Does the most wicked king who ever ruled the land of Judah still have a chance to enter the Kingdom of God? Or was his so-called "change of heart" merely a "death-bed" repentance — too little, too late?
MANASSEH'S father was righteous and prosperous King Hezekiah. In his boyhood he revelled in the luxurious appointments of a young prince. He had everything a boy could ever hope for: royalty, comforts, security, and a father who obeyed God and was richly blessed for it. But what was most important to young crown prince Manasseh was that someday he would rule the Kingdom of Judah. That day was not far off, because Hezekiah died when his son was only twelve years of age. Now the young king had a full chance to "sow his wild oats" with the total resources of the kingdom as his long, 55-year reign began.
Manasseh Forgets God
The very name "Manasseh" means making to forget — and Manasseh very quickly forgot whatever good his father had taught him. The first thing the new king did was to discard God's laws. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, mentions that Manasseh "departed from the conduct of his father, and fell into a course of life quite contrary thereto, and showed himself in his manners most wicked in all respects, and omitted no sort of impiety..." (Antiquities, X, 3,1). But one trait he remembered from his father. When Hezekiah sought God, he did it with all his heart (II Chron. 31:21). What Manasseh did was also done wholeheartedly, and this included sinning. "And he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, after the abominations of the heathen, whom the Lord cast out before the children of Israel" (II Kings 21:2). He was as wicked as King Ahab of Israel had been some years earlier (verse 3). Manasseh actually had a contempt for our great Creator, and he proved it by his actions. To begin with, he rebuilt the "high places" that Hezekiah had destroyed — altars for pagan worship placed in conspicuous locations. He also made altars for Baal, and he built altars for "all the host of heaven" (sun, moon, and star worship) inside the House of God. He even put a graven image in the Temple itself (verses 4, 5). But as if all this wasn't enough, he sacrificed his own flesh-and-blood son in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna) as an offering to a pagan god! Furthermore, he dealt with evil spirits — rank demonism — and he practiced witchcraft and enchantments (verse 6). Manasseh also lived by astrology, as do many today who check their horoscopes in the daily newspapers. But this was only one of the many grievous sins God was holding against him.
When a Leader Goes Wrong
The new king didn't stop by polluting just his own life. He set about to cram his new pagan religion down the throats of his subjects. He led the whole nation astray. "So Manasseh 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" (II Chron. 33:9). It became extremely dangerous for anyone to worship God. Judah's wicked ruler simply would not tolerate any warnings from God's servants, because he wasn't about to change his way of life. "He barbarously slew all the righteous men that were among the Hebrews; nor would he spare the prophets, for he every day slew some of them, till Jerusalem was overflown with blood" (Antiquities, X,3,1). Tradition has it, according to Clarke's Commentary, that Isaiah the prophet was put to death by Manasseh, sawn a sunder by a wooden saw. (See Hebrews 11:37.) And the Bible vividly states that Manasseh had shed innocent blood until "he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another" (II Kings 21:16).
God Gives Warning First
But even though Isaiah was executed for his loyalty to his country, God still spoke through other prophets. There was Hosea, Joel, Nahum, Habakkuk — and others. The warning was plain. God said He would wipe Jerusalem as a dish, turning it upside down (II Kings 22:13); and He would send the inhabitants of Judah into captivity (verses 14-15). He said that He would bring such evil upon His people for their sins that "whosoever heareth of it, both his ears shall tingle" (verse 12). The message was equally plain — REPENT. But neither the king nor his people would listen. Instead, Manasseh felt that anyone who dared to show the faults of their king or his religion was disloyal — so he had them executed. God in His great mercy gave plenty of time for repentance — but to no avail. Not only did the king live a sinful life as a "know-it-all" teen-ager who thought his way of ruling was better than his father's way, but he continued from bad to worse throughout all his twenties — and on into his early thirties. By this time the roots of paganism were so deeply planted throughout the land of Judah that God knew there was only one way to totally uproot them — by uprooting the people themselves. Now, finally, God was ready for action. For a starter, He brought armies from the king of Assyria, which (according to Josephus) laid waste the country. They caught Manasseh and took him captive, binding him with chains and hooks to take him away to Babylon. It looked like the Jewish king was done for. But maybe even God changed His plans...
Manasseh Obtains Mercy!
Some historians believe that Manasseh started praying first to the heathen gods for release from his enemies — and, this having failed, decided to go to the real God as a last resort. Whether or not he talked to false gods first is not mentioned in the biblical account. But one thing is certain. The Bible does not exaggerate when stating that Manasseh "humbled himself GREATLY before the God of his fathers" (II Chron. 33:12). Suddenly the wretchedness of his whole life stared him in the face — his stinking sins in full, painful and unforgettable view. Not only did he realize that he was at the mercy of the Babylonian king, in danger of death, but he also had weighing on his conscience the fact that he himself had been responsible for thousands of his own people dying merciless deaths. (Compare the account in Josephus.) He was about to reap what he had sown. Now, put yourself in Manasseh's shoes for a minute. Suppose you knew that God had added fifteen years to your father's life after he prayed? Undoubtedly Hezekiah told his own son firsthand how the great God had supernaturally caused the sun to retreat ten degrees — simply to show Hezekiah that his life would be spared. If you knew you had been a wicked tyrant, having killed countless righteous men, what thoughts would race through your mind? Wouldn't you ask for another chance? And, realizing that you were not worthy of that second chance, wouldn't you promise God that things would be different? The Bible doesn't record Manasseh's prayer; but whatever he said was effective. It got results. Our great and merciful God forgave even wicked King Manasseh and restored him to his kingdom ! Yet this man had sinned habitually year after year — despite God's warnings — for well over two decades! If you had been God, would you have been willing to forgive? Further, would you have even been willing to put this man back into office? Think about it.
