ever was such a thing as the Bible.
Josiah had exhibited great zeal in putting away much of the idolatry that had been practiced in the land. But when the book was read to him he tore his clothes, recognizing that his nation, supposedly God’s people, the keepers of God’s temple, had been terribly unfaithful to God for a very long time. From our perspective, losing the Book of the Law of the Lord seems unbelievable, incompressible, unimaginable. Yet, it was true!
How could that happen? “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” ( Rom. 10:17 ). The less time people spend reading God’s word, the weaker their faith will become. As their faith continues to weaken, they spend less and less time in the word. Eventually, they become unfaithful and read God’s word not at all. Over time, they forget much of what they had learned. They can’t teach what they don’t know to their children, so their children can’t teach it to their children. People can get to a point where they not only don’t know God’s word, but they don’t know about God’s word.