If the apostle Paul, by his own admission, was the chief of sinners in the New Testament, then Manasseh could well lay claim to that dubious title in the Old Testament. It is encouraging to note, however, that ‘where sin abounded, grace did much more abound’, Rom. 5. 20, and both men sought and found repentance. For Manasseh, it was rather too late to reverse his former excesses completely, though it may be that while unable to influence his son Amon for good, perhaps, in his latter few years he was able to encourage his grandson Josiah, though the lad was only six years old when Manasseh died.
It is plain from scripture, and evident in history, that godly parents do not necessarily produce godly children. Manasseh was the son, and, as far as we can gather from scripture, the only son, of Hezekiah, who is often granted the epithet ‘good king Hezekiah’. It would seem from the record also that Hephzibah, the mother of Manasseh, whose name means ‘my delight is in her’, was Hezekiah’s only wife. When terminal illness struck Hezekiah, there was no son to take the crown and continue the unbroken line of succession from King David. It would almost seem that the Lord, knowing the evil that would be brought upon the land by Manasseh, was reluctant to allow his birth, in which case another direct descendant of Ahaz, the father of Hezekiah, would continue the line. However, such a contingency was not required as the plea of Hezekiah was heard and fifteen years were added to his life.
There must have been much rejoicing when this son was born, three years after the word of the Lord through the prophet Isaiah had announced to Hezekiah, with uncompromising candour, ‘Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live’; Isaiah, it would seem, was not exactly renowned for his comforting bedside manner! The son was named Manasseh, which means ‘forgetting’. In patriarchal days, Joseph had given this name to his firstborn in acknowledgement of the Lord’s goodness in allowing him to forget the trials through which he had passed and to put them behind him. Maybe Hezekiah was hoping to forget his illness and the limits put upon his own life, looking forward to the training and development of his son as the future king.
In the event, it was Manasseh who did the forgetting! He forgot the many times that the Lord had shown mercy to the nation when they had turned to Him. He forgot the lessons learned by his father in the destruction of the invading Assyrians; he forgot the warnings against idolatry given by faithful prophets; in fact, he forgot the Lord altogether! What he did not forget were the abominable and sensual rituals involved in the worship of deities revered by the Canaanite nations, who occupied the land when Israel entered it some 750 years previously; Manasseh took the nation right back to the dark days of its history!
Good king though he was, the illness of Hezekiah proved to be a watershed in his life. Following his miraculous recovery, he ‘rendered not again according to the benefit done unto him; for his heart was lifted up’, 2 Chr. 32. 25. Pride led him to reveal his wealth to the Babylonian ambassadors, occasioning another frosty visit from Isaiah foretelling the Babylonian captivity; Hezekiah must have been apprehensive every time he saw Isaiah coming up the palace steps! It was, sadly, only this latter stage of his father’s life that Manasseh saw.
At the tender age of twelve, Manasseh found himself on the throne, with wealth, authority and power to influence for good, or for ill. What he did not know was that he would wear the crown for longer than any before him, or those who succeeded him; what an opportunity to make a lasting impression for good! Alas, Manasseh is remembered for just the opposite reason, Jer. 15. 4.
Although the record of Hezekiah’s reign gives cause for encouragement, the warnings of Isaiah reveal an undercurrent of corruption and idolatry, which blighted the nation’s rulers and permeated throughout society, Isa. 28. 7-8. With Hezekiah’s passing, this malignant growth surfaced and influenced the young king. The record of scripture in both Kings and Chronicles offers no indication that Manasseh made any attempt, or showed the least inclination, to follow the reforms of his father; it would seem that he plunged headlong into a cesspool of iniquity, attempting, if possible, to supersede each vile practice with something even more monstrous!
Idolatry simmered beneath the surface throughout the pre-captivity history of Judah. It would emerge from time to time in various forms and in varying intensity. If, however, we think of idolatry as something consigned to history and heathendom, we do so at our peril! It was reality enough to the godly hymn writer William Cowper to cause him to write with feeling:
The dearest idol I have known,
Whate'er that idol be
Help me to tear it from Thy throne,
And worship only Thee.
