As we walk through this season of Lent, we’ll continue to follow the book of 2 Chronicles to its end. Today we pick up where we left off two weeks ago – in chapter 33 with the stories of two Kings: Manasseh and Amon. Before Lent, we enjoyed four mostly happy chapters about King Hezekiah and all the good he did for Judah. We reflected on how we as individuals, as a local church, and especially as the global Church, could imitate Hezekiah’s great faithfulness to God. Now, however, we begin to see some more colorful stories.
King Manasseh reigned for 55 years, making him the longest-lasting king of Israel or Judah. You might be tempted to assume that a long reign or lifespan is a sign of God’s approval and blessing. Not so here; Manasseh is identified in the book of 2 Kings as being the worst of all the kings of Judah! Plus, considering how long of a life he led, it’s striking to note how very short his stories are in the Bible, compared with other kings. Hezekiah reigned for 29 years, and got four whole chapters in this book; Manasseh reigned for 55 years and gets only most of one chapter! You know what our mothers taught us – “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Well, unlike the book of Kings, the Chronicler does actually find something nice to say about Manasseh, which is why I’d name this sermon “The Fall and Rise of King Manasseh.”
The Fall of King Manasseh (v1-10)
For those of you who like dates, Manasseh’s reign was from about 696 to 642BC. The Assyrian Empire, which you may recall threatened King Hezekiah in the previous chapter, is still the big powerhouse in the Middle East, but it’s beginning to wobble. The common practice of splitting kingdoms among the sons (rather than the later practice of giving the whole kingdom to the firstborn son) resulted in a great deal of warfare between brothers, and this played a big role in the survival of the Kingdom of Judah. While the big world powers are fighting it out, so to speak, this little country, surrounded on all sides, can play different sides off each other and therefore keep them out. King Hezekiah had had a few issues of pride in these matters, showing off his wealth to foreign powers, and Manasseh probably got himself knee-deep in international politics in order to keep those Assyrians out.
But the book of Chronicles doesn’t care too much about that. As before, this author’s priority is the spiritual condition of God’s people. Back in chapter 7, when the Temple was being dedicated, God made a fantastic promise. “I have heard your prayer, and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there for ever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time. And as for you, if you walk before me, as David your father walked, doing according to all that I have commanded you and keeping my statutes and my ordinances, then I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father, saying, `There shall not fail you a man to rule Israel.’” (12b-18) We saw this promise of healing playing out in Hezekiah’s time. As I said in those weeks, this is a promise that people frequently take out of context today. These promises about “healing the land” have nothing to do with making America great again, but have everything to do with the condition of God’s Kingdom, the Church.
Along with that great promise came also a great warning. “”But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments which I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will pluck you up from the land which I have given you; and this house, which I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples. And at this house, which is exalted, every one passing by will be astonished, and say, `Why has the LORD done thus to this land and to this house?” Then they will say, `Because they forsook the LORD the God of their fathers who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and laid hold on other gods, and worshiped them and served them; therefore he has brought all this evil upon them’” (19-22). This is what we see advancing under King Manasseh. Verses 3 through 9 list the terrible things he promoted and did.
He built high places. These were pagan shrines at which people could worship all sorts of other gods in addition to the One True God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The Baals and Asheroth were pairs of deities. Baal was a storm god, and Asherah was a fertility goddess. Worshiping these sorts of deities involved something similar to “sympathetic magic,” in which the way people worshiped them on earth could affect the gods in the heavens. There’s a particularly strange law in Exodus and Leviticus: “you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” God wasn’t just being random that day; the mixing of meat and milk, male and female, was one of the many forms of appealing to the gods. Baal and Asherah were particularly valuable deities to attract and appease, because the storm god brings rain, and the fertility goddess blesses your crops. So there was a lot of ‘mixing’ going on at these shrines and asheroth. (An asheroth, or ashera pole, is something like a totem pole.) To put it bluntly, this was prostitution, under the guise of religion.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, Manasseh had these shrines built in the Temple of the Lord, too. I suppose they thought that if they could get the powerful god whom Hezekiah had worshipped to mix with some of these other gods, they could make Judah great again! Also, with the Temple being where God said he would dwell, this act of putting up pagan shrines there was essentially an act of re-writing their identity. As with the Golden Calf during the Exodus, this is an episode of God’s people re-inventing and re-imagining God in a whole new (and heretical) way.
So we’ve seen several of the Ten Commandments broken already – the first, the second, and also adultery. But in verse 6 the list is expanded to include murder. Manasseh even burned his sons as an offering to the gods. This is obviously a terrible thing, but let’s take a moment to appreciate just how terrible this is. What is the most demanding sacrifice that can possibly be made? What is the last thing you would ever give up and lose? In our right minds we would gladly lose our money and possessions to save our lives. But even further, most people would die themselves to save their children. God Himself shows us this on the Cross: the most dear and beloved offering that he could make to demonstrate how much he loves us and wants to save us, is the offering of his only-begotten son, Jesus Christ.
And here is King Manasseh, burning his children in sacrificial fires to appease goodness-knows how many false gods out there! That really is just about as far as a man can fall. It almost seems an extraneous addition to see fortune-telling, omens, sorcery, witchcraft, and necromancy added to the list of his spiritual crimes.
Verse 9 concludes this list with a powerful statement of judgment. The people were now doing more evil than the nations whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel. Think about that – the nations that God drove out of the Promised Land were sinful idolaters. God actually waited for them to fall into evil before he swept them aside to let Israel in. And now Israel has become even worse than they! This is a very clear indication that God’s people had lost the right to live in the land God had given them.