But Was Manasseh's Repentance Real?
Jesus Christ said, "Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them" (Matt. 7:20). By looking at the fruits in Manasseh's life, we can find out whether or not he meant business. To begin with, the reinstated Jewish king was apparently only in his early or mid-thirties when he was carried off to Babylon. But he lived to be 67 years old. This means that, while he had ruled in tyranny for a little more than 20 years, he was given over 30 years to reign righteously! Upon reading the account in II Chronicles 33:13, you can find that God "heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord he was God." He not only knew the Lord was God, but he did something about it! Read verses 15 and 16: "And he took away the strange gods, and the idol out of the house of the Lord, and all the altars that he had built in the mount of the house of the Lord, and in Jerusalem, and cast them out of the city. And he repaired the altar of the Lord, and sacrificed thereon peace offerings and thank offerings, and commanded Judah to serve the Lord God of Israel." Read between the lines. It took guts and character to publicly admit he needed to change his life! He had to swallow a lot of pride to command his people to serve God after he had spent years telling them just the opposite. God still caused the Jewish people to go into Babylonian captivity for turning to paganism, but it did not happen during Manasseh's life — this occurred a couple of generations later, when Judah had another king who would not repent. Josephus' account goes into more detail about Manasseh's later life: "So Manasseh was released by the king of Babylon, and escaped the danger he was in; and when he had come to Jerusalem, he endeavoured, if it was possible, to cast out of his memory those his former sins against God, of which he now REPENTED, and to apply himself to it very religious life. He sanctified the temple, and purged the city, and for the remainder of his days he was intent on nothing but to return his thanks to God for his deliverance ..." (Antiquities, X,3,2, emphasis ours). Manasseh didn't just pray, he changed his whole way of living! Josephus goes on to show that "he offered the legal sacrifices as Moses commanded; and when he had reestablished what concerned the divine worship, as it ought to be, he took care of the security of Jerusalem." The biblical account in II Chronicles mentions the building of the wall — the security of Jerusalem — in the verse preceding the ones about Manasseh taking away the "strange gods"; but the account in the Bible does not necessarily say which came first. But if the account in Josephus is correct, Manasseh wanted to get right with his God before worrying about the security of the country — apparently trusting God to protect Jerusalem while he was busy destroying the evil that brought on the punishment. Josephus continues his account by saying, "He did not only repair the old walls with great diligence, but added another wall to the former. He also built very lofty towers, and the garrisoned places before the city he strengthened, not only in other respects, but with provisions of all sorts that they wanted...." WHO wanted? His subjects! Apparently Manasseh had finally learned to listen to the people under him. But was his repentance lasting? Read on: "... And, indeed, when he had changed his former course, he so led his life for the time to come, that from the time of his return to piety towards God, he was deemed a happy man, and a pattern for imitation." Truly an inspiring example of change for a man who had made such a mess of his life.
A Message for All Who Serve God
In his youth, King Manasseh tried to forget God. In his maturity, he tried to forget the sins of his youth. Do you suppose Christ had Manasseh in mind when He said, "He who is forgiven much loves much"? Yet God didn't expect penance from Manasseh, but He did expect him to change. And Manasseh, rather than living in sorrow the rest of his life because of his wicked youth, was deemed a happy man! He couldn't have been happy if he wasn't forgiven. It takes a lot of love to forgive — and God loved even wicked King Manasseh. Would you have been willing to forgive King Manasseh? Are you even willing to forgive your brother unto "seventy times seven"? (Matt. 18:21-22.) If not, God will not forgive your sins (Matt. 6:14-15), and we ALL do sin — now — whether we believe it or not! Notice I John 1:8 — "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." But, on the other hand, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (verse 9). God always blesses anyone who confesses and turns from sin. Manasseh's repentance is one of the most profound in all the Bible, because it shows that our God is so filled with compassion that He will honor the sincere repentance of anyone, no matter how unregenerate and rotten his past deeds. Surely no king of Israel or Judah ever provoked God's wrath more with his blatant idolatry. Only Ahab could begin to rival Manasseh in wickedness (II Kings 21:3). Yet our God is so brimful of mercy that He also honored even Ahab's humility, though in Ahab's case 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! (Matt. 12:31.) "For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us. Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him" (Ps. 103:11-13). God made sure that His Word contained 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 (Ps. 86:5).