Almost from the very dawn of history, man has sought to elevate himself in his defiance of God. Babel was built as a means of challenging God, with its worship of the heavens. Idolatrous priests favoured high places from which to engage in their nefarious practices; such places gave an impression of superiority and authority, and Manasseh provided them on a massive scale. He built altars, planted groves, and made images in direct rebellion against the word of God, Deut. 16. 21-22. He then turned his attention to the temple. This was the place concerning which the Lord had said to Solomon, ‘Now have I chosen and sanctified this house, that my name may be there forever: and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually’, 2 Chr. 7. 16; how it must have offended His eyes and grieved His heart to see Manasseh’s idols and altars profaning the sacred precincts. How we need to constantly remind ourselves, in a defiling world, that our bodies are ‘the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own’, 1 Cor. 6. 19; how careful we should be!
Having made a conscious decision to engage in fellowship with demons and gorge himself at their table, we are not surprised to find Manasseh immersing himself in the occult. The scripture accounts it ‘wickedness’, yet many in our day consider it harmless, or ‘just a bit of fun’ to dabble with horoscopes and tarot cards, or worse – things the believer should avoid at all costs. As the crowning obscenity of his reign, Manasseh ‘caused his children to pass through the fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom’, 2 Chr. 33. 6; a sacrificial offering to Molech, the god of the Ammonites. Abhorrent though it may seem, the gross rituals associated with this pagan deity were a persistent snare to the nation, despite repeated warnings, Lev. 18. 21; Jer. 32. 35.
Tradition holds that Manasseh was responsible for the martyrdom of Isaiah, which may well be so for the prophet’s voice is certainly not heard during Manasseh’s reign. Other prophets of God, however, did speak out against the king’s excesses, warning of dire consequences, 2 Kgs. 21. 10-15. This may have cost them their lives, for the verses which follow tell of the innocent blood which he shed, ‘till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to the other’, harrowing details indeed!
2 Chronicles chapter 33 verses 9 and 10 provide a concise, though depressing, summary of Manasseh’s obdurate behaviour, he ‘made Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to err, and to do worse than the heathen, whom the Lord had destroyed before the children of Israel. And the Lord spake to Manasseh, and to his people: but they would not hearken’. There were times when the conduct of certain kings was compared favourably or otherwise with their predecessors. Manasseh exceeded them all in wickedness even by comparison with the Canaanite nations who once occupied the land!
If we had only the record of 2 Kings chapter 21 we would assume that Manasseh lived and died a degenerate reprobate, deserving only the just reward of his deeds. God, however, was not just a detached observer of these excesses, and how glad we are that the Spirit of God has given us the second book of Chronicles. These were the Lord’s people, His land, His temple and His glory in jeopardy! So, the mercy of God pursued Manasseh. As so often in their history, the Lord used one of the surrounding nations to discipline His people. On this occasion it was the ‘captains of the host of the king of Assyria’ who captured and imprisoned Manasseh, little realizing that they were but agents in the hand of a sovereign God, accomplishing His purpose.
The ‘conversion’ of Manasseh, for so it was, is told in a few words. His affliction brought him face to face with his sin, the cause of his suffering, and he ‘besought the Lord his God’. Pride and arrogance gone, doubtless brought to his knees, he ‘humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and prayed unto him’. Then we read those remarkable words, which bring hope to the vilest sinner, light to the darkened soul and comfort to the despairing heart, ‘He was intreated of him, and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem’.
As he entered the city, before and around him were the altars, the high places, the images and the groves of his former life; yet even as he viewed them ‘Manasseh knew that the Lord he was God’, 2 Chr. 33. 13. We do not know how much longer Manasseh lived and reigned. What we do know, however, is that his conversion was real; the change was evident. From this point on, and for the rest of his life, he set about trying to undo the damage he had inflicted on the city and the nation. A high wall was built on the side of the city which would provide most protection for the temple mount. The military was strengthened, idols and altars were destroyed and the altar of the Lord repaired in order to offer peace offerings and thank offerings.
Sadly, however, damage had been done, both to his family and to many in the nation. Sometimes, the consequences of sin, though repented of and forgiven, are not easily eradicated. When Amon came to the throne, on the death of Manasseh, he quickly immersed himself in all the former excesses of his father, having learned nothing from God’s mercy to one so steeped in sin. But he would learn to his eternal cost that ‘God is not mocked’. Instead of the fifty-five years granted to Manasseh, only two years are allowed to Amon, during which he ‘humbled not himself as his father … but trespassed more and more’. Even his own servants could not tolerate him and they ‘slew him in his own house’; a cautionary warning to all who ignore the lessons to be learned from the lives of others!