As KING Manasseh grew more powerful, he began to force the people to follow him more and more deeply into pagan practices. Because of his evil deeds, God began to act by sending His prophets with warnings for the people of Judah.
"Warn Manasseh and the people," God told them, "that because the king has stooped to abominations greater than those of surrounding nations of the past, whom I have destroyed, and has forced his subjects to do the same by torturing and murdering the faithful, I will bring terrible times on Judah. If people could hear what their fate will be, their ears would almost burn at listening to the fearful facts. "As Samaria fell, so shall Jerusalem. I shall wipe out the city as one wipes out a dirty dish by turning it upside down and scooping out the leftovers. I shall forsake this nation. The inhabitants will fall into the hands of their enemies, to become slaves just as the people of Samaria and the northern tribes of national Israel went into captivity. "Ever since I brought my people out of Egypt more then eight hundred years ago, they have troubled me and tried my patience. Their king has now become one of the basest offenders by conducting himself like an insane man. He won't be allowed to continue in his murderous manner much longer." (II Kings 21:10-16; II Chronicles 33:10.) The prophets who received this message were Joel, Nahum, Habakkuk and Isaiah. And they wrote down God's warnings in their books which are now part of the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament. At great personal risk, these men managed to make public what God had told them. When reports reached Manasseh, he laughed derisively, but the more he thought about these men having the boldness to give him warnings, supposedly from the God he loathed, the more irritated he became. "The doomsday dolts are at it again!" he scoffed. "I want them brought here to explain just how their God plans to stop me from doing what I please!" Some, if not all, of the prophets were arrested at this time. Scriptural and secular references indicate that the elderly Isaiah was one of them. Tradition says that because Manasseh was angered by Isaiah's loyalty to God and his warnings, he had the prophet sawn in two. These religious persecutions are described in the New Testament "faith chapter," Hebrews 11, especially verses 36 to 38. It was an unusual thing, even in ancient times, for a nation to be surprised by large enemy forces that had already penetrated its borders. There were generally spies and frontier lookouts on duty to pass back information even on small bands of strangers. But because God willed it, this early warning system failed to work for Judah shortly after Isaiah's horrible death. The people of Judah had a sudden, sickening awareness that Assyrian troops were moving swiftly through the land. The sentries on Jerusalem's walls knew nothing of what was happening till they saw the enemy soldiers swarming toward the city's main gate. (II Chronicles 33:11.) "Your king is our prisoner!" an Assyrian officer called out when the invaders were just beyond an arrow's range of the walls. "If you want him back, open the gates and send your citizens out to us! If you send soldiers, your king will die right here!" Leaders of Judah under Manasseh were shocked when they saw that their king was indeed a prisoner of the Assyrians. Obviously he had been captured while on a trip outside Jerusalem. The leaders of Judah decided to send out a few hundred citizens in exchange for Manasseh. The unfortunate ones, mainly women and children, were roughly herded outside through gates that were briefly opened, then slammed shut before enemy troops could try to force an entrance. Those thrust out of their city immediately became captives of the Assyrians, who expressed their anger at the small number of citizens given them.
King Manasseh in Captivity
"More! More!" roared the invaders. "Isn't your king's life worth more than this paltry few?" The officers of Judah had no choice but to quickly force more people out through a gate opened only a minute or so. Again, as before, soldiers of Judah remained inside where they could be more effective in the defense of the city. Again the Assyrians pounced on their prey and bellowed for more. This convinced those in authority in Jerusalem that the Assyrians had no intention of releasing Manasseh. They refused to send out any more people. Having taken other captives from other undefended areas of Judah, and not wishing to carry on a long siege of well-defended Jerusalem, the Assyrians departed with their prisoners. They didn't take Manasseh's life as they had threatened. Instead they took him with them, forcing him to walk in heavy loops of clanking chains. This cruel man who had challenged his Creator could scarcely believe that he was in the hands of his enemies. It was much easier for him to believe almost two months and hundreds of long miles later when he was led disgracefully through the streets of the city of Babylon. (II Chronicles 33:9-11.) "Can this actually be the mighty king of Judah? He lacks the apparel of one of royalty. He doesn't even have the bearing and dignity of a ruler!" The contemptuous speaker was Esarhaddon, king of Assyria and son of the murdered Sennacherib. The setting was his palace in Babylon, the city-state he had forced back under Assyrian domination. Manasseh, weighted down with his metal fetters, could only stare back with undisguised hatred as his conqueror belittled him before the Assyrian notables who were present. "This man must learn that Judah shall at last become a vassal nation," Esarhaddon continued arrogantly. "Obviously he isn't yet convinced. Put him in the lower dungeon, and keep him there until he surrenders his nation!" Thus started months of miserable confinement for Manasseh, who didn't believe that he would long remain in prison because his many pagan gods would come to his rescue. As the weeks went by, Manasseh exhorted these false gods and goddesses one by one to deliver him from the Assyrians. Stunned because nothing occurred in his favor, Manasseh began to doubt the powers of the gods to whom he had been faithful for years. Doubting the powers of these false deities, he began to wonder if it could be possible that the God his father had worshipped could possibly exist and have the tremendous power that was claimed in ancient Israelite records.