God wasn’t sitting idly by, though. Verse 10 notes that God spoke, but they paid no attention. Do you ever find yourself falling into that kind of trap? “God, why don’t you just speak to me?” Just as Manasseh had the Law and Prophets to witness God’s word to him, we have the Bible and preachers to witness God’s word to us. As some witty folks on the internet like to say, if you want to hear God’s voice, read the Bible. And if you want to hear God’s voice audibly, read it out loud!
The Rise of King Manasseh (v11-20)
Finally, God decides that for Manasseh, actions will speak louder than words. By the providence of God, the rebellions in the Assyrian Empire finally embroil Judah in their machinations, and Manasseh is captured and hauled off to the city of Babylon. This took place probably in the later part of Manasseh’s reign, when the Assyrian king’s brother was leading a failed four-year-long rebellion. Perhaps Manasseh had assisted the brother, and was defeated and taken captive.
Whatever the political situation, God used it to advance his will. In captivity, Manasseh repented. Amidst the chains and hooks and other humiliations he endured, he finally realized how stupid he had been. He finally understood that his unfaithfulness had landed him in captivity, just as God had warned way back at the dedication of the Temple, and at other times as well. His captivity was a foreshadowing of the captivity of the entire nation of Judah that would follow in few a couple more generations.
Hearing the prayers of Manasseh, and seeing the sincerity of his heart, God decided to show him mercy, and brought him home again. And we hear those marvelous words in verse 13, “Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God.” Amen! This ranks up there as one of the most dramatic turning points in all the Bible’s stories. This is like the conversion of Paul, or the confession of the Centurion at the foot of the Cross, “Surely, this man was the son of God!”
This great conversion took place in exile. For Manasseh it required great discipline and punishment for his heart to be moved toward true repentance. This is not the experience of everyone; some of you knew God for your entire lives and never experienced a dramatic exile that led you to God. Others of you do have a story that follows that pattern. Regardless of how our initial conversion to Christ took place, this does remind us all that every experience of discipline and suffering in life is a reminder to repent. I don’t mean that every time something bad happens to you, it’s because you messed up and did something wrong. Rather, whether it was your sin that led to your suffering or not, every instance of pain and suffering is an opportunity to exercise our faith and turn to Christ anew.
Although we don’t know what Manasseh said in his prayer of repentance, we do have a Jewish scholar’s imagining of what it might have been like. The Prayer of Manasseh is a prayer found in the Greek Old Testament, often as an appendix to 2 Chronicles. It provides a vivid account of the depths of human sinfulness and the even-greater depths of God’s loving mercy for those who repent. That prayer, like the story of Manasseh, reminds us that although we repent out of fear, we also repent in hope, because God has already promised restoration for those who repent.
Returning to Manasseh’s story, now, verses 14 through 17 describe what happened after his great conversion. Some “healing of the land” does take place; the walls are repaired, continuing Hezekiah’s good work; the armies are reorganized, perhaps anticipating further unrest in Assyria and Egypt; and the Temple is cleaned up of idolatry and paganism. This is a very similar sort of Reformation that King Hezekiah organized at the beginning his reign.
What’s different this time is the people. Where Hezekiah made sure to get the ministers on board, and won the hearts of the people for God, Manasseh seems to be all on his own here. The people still sacrificed at the high places, verse 17 tells us. Their sacrifices were “only to the Lord their God,” which might make you ask “isn’t that close enough?” But again, no, it isn’t. The Temple was more than just a symbol; it was God’s house. By refusing to go there for sacrifice and worship, the people were asserting that they could approach God on their own terms. By rejecting the centrality of the Temple, they were rejecting the Covenant; and no covenant, no relationship. The same is true today; you cannot claim to worship Christ while worshiping him in any way you choose and reject the Church. When someone tells you “I’m a Christian, I just don’t like going to Church,” you know that’s a red flag. How can someone have a relationship with Jesus if they aren’t part of his family? How can they be connected to the Head if they are not a member of the Body? So we see that God is not simply being picky about all this right-worship stuff; it’s actually a matter of life-giving participation in the people of God!
So although Manasseh himself had converted and repented, he did not draw the majority of his people with him. As a result, it’s a bittersweet story. But we can still be very much comforted by the example of how one of the worst sinners can still be saved. If God could save Manasseh, he can save anyone! So don’t give up hope as you pray for others to know Christ! Just as the destruction of Judah was put off to later dates due to the repentance of several of their kings, so is the return of Christ delayed, to allow time for more people to know Him and repent. And, of course, even in the worst of circumstances, God can still bring about deliverance. That is always a comforting reminder.
Epilogue: King Amon was unrepentant (v21-25)
Because it is Lent, we’re going to end on a bit of a downer. 2 Chronicles 33 concludes with the brief story of Manasseh’s son, King Amon. He only reigned for two years before God cut him off. Verse 23 gives a double-whammy of bad news: “he did not humble himself” and he “incurred guilt more and more.” He brought back all the idolatry that Manasseh had done. His father’s conversion obviously didn’t leave much of an impression on him. It’s a painful reminder that parents cannot guarantee the way their children turn out.
But this also draws us deeper into spiritual dynamics that are described in the New Testament. Romans 2:12 reads “All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.” In other words, we all start in the same place: in sin. Ever since Adam & Eve, the default setting for the human being is sinful rebellion against God. Only repentance changes that. That’s why it says King Amon incurred more guilt – by refusing to repent he increased in the sin he already had. All our hope is in Jesus. We cannot put any confidence in our own goodness; there is always evil lurking within us, and in the presence of God, absolutely no evil may be permitted.
So in the case of King Amon we see someone like the Pharaoh in Moses’ time, whose heart was hardened and would not accept God. Everyone has to repent for himself. Manasseh’s repentance encourages us that even an eleventh-hour repentance by the worst of offenders will be accepted. Amon’s lack of repentance reminds us that we can’t count on waiting until that eleventh hour.