Manasseh Finally Repents
Miserable and desperate, the king of Judah finally concluded that it might be worth the effort to pray to the God of Israel for help. There was no response. But there was a strange awareness that belief in pagan gods was a futile and foolish pursuit. With this start toward wisdom, and through continued fervent prayer to God, Manasseh was encouraged by a growing assurance that he was at last beginning to contact the one real Supreme Power. From then on he began to strongly regret all the things he had done to lead Judah back into idolatry which his father, Hezekiah, had worked to remove from the nation. Regret turned into genuine repentance, which God always recognizes. Manasseh's repentance was so intense and genuine that God caused the king of Assyria to change his plans about Judah and Manasseh. God always blesses ANYONE who sincerely repents. Manasseh's repentance (II Chronicles 33:12-13) was one of the most profound in all the Bible. The record of it serves to show that our God is so filled with compassion that He will honor the sincere repentance of anyone, no matter how black his deeds have been. Surely no king of Israel or Judah ever provoked God's wrath more with his blatant idolatry even to the point of bringing an idol into God's very own temple. II Kings 21 chronicles the record of his rotten deeds. Only the unregenerate Ahab could begin to rival Manasseh in wickedness. (II Kings 21:3.) Yet our God is so brimful of mercy that He honored even Ahab's humility even though he never really repented. (I Kings 21:29.) God will forgive any person who makes a full surrender to Him without any reservations — no matter how terrible, or how many, have been his sins. God will forgive them all. (Matthew 12:31.) The Apostle Paul himself said that BEFORE conversion he was "a blasphemer and a persecutor, and injurious." He actually counted himself the "chief of sinners." Yet he obtained mercy, that in him first Jesus Christ "might shew forth ALL LONG-SUFFERING, FOR A PATTERN to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting." (I Timothy 1:13-16.) God made sure that His Word was replete with examples of the real repentance of grievous sinners. So no one should ever say, "My sins are so bad that God couldn't possibly forgive me." And no matter how you may feel about your personal sins, that same merciful God stands ready TO FORGIVE YOU upon genuine repentance. (Psalm 86:5.)
Manasseh Released From Captivity
"This stubborn king of Judah will never willingly surrender his nation to us," Esarhaddon told his officers and leaders. "Even if he did, his people would put up a resistance I can't afford. It would be wiser to send Manasseh back to Jerusalem. His nation would then become a stronger buffer state between us and our troublesome Egyptian enemies. At the same time, we can always demand tribute from these Israelites, and one we can continue to exact. Is this not better than paying many Assyrian lives to overcome Judah? The nation can be of greater benefit to us if it remains strong and productive." Naturally there was no evident opposition to the king's wish, although there must have been military men present who were disappointed to learn that their commander had decided not to wage a mad, bloody war on the kingdom of Judah. Shortly after Esarhaddon's statement, a prison attendant came to free the astonished king of Judah from his dismal cell and escort him to comfortable quarters where he could bathe and be dressed in fine apparel. Servants were present to wait on him, but at his first moment of privacy Manasseh threw himself on the floor and poured out thanks to God for this startling miracle of release from a dark dungeon. He was more surprised and thankful when he learned that he was about to be escorted by Assyrian soldiers back to Jerusalem. (II Chronicles 33:12-13.) There was much celebrating in Judah — and especially in the capital — when Manasseh returned to his kingship. At the same time there was surprise and gloom among the king's former ranking favorites when they learned of the great change in their leader. "He keeps talking about the 'God of Israel' instead of our gods," an officer remarked concernedly to others. "Something must have happened to his mind while he was in prison!" "There is no doubt of it," another agreed. "I heard that he intends to try to restrain the people from worshipping any god except the God his father worshipped. That will take some doing, because not many people will want to be tied down to observing the harsh laws of the old God of Israel."
The Struggle to Change
Unhappily for many, that was exactly what Manasseh set out to do. He removed the pagan images from the temple, cleaned and repaired the altar, reinstated Levite priests to reestablish offerings to God and began a systematic movement to comb out idols and pagan altars from all of Judah. At the same time he sent out a royal decree that the God of Israel was the only deity to be worshipped in the nation. Most of the surprised people obeyed by simply sacrificing to God at the places where they had formerly sacrificed to idols. This was a step in the right direction, but God expected sacrifices to be made only at His temple in Jerusalem. Manasseh soon learned that turning a whole nation from paganism to the only true God would be a long and next-to-impossible undertaking. Meanwhile, he expanded the size of Jerusalem and strengthened and heightened a large part of Jerusalem's walls. He then appointed capable and trusted officers to take charge of Judah's other walled cities, which were subject to possible attack from Egypt or Philistia, and to probable attack from Assyria if the regular tribute to that nation failed to be paid on time. (II Chronicles 33:14-17.) Manasseh didn't live to see his nation receive the protection and prosperity that would have resulted from the people turning wholeheartedly to God. He was entombed in a family burial place on his own property instead of being buried with most of the kings of Judah. In his time Manasseh caused great trouble in his nation, but he was the only idolatrous king who sought to make such an extreme change for the better in his way of living. At Manasseh's death his son, Amon, immediately became king of Judah at the age of twenty-two. (II Kings 21:17-18; II Chronicles 33:1820.) Again it was the old story — a new, young king going just the opposite of his father's intentions. Amon followed almost exactly the example of his father Manasseh's first years of reign. He even managed to recover many of the hidden carved images his father had caused to be made, and set them up again to be worshipped. Judah was again steered back into perilous, mad idolatry.